Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 November 1998
Issue No.403
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Turkish Kurdistan:

The extinction of a forgotten people

By Reda Hilal

"Ankara may be able to drain the sea, but it will not succeed in catching the fish." I remembered this famous saying by Turkish writer Yashar Kamal, now exiled in Sweden, upon my arrival at Dyar Bakr, the capital of Turkish Kurdistan. I had just heard that a member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had hijacked a national flight at Adana airport on 30 October.

The news made me reconsider my plans and think of returning to Ankara, particularly after learning that the Turkish authorities do not welcome foreigners or journalists, even Turkish journalists, in what is considered to be an "emergency zone". However, I wanted to know more about this area known mainly in the news as a war front where the Turkish army clashes continually with PKK rebels fighting for self-rule. So I pressed on to Zakho, a Kurdish town on the Iraqi-Turkish border.

The trip to Diyarbakir started from Antakia, capital of the disputed Iskenderun or Hatay region. After a three-hour car drive, I reached Gazi Antep, a small town overlooking the Euphrates. In addition to its originally Arabic name, Ain Tib, the town which was liberated by the Turks from French occupation, has an Arab character, which is reflected in its buildings and food. From Gazi Antep, I headed to Urpha, a mostly Kurdish town, where the men dress in their traditional wide-legged trousers with a turban on their heads. The women also wear their richly decorated traditional dresses and have their hands soaked in henna.

According to both the Koran and the Torah, Urfa was where the prophet Abraham was living when he received the Ten Commandments from God, before moving to Palestine. A cave near the town is known as Abraham's cave, and people visit it in the belief that the prophet was born there. There is also an Abraham's river where fishing is prohibited, because the waters are considered to be holy.

After a four-hour drive from Urfa, I reached Mardin at 6 am. At the gas station, barefooted and poorly-dressed Kurdish children tried to sell us bread topped with sugar. My Kurdish driver commented, "These are the children of the Kurds. Meanwhile, Turkish children are asleep in the arms of their mothers. If we get a state of our own, Kurdistan will be the richest country in the Middle East."

In this area, the driver told me, separatist Kurds and Muslim extremists rebelled together against the Turkish army in 1990. As a result, the army stepped up its presence there, turning Mardin into a military base from which to confront both Kurdish separatists and the Syrians.

From Mardin, we headed to Diyarbakir. The obvious army presence immediately indicates to the visitor that this place is a hot front in a war which has lasted almost 70 years. After the end of the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, there were strong hopes among Kurds that they would enjoy self-rule like many other peoples who were seeking independence at that time. The 1920 Safer agreement, which divided up the leftovers of the Ottoman Empire, stated that an international committee would be formed to monitor the creation of an autonomous Kurdish area.

But the creator of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, fought against the implementation of the agreement, and managed to convince several Kurdish leaders to join him in the battle against the French, in order to liberate occupied Turkish territories. They did so in return for a promise from Ataturk that the Kurds would be treated as equal citizens in the Turkish republic. But soon after winning the war, he retracted his promise, and the international Lausanne agreement later recognised Turkey's sovereignty over the Kurdish areas. Ataturk cancelled the Islamic caliphate, thus ending the Islamic bond which had previously characterised relations between Turks, Kurds and other Muslims. He also banned the Kurdish language, traditional dress, associations and publications.

Kurds at Diyarbakir still recall with bitterness today the massacres committed by Ataturk's new-born republic in 1925 in the town of Dirsim, which is now known as Tongli. A Kurdish rebellion led by Sheikh Said Al-Kurdi broke out, and the Turkish army burned hundreds of Kurdish villages, killing at least 250,000 people. The leaders of the rebellion, including Sheikh Said, were executed and their bodies left hanging in public for many days to scare the Kurdish population. By the time of Ataturk's death in 1938, at least 1 million Kurds had been displaced from their homes and towns and moved to the Anatolia region of western Turkey.

Residents of Diyarbakir say that their rebellion against the Turks did not end with Sheikh Said's revolt. Yet, the major shift towards armed confrontation between the Turkish army and Kurdish rebels took place in 1984, when a group of Kurds led by Abdullah Ocalan announced the creation of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The PKK started by conducting small hit-and-run attacks, but its fighters later expanded the scope of their operations, targeting the Turkish army in several Kurdish regions in the east and south-east of the country.

In 1987, the Turkish government announced a state of emergency in 13 Kurdish provinces. In 1990, a military ruler was appointed for Kurdistan, with his headquarters in Diyarbakir. That same year, the PKK started a new campaign based on demonstrations, strikes and public criticism of the government. The army retaliated harshly, leading an attack against the town of Shirnak, known as a stronghold of the resistance, and killing most of its inhabitants.

In 1994, the army carried out another "massacre", according to residents, in the same Tongli area, this time targeting Kurds suspected of cooperating with the PKK. As usual, the army burned several villages, and forced those who were left alive to flee to other places. Even Turkish Human Rights Minister Azimat Oglo admitted that massive human rights violations took place in that area in 1994. He said that the PKK had made "terrorist attacks" everywhere in Kurdistan, "but what took place there [in Tongli] amounts to state terrorism. It was the Turkish state which displaced the peasants and burned their villages." Oglo's statements confirmed what local and intentional human rights groups had long been saying, although since then there have been no obvious changes in the army's methods against the Kurdish rebels.

Given this context, I considered myself lucky to be in Tongli at all, as the authorities there do not usually allow foreigners or outsiders to visit the area. In any case, I had to finish my visit quickly in order to return to Ankara before sunset, as a curfew is in force throughout the whole area.

At the Tourshilk hotel in Diyarbakir, I met with members of the pro-government Kurdistan People's Democratic Party (known as Hadib) who claimed that calm has been restored to the regional capital even though violence continued in nearby villages. In the period between 1988 and 1993, the confrontation between PKK rebels and the army was fought out in the streets of Diyarbakir itself. Political killings and anti-government attacks would take place openly, in full daylight. The PKK fighters killed officers, teachers, doctors and civil servants,. The authorities responded by closing down schools, hospitals and government offices.

Again in 1995, more than 4,000 schools were closed in Kurdistan, following attacks by PKK rebels on school teachers whom they hold responsible for spreading Turkish culture among their people. According to government sources, more than 30,000 people have been killed since the PKK started its anti-government campaign in 1984. More than 2600 Kurdish villages were "evacuated" during the same period.

Ali Shawki Ark, a former Turkish state minister, estimated that the annual cost of the war against the Kurds amounts to $8.2 billion -- one-fifth of the state's annual budget. Nearly 300,000 soldiers are involved in the anti-PKK campaign, besides 60,000 local "village guards", recruited by the government and known as Jahash.

While the sound of the army's Apache helicopters can be heard day and night in Diyarbakir, life seem to go on as normal. The streets are full of vendors pulling carts filled with different sorts of goods, vegetables and fruits. The coffee shops are full too with customers playing cards and sipping drinks, thanks to the high rate of unemployment.

Life indeed looks normal in Diyarbakir. But does this mean that the Turkish army has succeeded in crushing the PKK and its infrastructure?

To get an answer to this question, I had to wait for a meeting with a Kurdish friend who invited me to visit him at the elbow-shaped town of Nusaybin on the Turkish-Syrian border. The town is surrounded by both the Turkish and the Syrian armies. There is only one main street through the town, which also has the last train station before entering Syria. My host said that there are nearly 100,000 people living in the town: 75 percent Kurds, 15 percent Arabs and 10 percent Turks. Since many families there are known for backing the PKK, the army regularly raids houses in the town and in nearby villages. He also spoke with great respect of Ocalan, saying that the PKK leader studied politics at Ankara University and could have had a brilliant conventional career. But the man known as "Abo", or father, gave up all that to form the PKK with a number of comrades and fight for the political and cultural rights of the Kurdish people, "who are treated as second-class citizens in Turkey." The host later pointed at a small dot on the map of Turkey. This, he said proudly, was the village of Khalfatli, where "Abo" was born.

He added that Nusaybin had a reputation as a scene of mysterious killings, whose victims are mainly PKK sympathisers and those known for their support of Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The bodies of the dead are usually left in the streets for days one end, in order to scare other PKK fighters. The local Jahash might also target their fellow Kurds due to personal differences, If they do, they usually escape punishment because of their loyalty to the army. Nor can they be prosecuted, because most Kurdish areas are under emergency law, and normal civilian law does not apply.

From Nusaybin, it took me two hours by car to reach Gizre, where the streets are unpaved, being used mainly by cattle and army trucks. There I met with a PKK sympathiser who had been recommended to me by my host in Nusaybin. He spoke mainly of Ocalan's decision in September to declare a unilateral cease-fire. The PKK leader also announced that he recognised the Turkish state and that he was not a separatist, but someone fighting for the recognition of the political and cultural rights of the Kurdish people. My host in Gizre insisted that the Kurdish issue is not simply the "Ocalan problem", as the Turkish government tries to portray it. He added that kicking Ocalan out of Syria will not put an end to the PKK's operations. "There are tens of thousands of Ocalans in Kurdistan. Ocalan's presence in Russia right now will actually make him stronger, because now he has gained international recognition. He is no longer viewed as just a terrorist living in Syria," he said.

I was later taken to see several Kurdish villages that had been destroyed by the Turkish army, and the thousands of Kurds who now have to live in tents in the open air.

When I tried to meet the mayor in Gizre, I was told that he was on holiday. Turkey was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the creation of the republic. When I went to his house, he refused to talk without getting permission from Ankara. I headed to the bus station to return to Diyarbakir so as to catch a flight back to Ankara. A few minutes later, a police car stopped in front of me and the occupants asked me to accompany them to the central police station. There, they searched my body as well as my small bag. Despite my protests, I was detained for two hours. I was only allowed to go after I threatened to call Turkish President Suliman Demirel's office and showed the guards my phone book containing the telephone numbers of the defence minister and other top officials. As I was leaving, the officers told me that Gizre is a dangerous area and that foreigners were not allowed to be there. I was taken back to the bus station and the officers booked me a ticket to take me straight to Ankara, not to Diyarbakir to catch the flight. As well as the hectic 18-hour-long drive, I had to wait four hours at the bus station before leaving.

Arriving at my destination, I recalled again Yashar Kamal's saying: Ankara has drained the Kurdish sea, but its fish remain alive. I was glad to be back on the outside of the huge prison of Kurdistan, where the Kurdish holocaust continues, ignored and forgotten by the whole world.