Kurdistan: a brief history

It was in the 1980s when the historian Gwyn A Williams posed the famous question, When was Wales? This begged more questions: What constitutes a nation? What are its origins? What does it matter? This attempt to understand “the national question”, prompted by a reading of Gramsci, raised a series of key issues that could be asked of any national struggle for liberation and became the agenda was an urgent one for a Marxist such as Williams who ended up as a progressive nationalist and supporter of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales.

It is not coincidental that the Welsh people have long been some of the most passionate supporters of the rights of the Kurds, because some of their fundamental demands and experiences are shared just as they are shared with subject people everywhere. Common demands include respect for their distinct identity as a people, the freedom to enjoy their own culture, to express themselves in their own language and the ability to exercise local control of resources. This latter point in the Welsh case manifests itself in devolution and in the contemporary Kurdish case in the recent proposals for “democratic autonomy”. These and other key demands are ones that Kurds share with all the other nations who found themselves on the losing side when the national borders were drawn up by the major imperial powers and reshaped the modern world; with regards to the Kurds, this process occurred particularly in the aftermath of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds are still suffering the consequences of that settlement which failed to take account of their rights or existence; and this is where the roots of the modern Kurdish conflict lie.

So when was Kurdistan? As a name for a country it is thousands of years old and as a name it is much older than the word Turkey which first emerged as a name for a modern country only in the 20th century. On old maps of the region Kurdistan always features and was only erased following the international agreement that led to the carving up the region in the aftermath of the First World War. The founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is still widely lauded by commentators and historians as one of the greatest nation builders of modern times, but this is to completely ignore the brutal measures that had to be employed to achieve his vision of turkification. The construction of contemporary Turkey in large part marked the removal of Kurdistan from the pages of history and as a people their very existence has been denied and all traces of their culture, language and history are intended to be forgotten at least as far as the ruling Kemalist nationalist ideology is concerned. Indeed, historic maps depicting evidence of Kurdistan were to be banned in Turkey as the existence of the Kurds could not be tolerated along with all other peoples whose awkward presence challenged the principles of its dominant ideology.

While the idea of a land called Kurdistan and the sense of a Kurdish identity lived on in the hearts and minds of Kurdish people, cherished despite all the forced assimilation with which they have been assailed, Kurdistan only really emerged as a major political cause once more with the growth of the modern Kurdish national movement in the 1980s. (Kurdish populations are in fact dispersed across four major nation states of the Middle East; namely, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Our focus is on Turkey primarily, the reasons being that this country has by far the largest Kurdish population, it is the country where fundamental rights for the Kurds are most flagrantly denied; importantly, it is the country where a major Kurdish social and political movement has emerged over the last 30 years and finally as a state Turkey enjoys special relations with Europe and America through NATO and its accession talks with the EU).

There are several key dates in the history of Turkey and the struggle of the Kurdish people for their liberation. One such watershed year was 1980 when the 12 September military coup headed by General Evren led to a brutal crackdown on protests and progressive forces during which hundreds of thousands of people were detained, tortured and executed by extra-legal means; a reign of terror by the ruling military ensued whose conduct was especially brutal in the Kurdish region of the country.  Two years later the Turkish generals imposed a new constitution on the country which placed strict restrictions on civil and human rights.

The first election following the military coup occurred in November 1983 and saw Turgut Ozal become prime minister. The following year witnessed the start of the guerrilla campaign initiated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party to achieve the freedom of the Kurdish people. Brutal clashes with the Turkish military were to go on for years and there are many thousands of casualties. In Western news reports the PKK is always held responsible for these casualties, numbering approximately 40 thousand, while the responsibility of the Turkish armed forces is less closely examined. The official version of events put forward by Turkey has invariably been accepted as the unvarnished truth by journalists reporting far away from the conflict zone. Thus statements and commentaries issued by the Turkish government are digested uncritically and find their way into news reports which in effect repeat the opinions of one side as fact. Reporting on the conflict is further distorted by the restrictions on the media inside Turkey in general which have prevented independent investigative journalism from corroborating claims made by the authorities about incidents and has meant that the truth has become suppressed as a matter of routine. Journalists are certainly not free to operate as they wish in the Kurdish areas and in particular they are not permitted to visit the scenes of clashes making it virtually impossible to verify claims made by Turkey about casualties or establish details of what took place. As such, the true scale of the atrocities committed by agents acting on behalf of the state, by the Turkish army and counter-terrorism personnel will probably never be fully established.

In 1989, the year that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall marking the symbolic end of Communism in Eastern Europe, Ozal became the first civil president of the Turkish Republic. Counter-terrorism operations against the Kurds were stepped up and human rights abuses continued unremittingly.

The 1990s has been described as a lost decade and was certainly one of the darkest periods in the history of Turkey. This was a decade when the economy was in the doldrums and when the rule of law appeared to have been set aside as the state pursued a dirty war with few limits against the Kurds.  The conflict between the state and the Kurds expanded to embrace the whole of Kurdish society and Turkey became divided into two entirely separate regions with the Kurdish south east resembles a huge militarised camp. On the economic front, these years led to increasing poverty and mass migration especially from the Kurdish regions; thousands claims asylum in countries of Europe, particularly, Germany, Sweden and the UK, but many more Kurds, deliberately displaced from their villages and dispossessed of their farmlands, were forced to migrate to the main Turkish cities where they established makeshift homes on stretches of wasteland on the margins.

Casualties continued to mount as the war reached new heights of intensity. A notorious massacre of dozens of Kurdish mourners at the funeral of Kurdish political activist Vedat Aydin occurred in Diyarbakir in 1991 when Turkish counter-terror forces fired into the crowd. Meanwhile, in 1992, the Kurdish town of Sirnak was razed by the Turkish army in reprisal for a PKK attack. This incident remains symbolic of the “scorched earth” policy carried out by the Turkish military during this period.

The assassination of opponents of the strategy pursued by the state became more frequent. Victims include journalists investigating the hidden powers exercised by the “deep state” in ruthless pursuit of its anti-Kurdish campaign. Counter-terrorism agencies at this time sponsored the Islamist Hizbullah organisation in carrying out a campaign of murder and assassination against prominent Kurdish social figures, community leaders, businessmen and intellectuals.

The well-known Kurdish writer and journalist Musa Anter was one of the victims of assassination in September 1992 while a leading Kurdish trade union activist, Zubeyir Akkoc was killed in January 1993 and MP Mehmet Sincar was murdered in September of that year. These are just a few of the victims of a brutal Turkish policy that has involved mass murder and wholesale ethnic cleansing.

In the face of such major human rights violations and atrocities, it is in fact quite remarkable that the Kurds have remained steadfast in their demands for peace and reconciliation, appearing to bear little ill will against their Turkish neighbours. This position can be attributed to the mature political leadership of the Kurdish side, whose perspective is based on a realistic understanding of the functioning of the state and social relations. They are able to distinguish between the actions of the state and the opinions of the people and seek a political solution to the conflict which will allow the Kurdish and Turkish people to live together in peace, freedom and equality.

Suspicious circumstances surrounded the plane crash in February 1993 which killed General Bitlis, the commander of the Gendarmerie, who was known to be seeking to find a solution to the Kurdish question. Two months later President Ozal himself died unexpectedly of a heart attack, which sparked rumours of an assassination.

During the presidency of Suleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Ciller the military offensive against the Kurds was greatly intensified. The Kurdish provinces are put under a state of martial law and covert counter-terrorism operations become the norm. Thousands were detained, tortured and murdered as the state colluded with the military in a dirty war that saw mafia bosses, contract killers, drug dealers, informers, agents and provocateurs working in concert to defeat the Kurds.

It needs to be stressed that Turkey military conducted its counter-insurgency measures with extreme brutality. Atrocities were systematic; torture was widespread, whole communities were subject to a reign of terror, civilians could be picked up at random, innocent men, women and children were routinely tortured and many disappeared. People were “disappeared” and bodies were dumped into mass graves in secret locations. Meanwhile, in the field of battle, the bodies of captured guerrillas were found grotesquely mutilated with Turkish soldiers displaying body parts as trophies in photographs.

The dismemberment and mutilation of bodies has continued right up until today with the latest incident occurring during the renewed conflict that flared up in the aftermath of the 2011 general election. Photographs of four dismembered bodies of some 24 Kurdish guerrillas who died in clashes with the Turkish army were made public in October 2011.  The savage method of their killing and mutilation of the bodies clearly evident from the photographs shocked the Kurdish community and was denounced as a war crime by Selahetin Demirtash, the co-chair of Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). “Both the photos of the bodies and the information we received show that all the bodies were subjected to torture and torn apart. This is savagery and a war crime and those responsible for this pain are those who act with the feeling of revenge,” Demirtash was quoted as saying. The BDP leader went on to describe the brutal action as going beyond the realms of war and was evidence of such hate that cannot be explained.

On 5 November 1996 the notorious Susurluk incident took place and exposed this close collaboration between politicians, police, the security apparatus and the criminal underworld in their counter-insurgency campaign against the Kurds. Susurluk was to be the downfall of Prime Minister Ciller who chose to honour the dead as patriots.

In 1997 the government of the Islamist PM Erbakan was forced to resign under pressure from the military. Erbakan’s Welfare Party was later banned by the constitutional court and was re-established as the Virtue Party. The current Justice and Development Party (AKP) emerged from the reformist wing of this party. The AKP has come to dominate Turkish politics since its sweeping election victory in 2002. With the rise of the AKP as a moderate face of Islam, Turkey has come to be seen in the West as an example of a successful compromise between Islam and democracy and held up as a model for emulation in the wider Middle East. Despite an improved image, considerable economic success, the enactment of reforms, and the moves towards a new constitution under the leadership of Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP, resolution of the Kurdish conflict has not only remained elusive, it has become deadlocked. Despite making great paly of an “opening” towards the Kurds, Erdogan has in fact pursued a two-pronged strategy of small, piecemeal reforms while seeking to eliminate the independent voice of the Kurds. Such a policy has been deemed at best inadequate and at worst duplicitous. It has failed to convince or satisfy the Kurdish people and has not sought to meet and address any of their major demands with any degree of seriousness.

Waves Kurdish activists, prominent intellectuals, writers, academics, lawyers as well as leading members of the main pro-Kurdish legal political party the BDP, have been arrested and charged for alleged terrorist sympathies, particularly following the June 2011 general election when the BDP candidates won significant support. The ongoing arrests and prosecutions expose the tremendous difficulties for the Kurds of engaging in normal constitutional politics within Turkey. It is worth mentioning that the BDP is the latest in a series of pro-Kurdish parties that have been established over the last twenty years. At least five previous parties, which had all received significant voter support, have been closed down by the Turkish courts following prosecutions, arrests, harassment and police raids which have become a matter of routine. The previous parties include the People’s Labour Party (HEP), closed in 1993; the Democracy Party (DEP) closed in 1994; People’s Democracy Party (HADEP) closed in 2003; the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP) closed in 2005 and the Democratic Society Party (DTP) closed in 2009. It is a tribute to the skills and persistence of the Kurdish politicians that they have to date managed to success manoeuvre around the bans and in the process achieve rising levels of support from the people. But the measures taken to block their effectiveness are outrageous and warrant strong criticism from the Western democracies, and particularly from countries in the European Union, who like to take on the role of upholders of democracy overseas.

The most memorable date in recent Kurdish political history is undoubtedly 15 February 1999 as this was the day when PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in Kenya by Turkish special forces personnel operating undercover. The circumstances surrounding Ocalan’s arrest are rightly regarded by the Kurds as an international conspiracy because of the clearly coordinated actions of security personnel (CIA, Mossad and MI5) and politicians from various countries which lured Ocalan into a trap after he was denied the right to claim political asylum in Europe (in flagrant violation of international human rights law)..

Turkey’s success in capturing their “Enemy Number One” was broadcast before the world’s media in an attempt to humiliate both Ocalan and the Kurdish people as a whole. The spectacle was a grotesque act of triumphalism on the part of Turkey and only served to exacerbate tensions between Turks and Kurds. It set off a wave of spontaneous actions by Kurds within Turkey and among the diaspora communities across Europe.

During his trial, which was very much a show trial of dubious legality in many respects and later deemed as such, Ocalan conducted himself with great dignity, statesmanship and imagination as he sought to explain the Kurdish case historically and in continued to pursue a policy of peace and reconciliation, which he had adopted long before his arrest. It has often been remarked upon that Ocalan has remained steadfast and has persisted in his pursuit of constructive peace proposals from the courtroom and prison cell despite the tremendous provocations and in the face of the often frenzied triumphalism of Turkish nationalists bent on a total victory over the Kurds. The quality of leadership demonstrated by Ocalan could be used constructively to achieve a peace settlement if only Turkish leaders and their allies would set aside their prejudices and become sufficiently proactive to see it as an opportunity to resolve a conflict that has lingered on for far too long. Ocalan urged Kurdish guerrillas to cease their military actions and to fall back to defensive positions outside the country, to which they responded; meanwhile, in reaction to an outbreak of incidents involving young supporters setting themselves on fire, Ocalan strongly expressed his disapproval of such methods and called upon Kurds not to sacrifice themselves on his behalf.

While in prison Ocalan has produced several proposals for achieving a peaceful conclusion to the conflict, including the roadmap, which the Turkish authorities initially withheld from the public, and culminating in proposals for “democratic autonomy”. All his ideas have been released through his lawyers, who have been subjected to intimidation and prosecution themselves simply for carrying out their professional duties. Since his conviction, Ocalan has also produced three substantial volumes, which have been published in book form in English; in these pages Ocalan has sought to offer constructive and conciliatory arguments for a lasting settlement.  So far there has been no serious response from the Turkish side to any of his proposals; despite the reports in 2011 that talks were being held between Ocalan and Turkish officials nothing substantial has yet resulted. Meanwhile, clashes between the army and guerrillas have renewed in intensity with the Turkish side launching a major operation against Kurdish encampments across the border in Iraq in the autumn of 2011.

At the time of writing, Turkey is seeking to enlist the support of Kurdish Regional authorities in Iraq in its bid to eliminate the PKK camps stationed on its soil. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called upon Kurdish leaders in Iraq to cooperate, issuing a veiled threat saying that Turkey would have every right under international law to enter its territory to stop the PKK. “Turkey cannot let an entity that constitutes a clear and direct threat against itself to exist right across its borders,” the foreign minister was quoted as saying. “The northern Iraqi administration should stop this terrorist entity and cooperate with us. Otherwise we will enter and stop it,” (Sunday’s Zaman, 30/10/2011).

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