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Turkey’s Nonpeople

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 Turkey’s southeastern border, waging guerrilla warfare and seeking an independent Kurdistan. Its terrorist tactics have resulted in hundreds of civilian and military deaths in an underreported war that remains largely hidden but has nevertheless forced Turkish authorities to confront the existence of a “Kurdish problem.” This year, for the first time, the Turkish press has actually referred to the existence of Kurds in Turkey. And the Turkish army, in order to improve its intelligence operations in the southeast, has sent in special Turkish commando units trained to speak and read the forbidden Kurdish language: the use of Kurdish may be illegal in Turkey, but in many parts of the east it is the only language known.

The ban on things Kurdish is selectively enforced in Turkey, resulting in unwritten rules that often seem unfathomable to an outsider. Some of the native arts of the Kurds, for example, have been absorbed into the official presentations of Turkish national culture. Kurdish dances are included in national folk dance performances; they are identified not as Kurdish, however, but as coming from a particular region. An Istanbul rug merchant, on the other hand, readily volunteers that his kilims are made by Kurds, “tribal people who live in the remote mountains of eastern Anatolia.” Some of the rug merchants in Istanbul are themselves Kurds who travel back and forth between Istanbul and their native villages in the east, buying local handwork to sell in the city shops.

Art that deals realistically with the economic and social problems of the Kurds is strictly forbidden. The Kurdish filmmaker Yilmaz Güney, whose haunting film of a few years ago, Yol, depicts the harshness and beauty of Kurdish life, spent years in prison and then in exile, and died prematurely in Paris in 1984.

You can say someone is of Kurdish origins, but you cannot refer to a Kurdish minority,” a well-known member of the Turkish parliament told me, explaining the government’s official position. Then, somewhat nervously, he asked me not to quote him by name. He knew, of course, about Serefettin Elci, a former member of parliament, who was sentenced to more than two years at hard labor in 1981 for having said on the floor of the parliament, “I am a Kurd. There are Kurds in Turkey.” He also knew that early last year a member of his own party had been removed from his party post and brought before a disciplinary committee because he had suggested in an open forum that the party platform be printed in Kurdish as well as Turkish. Many of the most outspoken members of the present Turkish parliament are “closet Kurds” who bravely defend the rights of constituents who have been beaten, arrested, or tortured. But they never mention what everyone knows anyway—that these people are being victimized because they are Kurds.

Ethnic repression affects non-Kurds as well. Turks such as the sociologist Ismail Besikci and the publisher Recep Marasli have served harsh terms in prison for writing and publishing books about the Kurds. The long arm of Turkish injustice also follows Kurds who have emigrated abroad: Kurds living in Sweden, West Germany (where there are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 Kurds), the United States, and Canada have been criticized and in some cases harassed by representatives of the Turkish embassies in those countries for trying to write, publish, teach, or conduct other activities aimed at preserving the Kurdish language and culture.

In eastern Turkey, where the Kurds predominate, contradictions abound. Kurdish is spoken openly in the streets, despite its official proscription. But its use is strictly prohibited in government offices and in the courts and prisons. In the villages, local authorities often tolerate wedding celebrations at which Kurdish costumes, music, and dances are the custom, yet there are reports of people who have been arrested merely for possessing cassettes of Kurdish music.

Some say there is a distinctive Kurdish look—skin darker than that of most Turks, hair coarse and black—but I saw a great variety of physical types in eastern Turkey, including Kurds with carrot-red hair and freckles. Centuries of intermarriage and assimilation have complicated Kurdish ethnicity, not only in physical appearance but also in sense of identity. There are educated Kurds in the major cities of western Turkey who think of themselves as Turks; there are also Turks in the east, I am told, who have grown up speaking Kurdish and consider themselves Kurds.

In June 1987, I visited eastern Turkey on a human rights mission. It was my third such mission to Turkey on behalf of Helsinki Watch, but the first to include an investigation of the Kurdish situation. Turkish authorities who had cooperated with me in the past gave me the cold shoulder when they learned of my plans and refused to help arrange meetings with officials in the east. There is a veil of secrecy in Turkey surrounding the Kurds, and the authorities do not wish to see even a corner of it lifted.

My familiarity with Istanbul and Ankara did not prepare me for the shock of Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of “Turkish Kurdistan.” In Istanbul, where it is possible to move from Europe to Asia merely by crossing the Bosporus, both parts of the city are nevertheless the same: modern, secular, European. In Diyarbakir, however, only a few hours away by plane, the sights, sounds, and smells are of Muslim Asia. It was there that I understood, perhaps for the first time, the extent of Turkey’s East-West duality.

In Diyarbakir, a black-walled fortress of a city, soldiers are ubiquitous, a constant visual reminder of an unseen guerrilla war. Kurdish women from the villages wear brightly colored, baggy pants, topped by layers of skirts in clashing, colorful prints. It is a male-dominated society. Local women, who often wear chadors or veils, seem never to accompany men in restaurants or other public meeting places. We were three unescorted Western women, a source of immense curiosity to the local people. Yet to the credit of the government, we were never stopped or questioned by the militia during our travels in eastern Turkey.

The Turkish government, belatedly, is now investing a significant amount of public funds in eastern Turkey. Electricity, telephones, and other services are gradually being brought to some of the villages and a major irrigation project, known as the Atatürk Dam, will, according to the government, eventually transform a large part of the region. But the effects of these policies are not yet generally apparent. Illiteracy and unemployment are major problems in the east, and the cities and countryside bear witness to economic neglect. Hundreds of villages are inaccessible by road and can be reached only by goat tracks. Many are still without water, electricity, or telephones. Medical services in the area are hopelessly inadequate: the State Planning Organization has reported that for 2.3 million people in four southeastern provinces there are only 2,845 hospital beds and 681 doctors. The Kurds in eastern Turkey frequently complain that they are treated like second-class citizens.

No one was waiting for us at Diyarbakir Airport when we arrived, despite careful arrangements made in advance in Istanbul and Ankara. Nor did “the best hotel in town” acknowledge our reservations. An hour or so later, however, a tall, tense man arrived at the dismal pension where we had managed to find rooms, breathless and embarrassed, and apologizing for “problems” that made it difficult for him “to move freely.” He then directed us to a cramped out-of-the-way office, where we met with former inmates of Diyarbakir Prison.

The feeling of potential danger that pervaded that first meeting soon became familiar. Most of our meetings with Kurds in eastern Turkey were furtive ones, and the people who helped in making the arrangements asked us not to mention their names. We met mainly with lawyers and politicians, defenders rather than victims, many of them members of the left-of-center SHP (Social Democratic People’s Party), the largest minority party in the Turkish parliament. We took into consideration the elements of partisanship that might have influenced the claims that were made. We also checked the charges we heard with Turks who were not affiliated with the SHP.

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