The pressing problems of a unique culture

Carl Lidbom, Chair of the SIMEC Working Group on the Kurdish Question, discusses the concerns facing the Kurdish people

Issue 1, Volume 48, 1999

The Kurdish question is often on the international agenda. But Western governments are not keen on tackling it. It seems insoluble. Every time a glimmer of hope of finding a solution appears, it disappears again straight away.

Turkey's limping democratic regime - with a parliament and a government dependant on the goodwill of the generals - as well as the Turks' failings in their respect for human rights are highly embarrassing for Turkey's friends in Europe, indeed for all those who would like to see Turkey play its full part in Europe. But the desire to protect the West's strategic and economic interests often means that the international community refrains from criticising the Turks when they violate the most elementary rights of the Kurds. This is true not just for Washington but also for several European capitals.

Militarily, and strategically, Turkey is not just the ally of the United States and of several European countries, it has also been for the last two or three years cooperating closely with Israel.

But the international community cannot just turn its back. It cannot avoid the Kurdish problem. The Kurds are too numerous to be ignored. Neither must it be forgotten that there are significant Kurdish minorities in countries other than Turkey, in the countries which occupy strategic positions in a troubled Middle East. I am thinking here of Iran, Iraq and Syria. A lasting peace in the Middle East necessarily implies a solution of the Kurdish problem.

Kurdistan is a well defined geographic area. The geographic situation of Kurdistan allows it to control large water and oil resources. Kurdistan embraces some 30 million Kurds of whom about half live in Turkey. In Iran there are six million Kurds, in Iraq there are four million and in Syria about one and a half million.

It is not just in Turkey that the Kurds are oppressed. They are oppressed also in Iran and Iraq. Nevertheless the current situation is reasonably calm in Iran, and in Iraq the Kurds have enjoyed, since the end of the Gulf War, relative independence. In a zone protected by the Americans, British and the French a Kurdish parliament has been established based in Arbil in the Kurdish part of Iraq. For a long time two parties, which fought each other in ways which were often cruel and violent, disputed power in Iraqi Kurdistan. These two parties have finally reconciled and have now agreed to move towards new elections for their parliament during the summer of 1999. No one knows what will happen when the UN sanctions against Iraq are lifted and this country recovers its full sovereignty throughout its territory, including those provinces peopled by Kurds. But it would be premature to speculate about that issue today. One can only hope that the international community will not abandon the Iraqi Kurds to their fate.

In Turkey the situation is very worrying. In south-east Turkey a real war has been waged for years. Hundreds of thousands of Turkish soldiers have been fighting Kurdish guerrillas. Their mission is to crush the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, and to empty the country by making the civilian population flee. Over the last fifteen years 15,000 people, including 5,000 Turkish troops, have been killed in battles between Turks and Kurds. Three million people have been forced to quit their homes. Four thousand villages have been completely wiped out.

There is no doubt that the PKK has often used questionable methods of great brutality. But the same is true of the methods used by the Turks in their struggle against the Kurdish guerrillas. Both cases can rightly be termed terrorism. The death squads recruited by the extreme right with the permission of the Turkish authorities have carried out 4,500 extra-judicial assassinations. Amnesty International and other humanitarian organisations have often brought the attention of international public opinion to cases of torture and inhuman treatment in Turkish prisons. The judicial system in Turkey does not match international human rights norms.

Turkey has been an independent republic for 75 years. For 52 of those 75 years the Kurds of Turkish Kurdistan have lived in a state of emergency with all that this implies as regards rights failures.

The Turkish Kurds have traditionally lived in the mountains, but the wars and persecutions have forced many of them to go and live in the West of the country, often in the poor suburbs of large cities. In Istanbul alone there are today almost three million Kurds. Many Kurds have gone as refugees to Europe. France has more than 100,000 Kurdish refugees and Germany has more than 500,000. These refugees have not always been welcome in their host countries. This has especially been the case when they have committed offences or - as happens from time to time - there are violent demonstrations involving Turks and Kurds. PKK militants represent only a small minority of the Kurds, but this does not stop them doing much damage to their people in the Western world.

The history of the Kurds is linked to that of the countries of the Mediterranean and thus to those of Europe. Their culture is unique. They have not only their own language but also fine literature with classical works from the XV and XVI centuries. The Kurds are justly proud of them. The language and the literature are a part of their identity. The struggle of the Kurds against the Turks is perhaps chiefly a struggle for the defence of their culture.

The Kurds in Turkey, like many other oppressed peoples, have for long kept alive dreams of national independence. But they have learned to their cost the emptiness of these dreams. They form a minority in all the countries they inhabit. And they know that asking for changes in existing frontiers gets them nowhere. What they seek is a recognition of their identity as a people and a subsequent democratisation of society. They will be content with a certain autonomy within Turkish frontiers. Even the PKK does not seek the creation of an independent Kurdish state.

Throughout history Kurdistan has been more than once a theatre of war between Turks and Russians. When the Ottoman empire crumbled during the First World War the victors promised the Kurds the creation of an independent Kurdish state in a treaty signed at Sèvres in 1920. But they soon moved to forget that promise which was annulled by a new treaty signed at Lausanne in 1923. Modern Turkey was established under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk whose policy was based on unyielding nationalism. It was a policy of assimilation of the minorities living in Turkey which did not even recognise minimum rights to their language or culture. For Kemal Ataturk the Kurds did not exist as a people. They were Turks living in the mountains with no identity of their own.

That policy has always been rigidly applied, and was observed when the Turkish Republic celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary.

Kurdish is a forbidden language in Turkey which may not be taught in schools. There are no newspapers, radio or television broadcasts in Kurdish. The possession of books in Kurdish or the singing of a Kurdish song in public is in principle an offence which can bring a prison sentence.

When the Turks force civilian populations from the mountains and obliterate whole villages it is part of an ultra-nationalist policy inherited from Ataturk.

It cannot be denied that the Turks have won some military victories in the war that they are waging in the mountains against the PKK guerrillas. And the arrest of their leader, Ocalan, in Kenya has doubtless been seen by the Turks as a great victory, a real triumph in the war against the Kurds.

The events of recent times puts before the Turks a choice which will be crucial to their future. Either they continue their policy of systematic oppression of the Kurds in the hope of a decisive victory. In such a case it would be logical that they condemn Ocalan to death for high treason and it is not inconceivable that they would carry out the sentence.

It cannot be excluded that such a policy would be popular among very many Turks. But what is absolutely certain is that it would make a martyr of Ocalan for the Kurds, even among those who do not support the PKK and that it would provoke a new wave of acts of violence and demonstrations.

It is very possible that Ocalan was right when he said - faced with not finding refuge after leaving Syria - that he would be more useful dead than alive to the Kurdish cause.

The other alternative that the Turks could choose in the present situation would be to work towards some opening in their conflict with the Kurds, to try to start a dialogue at last, not with the PKK - this seems totally ruled out - but with other Kurdish representatives whom they could not consider terrorists; with those Kurds who are ready to live in peace with the Turks as soon as they agree to treat them as a people with its proper identity worthy of respect.

But if it is also true that the Turks have won victories recently in their armed struggle against the PKK this would be the ideal moment to open a dialogue with other groups of Kurds. An opening towards the Kurds would be the best way for the authorities to prepare for Turkish entry into the European Union.

If the Turks really want to become part of Europe they must know that it will only be achieved if their country becomes more democratic and there is greater respect for human rights.



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