You see the same sign frequently in the Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey. Etched in bold white characters on bald brown mountain slopes, it is visible from great distances across the bleak terrain: the crescent and star of the Turkish Republic above a quotation from its founder, Kemal Atatürk: “How happy I am to be a Turk.” The irony is cruel, because this desperately poor, neglected region—about one third of Turkey’s land mass—is inhabited mainly by Kurds, not Turks, eight to ten million of them, close to one fifth of Turkey’s total population.
The Kurds—there are some twenty million in the world today—have never had a country of their own, although they lay claim to a large region which they call Kurdistan and have shared a common language, religion, and culture for thousands of years. The oil-rich, mountainous region that the Kurds inhabit was carved up after World War I and parceled out to Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Kurds are now living in all of those countries and, in smaller numbers, in Syria and the USSR. The largest group of Kurds is in Turkey, but it is absent from Turkey’s official census figures because the Turkish government denies the very existence of the Kurds, whom they refer to as “mountain Turks.”
Repression of the Kurds in Turkey dates back to Atatürk and the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. In that year the Treaty of Lausanne between Atatürk and the Allied powers conferred international recognition on the new Turkish state and carved up the territory claimed by the Kurds, giving the largest portion to Turkey. There was no mention of the Kurds in the document. Indeed the sections dealing with the protection of minority rights apply only to Turkey’s “non-Muslim minorities,” not to the devoutly Muslim Kurds. Between 1925 and 1939, there were constant revolts and peasant uprisings in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, exacerbating the government’s fears that the Kurds were striving for recognition as a nation and that they had ties to Kurds in other countries. Turkish governments have used harsh measures in their efforts to suppress the Kurds and make them assimilate. The Kurdish language, Kurdish schools, Kurdish publications, Kurdish associations, Kurdish names, and Kurdish music are banned. People have been sent to prison merely for acknowledging in public that there are Kurds in Turkey.
During the late 1970s when weak government leadership brought Turkish society close to anarchy, Kurdish movements emerged among the many political groups that were then running wild in Turkey. After the 1980 military coup which brought an end to all such protests, thousands of Kurdish activists and their sympathizers—many of them not involved in violence—were thrown into Diyarbakir Prison, reputed to be one of the worst prisons in the world. Those who managed to evade arrest fled the country and organized a variety of political parties abroad. One of these groups—the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)—reappeared in 1984 on …