Adopt Leyla Zana’s Case as Your Own!
By Kani Xulam
August 8, 1997
Dear Friends and fellow Kurds; Xusku birayen delal:
I want to thank Dr. Naj. Karim and the board of directors of the Kurdish National Congress (KNC) for inviting me to this 10th annual KNC gathering. I am grateful for the opportunity. It is refreshing to be among friends and fellow Kurds. It is even more so when you consider the present state of affairs that is the lot of the Kurds. I am, of course, referring to the wars that are raging in Kurdistan.
So, in a way, it is our misery that brings us together here, despite the fact that our longing is for peace and reconciliation, as the theme of this conference suggests. It is the worst of the times but in a way it is also the best of times, to paraphrase Dickens. The pounding of Kurdish villages by the enemy forces and their collaborators goes on as I utter these words; but there is also resistance, the stuff of legends that keeps the hope of liberation alive and the dream of independence enduring.
The story of Leyla Zana, a profile in resistance, is the topic of my address today. She is a Kurdish woman who now languishes in a Turkish jail cell. She serves time to make up for our cowardice. She reminds us that to run away from oppression, as you and I have done, is one thing but to run away from Kurds and Kurdistan is another. To embrace the cold of exile is a personal decision and rather a heavy one, but keeping the cause of Kurds and Kurdistan at bay is simply unforgivable.
The great Greek poet, Homer, notes that when a people are enslaved, its male members lose half of their manhood. Many in this audience will be quick to note that we number some 30 to 35 million Kurds. But a quicker glance at what we do as Kurds for the liberation of Kurdistan will reveal that the burning desire to bring equality to our lot and dignity to our lives is secondary to our more immediate desire to enrich ourselves. This is indeed unfortunate; worse, it is outright dishonorable.
Leyla Zana is a Kurdish woman who wanted to do something for our honor. She deserves our recognition. Because she spoke for you and me, she lost her liberty. An effort is underway to free her from captivity. I invite you to adopt her case as your own. Her freedom will represent a milestone in our people’s drive for liberty. Step by step, day by day, we too could leave the darkness, that is to say, the slavery, behind and take our rightful place among the family of nations.
In northern Kurdistan, in Amed, in 1961, Leyla Zana was born. She grew up in a village and was oblivious to the political and historical tremors that were shaping Kurdistan. For three years, she went to the local school and learned how to read and write. At the age of 15, in 1976, she was married to Mehdi Zana, a Kurdish activist, through an arranged marriage.
At first Leyla resisted the choice. Years later reflecting on her marriage, she noted: “I don’t blame my family or my husband, rather I blame the social conditions. These must be changed.”
Her husband, Mehdi Zana, had been an advocate of change. As Mayor of the largest Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, he had on too many occasions raised the ire of the Turkish public officials. On September 12, 1980, the military took over in Turkey. Mehdi Zana was arrested and imprisoned immediately. The years that followed were some of the most painful in Kurdish history. The flower of the Kurdish nation, the most courageous youth of our people, were subjected to torture and indignity especially in the Diyarbakir military prison.
On March 21, 1982, Mazlum Dogan, an advocate of Kurdish rights, burnt himself to death to protest the inhumanity of the Turkish prison system. Ferhat Kurtay, Necmi Oner, Esref Anyik, and Mahmut Zengin followed suit on May 17, 1982. On July 14, 1982, Hayri Durmus, Kemal Pir, Akif Yilmaz and Ali Cicek began a hunger strike that culminated in their deaths. In a span of two years, 57 other Kurds would die of torture. Many others would be crippled for life.
It was the misfortune of Mehdi Zana to witness this indignity and later record it in his book entitled, Prison No. 5. I am happy to announce that Blue Crane Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has translated this book into English and will make it available at bookstores across the country in late September. I ask you to order your own copy and read it carefully to acquaint yourself with one of the darkest chapters in our history.
As Mehdi was chronicling some of the horror that befell victims of Turkish fascism, Leyla was raising their two kids and visiting him in prisons across Turkey. In those lonely and long trips, she would learn the Turkish language, read about the struggle of the Kurds and witness the brutality of the Turkish government. Several times, she herself would be thrown into jail and subjected to torture. These experiences would play seminal role in her politics.
In late 1980, she became a reporter for the Kurdish daily, Yeni Ulke. She visited the Kurdish villages that were set on fire and interviewed the people whose life-long belongings were entrusted to the flames. Tales of police and army brutality were the stables of her writings. As her knowledge of state-sanctioned wanton violence grew, so did her courage. She vowed to fight oppression in every way she could.
In early 1990, the Kurdish resistance had grown by leaps and bounds. The Turkish government was forced to acknowledge the existence of the Kurdish people and its language. Without constitutional guarantees, the Kurds were given the green light to form their own party. That year saw the birth of the first pro-Kurdish party, People’s Labor Party, HEP, in the history of the Turkish republic.
In the summer of 1991, the HEP party delegates chose Leyla Zana as their candidate for the city of Diyarbakir. On October 20, she received 84% of the vote in her district and became the first Kurdish woman ever elected to the Turkish parliament. She had run on a campaign of change. The first change she ever undertook was to take the oath of office in Kurdish. The powers that be were incensed. She was called a terrorist for speaking Kurdish in public, that is to say, in the Turkish parliament broadcast live to the country.
Two years later, in May 1993, she was invited to the United States to testify before the Helsinki Commission of the U. S. Congress. She spoke of the destruction of the Kurdish villages, the death of Kurdish activists and the inability of the Turkish and Kurdish political leaders to address the Kurdish question with frankness in candor. She urged the law makers in this country to side with the democratic forces in Turkey to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Her counsel fell on deaf ears. The law makers did nothing. The war mongers prevailed. Leyla Zana became the scapegoat. In March 1994, the members of the Turkish parliament lifted her constitutional immunity. The military-influenced State Security Court then prosecuted her on charges of treason. She was given 15 years in prison.
Our book, Free Leyla Zana!, available outside of this hall at the AKIN table, chronicles her ordeal. In it, you will also notice our effort to free her from prison. To date, 113 members of the United States Congress have agreed to sign a letter urging the President of the United States to raise Leyla’s case at the highest level with the Turkish authorities. They are asking for her immediate and unconditional release from prison. I urge you to examine the list of the members of the Congress who have signed our letter. If your members of Congress are not on this list, please contact them and recommend they sign this letter.
As some of you may know, we held a reception last May in which Jose Ramos-Horta, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke on behalf of Leyla Zana. Professor Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and revered novelist and activist, has agreed to honor us with his presence in the fall for a second reception in honor of Leyla Zana. We are very excited about this prospect and hope to see you at this event.
As I address you from this podium, Leyla is confined to a prison cell she shares with a convicted murderer. In a letter to Lord Avebury last winter, she had complained of not being allowed to see the sun for the entire summer and fall. She cannot call her husband or their children, ages 16 and 21. And now, she can no longer even see her husband; last month, he was sentenced to 10 months in prison in Turkey. Should he return to Turkey from his exile in France, he too would be imprisoned. To Kurds all over the world, this ought to be a cause for alarm.
On our part as Kurds of northwest Kurdistan, we want Leyla Zana free, immediately and unconditionally. Her freedom, we believe, will be a watershed in the liberation of our people. This audience is no stranger to the numbers that pour out of Kurdistan. To date, in northwest Kurdistan alone, four million Kurds, the most vulnerable among us, the villagers, have lost their livelihoods. It behooves those of us who are free to do more for the Kurdish villagers and for Leyla Zana.
To that end, we are planning a fast, a hunger strike if you will, for the fall in Washington, DC. So far, we have half a dozen Kurds who have expressed a desire to take part in this event. Our goals are simple. We wish to express our solidarity with the Kurdish villagers who are condemned to a life of misery and hunger by forgoing our own comfort. We also wish to atone for the sins of this war and register our desire to see the debate on the Kurdish question change from violence to non-violence, from confrontation to dialogue, and from war to peace. Finally, as part of our sacrifice, we would appreciate a public statement from the Clinton Administration on the plight of Leyla Zana.
To you, I appeal from this podium to adopt our goals as yours, to take part in the hunger strike if you can, but most importantly to support us here or wherever you may be. Kurdistan is on fire and your help is needed to put out its raging flames. Now is the time to act, to help and be part of the liberation struggle for your own good.
In short, you are the generation that can deliver freedom to Kurdistan. You are the hope that can blossom for the good of yourself and the Kurds. You are free to do all this and more for the countless generations of other Kurds who have yet to be born. Let future historians say that you did your share, you rose to your responsibility, and you earned your place among the free nations of the world.