A book fair was underway while I was in Diyarbakir. At the first stand I visited, wedged between Turkish translations of War and Peace and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I found a selection of books with titles like History of Kurdistan and Turkey’s Kurdish Problem. No such books could possibly have been sold here during the 1990s, when the very word “Kurdistan” was taboo and the term “Kurdish problem” was taken to refer to an illegal form of separatism.
“Before, we were afraid to speak out,” a Kurdish writer named Lutfi Baski told me at the fair. “The government was insisting that there were no Kurds, that there was no Kurdish language or culture. They arrested us and closed our organizations. Now, so much has changed, especially in the last few months. Our problems haven’t been solved, not at all, but at least we can talk about them honestly. It’s a huge difference.”
Later that day, I walked past city hall and saw a large banner advertising a conference that was being held inside. Its subject was “The European Union Accession Process and the Kurdish Problem.” When I walked into the packed hall, a local politician was delivering a passionate harangue.
“For so many years, the Turkish state called us criminals, saying that it was not possible to have dialogue with us and that we had to be crushed,” he told the rapt crowd. “This is the repeated tragedy that created the Kurdish problem. The only reason Kurds were forced to begin armed struggle was the way the Turkish state has treated Kurds at every stage in the history of this country.”
These would have been highly dangerous words a couple of years ago. Even now, police agents monitor and videotape conferences like this one. Their presence, however, did nothing to intimidate the speakers in Diyarbakir. “They watch us just like before, but they can’t do anything to us anymore,” one man told me. “This is a democracy now. We’re becoming European. The state can’t touch us.”
The next morning, I visited the mayor of Diyarbakir, thirty-four-year-old Osman Baydemir, who since his election last year has become a leading spokesman for the rising generation of Kurds in Turkey. He told me that although the emergence of a quasi-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has thrilled most people here, they are not eager to join it. Instead, he said, they want to remain citizens of Turkey—assuming that Turkey changes its attitude toward them.
Nearly all of the Kurds I met told me the same thing. The prospect of remaining part of a large country that is associated with Europe, and has Istanbul among its many attractions, appeals to them more than the abstract satisfaction of living under a Kurdish flag in an isolated, landlocked Mesopotamian “entity.”
“Revolutionary steps are now being taken within the framework of democracy,” Mayor Baydemir said. “But in a country where change comes slowly, we need an outside influence to push us along. The prospect of getting into the EU gives us that external pressure. It’s why more has changed for us in the last few years than in the entire period since the founding of the Turkish Republic. It’s also our main hope for the future. This problem can only be solved peacefully, but who can make Turks and Kurds realize that? Only the EU.”
On October 3, after a frantic series of last-minute maneuvers, leaders of the twenty-five European Union countries agreed to begin formal membership negotiations with Turkey. These talks could last for a decade or more, and the final outcome is far from guaranteed. Some European leaders, including Angela Merkel, the new German chancellor, and the French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, oppose Turkish membership. A host of issues, from terrorism in Europe to the status of Cyprus, could erupt to block Turkey. Yet in the Kurdish region, people are behaving as if they are already under Europe’s protection.
The prospect of EU membership, which has given Kurds this new confidence, is reshaping Turkish political life. Old barriers to free expression have fallen, and everyone realizes that the remaining ones must also fall if Turkey is to join the EU. As more Turks step forward to challenge longstanding taboos, however, guardians of the old order are mounting a counter-offensive. Their most visible weapon is legal harassment. A prosecutor in one district of Istanbul has indicted the novelist Orhan Pamuk for telling a Swiss newspaper earlier this year that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands.” The publisher Ragip Zarakolu is facing criminal charges against three works in his catalog. One is said to insult the memory of Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state. Another describes brutality suffered by Armenians during the last years of Ottoman rule. A third is accused of using “derogatory language” to describe Turkey’s policies in the Kurdish region.
Prosecutions like these embarrass and undermine the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is strongly backing the EU project. They are part of a campaign by nationalist defenders of the old order to block Turkey’s progress toward the EU. This group of nationalists, which Turks call “deep state,” includes many local prosecutors, and also has powerful supporters in the army and bureaucracy. They fear the scrutiny of their operations and the strict limits on military power that EU membership would entail. To upset relations with the EU, they prosecute freethinkers in ways calculated to make Turkey look un-European. Government leaders believe that during the years ahead, they must not only try to bring their country into line with Europe, but also suppress forces within Turkey that seek to block their country’s transformation.
The European Union has been one of the most effective peacemaking institutions of the modern era. It eased transitions from dictatorship to democracy in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. More recently, it helped manage the peaceable breakup of the Soviet empire. Now, although torn by internal problems, the EU is the main factor drawing Turkey toward democracy, and perhaps even toward resolving the seemingly intractable Kurdish problem.
Kerim Yildiz, executive director of the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project, writes in a new book, The Kurds in Turkey, that the EU accession process “opens unprecedented political space to press for human rights and to draw attention to the need for political dialogue between Turkey and the Kurds.” If this process actually leads Turkey into the EU, Yildiz predicts, Kurds will greatly benefit: “Full EU membership will impose checks on the behaviour of the Turkish state, and could ultimately provide the Kurds with some of the tools necessary to protect their political and legal status within Turkey.”
This process will not proceed smoothly. The forces of “deep state,” and the natural fear of change that accompanies any political transition of this magnitude, have led some Turks to oppose their country’s entry into the EU. Still, most of them—63 percent, according to a recent poll—are in favor. They realize that what the EU wants for them is also what they themselves want. That includes ending a festering conflict that has taken tens of thousands of lives, devastated a generation of Kurds, and blackened Turkey’s name in the world.
Since the 1991 Gulf War, and with new momentum after the recent invasion of Iraq, Kurds in northern Iraq have been building a state of their own, something unique in Kurdish history. Officially it is part of Iraq, but it makes its own laws, maintains its own army, and is as close to being a nation as is possible without formal independence. The traditional heartland of the region known as Kurdistan, however, is in Turkey. Slightly more than half of the estimated 26 million Kurds live here, making up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population. Apart from them, there are some five million Kurds in northern Iraq, another five million in Iran, 1.7 million in Syria, and smaller numbers in nearby countries.
The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 after the rebellion led by Mustafa Kemal, the World War I hero who later became known as Ataturk, or “father of the Turks.” He forced European powers to give up their plan to divide the Turkish homeland among themselves, but Turks still resent the attempt. Memory of it feeds a defiant Turkish nationalism that is today far more visceral and authentic than the attachments most Europeans feel for their countries. Some Turks still believe that foreign powers are secretly hoping, or even actively plotting, to divide their nation. They interpret any attempt to assert ethnic or religious identity as a step toward separatism that must be mercilessly crushed, and view Kurdish nationalists as enemies of the state. The Kurds, for their part, remember that in the years after World War I, Turks prevented them from carving their own state out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.
“In 1938, when Atatürk died, it was forbidden to speak of Kurds, and in towns the authorities could fine people who spoke Kurdish in public,” writes Andrew Mango, one of Ataturk’s biographers, in his new book, The Turks Today. “The assimilation of linguistic minorities was official policy.”
Yet Kurdish militants have launched two dozen rebellions against the Turkish Republic since the most famous one, in 1925, led to the hanging of rebel leaders in Diyarbakir. They have never stopped demanding that Kurds be recognized as a distinct people and guaranteed political, cultural, and linguistic rights that are abhorrent to Turks who fear the rise of separatism.
The most recent revolt, and perhaps the broadest-based, was led by a group of hard-core Marxists who called themselves the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. They launched their first attack on Turkish soldiers in 1984, and by the early 1990s had built a formidable guerrilla army. President Turgut Ozal, who was partly Kurdish, made indirect contact with them in search of a truce, but he died in 1993 before succeeding. A few years later Prime Minister Tansu Ciller suggested that Turkey’s Kurds be given rights like those enjoyed by Basques in Spain, but military commanders quickly persuaded her to drop the idea. Instead she went to the opposite extreme, giving the army full power to fight the PKK as it saw fit.
The war in southeastern Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s was a very dirty one. Both sides routinely used tactics that amounted to terrorism. The army, seeking to dry up the PKK’s support network, forcibly evacuated and burnedas many as three thousand villages and hamlets. Thousands of Kurds were arrested and tortured. Government-backed death squads killed hundreds who were suspected of aiding or sympathizing with the PKK.
The PKK waged a savage campaign. Militants made a special point of killing schoolteachers, whom they considered agents of the Turkish state, and also news dealers who sold Turkish papers. They destroyed hundreds of public buildings, including many schools and clinics. Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced OH-ja-lan), turned the PKK into a personality cult and fiercely repressed dissent. He founded the PKK with twenty-two comrades, and during the years that followed he denounced twelve of them as traitors and had seven murdered. The United States and the European Union have placed the PKK on their lists of terrorist organizations.
Turkish security forces finally captured Ocalan in Kenya in 1999. He was tried by a military tribunal and given a death sentence, commuted to life imprisonment after Turkey abolished its death penalty under pressure from the European Union. At his trial, Ocalan repented much of what he had done and urged his followers to lay down their arms. Most did so, and peace began to settle over southeastern Turkey. Last year, some bands of PKK fighters, angry that the Turkish government has not responded to their overtures, called off their 1999 ceasefire and began launching sporadic attacks. These do not amount to a return to war, but they have concentrated attention on the government’s policy of refusing to deal with the PKK or to recognize it as anything more than a terror band.
These days, most PKK militants are based at semi-clandestine camps inside northern Iraq. The Kurdish regime there says it deplores their presence, but is doing nothing to force them out. This outrages the Turks. During the 1990s they regularly sent army units to attack the PKK inside Iraq. Now that Iraq is under American military occupation, they can no longer conduct these operations. Nor are the Americans, tied down as they are in Iraq, willing to attack PKK strongholds themselves. Turks are watching American and Iraqi Kurd tolerance of the PKK in Iraq with rising frustration.
During the war years, it was difficult to discover what ordinary Kurds in southeastern Turkey felt about the PKK. I was reluctant to ask them, since spies were everywhere and an unguarded comment could lead to arrest or worse. On my recent trip, however, I found Kurds willing and even eager to express thoughts they had kept hidden for years.
I set out from Diyarbakir one morning, drove alongside the Tigris River, and made my first stop in the town of Silvan. This had been an especially violent place, where shadowy ultra-right groups, working with government security agents, carried out some two hundred “mystery killings” during the 1980s and 1990s. Now it seemed as free from fear as the rest of the Kurdish region. I asked a man in a teahouse which political group people in Silvan favored, and without hesitating he replied, “One hundred percent PKK.”
Many Kurds I met told me they sympathize with the PKK. A surprising number said they have sons, brothers, or friends who have “gone to the mountain.” Others told of being arrested or abused for sympathizing with the PKK. Perhaps the most important reason the PKK has attracted so much popular support, however, is that it is the only organization Turkish Kurds have. For years the Turkish state banned almost all Kurdish political, social, and cultural groups. That left the field to the PKK.
With the war in a lull now, this policy has put the government in an uncomfortable position. Many Kurds I met professed to know little about the PKK’s militant Marxist background, its years of separatist demands, or its many acts of terror. They consider it a benign movement dedicated only to defending their communal identity. So the group that many Kurds consider legitimate is precisely the one with which the Turkish state categorically refuses to deal.
“The government can’t negotiate with the PKK now,” said Emin Yasar Demirci, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Van in the Kurdish region. “The public reaction, and the reaction in the army, would be too strong. In the future, though, things might change. If negotiations with the EU stay on track, the Kurdish problem will be solved step by step. No one in the government will stand up and say, ‘Let’s negotiate with the PKK,’ but there are indirect ways of doing it.”
One of those “indirect ways” may have emerged in December, when a senior prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to lift six-year prison sentences given to two convicted PKK members because they had surrendered voluntarily and had not been proven guilty of violent acts. Then the Diyarbakir Criminal Court rejected another prosecutor’s appeal for a life sentence against a former guerrilla leader on the grounds that the only evidence against him was his own testimony. In the days that followed, judges ordered eight convicted PKK members freed from prison pending retrials.
Some Turks interpreted these extraordinary steps as the beginning of a seismic policy shift. The newspaper columnist Yusuf Kanli called them “modest but great moves,” and asserted that in effect, they constituted a “discreet and limited amnesty” aimed at “healing the wounds caused by our twenty years of trauma.” Using phrases that were taboo until recently, he described PKK fighters as “sons and daughters of our society,” and called for a “comprehensive amnesty” that would bring them down from the mountains and “rehabilitate them back into society as productive citizens.”
Over the last few years, pressed by the EU, the Turkish state has granted Kurds rights that it long denied them. It has done so, however, with little enthusiasm. The much-awaited legalization of Kurdish-language television broadcasting has led only to a single half-hour program per week. Private schools are now allowed to offer classes in Kurdish, but since most Kurds in the southeast cannot afford private schools, only a few such classes exist. Europeans expect these freedoms to be considerably broadened. If they are, the Europeans may press Turkey to go further by licensing all-Kurdish TV stations or allowing the free use of Kurdish in public schools and universities. Today, many Turks would consider those proposals radical. As Turkey moves closer to EU membership, however, they may come to seem reasonable and perhaps even obligatory.
The poorest of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces is Hakkari, deep in the almost entirely Kurdish southeast. During the war years, it was a battleground. I tried several times to visit there, but was always turned back at military checkpoints. Once I was arrested, accused of spying for the PKK, and made to spend the night in a prison cell. This time, I was only stopped at one checkpoint. A young soldier checked my passport and then sent me on my way with the words “Gule gule“—go with a smile.
Many of Hakkari’s residents consider themselves Kurds first, then Turks. In this they are different from millions of their fellow Kurds who have moved westward and established themselves in big cities like Istanbul and Izmir. Many of those who left are by now well assimilated into Turkish society. More than a few have risen to high positions in business, entertainment, government, and the army. In Hakkari, however, people cling to their Kurdish identity.
The bravest person I met in the provincial capital, also called Hakkari, is a thirty-four-year-old lawyer named Rojbin Tugan. She attended law school in Istanbul, and after graduating was hired by an established firm there. Less than a year later, anguished by reports of the violence that was spreading in the Kurdish region, she returned. For nearly a decade she has been one of the few human rights lawyers in this part of Turkey, doggedly representing clients who claim that soldiers or police have abused them.
One evening, Ms. Tugan invited me for dinner at the apartment she shares with her parents. For most of the evening, we talked about the physical and spiritual devastation that overwhelmed this region during the 1990s. Ms. Tugan has dealt with many horrific cases, and she strongly identifies with the Kurdish cause. Her brother is serving a prison term after being convicted of membership in the PKK. Yet as I was leaving, she surprised me with a burst of optimism.
“I am very hopeful for Turkey’s future,” she said. “These last few years have been like paradise. I can travel on the roads and not have to worry about being back before dark. When the doorbell rings, we answer it without being afraid. When someone in my family goes out shopping and isn’t home in an hour, I’m not terrified. We used to be without hope, but there have been so many changes.”
Besides occasional firefights in remote areas, there are also violent attacks on Kurds that recall the terror of the 1990s. Soon after I passed through Hakkari, a car bomb exploded in an outlying town, the second such attack there in a week. It was staged to look like the work of the PKK, but bystanders chased and caught the fleeing bombers, and they turned out to be men tied to government security forces.
These events set off violent protests in both Hakkari and Diyarbakir, with thousands of people shouting pro-PKK slogans. Their intensity showed how angry many Kurds are at what has happened to them, but it also showed how free they are to express their anger. I found more evidence of this in the town of Sirnak, a provincial capital with a population of about 60,000. When I talked to a group of men in a barber shop, I heard graphic accounts of what people described as a four-day military sweep through the town that began on August 18, 1992, and ended with scores dead and much of the town burned.
“Who are the real terrorists?” one of the barbers indignantly asked me. “Our organization [the PKK] or the security forces that burn and torture and kill? Why do Europe and the United States call our PKK fighters terrorists?”
“What do you call them?” I asked.
“Kurds,” he replied simply.
The men in this barber shop were so outspoken that even my Kurdish traveling companion, who lives in Diyarbakir, was amazed. He told me that as recently as a year ago, a conversation like this in a public place would have been unthinkable. I asked the barber what had changed, and he answered immediately.
“We’re becoming part of Europe,” he said. “If we’re European, we can say whatever we want.”
The anger of the men in the barber shop became most bitter and intense when they talked of the Turkish general, now retired, whom they blame for the 1992 military sweep. The ferocity with which they cursed his name suggests another trauma that may lie ahead for Turkey. People will inevitably want to know the full truth about the Kurdish war, and either an official “truth commission” or a private one will probably attempt to conduct a serious investigation. One way or another, Turks are going to be forced to face ugly truths about how this war was fought.
European leaders have pressed Turkey to repeal laws that limit open discussion of delicate topics like this. In June, responding to their pressure, the Turkish parliament adopted a new and somewhat more tolerant penal code. People who challenge accepted dogma on issues related to the Kurds, however, still face indictment. An Istanbul publisher, Fatih Tas, has recently been charged with distributing a Turkish translation of a 1997 book called Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America’s Arms Trade. A prosecutor seeks to suppress this book because it asserts what nearly everyone in southeastern Turkey knows: that during the 1990s, Turkish soldiers abused Kurds, burned their homes, and forced them to leave their villages.
This case recalls one brought against the journalist Nadire Mater in 1999. The charge against her—she was eventually acquitted—was publishing a poignant compilation of recollections by former soldiers who fought in the Kurdish war. An English translation, called Voices from the Front, has just been published. In it, Turkish army recruits tell of the crimes they saw and committed, from beating civilians to trafficking in heroin. One recalls his emotions upon finding the bodies of several fallen comrades:
The PKK slaughtered all of them…. They not only cut their throats, but they sliced their ears, pierced their eyes out, cut their penises and thrust them into their mouths. But we did worse things. Ask four to five martyrs’ families if they opened the coffins of their sons and looked at their faces…ask if the families have been shown their sons’ faces. They don’t let them see because there is nothing left to see. I beg your pardon for crying. I had no idea it would hurt this much.
In many parts of southeastern Turkey today, roads are being widened and schools are being built. This region, however, needs psychic as well as physical reconstruction.
“We have an exercise at the women’s center where I work,” Nurcan Baysal, a social worker in Diyarbakir, told me at dinner one evening. “We put a group of women together, and ask them to close their eyes for three minutes and think of things that have happened to them because they are women. By the end of three minutes, every woman is crying. Then come the stories: my village was burned, my husband was tortured, my son was killed. This war devastated our society. Even now, there is no work for people here. The girls become prostitutes. The boys are thieves. They’re proud of it. They come to me and say, ‘I’m happy because I was able to steal some money today and bring it to my family.’ Our people are suffering. We have deep and painful wounds that will take a very long time to heal.”
In August, Prime Minister Erdogan, the first modern Turkish leader who does not come from the political establishment, flew to Diyarbakir to deliver a speech that was almost shocking in its candor. He promised to “resolve every issue with more democracy”:
A great and powerful nation must have the confidence to face itself, recognize the mistakes and sins of the past, and march confidently into the future. The Kurdish issue does not belong to a part of our nation, but to us all. It is also my problem…. We accept it as real and are ready to face it…. We are ready to listen to anyone who has something to say, and ready to consult anyone who has a sense of justice…. Turkey will not retreat from the point we have reached. We will not step back from our process of democratization.
Erdogan’s speech provoked loud protests from Turkish nationalists, but many Kurds were impressed. Some hope the next step will be an offer of amnesty to PKK fighters. No one knows how many fighters there are, but most informed guesses place the number at five thousand or more, with about two thirds encamped across the border in northern Iraq. The idea that they might return to enter civilian life without paying for their crimes is abhorrent to many Turks. For any form of amnesty to work, these Turks would have to change their minds. The PKK would also have to change.
“It is objectively impossible to deny the power of the PKK in this region,” one thoughtful Kurd, Dagistan Toprak, a businessman and former deputy mayor of Diyarbakir, told me at a café overlooking the majestic city wall. “If we’re going to have real peace here, though, the PKK needs to adjust itself to the new world situation. The Turkish state is becoming more democratic. The PKK needs to do the same. It should give up the idea of armed struggle, and open respectful dialogue with Kurds who think differently. It also needs to renovate its leadership. This organization was formed with a cold war mentality. It needs to evolve.”
Some PKK leaders say they want to negotiate with the Turkish state. In July the PKK military commander, Murat Karayilan, told an AP reporter that the group has given up “extreme socialist ideas” and now seeks only to assure that Kurds can live “in a democratic way.” In view of other statements, and recent PKK attacks, that claim is dubious, and in any case the army maintains a firm policy of rejecting all overtures from the PKK. A Turkish general recently asserted that “no one in his right mind” would urge the army to halt offensive operations in the southeast.
Many Kurds in this region dream that one day, PKK militants might return to their homes, under protection of an amnesty, and resume civilian life. It is by no means clear that the PKK is ready to accept this prospect. Certainly the Turkish state is not. Neither are most Turks. The EU, having classified the PKK as a terrorist organization, can hardly pressure Turkey to negotiate with it.
Despite all of this, however, Kurds in southeastern Turkey have a boundless, almost childlike hope that the EU will lead them out of their situation. Even Selahattin Demirtas, chairman of the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir, whose office is decorated with portraits of assassinated comrades, fervently believes in the transforming power of the EU.
“If our own government were the only hope for accomplishing all this, I don’t think it would be possible,” he told me. “But there is a powerful external dynamic in this process now, the European Union. That gives us great hope.”
Today, this dream is the central fact of life for many Kurds in southeastern Turkey. Like millions of people across their country, they are convinced that Turkey’s entry into Europe, of which many Europeans are wary, will resolve their deepest political, social, economic, and cultural problems. The mere prospect of joining the EU has already changed Turkey. What actual membership could do—and whether it will ever materialize—remains tantalizingly uncertain.
—December 14, 2005
January 12, 2006