“The Kurds on Our Watch”
Solidarity with the Kurds Night at Concordia University
Saturday April 10, 1999
I want to start by thanking the organizers of this event for their generosity and kindness towards the Kurdish people. I want to recognize them by name, Homa, Antonio, Bijan, Aram, Mehrak, Guillermo, Ernesto, Carmen and Anita. I also want to thank you for responding to their call. It means a lot to us. At this darkest hour in our history, you embody hope and shine like a bright sun. On behalf of all Kurds, thank you for your solidarity and thank you for being here tonight.
You come to us at a poignant time in our lives. Our immediate adversaries together with their distant friends are doing everything possible to make living as a Kurd a crime on our lands and a liability abroad. Less than two months ago, you witnessed the abduction of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan from Kenya to Turkey. In Kurdish lands, the death of the Kurds and the destruction of their property goes on unabated. The Kurdish people and their leaders alike, continue to suffer for simply being Kurds.
A cursory glance at the lot of the Kurds bears witness to a dangerous development that is taking place in the international arena. A few powerful nations have self-appointed themselves as custodians of the world. They have taken upon themselves to tell us who deserves a place in the sun and who a corner in hell. If the Serbs ban the language of the Albanians, NATO will attack them. If the Turks ban the language of the Kurds, it is all right.
The cynic might note that humanity has had too many of these double standards and that the present is only a preface to the past. True, the Armenian genocide, the Jewish holocaust, and the mass slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda — in a century we call ours – could turn the most idealist into a skeptic and a lover of humanity into an introvert. This crowd is no stranger to the brutality of men against men. The figures are numbing. The pain is real. The odds may sometimes be daunting.
In Turkish Kurdistan, since the beginning of the most recent conflict, some 37 thousand people have lost their lives. Over three thousand Kurdish villages have been leveled to the ground. There are now close to four million Kurds who have been displaced from their homes. The forests in Kurdistan have been set on fire to deny a sanctuary to the Kurdish fighters. Of 18 million live stock that inhabited Turkish Kurdistan, there now only exists four million.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, the name Halabja brings to mind the odds we face in our struggle for basic human rights. The Kurdish city was bombarded from the air by a concoction of chemical and biological weapons that left five thousand of its residents dead in a matter of seconds. The nations of the world had used these weapons before but never on a civilian population. The Kurds with no government of their own could be gassed with impunity. Saddam Hussein committed this crime and no one has called him to the dock.
I could go on with these tales of brutality in the other parts of Kurdistan. I could cite for you, for example, the revolutionary pasdaran of Iran machine gunning the Kurdish dissidents in city squares or torturing them to death in Iranian prisons. But I thought it would serve this audience better to relate to you the story of a mother and her two year old son to give you a glimpse of what is happening to ordinary Kurds in and from Kurdistan.
On February 26, 1999, the United States government released its annual human rights report for 1998. The section on Turkey reads like the script of a horror movie. It says, “Extra-judicial killings, including deaths in detention from the excessive use of force, ‘mystery killings’, and disappearances continued. Torture remained widespread.”
It adds, “In April [a year ago this month] the Istanbul Chamber of Doctors certified that 2 year old Azat Tokmak showed physical and psychological signs of torture after detention at an Istanbul branch of the anti-terror police. Azat’s mother Fatma Tokmak was detained in December 1996 on suspicion of PKK membership. The child was burned with cigarettes and kicked in an effort to make the mother confess.”
What is it that enables a man to torture a toddler in front of his mother? Is torture a part of the human condition? Can we really aspire to the name of humans? Individually, we are told, we have made advances unimaginable in any other time. Collectively, our century has had to deal with more blood than any other in history. Are we supposed to be the weeping philosopher or the one whose understanding is captured in the song, “Que sera, sera.”
Yasar Kemal is Turkey’s most famous author. A Kurd by birth, he writes in Turkish, a language he was forced to learn, as we Kurds all do, in Turkey involuntarily. Like any good writer who witnesses an unjust war, he has protested Turkey’s war on the Kurds and has been put behind bars for his views. For him, there are two reasons for this war. One is greed and the other is racism.
This greed and racism has manifested itself in ways that has put our existence on line. Our language is banned. Our land has been confiscated. Our offspring is ours only in name, his or her mind is filled with a convoluted sense of Turkish, Arab or Persian sense of nationalism. When we have resisted, war has been our lot. If we have fought the friends of the West, we have been called terrorists. Fighting Saddam Hussein has earned us the title of “good Kurds”.
Of course, we reject these titles. We fight to assert our identity, to prevail over oblivion and to secure a place for our offspring free of oppression and free of exploitation. We march to the tune of liberation. We do so with our own means. We view the goal as sacred, the raison d’Etre of our existence. Our adversaries may try to deter us, but with help from friends like yourselves, nothing will turn us back from our journey to the dawn of freedom.
Here I am reminded of a popular Turkish poet, Nazim Hikmet. Sensing the need for a world free of domination of one race over the other, one class over the next one, he wrote, “We should aspire to live as free and independent as a single tree and yet, live in communion like the trees in a forest.” The governments of our oppressors may refuse to accommodate us, but the poet’s longing addresses not only the Kurdish desire for acceptance but also the longing for peace that exists among the Turks, the Persians and the Arabs together with the Kurds.
The day we will have to learn to live side by side, the way the poet imagined, in peace and in equality can not be too far. Nights such as these serve notice to the self appointed masters of the world that you possess an indomitable spirit to resist tyranny, oppression and exploitation for the good of not just Kurds but of all who are denied a voice in this world. I am honored to be in your company tonight at least in spirit. You give meaning to life with your solidarity with the Kurds.
Finally, I would like to call on Azar Jazestani to come to the podium to read you a poem that she wrote for Necla Coskun, a Kurdish girl, who set herself on fire to protest the unholy international conspiracy that landed Abdullah Ocalan in his solitary cell at Imrali island, in Turkey. The poem speaks for itself. In Azar’s voice, speaking for myself, I see the power of the human spirit speak most eloquently for our battered humanity. Necla humbled me with her act and so did Azar with her words. It is now my pleasure to call on Azar Jazestani. Thank you.
My dear friend, I want to let you know that you are not alone.
Can’t You Hear Me?
It’s as though I’m in a prison so lonely,
Screaming, crying, but no one can hear me.
Destined to preach my sorrow,
All alone in a world so hollow.
Fifteen years down this road of pain,
If only my problems would wash off with the rain.
Help is what I’m looking for,
Someone who’ll open a door,
A door to freedom and love so sweet,
Someone who’ll take me off these awful streets.
I need to let you know I’m here,
So I set my body and soul on fire.
You must hear me out,
Can’t you see I do this with no desire?
The fire burns me slowly, but yet I can’t feel a thing.
Trying to get your attention, I don’t even feel a sting.
The crowd huddles around me,
Trying to take me away,
But I want to be heard so I struggle to stay.
The ugly world as I have known it hasn’t yet come to an end.
I can sadly say I’m still without a single friend.
My battle doesn’t finish here, you see,
Because I’m still here, can’t you hear me?
Azar Jazestani, Montreal, Canada