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.

“It is not possible to explain such tortures,” a former prisoner said, describing Diyarbakir’s notorious prison. “One of my friends was forced to eat a live rat.” He leaned forward, looking at me intently. “It happened in 1984. You can use his name, if you wish. It’s in the court records.” He continued: “The worst torture is in the septic tanks where people are taken for punishment. Excrement is put on their faces; they are forced to drink urine. Many people died, many went crazy, almost all of them have TB. Some who were released are now crazy; they live around here.”

A lawyer described the fate of a wellknown defense lawyer who was himself arrested, brutally tortured in the prison, and pulled around by a rope tied to his penis. The Turkish government, which ignored our requests to visit the prison, admits that thirty-two people died in Diyarbakir Prison between 1981 and 1984. Unofficial sources put the count at sixty-seven, including several prisoners whose only escape was to burn themselves alive.

Diyarbakir Prison is a military remand center that houses as many as one thousand detainees, most of them Kurds, who are awaiting the outcome of mass political trials that have stretched on for years. Lawyers described to us how detainees came to court with swollen faces and downcast eyes, having been forced by their torturers to sign papers falsely stating that their injuries predated their arrests. Those who dared to complain to the unresponsive judges were beaten up again as soon as they left the courtroom. Prisoners who were convicted often preferred to be sent off to serve their sentences rather than to appeal; if they appealed they would have to remain in Diyarbakir Prison while their cases were being reviewed.

Prison inmates are forbidden to speak Kurdish. “A mother comes to visit her son who is under arrest,” a lawyer told us. “She speaks only Kurdish. She looks at his face and the tears keep pouring down. They cannot say one word to each other. If she says, ‘my son,’ the guard behind her hits her on the head.” Other lawyers described the frustration of being unable to get facts from their clients because they were forbidden to communicate with them in the one language they had in common.

A former Diyarbakir prisoner paraphrased a typical speech by the prison commander: “You are a Turk. You will forget Kurdish. This is a school for you. You will be educated as a Kemalist youth. We should destroy you, but the Turkish army will educate you instead and make you fit for society.”

In recent years, conditions in Diyarbakir Prison have reportedly improved for long-term prisoners, the result of mass hunger strikes in the prison and the international attention that followed. But new detainees are still treated brutally. About one thousand Kurds suspected of aiding terrorists have been brought to the prison since 1984; they are for the most part simple peasants who are beaten, tortured, and abused, sometimes to elicit information and sometimes simply to intimidate them. Those who were subsequently released have described the tortures to which they were subjected, including falaka, suspension and electric shocks. “I was ready to confess that I had killed one hundred men,” reported Cemil Bozkurt, a peasant who was detained in February 1986, “because they brought in my wife and sister, stripped them and threatened to rape them right there.”

We also visited several other cities in the east—Mardin, near the border, and Tunceli, high in the mountains—both “hot spots” where terrorist activities have been intensive. Our travels took us through a landscape of astonishing beauty, with vast stretches of land that appeared to be uninhabited except for an occasional shepherd tending sheep on a high slope. Mardin, a city of 45,000 people, is distinguished by its stone houses built in tiers on a hillside. From the local SHP headquarters, we overlooked the seemingly endless flat expanse of the Mesopotamian Plain; at night, we were told, one can see the lights of Syria, just thirty kilometers away. Several lawyers and politicians, a teacher, a businessman, and a journalist—all active in the SHP—described the guerrilla warfare that has been especially intense in Mardin Province. Twenty-eight terrorists, all local people, were being sought in the area at the time. A few weeks after our visit, on July 8, twenty-eight people, including eleven children, were killed by terrorists in two villages in Mardin Province, many of them sprayed with gunfire as they slept.

The terrorism is attributed to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, whose members call themselves Marxist-Leninists. Their movement is based on nationalism and separatism. Their aim is to “liberate” the Kurdish-inhabited areas of Turkey and to create an independent state. The PKK is active in Western Europe; it has in fact been accused of terrorist activities in West Germany and Sweden.

The PKK was founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, a student at the Faculty of Political Science at Ankara University; the group was involved in numerous armed incidents before the September 12, 1980, coup. After the coup, its leaders left Turkey; Ocalan is believed to be living now in Damascus. In August 1984 the current wave of terrorism began with attacks upon the villages of Eruh and Semdinli near the Iraqi border. By the end of 1984 the number of raids had increased and were aimed not only at military convoys and gendarmerie stations but at peasants in small villages who refused to cooperate with the PKK.

The struggle in southeast Turkey was described in Newsweek in March 1987 as “the world’s most bitter guerrilla war.” Yet the facts surrounding the conflict are murky. Only a few journalists have traveled in the region, and their movements have been strictly controlled. News reports rely mainly on information supplied by the Turkish government. And the government often contradicts itself. When we were in Turkey in June 1987, we received various “official” estimates of the guerrillas’ strength that ranged from 200 to 1,500. Subsequently, in a July interview, Prime Minister Ozal gave very specific numbers: he said that the government knew of 3,496 terrorists, of whom 1,158 were actively fighting and 2,338 were providing shelter and other assistance. In an interview in August, however, the prime minister said that there were only three hundred to four hundred terrorists in the southeast.

There is also confusion over where the terrorists are based. The Turkish government until very recently insisted that the guerrillas were hit-and-run infiltrators operating from bases across the border in Syria and Iraq. In August 1987, a correspondent from the Turkish newspaper Günaydin managed an extraordinary interview with some PKK militants in the mountains of Iraq who boasted that they had thirty-eight camps and eight thousand armed men within Turkey. In October, the government acknowledged that the terrorists have established bases within Turkey, which would suggest that popular support for their activities may be greater than was initially assumed.

Theories about the sources of PKK support are also vague. Many assume that the Soviet Union is supplying arms to the PKK through Syria, but the US embassy in Ankara and the Turkish government speak only of unspecified “foreign powers” as backing the PKK. The PKK guerrillas, in the August interview with Günaydin, volunteered that they receive support from “Syria, Europe, and the USSR.” In Turkey I heard other theories, strange ones indeed: that Iran, or Israel, or maybe even the United States, is behind the PKK offensives.

Such wild conjectures spring from a long history of manipulation and duplicity in the region by the great powers. Over the years various countries have used or helped to instigate Kurdish rebellions in order to further their own political purposes. There is considerable turmoil in Kurdish regions at the present time, not only in Turkey but in neighboring Iraq where the government has taken strong measures against its own rebellious Kurdish minority, which is believed to be supported by Iran. Given this instability, it is not far-fetched to assume that agents of a number of countries are dabbling in Kurdish affairs, trying to influence, or at least to monitor, the course of events.

In Turkey I received several different explanations for the secrecy and inconsistency that characterize the Turkish government’s reporting on the east. Turks who are sympathetic to the present government, as well as some who oppose it, intimated that popular support for the PKK may be far greater than the government is willing to acknowledge and that the government does not want the world to know what a severe threat it is facing in the east. On the other hand, most of the Kurdish activists I met claimed that there is little popular support for the PKK and that the government is exaggerating the strength of the terrorists, using them as an excuse to control the Kurds generally, by relocating whole villages or by appointing “village guards” who are expected to be loyal to the Turkish army.

The truth may lie somewhere in between. Last June a Le Monde correspondent, Michel Farrère, wrote that after interviewing more than a hundred people in the Turkish southeast he found that they were “unanimous” in condemning the “methods used by the separatists.” * Our interviews in the east included many such statements but also suggested that the government’s harsh policies may be backfiring and leading to increasing popular support for the PKK. A much more extensive inquiry will be needed before one can be confident about the attitudes of Kurds toward the PKK and the local defense forces.

According to the Turkish government, at least eight hundred people have been killed in the east since August 1984—including members of the security forces, guerrillas, and more than three hundred civilians. Kurdish civilians seem to be caught between the guerrillas and the army and are being persecuted by both. The guerrillas have been ruthless in their attacks against civilians who refuse to cooperate with them, and their victims include many women and children. The Turkish army, on the other hand, is terrorizing the local population, often accusing them indiscriminately of aiding the terrorists. Much of the southeast seems to be under a continual state of siege. We received more complaints about the day-to-day practices of the army than we did about the sporadic attacks by the guerrillas.

In April, for example, the army rounded up between forty-five and sixty people from six villages in the Gercus region of Mardin Province and held them for three days, beating them and hanging them from their wrists in an effort to get information about the guerrillas. Kenan Nehrozoglu, a member of parliament from Mardin Province, gave us medical reports attesting to the broken arms and legs of the detainees. Mr. Nehrozoglu had gone to Gercus to investigate the incident and had brought some of the victims to a doctor “almost by force, they were so afraid to go.”

We were told that certain villages suspected of helping the terrorists “live in hell, under control all the time.” The villagers are so closely watched that if someone buys two kilograms of sugar, the gendarmes ask: “Why? That’s too much. Where did you get the money? You must be feeding the terrorists.”

We visited Tunceli, a remote city of 19,000 inhabitants in the mountains north of Diyarbakir, hundreds of miles from any border. A permanent brigade of two thousand soldiers and three hundred commandos is stationed there. Helicopters fly low overhead; five are operating in the area. “They’ve been bombing with jets in the mountains for the last three days,” a local lawyer affiliated with the SHP explained. “They bomb where they can’t go.”

Tunceli is known to be a “progressive” province with a long history of government-instigated massacres and repression. Local residents recounted many examples of brutal practices by the army: a woman suspected of harboring her fugitive husband was given a gynecological examination to ascertain whether she had recently had sexual intercourse; an old man who tried to prevent soldiers from searching a room in which his daughter-in-law was giving birth was pulled through the town, his hands tied to a jeep; two children were shot to death in retaliation after some soldiers were killed in an ambush.

The government is planning to disperse whole villages in Tunceli Province to other parts of Turkey, ostensibly as part of a reforestation project. It says that the people are willing to leave voluntarily. But the lawyers and political activists that we met in Tunceli claimed that the local people have no choice. They said that the government is terrorizing the peasants and forcing them to leave in order to end the unrest in the area. They described how, in 1986, an entire village was rounded up, its people forced to lie all day, face down, in the hot sun. Some villages are being cut out of the government’s plans for providing roads, electricity, and schools. Faced with repression, with the dissolution of their villages, with declining economic prospects, and with the absence of ethnic and political rights, the people are, in fact, leaving. The population in Tunceli Province has decreased dramatically in the past ten years, from 200,000 to 162,000, at a time when the population of Turkey has been increasing rapidly.

The Turkish government maintains a state of emergency in the Kurdish provinces and has appointed a new regional governor with special powers to bring the situation under control. It is using a variety of pretexts to disperse the Kurds to other parts of Turkey. It is pursuing a self-destructive policy. By refusing to recognize the ethnic rights of the Kurds or to take rapid and effective measures to improve the economic situation of the local population, the government, we were again and again told, is fanning hatred and revolt and may inadvertently be encouraging the Kurds to identify their own well-being with the aims of the secessionist guerrillas. According to a member of parliament from the region, “support for the PKK is up from zero to 40 percent because the government is treating the Kurds as second-class citizens.” Yet, if in fact such a trend exists, it could be reversed. The same member of parliament went on to say what many other Kurds told us: “The people don’t want a separate Kurdistan. What they want is the freedom to be Kurds.”

This Issue

February 4, 1988