The principal city of Turkish Kurdistan is Diyarbakir, a bustling place that in the last fifty years has overflowed its magnificently forbidding basalt walls. These dramatic fortifications – built following the town’s capture by the great Saljuq Malik Shah in 1088 – remain uncluttered and defiant on the southern side: their dark ramparts can be seen from miles away. I remember driving to Diyarbakir as a student in 1967, when the walls were still visible on every side. In those days it held 100,000 inhabitants, of whom only a small minority lived in the new apartment blocks outside the old city. Visitors were rare: the whole eastern region of Anatolia had been closed to foreigners for the preceding three decades.
Today the atmosphere in the centre of town has not changed much, except for the increase in motorised traffic. Local produce – fruit, vegetables, meat and buckets of freshly-made yoghurt – comes through the ancient gates each day from the surrounding countryside, as it has always done. Diyarbakir’s population has grown prodigiously, however. In 1950 it had 40,000 or so inhabitants, but the mechanisation of agriculture gradually drove people off the land, and by 1992 the population numbered about 500,000.
The most dramatic increase, however, has occurred in the last four years, during which a million people have flocked into Diyarbakir, while the population of other cities and towns in the region has also increased two or threefold. This has nothing to do with the modernisation of agriculture. The newly dispossessed are all victims of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish national movement. Since 1992 the security forces have rendered almost three million of the country’s 14 million Kurds homeless – and they have by no means finished.
When I first came to Diyarbakir, I had no inkling of Turkey’s attitude to its Kurdish community. I swallowed the official line that the region had been closed because of the Soviet threat to Nato’s eastern flank. Kurds were merely colourful tribespeople walking beside the mountain roads with their livestock, the women dressed in bright cotton fabrics, the men sporting magnificent knitted stockings and square-cut felt capes. Much later I learned how the security forces treated the Kurds: for the previous forty years they had hanged the chiefs, deported the tribespeople and razed the villages.
In the course of a bitter war which lasted from 1919 until 1922, the Kurdish tribes had helped the nascent Turkish national movement to defeat the Christian threat: in the west the Greeks, in the east the Armenians, and in the south the victorious Allies, France and Britain. They had responded to Mustafa Kemal’s appeal, addressed to ‘fine people, with honour and respect, Turks and Kurds ... brothers around the institution of the Caliphate’. No sooner had the war been won, however, than the basis of Muslim fraternity was removed – the Sultanate abolished in 1922, the Caliphate in 1924. Mustafa Kemal and his colleagues banned all reference to Kurds or Kurdistan, and to the Kurdish language.
It is difficult to be sure whether the suppression of ethnic or religious identity was the more important in provoking the Kurdish tribes into repeated revolt. Kurdish identity had a strong religious dimension, based on ‘folk Islamic’ brotherhoods that were stronger in Kurdistan than anywhere else in the new republic. From 1925, one revolt followed another – each usually involving a mere handful of tribes. Mustafa Kemal used the first of these, led by the religious leader Shaykh Said, as a pretext for the suppression of opposition parties and the introduction of the authoritarian one-party state which has survived to this day, inasmuch as power resides with the National Security Council, the guardian of the state, rather than with any elected party.
Shaykh Said’s revolt gave the seat of government a nasty jolt. No one knows the extent of the ‘pacification’ in the Twenties, but 200,000 Kurds may have perished in the process of deportation, while many others were undoubtedly killed in their villages. An early justification for the campaign against the Kurdish tribes was supplied to a British diplomat by Turkey’s foreign minister in 1927:
Their cultural level is so low, their mentality so backward, that they cannot be simply in the general Turkish body politic ... They will die out, economically unfitted for the struggle for life in competition with the more advanced and cultured Turks ... As many as can will emigrate into Persia and Iraq, while the rest will simply undergo the elimination of the unfit.
A view by no means extinct.
Another major rising took place in 1928, this time in the Ararat region, on the border with Iran. Once again, suppression was followed by large-scale killing and destruction of property. A new law ensured that those engaged in the repression would not be prosecuted for any excesses. In the late Thirties, the final stronghold of Kurdish identity, Dersim, the mountainous region between Sivas, Erzincan and Elazig, was pacified: Turkey’s Prime Minister cited local resistance to the introduction of compulsory education as grounds for the campaign. The ‘military authorities have used methods similar to those used against the Armenians during the Great War’, the British consul reported: ‘thousands of Kurds including women and children were slain; others, mostly children, were thrown into the Euphrates, while thousands of others ... were deported to provinces in central Anatolia.’ By the end of 1938 it seemed as if the Kurds as an ethnic group had, indeed, undergone ‘the elimination of the unfit’.
Twenty years later, the policy of deportation and forcible assimilation on the basis of an inclusive but mandatory concept of Turkishness could be reckoned a success. When Turkey allowed a multi-party system in 1946, the Kurdish chiefs were brought back from internal exile and co-opted into the local apparatus of political control. In the hands of their chiefs and landlords, Kurdish peasants became docile voting fodder in an electoral system based on party patronage. By the Sixties, the Kurds seemed thoroughly subdued, the majority apparently willing to integrate. Only a few in the countryside remained to provide some-folkloric colour – ‘Mountain Turks’, as die authorities mendaciously chose to describe them.