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.
There is little room for such illusions now. Ever since their first attack on an army post in 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been at war with the security forces in those same mountains. As each year passes, the number of troops required to contain the conflict rises. Today it is thought to involve over 300,000 men, the rough equivalent of the combined strength of British land, sea and air forces. The road from Diyarbakir to Van, which I took in February 1996, is festooned with checkpoints, artillery and armoured vehicle parks, and the sky above is busy with helicopters and fighter jets. The country is saturated with troops. My progress was shadowed so closely by plain clothes police that a phone call from a public call box in Bitlis led to an hour’s interrogation in the city’s notorious police headquarters. In Van I was able to have a private conversation only in my hotel bedroom.
Officially, the reason for such close surveillance is to ensure personal safety while the ‘terrorists’ remain at large. In reality the Turkish authorities do not wish anyone to see what they have been up to. During the past four years the Government has emptied the countryside of its people. Unable to eradicate its ‘bandit’ problem, it declared a State of Emergency in the region in 1987, authorising the regional governor to evacuate villages at will. It was not long before eviction became a form of punishment, either for some nearby clash between troops and the PKK or, more usually, for the refusal of villagers to join the Government’s ‘Village Guard’ militia. Some of those who refused no doubt genuinely sympathised with the PKK, but the majority simply wanted to stay out of an ugly war. They had no wish to fight for a repressive regime. They knew, moreover, that if the PKK took reprisals, there was a fair chance neither women nor children would be spared.
By 1990, when just over three hundred villages had been emptied, the Government vested the Interior Minister with authority to close printing presses ‘when any kind of printed work ... falsely reflects events in the region or engages in untruthful reporting or commentary’. Almost immediately those journals investigating the war in the South-East found themselves unable to contract a printer.
From 1992 onwards, the evacuation of villages became systematic and a scorched earth policy, designed to deny succour to the PKK and to destroy the Kurdish rural habitat, began in earnest A few months after the start of this programme and not long before his death, Turkey’s President Turgut Ozal told the Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, that, ‘a planned, balanced migration, including members of all segments of society, to predetermined settlements in the West is essential’ – forced assimilation into predominantly Turkish areas, incidentally, was something dreamed up by the architects of the Armenian genocide in 1915. Accounts of the present migration by victims and eye-witnesses, some of them conscience-stricken soldiers, indicate that they have entailed enormous misery, arbitrary arrests, the use of torture, extra-judicial killings, sexual violence and plunder.
Last September, the European Court of Human Rights made a historic judgment, finding Turkey guilty of wilfully destroying the village of Kelekci, not far from Diyarbakir. A few days later I met two of the plaintiff villagers. They realised they would see little by way of compensation, but they had wanted justice and had summoned up their courage to achieve it. This was the first time Turkey had been found guilty of village-destruction in a court of law, and it is unlikely to be the last. If the small but admirable Kurdish Human Rights Project which assisted the plaintiffs has its way, Turkey will be returning to court quite a few more times.
In Van last February I had seen some of the displaced who were still living in Red Crescent bell-tents sited in the municipal park, a cheerless space on the edge of town. The only redeeming feature was the magnificent view to the rocky outcrop on which the citadels of Van have stood since the time of the kingdom of Urartu, at the end of the second millennium BC. It was bitterly cold and the ground was covered in ice. The average February temperature in Van is minus six Celsius. Human excrement lay around the tents. There was no evidence of any attempt on the part of the authorities to provide basic amenities, let alone rehouse the displaced.
In Diyarbakir the first of the displaced arrived four years ago. One ascetic-looking man, whom I met on my second visit, told me how he now shared a two-room apartment with his brother and their respective families, 28 persons in all. In his village he and his brother had had nine rooms between them in which to house their families. Their village had been surrounded at dawn one morning in November 1992. They had been called out of their houses and told to leave. They were not even allowed to return for their shoes.
Some evacuees had moved to Seyrantepe, an estate on the edge of the city built to accommodate survivors of the devastating Lice earthquake of 1975, and later occupied by Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam. Among them were people whose livestock had been shot or driven off and their homes burned. In some cases their possessions were destroyed, in others looted. They would trudge to the nearest town. If they were lucky, the local mayor sent trucks to transport them out of his patch to Diyarbakir. ‘The Government did not put us here,’ said one, ‘we heard that the estate was empty and moved in. The Government promised to repay us for the repairs we carried out, but we have seen nothing.’ I asked him how they managed to live. ‘Some send their wives to the cotton fields and seek casual labour themselves. But mainly there are only families here. Many men have gone to other cities – Adana and Mersin – to find work. I worked for a month in Istanbul and earned eight million Turkish lira ($95). It was too little so I came back.’ I asked how much cotton-pickers were paid and he replied bitterly: ‘They receive 150,000 lira – just under $2 – for a 14-hour day.’ Why pay more when so many people are clamouring for work? Nine trucks, laden with displaced families, had just arrived from villages near Lice. In almost every province the evacuations continue.
Many Kurds get little respite from the authorities, even after eviction. In March I attended a conference in Istanbul and took the opportunity to drive out beyond the airport to one of several Kurdish squatter areas. Here are several thousand villagers from the East who hope to avoid further harassment. But the police patrol the area every day. When they suspect a family member has joined the PKK they send in a bulldozer. Between the crude breezeblock shelters and the human excrement, the occasional heaps of rubble tell their own story.
Police harassment is quite usual in Diyar-bakir. Several labour unions have sought to assist the displaced, or to argue their case. They are routinely accused of supporting the PKK and threatened. Some have been killed, as the melancholy array of martyrs’ portraits at union offices testifies. And the killings continue. Last September a dozen or so took place in the environs of Diyarbakir. Some victims were taken from the streets, others from their homes. One of the bereaved, a small woman with her four-year-old son in her lap, described three plain clothes security agents knocking on their door at two o’clock on the morning of 8 September and ordering her husband to accompany them to their headquarters, ‘to answer some questions’. A week later she received a message asking her to collect his body from the government hospital. It had been found beside the road 40 miles east of Diyarbakir. He had been killed with a single bullet, but she told me his body was ‘broken in many places, and his face smashed’. The police at the hospital denied that the victim’s abductors could have been colleagues of theirs. They insisted that the man had been to a brothel and got into a quarrel.
Although state oppression has intensified over the past five years, Turkey’s Kurds were encouraged by the de facto autonomy taking shape in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many Turkish Kurds provided material help to those fleeing from Iraq to the border, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 and again in 1991. They had been delighted that most of Iraq’s four million Kurds took part in a successful election in 1992 – an exemplary challenge to Ankara’s domestic policy. At first things seemed to bode well for the joint administration of Mas’ud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In May 1994, however, the intense rivalry between the two parties erupted into open conflict, from which hastily concluded ceasefires provided only temporary respite. The KDP seized the freight transit dues from Turkey, effectively the sole external revenue source for the area. The PUK took its revenge by seizing Arbil.
As hostilities between the two rivals mounted, each sought external assistance. Talabani, who refused to bargain with Baghdad until Saddam had quit the scene, had only Tehran to turn to. Barzani had wanted to deal with Saddam in the summer of 1991 but other Kurdish leaders wouldn’t have it. After the first round of fighting with the PUK, he started secret negotiations with Baghdad. Both Saddam and Barzani bided their time, waiting for a pretext for a combined attack on Talabani, Saddam’s least favourite Kurd. It was supplied last August when, with Iranian backing, Talabani began to make serious gains. In the event Saddam proved to be Barzani’s war-winning weapon against the PUK.
Today the enterprise of a genuinely democratic Iraqi Kurdistan lies in ruins. I did not meet a single Kurd in Diyarbakir who did not believe that the deal with Saddam had been a catastrophe. Barzani himself is seen as the great betrayer: ‘Has he forgotten that in 1988 Saddam indulged in mass slaughter of our people? Or that in 1983 he killed eight thousand Barzani tribesmen in a fit of anger?’ ‘Saddam will require repayment for his help,’ a journalist in Diyarbakir remarked, ‘and the price will be the re-integration of the Kurdish area into Iraq’s centralised state system. It will be called autonomy, but the reality will be direct government from Baghdad. Barzani threw the Kurds’ chance away.’
No one denies the difficulties faced by Iraq’s Kurds: lack of resources and internal rivalry, aggravated by the patronage networks that flourish in times of hardship and scarcity. In addition, Barzani and Talabani have always faced competing pressures from outside. In return for its protection, Washington wanted the Kurds to assist in its policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran, an invidious requirement since the Kurds knew they must eventually come to terms with Baghdad. Baghdad was predictably anxious to undermine the US plan and bring the Kurds back into its deadly embrace, which it did by promising autonomy and threatening economic blockade. Ankara leaned on both parties, but mainly the KDP, to eradicate the PKK presence in the border region. As Barzani and Talabani knew, Ankara saw the de facto autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds as a dangerous precedent for its own Kurds and was therefore opposed to it; it was ambivalent about the Coalition’s air protection for the Iraqi Kurds. And as the two men also knew, Ankara shared with Baghdad a desire to re-open the oil pipeline from Kirkuk. Finally, Tehran leaned on Talabani to help thwart the ambitions of the US, Iraq and Turkey.
Everyone knows it was a difficult situation. Yet many Kurds feel that in failing to bury their differences in the interests of national unity, Barzani and Talabani have wrecked the entire Iraqi Kurdish venture. They are probably right. The Kurds can no longer be sure of external protection. Operation Provide Comfort became a potential embarrassment to the US from the moment Saddam lured Barzani into alliance with him and despatched his forces into Arbil. Western protection was shown to be ineffective. Now that the Presidential election is over, the US is likely to indicate to Ankara, which has already been seeking to bring the operation to an end, that it will not grieve unduly if the present facilities at Incirlik airbase can no longer be provided. Without Incirlik, Operation Provide Comfort is unlikely to carry on and Barzani will no longer have any protection against Baghdad. He is, in effect, already trapped in the tiger’s cage, and cannot expect more than to preside over an autonomy agreement progressively robbed of substance.
None of this can be anything but distressing to Turkey’s Kurds. The devastating war in the mountains grinds on. The PKK, by the Government’s own admission, is costing the lives of at least three soldiers a day and things are getting worse. Between 1984 and 1992, approximately three thousand died. Since then twenty thousand have died, of whom the greater part have probably been non-combatants. The war is costing Ankara more than $8 billion a year, over 20 per cent of its annual budget. And while the Government claims – without much credibility – to be winning, it continues to lose the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people, two-thirds of whom, according to an opinion poll carried out a year ago, now want some form of self-administration.
According to the same poll, barely II per cent of Kurds actually want to secede from Turkey. Even the PKK has explicitly abandoned its earlier talk of separation. Yet the state is adamant in viewing any expression of Kurdishness as incipient separatism. In Ankara I attended the first day of what, to any impartial observer, was a political show-trial involving over three dozen members of the People’s Democracy Party (Hadep), which seeks to represent Kurdish aspirations. Surrounded in the courtroom by heavily armed troops and facing the sculpted features of Ataturk, impassive but implacable, above the presiding judge, the defendants stood accused of belonging to the PKK. They could face between fifteen and twenty-two years’ imprisonment if found guilty.
Three years ago, Hadep’s chairman, Murat Bozlak, now on trial, was shot in the chest five times when he answered his front door. He was lucky to survive. His son witnessed the attack, and his wife is one of the defence lawyers. After the shooting the family toyed with the idea of seeking asylum in the West, but decided against it. The odds are that Bozlak and others will be imprisoned and that the Constitutional Court – whose President has stipulated that ‘the indivisible unity of the state comes first, and the law is subordinate to this requirement’ – will then ban Hadep, as it did its predecessors.
It is easy to think of the conflict as a simple one between the Kurds and the state, and up to a point this is so. There has been remarkably little inter-communal animosity, except for brief waves of hostility each time a PKK bomb goes off in western Turkey. Nor have the Army bodybags returning from the East made the electorate question the wisdom of this 12-year war. Most Turks still consider Kurdish self-expression unacceptable, convinced that the only thing the activists want is secession. That liberal-minded Turks of the centre-leftview Kurdish self-expression with antagonism is scarcely surprising: virtually no Turks, except soldiers and administrators who serve there, have the remotest idea of the poverty and neglect from which the Kurdish region suffers, nor of the humanitarian consequences of the conflict.
The Turks believe very strongly in the mandatory inclusivist view of Turkish identity, first formulated by Ziya Gokalp, the ideologue of the new Republic in 1923: ‘Nation is not a racial, ethnic, geographical, political or voluntary group or association. Nation is a group composed of men and women who have gone through the same education, who have received the same acquisition in language, religion, morality and aesthetics.’ Ataturk’s successors have made sure these ideas of Turkish nationalism are imbibed by every schoolchild. As a result most Turks believe their first duty is to serve (and save) the state. The party of the centre-left, the Republican People’s Party, was Ataturk’s ruling party until 1946, and sees itself as guardian of his legacy. Not only are there few independent-minded democrats: there are also, politically speaking, few places for them to go. There aren’t very many objections to the state’s record of repression against the Kurds.
Turkish human rights workers, however, are very concerned, as a leading spokesman of the Human Rights Foundation was at pains to emphasise.
Most politicians do not welcome a civil solution to the Kurdish question, they prefer to back the Army. There is polarisation in both the Army and the PKK and since it is increasingly difficult for Kurds to support anti-militarist solutions, nationalist ideology is getting stronger on each side like a disease. To express a view you will be called a traitor – university academics calling for a peaceful solution have ended up in jail.
The state’s deliberate curtailment of civil liberties in the South-East will affect everyone, even if the electorate has yet to notice it. Last August, a new Provinces Law was rushed through Parliament. It gives each provincial governor sweeping new powers, to close down trade unions and civic associations, and to apply martial law at will. In practice it will only be invoked in the Kurdish region – to begin with, at any rate. By repealing the State of Emergency legislation in the South-East, Turkey will be able to claim to the European Union that exactly the same regime now applies across the Republic. But one may expect the State of Emergency to be applied elsewhere, should expediency require it.
This is not the first time that the Kurdish question has impinged on the freedoms of all Turkey’s citizens. Shaykh Said’s rising, more than seventy years ago, which enabled Mustafa Kemal to move with such alacrity against his opponents, vilifying them, closing down their offices and finally proscribing their parties, is a disturbing precedent for Hadep. Under the National Security Council things are not going well for democracy in Turkey, and the European Union is right to be alarmed. The real question is whether its member states are prepared to forgo short-term commercial considerations in the interests of Turkey’s long-term health.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.