Ocalan's capture `lost opportunity'

Danielle Mitterrand met Abdullah Ocalan in a Rome villa last December after doors had slammed in the Kurdish leader's face across…

Danielle Mitterrand met Abdullah Ocalan in a Rome villa last December after doors had slammed in the Kurdish leader's face across Europe. "He seemed helpless, confused," she says in her office at FranceLibertes, the foundation she set up in 1986.

"He realised he'd been betrayed. He said he wanted to make peace, and that he wanted European interlocutors. He found no one." The Italian Prime Minister, Mr Massimo D'Alema, refused to extradite Mr Ocalan to Turkey. Mr D'Alema even recognised the Kurdish leader's flight as "an important opportunity to look for a peaceful solution - the only possible one for the old and painful Kurdish question".

"D'Alema went to see [the German Chancellor] Gerhard Schroder," Ms Mitterrand continues. "Schroder proposed an international conference in Hanover, but no one followed it up and it fell through. We have been waiting 17 years for such an opportunity; we were on the threshold of a solution when he was in Europe. There was such great hope."

This week, when Ms Mitterrand learned that Abdullah Ocalan had been kidnapped, her reaction was one of fury. "This is what our great European diplomacy leads to," she says. "I'm not angry with the Turks, but with the Europeans - with all European diplomats, who played the American and Israeli card."


Inspired by the plight of Mehdi Zana, the mayor of the south-eastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Ms Mitterrand began campaigning for the Kurds back in 1983. Mr Zana was sentenced to 20 years in prison for speaking Kurdish in the town hall.

Ms Mitterrand, now 74 years old, is suffering from flu and running a fever, but her energy and anger bubble up when she takes a phone call from one of France's most prominent lawyers. She is trying to organise a delegation to Turkey on behalf of Mr Ocalan.

"Of course they'll turn us back," she says to the lawyer. "It doesn't matter. We want to show it's a military dictatorship with power of life and death over all its citizens."

A moment of silence as she listens to the lawyer's excuses. "You're hopeless!" she shouts at him, using the familiar tu.

"You don't understand anything. Stop giving me the old platitudes about `he's a terrorist'. "O la la la la la la," (circumflex on ooo, grave accent on all aaa's) she says. "It's awful, people who won't listen."

"What is a terrorist?" I ask her. The former First Lady's blue eyes light up.

"I'm a terrorist." She pauses for effect. "When I was 17 years old, I was slapped on the face and called a `dirty terrorist'. Francois was a `dirty terrorist', and four years later they awarded us the medal of the resistance. That's what Kurdish terrorism is. We were resisting fascism and torture. Ocalan's seven points are the values we fought for - don't destroy villages, end the war, autonomy within the framework of Turkey, religious pluralism . . . "

"The very existence of the PKK is a response to Turkish state terrorism," she answers. "They will put Abdullah Ocalan on trial, and they will probably kill him. Meanwhile, Europeans will roll out the red carpet for the generals. I am very bitter."

And the racketeering? She laughs. "I can tell you about racketeering. When we were hiding in the hills, fighting the Germans, we were hungry. We took food from farmers - and they didn't have any choice but to give it!"

It was in the French resistance that Ms Mitterrand met her late husband, when she was 19 years old and he was 27. Their half-century marriage cannot have been easy. With apparent equanimity, Ms Mitterrand accepted his many mistresses.

Her campaigns for the persecuted of the world were sometimes embarrassing for French officials. "Human rights were at the root of Francois's political commitment," she says. "As head of state he did not always have the same freedom I had, but we were always on the same wavelength."

Three years after his death, Francois Mitterrand's 14-year presidency is criticised for wiretapping and financial scandals. But his widow defends her late husband with the same absolute loyalty she devotes to the Kurdish cause. "If Francois were here today," she says, "he would have done everything in his power to prevent [Ocalan's imprisonment] from happening. Francois was a great visionary."