A Story Out Of Kurdistan
World Affairs Council (WAC) of Asheville, North Carolina
October 5, 2009
Something strange happened on August 10, 2009. Your secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton lost her bearings. A student in Kinshasa, Congo managed to get under her skin. News commentators all over the world picked up on her lapse and had a field day second-guessing her performance. The tactless Congolese had dared to ask her what Mr. Clinton, her husband, thought of the growing Chinese influence in Congo. “My husband is not the secretary of the state. I am,” she snapped to the consternation of her friends and joy of her detractors. But her body language said even more. “It was like a smoking volcano,” a friend quipped to me the next day. Watching it on YouTube, I concurred. Suffice it to note, it was not Hillary’s finest moment. Nor was it her first faux pas as secretary of state.
The one that rattled this Kurdish activist took place on March 7, 2009. America’s top diplomat was in Ankara, Turkey. She held a press conference with her counterpart, Ali Babacan. As host of the gathering, the Turkish minister went first. Mistaking his rancor for virtue, his hatred for love, his authoritarianism for democracy, the bubbly and portly Turk managed to portray his country on a par with the United States with no sign of a blush on his part or repressed chuckles from the reporters who were covering the event. I was, to be honest with you, amazed. I like it when politicians incorporate theatre into their art. Clinton was far more sedate — initially at least. She spoke glowingly of the Turks, declared them stalwart allies, reminded them of their love of Bill Clinton, who, when he was president, had delivered the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan to their island prison, Imrali, and noted, referring to her host, “We discussed our cooperation to defeat our common enemy, the PKK.” I was, needless to say, taken aback. An American woman, offering bigoted Turks, a clenched fist, to perpetuate their blasphemous domination over the Kurds, did not exactly accord with my views of her job.
Why this pandering to a state that has racism enshrined in its constitution was the first question that crossed my mind. Another was why didn’t she use the glory of her sex, kindness, to pour water, as opposed to fuel, over the intractable Turkish Kurdish war the way she uses her good offices to reconcile the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The third was how many Americans actually know of the PKK that Clinton calls the enemy of the United States. I am a Kurd and consider myself well versed on the topic and could give your secretary of state a lecture on the subject. The Kurdish organization has never harmed an American to date. It has, however, been very critical of Washington’s unwavering support of Ankara. So is this how it made it to the list of the enemies of the United States? Paris criticizes Washington. Is Clinton going to add France to that list as well? And do you know what else happened in Ankara on that day? The Turkish minister took your secretary of state for a dupe and said nothing about Turkey’s support of the United States against al-Qaeda, an organization that actually kills Americans. I felt good for a split second, not because I wish ill for my adopted country, but because when an American diplomat pays deference to a representative of a racist state, under the Obama administration no less, I call it poetic justice when the latter takes the Yankee for a fool.
Something is terribly amiss when a country that was established by those who were allergic to tyranny is now throwing its weight and prestige on the side of those who are practicing it on the Kurds. This envy of yours to snuggle up to the despots is ill-fated and will bring you neither the peace that you crave nor the security that you seek. This Kurd, though not asked, is not averse to your interests as a state. But what he is against is your decision to divorce your interests from your values. You did so, most famously, when you recruited Osama bin Laden to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Today, you are paying for that devilish flirtation with the blood of your daughters and sons. Let me be as plain as the English language allows me to be: your secretary of state fools no one when she misconstrues the enduring Kurdish struggle for freedom as “terrorism” in Turkey or “sectarianism” in Iraq. Your own revolutionary war was bloody and ours, unfortunately, has taken the same path. You lucked out, found a ready ally in France, and took a gigantic step forward to curb the power of despotism. We have not been as lucky — the friendless Kurdish nation remains in shackles — but that should not entitle your secretary of state to declare our cause as suspect. Do you know how it feels, for the Kurds that is, to hear your top diplomat say that America has accepted the enemies of Turkey as its own? It is like President Roosevelt calling Chancellor Hitler and saying, “Don’t lose hope, stiffen your back, help is on the way to beat those pesky French who are fighting in the Resistance against your authority.” Isn’t this like two grownup men ganging up on a child? Do you call this greatness? Do you want to add, child molester, after moon landing, on your list of accomplishments as a country? Perhaps your first secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, was up to something when he noted, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.”
Notwithstanding your support of the Turks, we will never stop our honorable march onward to the drumbeat of liberty. Heavy is our load and difficult is our task. An indifferent world, it is true, has made matters even worse. Daily we are battered and daily we fight back. As things stand, the domination of Turks over 20 million Kurds or of Arabs over seven million Kurds or of Persians over eight million Kurds is legal, habitual, thorough and merciless. Save the Kurds, and a few lovers of humanity dispersed on the continents of Europe and Africa, no one is calling Turkey a racist state. Iran and Syria though raise eyebrows, but not for molesting their Kurdish populations. Iraq, at the moment, has reached a truce of sorts with its Kurds. But that is not because it has accepted the equality of races; it still treats Kurds as an expendable item. It is itching to get an air force to proclaim Iraq as an Arab state.
The conflict between the Kurds and their neighbors may be viewed as something unique to the Middle East or Islamic or a characteristic of Oriental nations. But that only explains part of the Kurdish Question; the greater part has to do with humanity’s age-old struggle for freedom going back to the beginning of the times. We are fighting to introduce liberty and reason to a land suffering from the twin cancers of humanity: despotism and prejudice. The folks who laid the foundations of your country, Thomas Paine, Nathan Hale, Abigail Adams and Alexander Hamilton, to name just a few, would have had no problem relating to our fight. Since I am on the topic of the historical figures, should I make you privy to the role-models of our oppressors as well? Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, has been selling like hot cakes in Turkey. The graffiti in Mosul, a border city between Iraqi-Kurdistan and Arab Iraq, proudly proclaims, “To kill a Kurd is to kill a Jew.” The dark clouds that once gathered over the skies of Europe are rushing to converge over the land known as the Middle East. They possess no silver linings, but storms that will plunge the region into a new set of wars.
I have so far engaged in some broad generalities and would like, for the rest of my allotted time, to acquaint you with some specific stories as well. The first comes from your own past. The second belongs to a daughter of Kurdistan. Let me warn you at the outset that both stories have tragic endings. Let me also hasten to add that I am going to be talking about teens being murdered. What unites them is that both were members of oppressed peoples. Although these youngsters didn’t know each other on this earth, partly because they belonged to different generations, partly because they were members of the so called “wrong” races, I have no doubt that, up in heaven, they are interacting with one another, as well as with the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Mazlum Dogan and Leyla Kasim. But coming back to our tortured world, when they were still alive and in our midst, they led lives that brought them face to face with the evil that lurks in the human heart. Why is it that their lives on this earth were so brief and ours are taking their full course? Can it be that you and I are supposed to apply their experiences to our individual as well as collective lives? If so, is it right for your country to pay deference to Turkish bigotry on our watch? Perhaps you will enlighten me about this question at the end of my talk.
The story from your recent past belongs to Emmett Louis Till. Last summer marked the 54th anniversary of his untimely death in Money, Mississippi. He had just turned fourteen. His was the misfortune of coming to this world with a dark skin. I can’t help it, but ask: did he have a say in it? His father, incidentally, was a soldier in Eisenhower’s army. Here is another question: if his pop was good enough to fight for America’s wars abroad, why wasn’t his son safe enough to walk on its streets at home? The place you call home, these days, has become a kinder place compared to 1955, even offering a refuge to a hapless Kurd like myself. But when Emmett Louis Till was a boy, one whistle, one wrong word, from his kind, toward a white woman, or man, had the potential to seal the fate of any black person anywhere in the South. His killers, two white men, instead of going to jail, were, actually, awarded 4,000 dollars for their deed, or story of you will, in the Look, an American magazine. Here is one more question for you to ponder: what is the difference between public opinion and common sense? Let me give you a starker example to make my point. The public opinion in Nazi Germany was for extreme measures against the Jews. The common sense was not. Closer to these shores, the public opinion in the South did not care for the lives of the blacks. Decent Americans did. Evil, we have to admit, was having a great time in America then. Goodness, we have to concur, was no match to its rival at the time.
Your history, as you can tell from my accent, is not my specialty. I only took this detour through Money, Mississippi to better prepare you for my Kurdish tale in Sirnak, Turkish Kurdistan. It too is cruel, poignant and heartbreaking. It belongs to a high school student, Biseng Anik. She was murdered at the tender age of sixteen. Like Emmett, she had no say in her sex, in her parents or in her nationality. In her case, what marked her, as a suspect, was her Kurdish identity. Imagine telling a people you are no good; your time has expired. If you are having trouble following my description of our foes, please remember that bigotry is not known for its logic. If I were to apply it to the United States it would be like, let’s say the Japanese invaded your country and ordered you to call yourselves Japanese and banned the English language on pain of death. Even as a defeated party, you would call such a treatment bizarre, wouldn’t you? That wasn’t what you did in Japan, did you? Some Kurds have accepted the dictates of our oppressors; they call themselves Arabs, Turks or Persians. Many would rather be true to themselves than lie to their children. A substantial number have taken up arms fighting our oppressors in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Thousands have died. Millions have been uprooted. The PKK, the organization that your secretary of state has declared the enemy of the United States, has been leading the 29th Kurdish rebellion against the Turkish state. On August 15, it celebrated its 25th anniversary of armed struggle. Although it has not freed Kurdistan from bondage, it has forever shattered the myth of Turkish superiority over the Kurds. And that has been, whether you approve of armed struggle or not, a good thing.
But that good thing has come at an enormous cost. Biseng Anik, like Emmett Louis Till before her, had to die, as a sacrificial lamb if you will, for the sunlight to crack the darkness that prevails over the skies of Kurdistan. No one knows the exact time of her death, but we do know that she was arrested in her house, just like this summer’s most famous professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., but in her case, in front of her parents, by plainclothes Turkish officers, on March 25, 1992. She was accused of taking part in a banned Kurdish New Year celebration, four days earlier, on March 21. The Kurds had defied the ban and the Turkish police and soldiers had fired on them. 32 Kurds were killed, but not Biseng. Her parents, grateful that their daughter had come home in one piece, had begged her to lay low. But someone in the Turkish government had put her on his radar screen. Three members of the dreaded “Special Teams,” a shadowy paramilitary group operating above the law, were sent to fetch her at her home. Amnesty International was notified and the world body issued an urgent action to save her. It wasn’t, unfortunately, urgent enough. Two days later, a health official would call her mom with the news that Biseng’s body was in the hospital. It was a lifeless one. Part of its head was missing too. Because of Amnesty International’s urgent action, the governor of Sirnak, Mustafa Malay, issued a statement that noted, “Biseng Anik was detained on March 25[, 1992]. When the custody room was crowded, … [She] was taken to another room used by security forces. In that room, she committed suicide with a gun she found under her bed. The autopsy showed that [suicide was the cause of her death].”
Although a terse statement, its postmortem doesn’t need to follow the same rule. Let’s look at it one sentence at a time. “[A sixteen-year-old girl] was taken to [a] room used by members of the Turkish security forces.” What does that mean? I wonder if the words gang-rape go through your mind, as they do mine. Her parents were too afraid to question the authorities or pay the doctors to ease their concerns. And then the statement, “she committed suicide with a gun she found under her bed.” Have you ever heard of a government that locks a prisoner and a loaded gun in the same room and calls itself a democracy? Biseng Anik, according to her parents and friends, was not a suicidal type. Everything they knew about her didn’t match her tragic end. The governor of Sirnak could not be bothered with these details. A Kurd had been killed. It could have been a vicious dog with rabies as far as he was concerned. The Kurdish teen was quietly buried. Governor Malay must have thought the case was closed. But five years later, things began to unravel. A killer actually stepped forward and admitted his guilt. He implicated not just the governor, but also the entire Turkish army with the crime of murdering unarmed civilians now numbering as many as 17 thousand Kurds.
The year before the sensational confession, in 1996 that is, an accident had taken place in Susurluk, Turkey. A truck had hit a luxury car. Three passengers in the sedan were killed on the spot. The fourth, though injured, was saved because of his seatbelt. He was a member of the Turkish parliament. He was also a Kurdish warlord in the service of the Turkish government. But what took away the breath of the Kurdish, Turkish and international media was the news about the identities of his fellow travelers. One was, Huseyin Kocadag, the former chief of police of Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. He had at one time served in Turkish-Kurdistan and had played a key role in the establishment of the shadowy paramilitary group known as “Special Teams”. The other was Abdullah Catli, a man wanted for strangling seven students on March 9, 1978. In his pocket, the authorities found a fake identification card and a police badge issued to Mehmet Ozbay. The last person, Gonca Us, was a one-time beauty queen in Turkey who had become a hit woman in her own right and was, at the time of the accident, the girlfriend of Mr. Catli. If America can have its Bonnie and Clyde, Turkey, the reporters found out, had its Gonca and Abdullah. The Texan outlaws were killing bankers and police officers in a depressed economy. The Turkish criminals were masquerading as police officers and killing Kurds for thugs who were running the Turkish government. The discoveries placed Ankara in the heart of organized crime. An unprecedented debate began to take place across the country. Not just Biseng Anik’s killer, but others, as well, began to spill the beans so to speak.
It turns out Biseng Anik didn’t actually kill herself; she was murdered by a Kurdish turncoat in the pay of the Turkish government. You see, our killers are pretty delicate fellows — on record, they even claim admiration for the likes of Nelson Mandela no less — and unlike the bigots of Money, Mississippi, they can’t be bothered with the nightmares of discharging a bullet into the face of a young Kurdish girl pulverizing a part of her brain. But what they can do with impunity, and they are really good at it, is to outsource the job, killing two birds with one stone so to speak. For that feat, they hired an imprisoned Kurd, Murat Ipek. He had, in 1987, joined the PKK to battle the Turks. Five years later, he was captured. In the Turkish prison, he was broken. In exchange for his so-called “light sentence,” he was recruited into the notorious group, “Special Teams”. If you have seen the film Midnight Express, you may actually forgive the hapless Kurd for becoming an accomplice of the Turks. Since I am on the topic, let me make one additional comment on the subject: the American film doesn’t even come close to capturing what the Kurds have endured and are enduring in Turkish prisons. If you want to test the veracity of my claim, order your own copy of, Prison Number 5, by Mehdi Zana, a survivor of those jails, available on Amazon.com. If you do and read the book, don’t be surprised if it makes you wonder, why hasn’t someone nuked this world to leave it to its less cruel dwellers, the roaches?
I am, as friends of the Kurds and Kurdistan will tell you, not trying to scare you; all I am doing is to put some coordinates on a problem from hell that has found a fertile ground in the heart of the Middle East. Kurds killing Kurds, or Turks, Arabs and Persians ganging up on the Kurds, is one of the bloodiest and most popular sports in the Middle East. Our adversaries have invested heavily in it. Bet big sums on it. And, unfortunately, have reaped big profits as well. Turkey, begging for help and investors from outside, has spent a sum approximating 300 billion dollars, in its 25-year struggle against the PKK. Most of it has been used to maintain a bloated army. A substantial amount of it has been used to pit one Kurdish group against the other. Iraq, for a long time, pumped oil out of the soil of Kurdistan and bought chemical and biological weapons with it. You know of only one Kurdish city, Halapja that was drenched with their fumes. There were 280 other locales as well that did not even get noticed. My time, unfortunately, doesn’t allow me to visit the plight of the Kurds in Syria and Iran. But suffice it to note that, far more has been invested in our misery, in our sorrow, in our failure, and in our degeneration, than it has been possible for us to invest in our unity, in our success, in our future, and in our liberation.
Lest you accuse me of ingratitude, I would like to tell you a bit more about five million Kurds of Iraqi-Kurdistan in post-Saddam Iraq. Before I do so, let me be a voice for all of them and say, Thank You America for ridding us of a monster who used to shed the Kurdish blood like water. As to the last six years, it looks like our emancipation is going to follow the path that the blacks took in America after the Civil War. The talking heads, in Washington and Baghdad, are working feverishly to strip from us our precarious gains. On their best days, they conflate the issues and on their worst, they call us names like “spoilers,” “separatists,” or “sectarians”. In fact, if I were to get them drunk — for the sake of argument as it were — and prodded them to speak on the topic of the Kurds, they would, with rarest exceptions, speak of the emancipation of the Kurds as a calamity akin to Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany or the domination of the blacks over the whites in America after the Civil War. I have never seen vomiting so grotesque masquerading itself as policy so heavenly. If God ever grants me a wish, I would wish these talking heads would spend one day in a Turkish jail as a Kurd. Imagine if you will, your former first daughter, Chelsea Victoria Clinton, spending just one hour of her time in one of those hells on earth. And if she survived the ordeal, remember Biseng Anik did not, would you care to tell me what effect this brush with the so called Turkish law would have on her mother, your secretary of state? You would not err if you say it would cure her of her rank hypocrisy. I would add: the cause of liberty would acquire a disciple worthy of Patrick Henry.
A couple of other things need to be stated about these talking heads. They worry more about the deflation of their bank accounts than the inflation of happiness among the peoples of the Middle East. Blaming the Jews of Europe for the cause of the Second World War is not a position that has gone undefended. Nor are we exempt from the bigots on these shores who still pine for the good old days of Jim Crow. If only Emmett Louis Till had not whistled, I can almost hear them mumbling, no one would have killed him. If only Biseng Anik had cancelled her appearance at the Kurdish New Year celebration, their counterparts in Turkey would not be shy to mutter, she would have been still alive. Both arguments are nefarious in their logic, as are the arguments that the Kurds are “terrorists,” “spoilers,” “separatists,” or “sectarians”. We pose no one a danger save the despots. We seek the emancipation of our people, period. To you, we are not shy to say that, give us a helping hand to outfox the despots of the Middle East, we know them better than you do, and save your children for tasks better suited to them, like finding a cure for cancer.
I started my lecture with a reference to your secretary of state in Kinshasa, Congo and would like to end it with a part of a press release from Marshalltown, in South Africa. On May 12, 1992, 47 days after Biseng Anik’s body was picked up from the hospital, the African National Congress (ANC) issued the following statement: “The African National Congress is aware of the announcement by the Government of Turkey that the Ataturk Award will be presented to [the] ANC President on May 19[, 1992]. Nelson Mandela has spent his whole life in the service of democracy, human rights and freedom from oppression. The ANC wishes to state quite categorically that Mr. Mandela has not accepted the Ataturk Award, and has no plans to visit Turkey. … ”.
Why does it, only, take the humbled to see and understand the plight of the Kurds? What do we, Kurds, have to do to reconnect you with your old roots? Please, and I am begging you here, don’t tell us to pray for the success of Osama bin Laden and his ilk! If you are at a loss, as I am, about the overall direction of your foreign policy, can we perhaps talk business? You have three percent of the oil of the world, but consume 25 percent of what is selling in the markets. We have seven percent of it in one city, Kirkuk, alone. I am not going to pretend that I speak for all the Kurds, but as someone whose preoccupation is their emancipation, I can perhaps tell you this much: my people would be willing to share their oil, if you help us poke the despots of the Middle East with the tools of liberty and reason. If you do, Thomas Jefferson will wink at us from his room in heaven and Mahatma Gandhi will add our people to his list of freed nations to the joy of Biseng Anik and her new friend, Emmett Louis Till. I hope you will do something to that effect when you go home tonight. Everything else that your country is doing is bound to sully your name and hurt your children as well as ours.
A slightly altered version of this statement was also delivered at WACs of St. Louis, Missouri and Reading, Pennsylvania.