By Kani Xulam
February 26, 1999
For days now, I have been listening to the news and taking part in some of the debate about the stateless, friendless and persecuted Kurds. What I know as a Kurd and what I hear as a Kurd are two different things. What comes across is rather disturbing. The Kurds are a violent bunch. They have a “terrorist” leader. They are capable of burning themselves. You’d better not deal with them.
The Kurds I know describe themselves as an oppressed people. They say their oppressors are strong and have powerful friends to boot. They view Abdullah Ocalan as someone who has battled the Turks with success. They say it took Mr. Ocalan and his fighters to force Turkey to admit to the existence of the Kurds. They know that they are living through an undeclared war, a dark time if you will. In war as in life, they note, there are moments that are difficult to bear.
It is no secret that our Turkish oppressors have powerful friends. The United States has admitted to helping Turkey capture Mr. Abdullah Ocalan. The Turkish government is enjoying a vicarious victory. The Kurds, on the other hand, feel betrayed, humiliated and hurt. The CNN footage of Mr. Ocalan blindfolded and handcuffed keeps reminding them of their own impotency.
Where is this all going? What will become of the Kurds? Abused by their masters, rejected by the world, betrayed by their so called friends, will they take in their pain, brood over their stupendous failures and take a step back from their inherent right of march to the dawn of freedom and liberty? Or will they say that in the latest battle they lost, but that the war will continue till the last of them is around?
Travelers to the lands of the Kurds often describe them as proud, hardy, resilient, and hospitable people. Travelers to the world these days will probably note that the whole world conspired against the Kurds. The Kurdish leader knocked on the doors of many nations in three different continents for a place of refuge. But no one wanted to touch him. Those that did, did so reluctantly, and in the end delivered him to his captors.
Mr. Ocalan now sits alone at his cell, or should one add with his torturers, in an island prison in the sea of Marmara. The man who threw in a monkey wrench to thwart the social engineering plans of the Turkish government will, unless the world intervenes, share the fate of many of his followers who went into the prison in one piece but were returned to their loved ones in body bags.
What is at stake in Turkey? The Turkish government is engaged in an act of social engineering to do away with its Kurdish population of about 15 million people. To succeed, it has banned the Kurdish language. To ensure its success, it has instituted an educational system that inculcates the inherent superiority of the Turkish culture over the Kurdish one. Those of us who were subjected to it grew up conflicted.
Some Kurds still live conflicted lives. They feel at home when things are Kurdish but aliens in Turkey. They see their children growing up not as Kurds but as Turks who involuntarily distance themselves from the songs, the rituals and the heritage that is Kurdish and at least four thousand years old. They see some Kurds shedding their blood to preserve the memory. They see some Kurds go to jail for uttering the words, “I am a Kurd and there are Kurds in Turkey.”
Turkey has never tolerated Kurdish dissent and has crushed it at will. Successive Kurdish rebellions have been put down by force without any qualms. In 1970s, young Kurds such as Ocalan taking their cues from the Vietcong formed groups and unleashed the war of independence in Turkey. What began as an isolated attack on two Turkish army posts on August 15, 1984, has now become an international issue in spite of the indifference of the world.
In the midst of his war with Turkey, the world changed, the Cold War ended, so did Mr. Ocalan. The call for class struggle gave way to the call for national liberation. Over the years, he spoke of reconciliation with the Turks and a federal structure as a panacea for the ills of the Kurds. The call resonated with the Kurds. Young Kurds from as far away as Australia took up arms to undo the source of ill will, the yoke of the Turkish government.
Ankara remained deaf to the calls of cease-fires or to the gestures of reconciliation. Turkey, a third world country, waged a first world war on the lightly armed Kurdish guerrillas. The United States government supplied the planes and the helicopters. The Kurds on the ground were recruited to fight fellow Kurds. The upshot was to subject a society to waves of violence that decimated the Kurdish life as Kurds knew it. Of 18 million livestock, 14 million perished. 3 million Kurds lost their homes. 37.000 people have died.
Of all this, the most disturbing thing is United States government’s involvement in the misfortune of the Kurds. When the news of Abdullah Ocalan’s abduction became known, the United States kept quite, but Turkey gloated. Then Washington spoke and noted that it had provided intelligence information to the Turks. Many Kurds wondered why the United States had not provided intelligence information to Turkey about respect for the most basic human rights, such as the freedom to speak one’s own language. No one has taken up this question so far.
Kani Xulam is the director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) an advocacy group based in Washington, DC.