Today’s bomb blast in Ankara, as well as an escalation of violence in the recent weeks in south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, a region dominated by Kurds and infested by the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK), has raised many uneasy questions about the conflict in Kurdistan and the way Turkish government is handling it. The deadly attacks are often triggered when Turkish security forces deployed in the region are attacked by Kurdish guerrillas who have bases spread across the mountains.
Critics of the Ankara’s anti-terrorism campaign aimed at the PKK fighters accuse the Turkish military of using brutal tactics and excessive force, including air strikes and carpet bombing, to eradicate the armed Kurdish autonomy movement. On the other hand, supporters of the anti-PKK operation declare Turkish offensive as an act of self-defence aimed at ending the long-term terrorist campaign of PKK’s separatist movement.
Kurdistan is one of the most complex and bloodiest conflicts in the Middle East, awaiting a solution despite the lapse of more than eight decades. A constant denial of the history, geography, demography and ethnography of one of the most central regions of the Middle East has resulted into warfare, displacement, humanitarian crises and human rights abuses on a massive scale, affecting millions of people in the region, especially the Kurdish nation.
The following photo-feature looks at the latest round of violence in the light of the 33-year-old conflict between Turkish state and the Kurdish rights fighters and finds out the answers to the Kurdish question that has claimed the lives of over 40,000 souls, mostly Kurds.
The name Kurd comes from the ancient Sumerian word kur, meaning mountain. Historians claim the word was first used more than 5,000 years ago. The word kur-ti (kur – mountain; ti – affiliation) had the meaning of mountain tribe or mountain people. The Luwians, a nation that settled in western Anatolia about 3,000 years ago, called Kurdistan ‘Gondwana’ in their native language which meant land of the villages. In Kurdish language, gond is still used as the word for village. During the reign of Assyrians, the Kurds were called Nairi, which means people living by the river.
The Middle Ages saw the reign of the Arab sultanates under which the Kurdish areas were referred to as ‘beled ekrad’. The Seljuks were the first who used the word ‘Kurdistan’, land of the Kurds, in their official communiqués. The Ottoman sultans also referred to the settlement area of the Kurds as ‘Kurdistan’. Until 1920s, Kurdistan was the official name for the region. After the establishment of Turkish Republic in 1923, the existence of the Kurds was denied and Kurdistan no longer existed as a region on the official maps.
Kurdistan is spread across an area of around 450,000 square kilometres, surrounded by Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. It is one of the most mountainous region in the Middle East, and is blessed with rich forests and water resources with vast fertile plains on top of it. Agriculture has been at the heart of Kurdish life for thousands of years. It was in Kurdistan that the Neolithic civilisation began when hunter-gatherers settled down and began farming the fields. Thanks to the unique geographical position of Kurdistan, the Kurds have been able to protect their existence and identity as a distinct ethnic group until today.
The Kurdish language reflects the influence of the Neolithic civilisation, which is believed to have begun in the region of the Zagros and Taurus mountains. It belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. The Kurdish language uses three different writing systems. It is written using a modified version of the Arabic alphabet in both Iran and Iraq. Whereas in Turkey, Syria and Armenia, Kurdish is written using the Latin alphabet.
Historians first mentioned the Kurds as an ethnic group in about 3,000-2,000 BC. They presumed the Hurrians as the predecessors of the Kurds, who lived in tribal confederations and kingdoms together with the Mitannis, Nairis, Urarteans, and Medes. These ethnic groups lived under rudimentary political structures. Women enjoyed a prominent position in the ancient Kurdish society, a tradition still prevalent today.
Kurdish history has been shaped by Zoroastrianism which was practised by the majority of the Kurds between 700 and 550 BC. It was due to Zoroastrianism that men and women enjoyed equal rights in the society and worked next to each other in the fields or in the mountains. The Kurds have a deep love of animals and are fiercely independent – integral components of the Zoroastrian religion.
The decline of the Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire paved the way for Islam (650 AD) which changed the fundamentals of Kurdish society. The strong influence of the Arabs helped the Kurdish society to become one of the strongest social and political formations in the Mesopotamia region. Sultan Salahuddin Ayyubi, an ethnic Kurd, established the Ayyubid dynasty (1175 – 1250 AD) which was one of the most potent dynasties of the Middle East that defeated the European Crusaders and increased influence of the Kurds in the region.
Kurdish influence reached new heights under the Seljuks. Dynasties of Kurdish descent like the Sheddadis, Buyidis, and Marwanides (990 – 1090) developed into feudal petty states and principalities. The Kurdish ruling class enjoyed wide-ranging autonomy under the Ottoman Empire.
However, the decline of the Ottoman Empire encouraged several Kurdish uprisings against the Sultan in Constantinople to push for the establishment of an independent homeland. Kurdistan witnessed numerous rebellions against the Ottomans which were brutally crushed by the ruling Turks.
The unique opportunity to form an independent Kurdish state was aborted by the imperialist British and French empires who carved the pieces of Ottoman empire-controlled Kurdistan and handed them over to the Kemalist Turkish republic, the Persian emperor, the Iraqi monarchy and the Syrian-French regime respectively.
Turkey welcomed the Kurdish minority by imposing strict assimilation laws that interpreted the Kurds as a nation “of the Turkish stock”, and later, “mountain Turks” who forgot who they were. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, ordered the extermination of any culture other than the Turkish and banned the use of Kurdish language in all walks of life.
Things were not so different for Kurds living in the neighbouring countries. The Pahlavi dynasty of Iran suppressed the rights of the Kurds and imposed restrictions on Kurdish identity. A rebellion waged by the Kurdish tribal leaders which sought to liberate the occupied Kurdish Republic of Mahabad was brutally crushed. The Shah, with the help of secret service Savak, imposed a terror regime of fascist proportions that aimed at restoring the glory of Persia at the cost of Kurdish and other ethnic groups.
France and Britain, the imperial powers in Syria and Iraq, usurped Kurdistan with the help of their Arab proxies under the banner of Pan-Arab nationalism. They established a bloody colonial regime that incessantly ignored the existence of Kurdish nation and denied their basic rights of citizenship.
The plot of denying Kurds their basic human rights only thickened when hegemonic powers in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria denied their status as a distinct ethnic group. People of Kurdish origin were systematically punished for displaying their ethnic background, promoting their culture and speaking their own language. Kurdish was banned as a language in Turkey at all forums, including educational institutions, and so was the literature and traditions. Anyone found engaged in ‘subversion’ i.e. promoting or preserving Kurdish language and values faced lengthy prison terms and banishment from public life. The slogan “one language, one nation, one country” became the political order. Under the banner of the “superior Turkish identity”, the entire society was made to pledge allegiance to an aggressive form of nationalism.
The Iranians went a step further and declared Kurds an ethnic subgroup of the great Persian nation. The only way for Kurds to demand rights was to accept that they’re Persians, the majority ethnic group of Iran. On the other hand, the Arabs in Iraq and Syria, denied the existence of a Kurd nation. They insisted that all the issues have been resolved after the advent of Islam. Officially, Islam was the only nation. And this nation was Arab.
After the 1960 military coup in Turkey, a very liberal constitution was adopted that included substantial protections for democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights. Kurds from both sides of the political spectrum took advantage of this new change. Radical groups with Marxist-Leninist affiliations emerged, with Workers’ Party the most prominent that called for an end to the oppression of Kurdish minority.
Meanwhile, the increasing strength of Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani in northern Iraq had a profound impact on the rise of Kurdish nationalism and bolstered right-wing Kurdish outfits in Turkey. From the 1960s onward, the Kurds set themselves on a path of clear ideological division. A Marxist-Leninist wing was active in the Turkish part of Kurdistan while a more nationalistic wing worked in Iraqi part of Kurdistan that identified closely with Barzani’s KDP.
The leftist Kurds wanted the socio-economic restructuring of the Kurdish society into a more equitable society through the dismantling of tribal institutions by the creation of a socialist system. This agenda rang alarm bells in the right-wing camp as they were closely linked to the tribal hierarchy. Apart from the challenge by left-wing Kurds, the right-wing Kurdish nationalists suffered two main setbacks: inter-tribal bloodshed that weakened their strength and appeal; and the 1971 Turkish military intervention that forced their leaders into exile in northern Iraq and their eventual assassination.
The 1970 military coup in Ankara also intensified the process of building a state within the state. A network of policeman, army generals, bureaucrats, judicial officials, laicist intellectuals etc. from leftist, nationalist and conservative backgrounds blended and backed a “wave of crime” in the country. They indiscriminately killed prominent intellectuals, political leaders and ordinary people to create an atmosphere of fear so they can manage the nation with an iron-fist. Their radical pro-military policies split the whole society into different hostile factions with Turks, Kurds, Muslims, Alevites, and other people belonging to different ethnic and religious groups locked into a fierce battle for power and authority for years to come.
In 27 November 1978, a group of 22 people, led by Abdullah Ocalan, formed an independent Kurdish political organisation. They acted on the assumption that Kurdistan, being a classic colony where the population was forcibly refused their right to self-determination, needed a peaceful but powerful voice that can help achieve long usurped basic human rights of the Kurds. The new political development drew strong opposition from the Turkish army which overthrew the civil government and seized power
on 12 September, 1980.
Thousands of young Kurdish volunteers from Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran joined the training centres in Syria and Bekaa valley in Lebanon and transformed PKK into a powerful militant organisation. It launched an attack on the military facilities in Eruh and Semdili on 15 August, 1984 which marked the beginning of an armed resistance. The Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmergas (Pesh – front, merg – death), literally mean the ones who face death. These forces include women in their ranks, fighting alongside men and often taking commanding positions.
Though the PKK emerged as the sole credible Kurdish challenger to the Turkish state, the Kurds of Turkey were left with few choices. Being neutral was not an option. They either had to side with the state by submitting themselves as Turkish citizens at the price of suppressing their ethnic identity or join the PKK and fight against the state. Anyone going against the two options and peacefully advocating Kurdish rights was attacked with impunity by both the state and the PKK.
The PKK failed to establish itself as the sole legitimate Kurdish group due to several reasons. It upset the deeply Islamic elements of the Kurdish society by enforcing its Communist ideology. It violently crushed any other emerging Kurdish movements thus alienating the very population it claimed to represent.
In addition to the above mentioned reasons, PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan’s megalomania also contributed to the party’s unpopularity among the masses. The Kurdish guerrilla leader silenced his critics and developed a true personality cult around himself which estranged other Kurdish leaders.
Jalal Talabani, the leader of the northern Iraq-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and current President of Iraq, once famously said: “Ocalan is possessed by a folie de grandeur . . . he is a madman, like a dog looking for a piece of meat.” The other Iraqi Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, compared him to the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
The mid 1990s saw the worst part of the conflict between the PKK and Turkish security forces, during which both sides committed various atrocities and war crimes. Human rights groups and many officials of today’s Turkish establishment openly talk about the extra-judicial killings committed by the Turkish military during the massive counter-insurgency campaign which claimed the lives of around 40,000 people, most of them Kurds. According to Amine Tuna, a Turkish humanitarian worker, there were many Kurdish families that lost their children serving in the Turkish army or PKK. “Both Turks and Kurds lost their loved ones in this bloody conflict. You simply can not draw a line between the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ here,” she added while speaking to Outernationalist.
PKK insists it offered the Turkish state a peaceful solution through negotiations but Ankara insisted on a military solution. Abdullah Ocalan, the chairman of the PKK, made several offers for ceasefire which were responded by more intense military actions. He was abducted in a suspected Mossad operation in Kenya and brought to Turkey on 15 February, 1999. He is kept under solitary confinement on the Turkish prison island of Imrali ever since.
After the arrest of the PKK founder, the Kurdish rights movement has declared a unilateral ceasefire and asked the Turkish government to start peace talks with the Kurds. The political change in Ankara ushered a new era in 2002 when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power and lifted the state of emergency the same year.
AKP fundamentally changed the official definition of secularism and broadened the official definition of national identity. In 2003, Erdogan government promulgated legal reforms that lifted most of the bans on the Kurdish language and culture. Prime Minister Erdogan has openly acknowledged the “excesses committed by the state” and promised a fair solution. The Turkish statesman, much to the displeasure of the Turkish establishment, emphasises on a more open and pluralist Turkey, in which not everybody was Turkish, but Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, and other ethnic identities living side by side.
As part of the what AKP calls “the Democratic Opening”, a 24-hour state TV in Kurdish was opened after a lot of political bickering. The government also lifted bans on the Kurdish language. The AKP has made inroads in Kurd-dominated southeastern Turkey thanks to its grassroots approach and welfare policies that appeal the Kurdish working class, pro-Islamist families, peasants, land owners and youth.
The growing popularity of AKP and becoming the most Kurdish-friendly mainstream political party in Turkish history has deeply offended the PKK. Suspected PKK militants attacked more than a hundred AKP bureaus in the Kurdish southeast during the election campaign of 2011. However, the violence failed to intimidate AK Party’s supporters. Around 80% voters in Hakkâri district voted for AKP, 73% in Şırnak, 61% in Mardin, 62% in Diyarbakır (the capital of the region), 51% in Batman, 49% in Van and 44% in Muş, thus enabling Erdogan a landslide.
Despite the rise of AKP and welcoming of the Kurds to the national fold, Kurdistan region still faces lots of socio-political challenges. The PKK has already announced its desire to renounce violence and work within the Turkish boundaries, albeit mistrusted by the Turkish establishment. Kurdish intellectuals have long demanded an amendment in the Turkish constitution to insert an article that says: “The constitution of the Turkish republic recognises the existence and the expression of all its cultures in a democratic way.”
Following new steps taken by AKP which allows Kurdish language television and radio programmes with certain restrictions, Kurds have long demanded their broadcasts must be treated by the same rules and regulations as Turkish programs. They also want the same measures extended to cultural activities.
Many Kurds want elementary schools in southeastern Turkey to teach Kurdish language in government-run elementary schools so that Kurdish children can learn the basics of their mother tongue at a younger age. They also want universities in the region to lift ban on imparting education in Kurdish language and establish institutes for Kurdish language, literature, culture and history.
One of the long standing demand of the PKK has been the dismantling of the village-guard system and military-backed defence networks that operate within the state-structures. The pro-Kurdish rights movement also wants the unconditional return of people evicted from their villages during the war. Being the least developed region of Turkey, the Kurds also demand the initiation of a development program that helps the Kurdish population earn a decent living and improve their standard of life.
Turkey’s emergence as a regional power and a champion of freedom and democratic values in the Middle East is incomplete until Ankara musters the strength of its own people by empowering its minorities, including the Kurds, who form around 15-20% of the country’s population. It should not forget that until a few years ago, the Turkish establishment pursued policies which denied the reality and eventually brought the nation to the brink of war and separation.