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Justice and the Kurds


Imagine that you head a foreign delegation on its way to Turkey to protest to the authorities on behalf of that country’s unhappy Kurds. If you are important enough, you might be met at the Ankara airport by Hikmet Cetin, the outgoing speaker of the Turkish parliament. But Mr. Cetin himself is a Kurd, with a good command of Kurmanji, the most widely spoken Kurdish dialect, and he will defend the regime’s policies toward the Kurds. You might have better luck with some of the members of Turkey’s newly elected parliament, some 25 percent of whom will be of Kurdish origin. But many of them are rich landowners who enjoy excellent relations with the government. You might reveal your sympathies to one of Turkey’s capitalist czars—say, Halis Toprak (whose Toprakbank has been valued at $1.7 billion). But he is a Kurd who does not protest treatment of other Kurds. In the 1980s, Istanbul had a Kurdish mayor, who was supported by plenty of the city’s migrant Kurds before he was undermined by allegations of corruption.

Imagine, if you can, Slobodan Milosevic boasting about his Albanian blood. Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s reforming prime minister for much of the 1980s, made his partly Kurdish ancestry public and succeeded in changing Turkey’s law forbidding the use of Kurdish languages—although he did not lift restrictions on their being taught in schools, and it remains illegal to speak Kurdish in political speeches. Wherever you look in modern Turkish society—loyalist Turkish society—you find Kurds, and many of them show no signs of opposition to the Turkish state.

The presence of assimilated Kurds at the heart of modern Turkey is baffling to foreigners acquainted only with claims of Kurdish nationalists and their allies. The Kurds, runs this account, are Indo-Europeans who had established themselves in eastern Anatolia at least two millennia before the Central Asian Turks settled in that part of the world; their unfortunate descendants have been bullied into abandoning their identity in the harshly monocultural Turkish repub-lic established seventy-six years ago by Kemal Atatürk. In recent years, the nationalist account continues, the Kurds have been represented by Abdullah Ocalan, the fugitive leader abducted four months ago from Kenya and taken back to Turkey for trial on charges of treason—a trial widely expected to result in his execution by hanging.

With all this firmly in mind, foreigners visiting Turkey may look for a cleavage between Turk and Kurd as clean and unambiguous as that which divides Jew from Arab, Serb from Albanian. Furthermore, they may expect to find Turkey’s twelve-million-odd Kurds (roughly 19 percent of the population, according to the historian David McDowall1 ) standing firmly behind the fifteen-year insurgency conducted by Mr. Ocalan’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. But neither assumption stands up to scrutiny. Many Turkish Kurds—estimates range from one half to two thirds—live outside the war zone, and a lot of these have a negligible emotional attachment to Mr. Ocalan’s insurgency—and even less regard for his authoritarian socialist ideology. In elections only a minority of Kurdish voters throw their lot in with political parties associated with the PKK. This April’s general election, when the latest of these parties, the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP), won a mere 4.25 percent of the national vote, was no exception. What is more, according to the findings of a rare inquiry into the Kurds’ political aspirations, only 13 percent of respondents inside the war zone said they favored the creation of an independent Kurdistan, until recently the proclaimed goal of the PKK.2 Clearly, the reality of the Turkish Kurds—denied by the state, misrepresented by some advocates of independence—is a good deal more complicated than it seems.

Turkey’s southeast—the unhappy provinces which have borne the brunt of the insurgency and its suppression—is naturally where most people choose to examine the evolution of this reality. In their study, Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller argue that “the PKK today is the single most important political fact of life for Kurds in the southeast.” True enough. But can the same be said for the millions of Kurds who live outside this region, whose daily lives are conditioned less by the war than by the mundane experience of normal Turkish life? As much as the southeast, it is the cities of western Turkey that are likely to define the future of Turkey’s Kurds in the coming century. For this reason, on the occasion of this year’s spring equinox—when Kurds (along with their Iranian cousins) celebrate their new year, Newroz—I visited Adana, 150 miles west of the nearest point directly affected by the uprising and some 200 miles west of the part of Turkey where Kurds make up a majority of the population.

The contrast between Adana and provinces like Diyarbakir and Batman, which have been devastated by war, could hardly be more striking. In comparison to the stagnant economy of the southeast, the fast-growing agricultural trading center of Adana is quite rich and confident. In Sakip Sabanci, the local billionaire who paid for the splendid new mosque that dominates the center of the provincial capital, also called Adana, the province has a tycoon on excellent terms with Ankara’s civilian and military establishment. Plenty of Adana’s inhabitants are Turkish right-wingers who hate Kurdish nationalism. They helped to return to office Alparslan Turkesh, long Turkey’s preeminent neofascist, during his lengthy parliamentary career. In last month’s general election, the party Turkesh founded, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), picked up almost a quarter of the vote in Adana. Many more inhabitants of the province—up to a third, according to some estimates—are ethnic Arabs who have no interest in Kurdish nationalism. But, in common with other places further west, Adana’s already delicate ethnic constitution has been further complicated by a sizable Kurdish diaspora.

Of Adana’s 300,000-odd Kurds, as many as 150,000 migrated west before Mr. Ocalan launched his rebellion back in 1984. They were either forcibly resettled by the state or drawn away from the southeast by the poor economic prospects there and the promise of prosperity elsewhere. Many now have secure jobs in Adana. In last month’s local elections, which were held on the same day, April 18, as the general election, some mainstream Turkish political parties opposed to the very idea of Kurdish political or cultural autonomy fielded Kurdish candidates. In a coffeehouse in a working-class district, I talked with Kurds who said they were accepted as part of local society—they were “clean Kurds,” joked their Turkish and Arab friends. Yes, they speak Kurmanji—or, less commonly, Zaza, a second Kurdish dialect—with their wives, but their children often feel more at home in Turkish. These Kurds say they would not object if their children married Turks. Many have done so themselves. And their presence in cities across western Turkey puts in doubt the claims of those who say Turkey is inevitably divided into two nations.

But these Kurds do not wholly represent Adana’s Kurdish diaspora. A second group, in many ways distinct from the first, was forced to leave the southeast more precipitously. Between 1987 and 1996, Turkey’s security forces cleared out at least 2,500 Kurdish villages whose inhabitants they accused of providing logistic support to the PKK—or who simply refused to join a loyalist, government-sponsored militia. The Turkish army displaced up to two million people in a process of deportation and persecution that caused great hardship; it was barely visible on television and got little international attention. Many of the refugees were resettled by the Turks in Diyarbakir and other towns in the southeast. Some 150,000 of the refugees came to Adana. If you engage in conversation with a boy who shines shoes there, his Turkish will probably have a Kurdish accent; his father, in the unlikely event that he has a job at all, will probably be employed in poorly paid seasonal work, like cotton-picking. Such Kurds, driven from their homes and ill suited to urban life, despise the Turkish state. In the recent election, 46,000 of them voted for HADEP.

On March 21, the day of Newroz, I took a tour with a Kurdish driver of the suburban Adana neighborhoods that are largely inhabited by poor Kurds. To them, Newroz means more than the arrival of spring, and its very celebration challenges the official ideology, which holds that Kurds and Turks share the same cultural heritage. Ever since the 1982 Newroz celebrations, when a Kurdish youth immolated himself to protest Turkey’s “occupation” of “northern Kurdistan,” the Kurdish new year has been invested with a highly contentious political significance. Nowadays, it brings the war much closer to places, like Adana, which are far from the front line.

That much became evident the moment my guide and I reached Anadolu Mahallesi, one of Adana’s suburbs with a Kurdish majority; it was blocked by riot police in body armor. Police helicopters circled over our heads. In front of us, a large crowd of youthful Kurds, their festive halay dance long abandoned, chanted pro-PKK slogans. By the time we reached Yeni Bey, another Kurdish neighborhood, the streets had been cleared by police who had set off tear-gas canisters; there were piles of charred tires where minutes before hundreds of demonstrators had engaged in running battles with police. According to Adana’s chief of police, eight policemen were injured during these and other clashes, and only seventeen arrests were made. But Mustafa Cinkilic, who heads the Adana branch of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a pro-Kurdish organization that counsels the victims of police torture, says that nearly one hundred people were arrested, nine of them German journalists in possession of PKK propaganda. From what I saw that day, the HRF’s estimate was more convincing.

Adana is not alone in illustrating the insurgency’s influence on places outside its geographical scope. Had I chosen to observe Newroz in the Kurdish suburbs of such cities as Izmir, Istanbul, or Mersin, I would have seen similar scenes. According to the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (HRA), another pro-Kurdish organization, and a good source of information on Turkey’s persistently bad human rights record, the Istanbul police made more than 1,700 arrests during the Newroz celebrations, which were attended by some of the city’s more than 1.5 million Kurds. More than two hundred people sustained injuries, of whom eleven were shot by police. An HRA report claims that, across the nation, the police detained more than eight thousand people during the Newroz celebrations—all but a few dozen were later released. Some three thousand arrests are said to have taken place in Diyarbakir, the symbolic epicenter of the rebellion and obvious capital of a putative Kurdistan. But there were almost as many arrests outside the war zone as there were within it.


The origins of Turkey’s current Kurdish distress lie less in the emergence of the PKK than in a deep well of Middle Eastern history. The past shared by Turkey’s Kurds and their twelve-million-odd cousins in contiguous parts of Iran, Iraq, and Syria has been shaped by their history of, and susceptibility to, foreign domination—which Jonathan Randal, in a sympathetic recent study, partly attributes to “an entrenched penchant for treachery in their own ranks.”3 Although Kurdistan was only formally divided between the Istanbul-based Ottomans and the Persian Safavids in 1639, Kurdish clan chieftains had much earlier adopted a self-debasing form of Realpolitik, throwing in their lot with the prevailing power. As subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the Levant, the Maghreb, and the Balkans before declining and then collapsing after World War I, Kurdish emirs enjoyed considerable autonomy—as long as they paid their taxes and provided fighting men for Ottoman campaigns. Nevertheless, the Kurds could be truculent subjects. In the nineteenth century, Kurdish potentates rebelled no fewer than fifty times.

  1. 1

    David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996).

  2. 2

    Turkiye Odalar Birligi, Dogu Sorunu: Teshisler ve Tespitler (Turkish Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, The Eastern Question: Diagnosis and Findings) (Ankara: TOBB, 1995).

  3. 3

    Jonathan C. Randal, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness: My Encounters with Kurdistan (Westview, 1998), p. 12.

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