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The Kurds – A resilient people with a tragic yet inspiring history – David Morgan
The Kurds are an ancient people with distinctive heritage, traditions and language. They have lived on their historic lands for centuries alongside the other peoples of the Middle East as is reflected on old maps of the region where Kurdistan generally features. Their recent tragic history of dispossession, oppression and struggle for very survival as a people can be traced to the settlement imposed on the region in the aftermath of the First World War which saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the redrawing of the borders of modern states. That settlement drawn up by the victorious imperial powers denied the Kurds the right to national self-determination.
The Kurdish people are now dispersed across four major nation states; namely, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The latter country has by far the largest Kurdish population and it remains the place where fundamental rights for the Kurds are most flagrantly denied; and where a protracted and as yet unresolved conflict has been taking place over more than thirty years.
The founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is still widely lauded by commentators and historians as one of the greatest nation builders of modern times, but this ignores how the modern Turkish state was shaped at the expense of the diversity of peoples residing within the Turkish borders. Turkification marked the attempted eradication of the very existence of the Kurds and all traces of their culture, language and history were denied for decades by the ruling Kemalist nationalist ideology. While it was appallingly oppressive, this attempt has failed; the Kurds refused to succumb to all attempts at assimilation by force and the sense of a national identity lived on in their hearts and minds.
Emergence of the Modern Kurdish Movement
It is however with the emergence of the modern Kurdish national movement in the 1980s that the Kurds once again began to reshape their history and determine the future of their country and the wider region.
There are some notable dates in the modern history of the Kurds. One landmark year was 1980 when the 12 September military coup in Turkey headed by General Evren led to a brutal crackdown during which hundreds of thousands of progressive activists and civilians were detained, tortured and executed by use of extra-legal means; a reign of terror by the ruling military was especially brutal in the Kurdish region. Two years later the Turkish generals imposed a new constitution on the country which placed strict restrictions on civil, political and human rights. That same constitution is the one that is subject to reforms by Erdogan with some calling for an entirely new constitution.
The first election following the military coup in November 1983 saw Turgut Ozal become prime minister. The following year saw the start of the guerrilla campaign by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – PKK – launched to achieve the freedom of the Kurdish people. Brutal clashes with the Turkish military were to go on for years and there were casualties numbering approximately 40 thousand people.
Challenging Official Versions of Turkish History
The official version of events put forward by Turkey blames the PKK for countless atrocities and plays down the brutal actions of the military and state forces. This version of events is increasingly challenged by independent media. New news sources on the internet have made more information available allowing Kurdish voices to be heard. Turkish statements are no longer simply repeated uncritically in news reports. Nevertheless, Turkey continues to arrest and detain its own journalists and systematically seeks to prevent independent investigations into incidents, such as in the case of the Roboski massacre of December 2011 where the full circumstances of the deaths of 34 Kurdish villagers are still not determined.
In 1989 Ozal became the first civil president of the Turkish Republic. Counter-terrorism operations against the Kurds were stepped up and human rights violations increased.
The Period of Dirty War Against the Kurds
The 1990s are seen as a lost decade and one of the darkest periods in the history of Turkey when the rule of law appeared to have been set aside as the state pursued a dirty war against the Kurds. The conflict between the state and the Kurds expanded to embrace the whole of Kurdish society and Turkey became divided into two entirely separate regions with the Kurdish south east resembling a huge militarised encampment. Economically disastrous, these years led to increasing poverty and mass migration especially from the Kurdish regions; thousands claimed asylum in countries of Europe, particularly, Germany, Sweden and the UK, but many more Kurds, deliberately displaced from their villages and dispossessed of their pastoral lands, were forced to migrate to the main Turkish conurbations to live in shanty towns on the margins.
Casualties continued to mount as the war reached new heights of intensity. A notorious massacre of dozens of Kurdish mourners at the funeral of Kurdish political activist Vedat Aydin occurred in Diyarbakir in 1991 when Turkish counter-terror forces fired into the crowd.
Meanwhile, in 1992, the Kurdish town of Sirnak was razed by the Turkish army in a savage reprisal for a previous PKK attack. To this day this incident remains symbolic of the “scorched earth” policy carried out by the Turkish military over this period.
Targets for Assassination
Assassinations of opponents of the Turkish state became more frequent. Victims continue and have included journalists investigating the hidden powers of the “deep state”. Counter-terrorism agencies were accused of sponsoring the Islamist Hizbullah organisation in carrying out a campaign of targeted killings of prominent Kurdish community leaders, businessmen and intellectuals. Assassinations under suspicious circumstances still occasionally occur, and not always on Turkish territory. The deaths of three prominent Kurdish women activists in Paris in January 2012 remained shadowed in mystery more than one year later.
Kurdish writer and journalist Musa Anter was one of the prominent victims of assassination in September 1992 while a leading Kurdish trade union activist, Zubeyir Akkoc was killed in January 1993 and MP Mehmet Sincar was murdered in September of that same year.
Kurds Unite for Peace
In the face of major human rights violations and atrocities, the Kurds have remained remarkably united in their determination to achieve peace and reconciliation. The political leadership of the Kurds have adopted a perspective informed by a realistic understanding of the functioning of the state and social relations. They are able to distinguish between the actions of the state and the opinions of the people and seek a lasting political solution to the conflict which will enable the Kurdish and Turkish peoples to live together in peace, freedom and equality. Peace and reconciliation on the post-apartheid South African model is the preferred option and parallels between the two conflicts have been drawn frequently.
Political events in Turkey have often been shrouded in mystery and intrigue leading to a near paranoid atmosphere where conspiracy theories thrive. In February 1993, suspicious circumstances surrounded a plane crash which killed General Bitlis, the commander of the Gendarmerie, who was known to be seeking to find a solution to the Kurdish question. Two months later President Ozal died unexpectedly of a heart attack, sparking rumours of an assassination.
During the presidency of Suleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Ciller the military offensive against the Kurds was massively intensified. The Kurdish provinces were put under a state of martial law and covert counter-terrorism operations became the norm. Thousands were detained, tortured and murdered in a dirty war that saw mafia bosses, contract killers, drug dealers, informers, state agents and provocateurs working together to defeat the Kurds.
During the years of conflict the Turkey military conducted its counter-insurgency measures with extreme brutality. Atrocities were systematic; torture widespread, whole communities were subject terrorised, civilians picked up at random, innocent men, women and children were routinely tortured and many people simply disappeared. People’s bodies were dumped into mass graves in secret locations. Meanwhile, the bodies of captured guerrillas were grotesquely mutilated with Turkish soldiers displaying body parts as trophies in shocking photographs. The mutilation of bodies has continued with one incident reported during renewed conflict in the aftermath of the 2011 general election when photographs of four dismembered bodies of some 24 Kurdish guerrillas who died in clashes with the Turkish army were published. The evidence of savagery and hatred was widely denounced. On 5 November 1996 the notorious Susurluk incident exposed the close collaboration between politicians, police, the security apparatus and the criminal underworld in their counter-insurgency campaign against the Kurds. Susurluk led to be the downfall of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.
In 1997 the government of the Islamist PM Erbakan was forced to resign under military pressure. Erbakan’s Welfare Party was later banned by the constitutional court and was re-established as the Virtue Party. The current Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged from the reformist wing of this party. The AKP has come to dominate Turkish politics since its sweeping election victory in 2002, but its grip on power now looks increasingly shaky. The AKP has sought to present a moderate reformist face of Islam and Turkey was hailed in the West as an example of a successful compromise between Islam and democracy and held up as a model for emulation in the wider Middle East to emulate.
The Limits of the AKP Opening to the Kurds
Despite its improved image, apparent economic success, policy of reforms, and the moves towards a new constitution, the leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP, has been hesitant and contradictory in its policy towards resolving the Kurdish conflict. This policy became deadlocked despite making great play of an “opening” towards the Kurds and even talking to detained Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. In fact, Erdogan pursued a two-pronged strategy of small, piecemeal reforms while seeking to eliminate independent Kurdish politics. Such a policy was deemed at best inadequate and at worst duplicitous. It failed to convince or satisfy the Kurdish people and did not seriously address their core demands.
Mass Show Trials
Following the June 2011 general election in Turkey, when the pro-Kurdish BDP won a significant level of support, the arrest of Kurdish activists, prominent intellectuals, writers, academics, lawyers as well as leading members of the main pro-Kurdish legal political party the BDP, was stepped up. Arrests under sweeping anti-terrorism laws have led to mass show trials that have attracted a fair amount of international attention. One of the key roles of Peace in Kurdistan has been to bring to the attention of the world the ongoing trials and the violations of people’s rights that continue to take place. This PIK achieves by explaining the significance of the trials, which can be extremely complex, and by organising regular eye witness delegations of lawyers, politicians and journalists to observe the often labyrinthine Turkish court proceedings.
The prosecutions of Kurdish civil society members including political leaders exposes the tremendous difficulties for the Kurds in engaging in any meaningful way in constitutional politics within Turkey.
The Peoples’ Democratic Party –BDP- is the latest in a series of pro-Kurdish parties that have been established over the last twenty years. At least five previous parties, which had all received significant voter support, have been closed down by the Turkish courts following prosecutions, arrests, harassment and police raids which have become a matter of routine. The previous parties include the People’s Labour Party (HEP), closed in 1993; the Democracy Party (DEP) closed in 1994; People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) closed in 2003; the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP) closed in 2005 and the Democratic Society Party (DTP) closed in 2009. It is a tribute to the skills and persistence of the Kurdish politicians that they have to date managed to success manoeuvre around the bans and in the process achieve rising levels of support from the people. But the measures taken to block their effectiveness are outrageous and warrant strong criticism from the Western democracies, and particularly from countries in the European Union, who like to take on the role of upholders of democracy overseas.
Abdullah Ocalan and the PKK
One of the key campaign demands of Peace in Kurdistan, reflecting a main demand of the Kurdish people themselves, is for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, widely recognised as the chosen leader of the Kurdish people. While the release of Ocalan has to take place within a general amnesty and decriminalisation of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Ocalan has an essential role to play in the conclusion of any meaningful and lasting peace between the Kurds and Turkey. Ocalan is the only political leader with the authority to reach an agreement with the Turkish government and the only person entrusted by the Kurdish people to exercise their will. It is inconceivable that a political solution to the Kurdish question can ever be achieved until Ocalan is brought into negotiations which can be achieved within the context of a process of reconciliation and confidence building as was achieved in South Africa in the final days of apartheid.
The most memorable date in recent Kurdish political history is undoubtedly 15 February 1999 as this was the day when PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in Kenya by Turkish special forces personnel operating undercover. The circumstances surrounding Ocalan’s arrest are rightly regarded by the Kurds as an international conspiracy because of the clearly coordinated actions of security personnel (CIA, Mossad and MI5) and politicians from various countries which lured Ocalan into a trap after he was denied the right to claim political asylum in Europe (in flagrant violation of international human rights law).
Turkey’s success in capturing their “Enemy Number One” was broadcast before the world’s media in an attempt to humiliate both Ocalan and the Kurdish people as a whole. The spectacle was a grotesque act of triumphalism on the part of Turkey and only served to exacerbate tensions between Turks and Kurds. It set off a wave of spontaneous actions by Kurds within Turkey and among the diaspora communities across Europe.
During a show trial of dubious legality, Ocalan conducted himself with great dignity, statesmanship and imagination as he sought to explain the Kurdish case historically. He has continued to pursue a policy of peace and reconciliation while in detention, a policy which he in fact had adopted long before his arrest. During the frenzied atmosphere of arrest and trial and in the years of his isolation, Ocalan demonstrated consistency in his approach to working for a peaceful settlement; if only Turkish leaders and their allies would seize this as an opportunity to resolve a conflict then progress might be made. Ocalan has urged Kurdish guerrillas to cease military actions and to fall back to defensive positions outside the country, to which they have responded despite provocations. PIK believes that it is time Turkey seriously reciprocated.
Ocalan has produced several detailed proposals for achieving peace, including the roadmap, which the Turkish authorities initially withheld from the public, and culminating in proposals for “democratic autonomy”. All his ideas have been released through his lawyers, who have been subjected to intimidation and prosecution simply for carrying out their professional duties. Since his conviction, Ocalan has produced substantial writings, which have been published as books in English and other languages; in these pages Ocalan seeks to offer constructive and conciliatory arguments for a lasting settlement. So far there has been little serious public response from the Turkish side to any of his proposals; although reports emerged in 2011 that talks were being held between Ocalan and Turkish officials. Such talks conducted out in the open offer the only realistic way forward to resolve the conflict.
As I write the Kurds are preparing to celebrate Newroz, the ancient pre-Christian, pre-Islamic festival that is still marked with great enthusiasm and huge public festivities across the Middle East. While it is an event shared with other ancient peoples such as the Persians, for the Kurds Newroz has taken on an added political significance in recent decades as it became a rare outlet for them to demonstrate their cultural affiliations and heritage. Not very long ago, Newroz festivities in Turkish Kurdistan were met with oppressive state measures with mass armed police presence on the streets as Kurds came out to celebrate. Many actions such as chanting slogans and wearing Kurdish emblems, but in particular any reference made to the PKK or to Abdullah Ocalan, were swiftly and violently suppressed. Nowadays, as a kind of thaw set in during the years of a tentative and protracted peace process, the authorities have become more lenient and Newroz celebrations have not ended in bloodshed. Nevertheless the PKK remains officially a banned terrorist group and its alleged offshoots frequently face legal clampdowns.
Despite the continued ban on the PKK and the Turkish state’s continued incarceration of Ocalan as its alleged ‘’enemy number one’’, a peace process including exploratory talks between Ocalan and state officials had been taking place until relatively recently. These talks have come to a virtual halt as the elections of 30 March loom and as Prime Minister Erdogan became mired in political crises. Turkey has now reached a point where it appears that Erdogan is fighting for his political survival. He has fallen out in a big way with erstwhile ally, the powerful scholar and businessman Gulen, whose movement backed the AKP in previous elections. Now rival Islamic parties are emerging on the political scene and are challenging the once hegemonic sway exercised by the AKP, long seen in the West as a moderate face of Islam in power and held up as a model for how regimes should be governed in the wider Middle East. With the AKP in crisis, it is not clear how this model will be revamped or what the character of the future post-AKP leaders of Turkey will look like.
Nevertheless while Erdogan and the AKP could never be regarded as a friend of the Kurds or properly trusted by them – he has something of a reputation for maverick manoeuvring, authoritarianism and inconsistency – he has become someone ready to do business with them and as such offers a less uncertain choice than his rivals for power in coming elections. The rival parties may adopt a more anti-Kurdish posture if they believe that this will appeal to Turkish voters and rather than being put on hold, the peace process might be abandoned altogether.
There is however a clear danger for the Kurds if they were seen to be pitching their tent too closely to Erdogan if he is entering into the final chapter of his supremacy. It is obvious that his days are numbered even if he manages to hang on for a while longer; he has been in power for a very long time, his appeal is waning with the electorate and his political ‘’brand’’ has been perhaps fatally tarnished. Splits have opened up in his ruling party with President Gul seeming to criticise and contradict the Prime Minister on important issues, thus posing as a serious rival in future. A financial scandal involving the Prime Minister and his son has brought into question Erdogan’s reputation for political integrity and unshakeable honesty. His handling of the Gazi protests, which saw the emergence of an alliance between progressives and members of the secular middle class and youth, alienated major sections of the Turkish public and probably done lasting damage to his political standing. Even by Turkish standards where conspiracy theories seem all too common, Erdogan’s constant muttering of ‘’external forces’’ plotting against him seems a tad too paranoid to be taken seriously. But the political uncertainty in Turkey poses a dilemma for the Kurds in that they might not know with whom best to negotiate. But rifts within the political class might open up new opportunities. With mounting crises and a likely knock on effect on the economic fortunes of the country, Turkey’s leaders might be amenable to dealing more fairly with the Kurds. Whatever the case, unfortunately the realisation of Kurdish demands seems a distant dream. Successive setbacks have made the Kurds resilient and it impossible not to admire their spirit of resistance and optimism that pervades their actions and their awakened consciousness of their identity as a people that has been stimulated and shaped by the political leadership offered by the PKK.
Despite his incarceration, Ocalan has remained the embodiment of a cherished commodity seen as essential for every human being – the embodiment of hopes and dreams of a people for a better future where they are free and living in harmony among themselves, with their neighbours and their environment. This is an essential component and driver of all modern political movements. It is certain that the PKK, unfairly branded as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and its Nato allies in the West, will continue to thrive and gather support as long as the genuine and deep seated grievances of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens are left unresolved or remedied. The Kurdish people’s demands for full equality within a new democratic Turkey are not likely to be relinquished despite the state’s attempts to curtail them. Oppressive measures tend to make the movement more determined and resilient. Unless Turkey is careful, the Kurds will be a rock against which the state, founded by Ataturk on an essential injustice, will break apart. The outcome of the coming election could initiate a process which will see the end of the Erdogan era.
The Kurds, whose party of choice in the polling booth is the BDP, face a challenge from a new Islamist party, the Free Cause Party or Huda-Par which has reportedly been picking up support from disillusioned voters –largely former Erdogan supporters – in the Kurdish stronghold city of Diyarbakir. This party, a different kind of threat to the Kurds than the AKP ever was, has links to the anti-Kurdish Hizbullah terror organisation responsible for assassination of Kurds a few years ago when Turkey was in far less peaceful times.
The 30 March poll will be the first ever election in which this party has run and it is hoped that they pose no challenge to the progressive social democratic politics of the BDP, which while being described as a pro-Kurdish party, adopts an inclusive politics that offers a reform programme that benefits all communities irrespective of whether they are Kurds or not. The BDP and its predecessors have held power in Diyarbakir since 1999 winning successive elections much to the annoyance of Ankara. While the Free Cause Party sets its sights on overtaking the AKP as its prime goal, it could also pose a threat to the BDP. This would be a regressive development were the election to result in such an upset.
Southern Kurdistan Northern Iraq
Until Rojava in Syria became established, however precariously, the only place where Kurds have been able to govern themselves freely has been in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Kurdistan Regional Government has exercised power since the imposition of the ‘’no-fly zone’’ after the first Iraq war. The KRG has been highly successful in building its economy and society over the years earning it the plaudit of the ‘’Kurdish Dubai’’ because of the amount of construction work that has been taking place over a relatively short period of time.
It used to be said that ‘’the Kurds have no friends but the mountains’’. But this is no longer quite true. In fact the Kurds nowadays have many friends, but these are often friends with agendas of their own and based on securing strategic interests. Often strange friendships are thrown up; recently the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq sought to defend Saudi Arabia from a scolding by Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, who, clearly at the end of his tether faced with years of terrorism from Al Qaeda violence and an epidemic of foreign funded suicide bombers, accused Riyadh of financing this terrorism. The KRG’s Barzani stepped in to defend Saudi Arabia claiming that the country had taken strenuous action to eliminate terrorist activities among its citizenry and strongly criticised Maliki for his outspokenness, much to his annoyance. Such disputes are likely to exacerbate tensions considerably in Iraq by driving a wedge between the government in Baghdad and the regional Kurdish administration. Enjoying years of peace, security and prosperity in a part of the world prone to crisis and conflict, the KRG might find itself embroiled in an escalating conflict not of its making and outside its control. The KRG has long been a success story for the Kurds with its thriving economy, growing prosperity and international diplomatic recognition. Although the KRG’s future seems assured, the continuing violence elsewhere in Iraq and Baghdad’s tensions with its Arab neighbours may pose increasingly problematical for the KRG in future.
Throughout their history the Kurds have always been under threat to a greater or lesser degree; because of this tragic history, the Kurds hold the values of peace, justice and security in particularly high regard. Their resilience as a people and their historical struggle for peace and a homeland deserves the utmost respect. The Kurdish people’s dream of a unified Kurdistan with its place firmly fixed on the map and their seat at international forums may remain as elusive as ever, it is a dream that has motivated generations of Kurds and will surely continue to do so. The Kurds are a people for whom the word ‘solidarity’ seemed to have been specially coined because they are entirely deserving of support.
Abdullah Ocalan is proposing a democratic solution applicable for the entire Middle Eastern region, not exclusively for the Kurds, where all the peoples of the region can live in a peaceful environment free from rancour and conflict: ambitious, certainly; a romantic dream? Quite possibly, but following the abject failure of the “Arab Spring”, the various communities in this fractious region certainly need some reason to hope that things can get better. The proposals of Ocalan put that hope back on the agenda.
David Morgan is a journalist, editor, political writer and historian. He has written widely on political and historical subjects for journals, newspapers and online. He has edited a book on the anti-terrorism legislation in the UK and was an editor and contributor to the former Kurdistan Report, a quarterly magazine published by Peace in Kurdistan Campaign.
David is Secretary of the Socialist History Society, has been a member of the editorial board of the journal Socialist History and is presently editor of the Society’s Occasional Publications series.
He is also a historian focusing on labour, radical and socialist history. He organises lectures and seminars on these themes in London and recently participated in an international conference at the University of East Anglia. He is currently organising talks on the history of the First World War and a major seminar on the legacy of the British politician Tony Benn which will be held in April 2014.
A professional journalist for 30 years he has written about the financial, commercial and trading relations between the UK and the Middle East and produced several commercial publications and guides for business.
He also writes poetry in his spare time but usually not for publication.
Email : email@example.com
Peace in Kurdistan campaign
Kurdistan National Congress (KNK)