It was barely light in Istanbul as I stumbled into a taxi and headed for the airport to board a flight for Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in eastern Turkey, not far from the Iraqi border. The plane was full, thanks to a large party of what looked like chattering students with closely shaved heads, whose nervous excitement seemed to indicate they’d never left home before. One of them took the window seat next to my interpreter. It turned out he wasn’t a student but a newly conscripted soldier, heading east for more training and his first prolonged experience of barrack-room life, perhaps even of conflict. He couldn’t have been more than 18; this was his first time on a plane. As we took off he clutched the seat in front of him and looked fearfully out of the window. During the flight he calmed down and marvelled at the views of the mountains and lakes below, but as the plane began its descent he grabbed the seat again. Our safe landing was greeted with laughter by many of the shaven-headed platoon.
Only a few weeks previously, some young soldiers had been killed in clashes with guerrillas belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It used to be the case that when Turkish soldiers died in the conflict, their mothers were wheeled on to state television to tell the world how proud they were of the sacrifice. They had more sons at home, they would say, ready and waiting to defend the Fatherland. This time the mothers publicly blamed the government for the deaths of their sons.
Diyarbakir is the de facto capital of the Turkish part of Kurdistan, itself a notional state that extends for some six hundred miles through the mountainous regions of south-eastern Turkey, northern Syria, Iraq and Iran. Turkish Kurdistan is home to more than 14 million Kurds, who make up the vast majority of the region’s population; there are another four million Kurds in northern Iraq, some five million in Iran and a million in Syria. The Turkish sector is the largest and strategically the most important: it would be central to a Kurdish state. Hence the paranoia exhibited by the Turkish government and its ill-treatment of the Kurdish population, whose living conditions are much worse than those of the Kurds in Iraq or Iran.
Kurdish language and culture were banned at the foundation of the unitary Turkish Republic in 1923. The repression intensified during the 1970s, and martial law was imposed on the region in 1978, followed by two decades of mass arrests, torture, killings, forced deportations and the destruction of Kurdish villages. The PKK, founded by the student leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1978, began a guerrilla war in 1984, claiming the Kurds’ right to self-determination within (this was always stressed) the framework of a democratised and demilitarised Turkish state. By ‘democratisation’ Kurds mean the repeal of laws used to harass minorities or to deny them basic political rights. The constitution, for example, established in 1982, requires a party to get 10 per cent of the vote nationally before it can win parliamentary representation – the highest such threshold in the world. Kurdish nationalists consistently receive a majority of the votes in parts of eastern Turkey but have no members of parliament. When, in 1994, centre-left Kurdish deputies formed a new party to get over the 10 per cent barrier, they were arrested on charges of aiding the PKK and sentenced to 15 years in jail.