Kennedy Political Union at American University
December 9th, 1998
As is customary in speeches like this, I want to start with the obvious by thanking the Kennedy Political Union (KPU) for inviting me here tonight. I want to especially thank Ken Baitsholts, Sonya Gavankar, Matthew Swibel and Sapna Chhatpar for their kindness and trust. I am grateful for the chance to tell you of our enduring dream for peace and the basic human rights.
I am honored, touched, and frankly also filled with trepidation to find myself standing behind a podium that was only recently graced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the living symbol of nonviolence, and the winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. I wish you good luck if you think I am going to emulate his feat. Far from it, I ask that you treat my remarks with indulgence and forgive me for my shortcomings.
I am a member of an enslaved nation, the Kurds. We number some 30 to 40 million people, the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. We live in a place called Kurdistan divided by the present day states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Persecuted, our identity is denied. We may call ourselves Turks, Arabs, Persians — but not Kurds. We have no political rights.
You are Americans, the sons and daughters of primarily European warrior nations. I understand that there are also a number of international students, especially at the School of International Relations. Last year, watching the C-Span, I heard the outgoing Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz note that his son goes to school here. Earlier in the year, a friend told me that the Kurdish warlord Mesut Barzaniís son is also enrolled here.
I have always believed in the humanizing aspect of education and I am very happy to see that at least some of the children of the Turks and the Kurds are going to school here. Perhaps these idyllic settings will teach them something about the folly of war. Perhaps this university will play a role to plant the seed of peace for the Kurds in the Middle East. I wish that would happen soon. I hope, you, too, will push for it.
As I was preparing for my remarks for tonight, I asked Sapna, an AU student, who now sits among you but who interned with us for the last two summers, to tell me what I should tell you in my talk. She advised me that I should try to draw you in, offer you analogies that would resonate with you, and urge you to do something good for the Kurds. I took a deep breath and began to write.
First, I thought, I should share with you the story of a ritual in ancient Rome that somewhat holds a mirror to our relationship here tonight. Second, I should speak of the native American tribes, the Pontiacs, the Apaches and the Cherokees and compare them with Hamzans, Berwaris and Ardalans in Kurdistan. Third, I thought, I should offer some real life stories of people who have lived the horrors of what it means to be Kurdish in todayís world. Fourth, I decided, I should talk about Ocalan, the Kurdish leader who landed in Rome, last month to seek political asylum for himself and a political solution to the Kurdish question as a whole. And finally, I want to leave you with my thoughts on the way we should look at each other and the world for the enduring dream called peace with basic human rights among the nations of the world.
The story of Rome, a city state that grew into an empire, is filled with lessons for the practitioners of ìrealpolitikî or ìidealpolitikî both at home or abroad. As you know, Rome grew by expansion. Its warriors commanded as much admiration as its statesmen. A victory over a distant nation was a cause for celebration. The triumphant Roman general would always be given a ìWelcome Homeî parade in the capital of the world with his soldiers and their spoils.
But something else would also happen as the march through the city would begin. The victorious general riding a chariot would be accompanied by a young slave girl dressed in white, who stood slightly behind and whispered into his ears the old Roman maxim, ìFortune is fleetingî. The goal was to inculcate a sense of modesty in the man who had just won the war and won the right to his spoils as well.
So on the face of it, at least, my remarks should be construed as whispers to the free and proud — you in this hall here tonight — coming as they do, from a humbled one whose misfortune it was to be born among a nation of slaves. My own goal is to remind you that we are all accomplices in the wrongs that remain in the world. But let me also assure you that, I assume the task with a heavy heart. I do so, to paraphrase a quote from Cicero, that neither you nor I were born for ourselves alone, but so that together we could make this world a better place for all.
I all ready made a reference to the history of these shores and some of the tribes that once roamed on this land as Pontiacs, Apaches and Cherokees. Early settlers driven by greed and racism fought these once proud peoples and leveled them to the ground. Today their artifacts amuse us in the museums. No longer a threat or an obstacle for expansion, we view them not as we used to, as the enemy, but noble savages.
In this century, the assault on the memory of these natives has taken a new form and our capitalist brothers, the descendants of frontier men perhaps, have began to view their names as marketing tools. Pontiacs no longer signify a people, but are a brand of automobile. Cherokees do the same honor for jeeps. Apachees have assumed a higher title — perhaps they were better fighters? — as their name is now shared by an army attack helicopter.
In the Middle East today, a similar battle is on to crush the Kurds and to use their land as ëlebensraumí for the new frontier men, the ruling elite among the Turks, the Arabs and the Persians. Kurds who surrender are accepted as slaves and those who resist are hunted down as terrorists. The Kurdish tribes, the Hamzans, Berwaris and Ardalans to name just a few, have pretty much been co-opted. The battles are now against the organized Kurdish parties such as the PKK, the PUK, the KDP, and the KDPI.
Turkey, home to 52 % of the Kurds in the world, has built a virtual open air prison over the heads of the Kurds, some 15 to 20 million people, who make up a third of the countryís total population. Article 3 of the Turkish constitution forbids the use of Kurdish language. Article 66 states, ìEvery person bound to the Turkish state through the bound of citizenship is a Turk.î
The Kurdish response to this forced assimilation has been, as can be expected, mostly violent. The PKK has fought the government in Ankara for the last 14 years. Each year, Turkey has spent over 10 billion U.S. dollars to tighten the lid on the aspirations of the Kurds. Some 40.000 people have died. Over 3.000 Kurdish villages have been destroyed. As many as 4 million Kurds have become refugees in Kurdistan, Turkey and abroad.
Iraq, a country you are more familiar with because of its occupation of Kuwait and its war with the U.S., has pursued a policy that amounts to a simple phrase: the best Kurd is a dead one. On March 18, 1988, the Iraqi air force bombed the Kurdish city of Halapja with a cocktail of chemical and biological weapons causing the death of over 5.000 Kurds. In the last twenty years, Saddam has killed over 200.000 of us.
In Iran, sporadic fits of anger on the part of the clerics or occasional Kurdish uprisings against the central authority have culminated in the killings of thousands of Kurds. In the city squares, the dissident Kurds are often machine-gunned as spectacles to deter future rebellions. Tehranís long-term policy has been to target and eliminate the top Kurdish leadership. Dr. Kasemlou, a prominent Kurdish dissident, was gunned down in Vienna and his successor, Dr. Serefkandi, met the same end in Berlin. Both were murdered by Iranís secret service.
In the rest of the Near East, the situation of the Kurds remains as precarious and untenable as it is in Turkey, Iraq and Iran. For many, the Kurds are a cheap source of labor. Good fighters as well, they also make good soldiers who are often used as cannon fodder by their masters. The overriding concern of all governments is to keep a lid on their aspirations, as a Kurdish nation.
To break free of their yoke, to join the comity of sovereign peoples and to take part in the commerce of nations, the Kurds have fought successive governments in Ankara, Baghdad and Teheran. Rivers of blood have been shed. Raging fires have time and again destroyed Kurdish homes. And in spite of it all, the dream endures, the cause is alive and the hope remains for a free and independent Kurdistan now and forever.
War, it is often said, should always be forgotten by those who fight in it and should never be forgotten by those who only know it through history books. Two stories from two Kurds from two different parts of Kurdistan illustrate my point.
Four years ago, a Kurdish woman visited my office here in Washington, DC. She kept coming back and one day told me the story of her father. She said, he was a successful businessman in Turkey and was suspected of helping the Kurdish independence movement. She said, she herself never knew that and didnít think it was true. She said, she always had long talks with him and often would ask: ìDad, when will this war come to an end?î
Her father, the woman told me, was not sanguine at all. One day, they were confronted with the news that a prominent Kurd had been kidnapped and his dead body was found with a bullet in the back of his head. She said, my father knew the murdered Kurd and went on to say: ìThese bastards always have their victims go down on their knees and then shoot them from the back of their heads.î He continued: ìIf I am ever kidnapped, the bullet will have to land on my chest or face, I will not kneel before the dogs.î
A year later, the Kurdish woman told me, she enrolled as a student at an university here in the United States. One day, her phone rang and her mother told her that her father was in the hospital because of a heart attack. She was told to board the first plane as his condition was not well. She did as she was told and boarded the first plane home. At the airport, her ride was late, so she bought the local paper. She saw the picture of her dad with bullet holes all over his face and chest.
The Kurdish woman told me she misses her dad. She said, my father kept his promise to me and died standing up as he had wanted. She said, she was proud of his memory — but this time she asked me: ìWhen will it all end?î Like her father, I could not offer her an answer. Like her, I want this war to come to an end. But I learned something else from that Kurdish woman. I learned that her father had died for me and millions of other Kurds as well.
The other story belongs to a Kurdish man in Iraq. His name is Timor. He was born in 1976. He lived with his mother, fatherand three sisters in a Kurdish village up in the mountains of Kurdistan till 1988. That year saw the end of Iraq-Iran war. Saddam Hussein who had accused of the Kurds of backing Iran, unleashed a campaign of extermination called al-Anfal against them.
Only a diabolical person could conceive of something as evil as Al-Anfal. For one thing, it was the heading for a number of verses out of Koran, the holy book of Islam. The word itself means, the spoils, a reference to the property of infidels. According to the Islamic scholars, Prophet Mohammed was revealed the al-Anfal verses to set the rules for the spoils of war for the victorious faithful. For Saddam, the Kurds were enemies. It did not matter that they were Muslims. By naming his operation, al-Anfal, he was licensing his soldiers to confiscate their goods.
If Saddamís Arab soldiers could confiscate the goods of the Kurds, what do you do with the Kurds themselves? That information was kept secret from the common soldiers. Saddam and his trusted Republican Guards had other plans for them. Timor and his family and their neighbors and thousands of other Kurds were booked for another event, in the deserts of southern Iraq.
According to Timor, sometimes in August 1988, a group of Arab soldiers and some mercenary Kurds came to their village and ordered people as young as twelve and as old as seventy to gather in the village square. Timor and his entire family qualified for the order and reported to the village square. All were loaded into the ambulance shaped oversize trucks and taken into prisons in Kirkuk. There, they were separated into two groups, males and females. Because Timor was small, he was allowed to stay with his mother.
Timor says, they were kept in prison, whose name he would later learn as Topzawa, for about three weeks. One day, he says, from the key hole of the prison door he saw his father and the other men loaded into trucks again. A few days later, the same trucks came and this time they ordered us to board, I, my sisters, my mother, our neighbors and other Kurdish women boarded the trucks as told.
After a dayís long journey, the trucks stopped around evening time, Timor says. They were blind-folded and their hands were tied behind their back. Here, I would like to offer Timorís own words as to what happened next:
ìI was holding to my momís dress. Perhaps because of my age, they only blind-folded me and left my hands untied. They then told us to follow them. Because my hands were free, I managed to lift my fold to see our surroundings. There were tank size ditches in front us. We were being led into them.
ìI then heard what sounded like an order from an officer. Soldiers began to shoot. A bullet grazed my left shoulder. I undid my blindfold. I looked up. I saw the soldier who had shot me. I ran towards him. I grabbed his hands. The other soldiers told him to push me back into the pit. He did. I was shot again. This time, a bullet grazed my lower back. I pretended I was dead. The shooting stopped. When I felt no one was around, I crawled out of the pit and hid myself in an empty one. After a while, everybody left. I stood up, walked out of the pit, and run into the desert as fast as I could.
ìI walked for maybe two hours. I then heard barking dogs. I had ran into a Bedouin village. A man emerged from his tent and shone a flashlight into my eyes. Seeming exhausted and with blood on my clothes, he took me in. He and his family offered me water, covered my wounds and fed me. They also dressed me up with dishdasha, the traditional Arab clothing, and kept me in the tent to hide my true identity from the neighbors.
ìI stayed with this Bedouin family for four days. I was then taken to another family, in Samawa, an Arab town. There, my wounds were nursed by medical staff. The new family had a son in the army who had a Kurdish friend. He was contacted. My surviving relatives were searched. Two years later, a surviving uncle was found. By then, I had become fluent in Arabic. One day, in 1990, with my uncle, I left my Bedouin family and the town of Samawa for Kurdistan.î
Today, Timor is 22 years old. Kurds who know him well tell me that he looks and acts like a lost man. He talks little, smiles even less and has trouble concentrating. In a way, it is a miracle that he is alive. Elie Wiesel, the noted holocaust survivor, who also lost most of his family in the Nazi concentration camps, speaks of imposing on himself a ten years of solitude as a way of healing himself. Perhaps Timor is doing just that. Perhaps he will forget speaking all together. Or perhaps he will learn to speak again and tell you himself the horrors of being a Kurd rather than have me do an imperfect job of it.
Beyond these stories, there is also the new Kurdish crisis that is now unfolding in Rome, Italy. Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurds of Turkey, landed there on November 12, 1998. As he asked for political asylum, the Italian police took him into custody. Eight Kurds in Washington, along with several hundreds more in Canada, Europe, Russia and the Middle East undertook hunger strikes to urge the Italian authorities to grant him political asylum and accord him due respect.
In Turkey itself, the life came to a virtual standstill. The Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz went on the air to declare total victory over what he termed ìterrorismî. He demanded the immediate extradition of Ocalan. Washington, a friend of Ankara, chimed in and urged Italy to do just that. It took the Italian Ambassador in Washington to remind Ankara and Washington that Italy was a country of laws and that the Courts would determine the fate of Ocalan.
When Ocalan was in custody, two Kurds in Moscow set themselves on fire in front of the Russian parliament. One died the next day. Another Kurd did the same in Rome and he was saved by a quick intervention of medical staff. In Turkish jails, where 10.000 thousand Kurdish political prisoners are kept, 40 inmates attempted to burn themselves. Eight died. In written notes that they have left behind, the prisoners expressed their unbending allegiance to Ocalan.
When Italy refused to bow to the demands of the Turkish government, the pro-Kurdish institutions and the Italian goods and buildings became open target for the nationalist Turkish thugs. The police arrested over 3.000 Kurdish activists, including the leader of the pro Kurdish party, HADEP, Murat Bozlak. In Kocaeli, a Turkish city, angry Turks beat to death a retired Kurdish teacher. A Kurdish youth was tortured to the same end in Diyarbakir in police custody.
On November 20, 1998, a Court in Italy ruled Ocalan be set free. He was told to remain in Rome for the duration of the determination of his political asylum. As was expected, Turkey threatened retaliation. The European leaders stepped forward to support Italy in its decision. They also stated the need for an International conference to resolve the conflict between the Kurds and the Turks.
Upon his release, Ocalan issued a press release to the media and announced his decision to renounce violence if Turkey silenced its guns and entered into negotiations with the Kurds. On November 25, 1998, he took another step towards peace and declared his seven point plan for an end to the intractable Turkish-Kurdish conflict. These were as follows:
1. The end of (Turkish) military action against Kurdish villages.
2. A return of displaced Kurdish refugees to their villages.
3. Elimination of what he called the “village guardsî system.
4. Autonomy for the Kurdish region without harming Turkey’s borders.
5. Recognition for Kurds of all democratic freedoms enjoyed by Turks.
6. Recognition of Kurdish identity, language and culture.
7. Freedom and pluralism of religion.
To its credit, the Washington Post, in two of its most recent editorials has urged the Clinton administration to view the crisis in Rome as an opportunity to push for negotiations between the Turks and the Kurds. So far, neither Ankara nor Washington seem to be paying any attention to this call. It looks like the war mongers and their supporters at Pentagon are determined to silence the Kurds for once and all.
Perhaps, one day, our oppressors will succeed in co-opting all of us. Perhaps then just like in this country museums will honor our artifacts, traces of an extinct culture. Over our dead bodies, so to speak, the Turks could name their own cars, jeeps and trucks after our tribes. Our oppressors may disagree with me, but world will be a poorer place with the absence of the Kurdish nation, as it has become poorer with the absence of the Native Americans. You were not around when the assault on the natives took place. But as we sit here tonight, the Kurds are being slaughtered with your governmentís consent — and with its guns and helicopters.
Years ago, when I was student like you, I was blessed by a teacher who spoke like Carl Sagan, using terms like ìmillions of yearsî or ìbillionsî and other such things most the time. One day, he told us that our bodies were made of trillions of cells and it is very conceivable that some of the cells that are now in our body were ones in the bodies of Newton, Galileo or Socrates. We are, he would tell us, all one, and the wars which rage between us or among us are utter follies that serve no good at all.
I believed him then and I believe him now. I hope one day the whole world comes to this realization and all the wars come to an end. In the mean time, to get to that promised land, we must stand up for justice and follow its dictates as members of humanity, a family diverse in its colors, varied in its cultures, but united in its hopes for peace and basic human rights — not just for the powerful, the Americans, the Germans and the British — but also the weak, the Kurds, the Bosnians, the East Timorese, the Ibos in Nigeria and so on.
I would like to end my remarks by a quote from Hegel who I believe must have thought of you, the students, when he penned these words: ìThought achieves more in the world than practice. For when the realm of imagination has been revolutionized, the reality can not resist.î Yours are the days of ideas. Reach out to the noblest ones. Once they are yours, the reality of this world has no place to go, but crumble. Out of it can only rise a world that we could all call home.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.