Sponsored by: San Mateo County Peace Action
San Mateo, California
May 1, 2000
I want to start by thanking Jerry Fuchs, Ron Zucker and Hamdi Ugur for inviting me here tonight. I also want to thank the board of directors of the San Mateo County Peace Action for agreeing to hear an address on the Kurds. I am grateful to you for making the effort to be here. It means a lot to our people. I will do my best to acquaint you with our lot and do so in a manner that, I hope, will be instructive as well.
Let me warn you at the beginning that my tale is not very uplifting. I will not be telling you about a free Kurdistan. Nor will I share with you the work of a people blessed with peace and justice. All these privileges that make living on earth a meaningful experience for the other nations of the earth are beyond us. We are a forsaken people. We struggle for basic rights others take for granted.
The word Kurds and Kurdistan have a way of coming to your radar screens in ways that leave the viewer wanting. Often the Kurds are portrayed as hapless. Sometimes they are angry, attacking primarily Turkish establishments. Seldom one hears of them as a people wronged by their immediate neighbors. As to their leaders, although we have several that could qualify as Kurdish Nelson Mandales; our enemies are hard at work describing them as loonies to be avoided at any cost.
Speaking of the shortage of world-renowned Kurdish personalities, I can not help but reminisce about an incident that took place some three years ago. A Kurdish woman, by the name of Leyla Zana, the first one ever elected to the Turkish parliament, had then entered the third year of her prison sentence in Turkey. I wanted to do something about her predicament. A student of non-violence, I conceived the idea of undertaking a hunger strike and convinced three other Kurds and two Americans to do the same to highlight her plight.
Before we began our fast though, I contacted the office of the Physicians for Human Rights to see if their staff would monitor our medical needs. The woman, who answered my call, told me that there is a book on how to do a hunger strike and she could send it to me immediately. She did. On the cover of the book, I saw a face that looked familiar to me. When I read the inside of the cover page about the photo, it said, “Kurdish refugee during hunger strike in protest against extradition.” It was dated 1995. The Kurd had fasted to avoid torture in Turkey and to secure a sanctuary in the Netherlands.
Last year, a Washington based advocacy group, Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Committee (TASSC), put out a brochure with pictures of torture survivors highlighting the pervasiveness of the practice around the world. It called on the President Clinton to honor these victims of authoritarian governments at a White House press conference. The meeting, in case you are wondering, never took place. But, again, I noticed the picture of another Kurd in the booklet, this time of Mehdi Zana. He had spent sixteen years behind bars, eight of these in the notorious Diyarbakir Military Prison, where he would witness the death of 57 of his fellow Kurds through beatings, burnings and hunger strikes that culminated with deaths.
There is more though to these pictures of miseries of the Kurds. If one day those who speak for humanity ever convene a conference on the use of chemical and biological weapons against a civilian population, you better believe it, our pictures will there as well. Again, you will see surviving Kurds proudly bearing their scars or Kurdish women of Halapja on display, not able to bear children, because a madman, Saddam Hussein, gassed them on March 16, 1988, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
So today, as you can probably tell, I will be talking to you about pain and our enduring hope to leave behind our status quo as the misfits of the world. The order is a tall one. My education is not up to the task. The fact that I was born a Kurd helps. But it is not enough. So I will do what I can, and also ask that, you treat my shortcomings with indulgence.
A bit of dark humor may be in order here. People often say if you want to get to know somebody fast, and you don’t want to come across rude, ask them to tell you what they like and then you could pretty much tell, who they are. Tonight, I want to share with you a joke that is making rounds in Turkey with the caveat that it says something about the Turks, the misguided masters of half of the world’s Kurds, some 20 million people, in Turkish Kurdistan.
One day, the agents of CIA, Mossad, and MIT, the latter is an acronym for the Turkish Intelligence Service, gather at a retreat to exchange information as well as reminisce about their exploits. After a couple of workshops, they retire to the open woods to see who can catch a rabbit fastest.
The CIA agents say, “We can do it ten minutes”. So they let a rabbit out of its cage and the animal goes hopping into the woods. The CIA agents go after it. Some 10 minutes later, they come back holding the rabbit in their hands. The Mossad guys say, “Big deal, we will catch the rabbit in five minutes”. And they do.
And now it is Turks’ turn. They say, “We can catch the rabbit faster than anybody”. But after the rabbit bounds into the woods, the Turkish agents are gone for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes and when they finally reappear, after more than an hour, they still haven’t found the rabbit. Instead, they are dragging a huge, beat-up elephant. When the CIA and Mossad guys say, “Where is the rabbit?” the elephant says, “Uh, I’m the rabbit.”
In case something got lost in the translation, the elephants in modern day Turkey are the Kurdish dissidents and the Turkish agents have a good record of having them say anything and everything in the world. Sorry is the lot of the person who does not cooperate. According to File of Torture, a book that was banned in Turkey immediately after its publication, between September 12, 1980 and September 12, 1994, 420 people were tortured to death in Turkish prisons.
In the remaining time that I have, I want to share with you the story of a Kurdish woman who decided, after her brush with the Turkish police, not to play the game of elephant claiming to be a rabbit. Then I want to talk to you very briefly about the precarious situation of the Kurds in Turkey. Finally, I want to say a few words about House Resolution 461 in the United States Congress.
No one had heard of Medine Oncel up until July 17, 1999. She was an unattached 22 years old Kurdish woman living in Amed, the largest Kurdish city in the world. The day before, she had jumped to her death from the seventh floor of her family’s apartment at Baglar. Four civilian police and one masked one had come to fetch her a little bit after midnight. They had broken the front door and were on her floor asking her to accompany them.
She excused herself to dress. She went to her bedroom. She opened the window. She jumped below to her death.
One can not help but ask the question why did Medine Oncel do that? Her mother, Duriye, confided to the Washington Post reporter on August 3, 1999, “Medine, you see, preferred death to being tortured again.” The word “again” holds the key to her decision to jump to her death. According to her mother, she had been arrested by the Turkish police once before and she had never been the same again.
Here a bit of digression is in order. On November 12, 1998, Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, landed in Rome, Italy and asked for political asylum. The Italian Immigration authorities took him into their custody and forwarded his application to the judiciary. In the meantime, Mr. Ocalan was kept in custody. Ankara undertook a feverish campaign to have him be extradited to Turkey. Washington helped from behind the scenes. Kurds all over the world undertook hunger strikes and demonstrations to support Mr. Ocalan’s asylum application.
Medine Oncel was one of those who fasted in Amed together with Hami Cakir and scores of other Kurds. The police took them into custody for sympathizing with the rebel Kurd. For twelve days, they were tortured, violated and deprived of food and sleep. Towards the end of their ordeal, the 18 years old Hami Cakir would die of torture. Medine Oncel would have a new label: in addition to being a “persecuted Kurd”, she was now also a torture survivor. But as other torture survivors can tell you, not all veterans survive the ordeal.
After Medine Oncel’s death, her friends have come forward to say that Medine had confided in them of discovering blood on her legs after being violated by a Turkish policeman. The man who had appointed himself her lover had worn a mask. They say Medine would have nightmares about the faceless man. A mere eight months later, she would find herself face to face with the masked man again, this time at her own door. This time something would snap. This time she would take her own life rather than be embraced by the self-declared hound. She is now a statistic to the brutality of our world.
These stories tragic as they are do not take place in vacuum. Turkey, the place the world calls my home but which I call my people’s prison, has a population of 60 million. About a third of these people are Kurds. The country’s landmass measures twice the size of California. The Kurdish region approximates one third of that space. All Turks are Muslims. Most Kurds are the same. Literacy rate among the Turks is about 90 %. With the Kurds, it is about 50 %. Annual income per capita is about 2852 dollars for the Turks; for the Kurds, it is about 204 dollars.
These discrepancies coupled with official state ideology to eradicate the very existence of the Kurds have caused resentment, hatred and rebellions. The Kurds have fought time and again to assert their identity and to claim their place among the family of nations. But it has been a costly undertaking. Faced with powerful adversaries, not fully understood in the international settings, we have become the Christians of the days of Emperor Nero or the Jews of the days of Hitler. If our adversaries have their way, the best Kurds are the dead ones.
Some Kurds have decided to fight on their feet rather than live on their knees. Of all groups who have stood up to the Turks, the PKK has been the most formidable. Up until now employing the tactics of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, on their own, they have managed to force the government of Turkey to acknowledge the existence of the Kurds. The Kurds may not yet have a country of their own, but they have awakened to the fact that a conspiracy involving even the distant friends of our adversaries is keeping them away from the promised land.
Last February, the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan was kidnapped to Turkey from Nairobi, Kenya. Last June, he claimed, this activist believes under torture or the threat of torture, that he did not want Kurdistan. But Kurdistan is no longer the property of one man or one group. Thirty million Kurds can not be deprived of their birthright to their historical land in an age of nation states. Those who thought they could raise a “rest in peace” sign over the entire nation of the Kurds by kidnapping Ocalan are sorely mistaken. The Kurds and Kurdistan are here to stay, now and forever.
Finally, I want to say a few words about the House Resolution 461. On April 5, 2000, Representatives Filner, Porter, Smith of New Jersey, Wolf, Eshoo, Bonior and Pallone introduced this bipartisan initiative on the House floor. It calls for the immediate and unconditional release of four Kurdish parliamentarians from a Turkish prison in Ankara as well as the lifting of the ban on the Kurdish language and culture in Turkey.
We need your support to pass the House Resolution 461 on the House Floor. This is something you could do from the comfort of your home by putting the moral weight of your indignation behind our struggle for freedom, liberty and justice. The examples of brutalities I cited for you are not history for us, but a reality of the Kurds not only in Turkey but also in the Middle East and lately in the rest of the world. You can help the Kurds by urging your representative to be a co-sponsor of House Resolution 461 which validates their struggle for their own inalienable rights.
We also have a postcard campaign addressed to the Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Benjamin Gilman. We are asking him to hold a hearing on the plight of the duly elected Kurdish parliamentarians in Turkish prison and review this country’s relationship with Turkey. And we are asking you come forward and sign our postcards to Chairman Gilman to do these things because doing so is right, just and advances the cause of human rights.
Again, I thank you for your invitation and look forward to responding to any questions that you might have.