The Statement of Kani Xulam
At the Human Relations Day
North Dakota State University (NDSU)
Fargo, North Dakota
Thursday, January 18, 2001
I want to start by thanking Megan O’Rourke and Kara Stack of North Dakota State University for their kind invitation to be with you tonight. I also want to acknowledge a fellow Kurd, Azad Berwari, for his tireless efforts to make sure that, on a night dedicated to the best in human relations, a Kurdish voice is recognized and heard here at NDSU. Let me, at this time, also express a word of gratitude to the citizens of Fargo who in the past have adopted the children of Kurdistan as refugees with warmth and kindness defying the cold and windy weather that prevails outside.
Before I tackle the question at hand to acquaint you with the plight of the Kurds and Kurdistan though, I want to pay a tribute to the man who has brought us here together. America is a greater country because it can count among its children the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A prophet armed with nonviolence and eloquence, Dr. King fought segregation like no one else did, and in the process, made this nation a better one because of his example. I join you in bowing before his memory and assure you that you too will grow taller for doing so especially at this age.
I am, of course, extremely honored and truly humbled to be associated with a night of remembrance with Dr. King. Ten years ago, On January 16, 1991, I protested the Gulf War and lost my civil liberties in an act of civil disobedience to test my faith in his teachings. Boy, what an empowering experience it was; I strongly recommend that you try it too for a cause dear to your heart. Today, 15 years after knowing him, I am still both captivated by his dream and also struck with amazement that though great inroads have been made in the field of race relations, the promise has not been fulfilled, the hope is still part of the dream, and America, though unrivalled in terms of its prosperity and military power among the nations of the world, still has far too many of its colored children behind in classes, but first among those who are incarcerated or executed in the system.
Throughout this past week, you heard from the highest public officials appalling figures, the dismal record, and the promise that right will be done to do away with these shortcomings. Hope, as the Reverend Jesse Jackson so often reminds us, is alive and the dream, as Senator Edward Kennedy so eloquently put it, shall never die. Sanguine as I am too for America, disappointed as I am too with the distance traveled so far, I too believe that unless we fight the injustice now and not just here but also abroad, our honoring has no meaning at all. America, tall as it may look, stands short and will get smaller if it does not act to redeem its native son.
Tonight though, I am supposed to take you to another place on our planet earth that is ever brought closer with the advent of e-mail, chat rooms, and my favorite, the great censor breaker, the world wide web. This forbidden place, until recently, a recess of the earth, is now fighting for headlines and your attention to stop a calamity unfolding in its midst. The children of the soil are viewed as pests. The exterminators are impervious to the call of reason, justice or responsibility. The forces of goodness and those of darkness are engaged in a contest, a holy war if you will, to either win it all for humanity or lose everything to barbarity.
These are indeed trying times for the Kurds and Kurdistan. I would even venture to say they are also difficult times for humanity. This rape of a poor and defenseless people on our watch and in our times is hardly noted, seldom visited and often viewed as a concern of only those who fate has ordained to be our neighbors who now have degenerated into our misguided oppressors. You may know some people from these nations as friends and decent individuals. I do too. But their governments are evil to the core and are competing only in designs not only to deny us a place under the sun, but also to end our presence as Kurds in this world.
Perhaps a small detour is needed here to put some coordinates on this crisis. The human family has traveled great distances in its wandering on earth, but never before has it stooped to measures such as genocide and holocaust on a scale that has been our lot in memory of some still alive. One can almost see the philosophers among us weeping and the cynics laughing for observing that we are only redeemable after death. I have heard them say that those who subscribe to the notions of racial superiority and others who can not be cured of their mercantile avidity will always retard our progress into a world of peace with justice and liberty with order and equality with prosperity for all.
The Kurdish Question is part and parcel of the crisis facing our humanity. A bit of native history is may be helpful to put our predicament in perspective. There are also things that you could do — I will be talking about them towards the end of my lecture — to right some of these stupendous wrongs. It is my hope that after leaving this lecture you will make the leap into the realm called becoming a lover of humanity. At stake is not just the fate of the Kurds, but our collective being as a generation entrusted with the stewardship of the earth with potential for good as well as evil and whether we will exert ourselves to push for the triumph of the first or do nothing for the latter to succeed.
The Kurds are a people, the way the Germans or the Swedes or the Irish are a people. We have a language of our own which is distinct from Turkish or Arabic or Armenian, but is closely related to Persian. We are not a transplanted people to the area, but the children of the soil since, at least, the dawn of recorded history. On our land, in its caves, archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest human settlements. In our neighborhood, the western writing was invented. There again, the prophets of old, have declared their religions to the world and have followers today in the far corners of the world as pious as the first disciples.
Even before the invention of writing, the children of God communicated with one another, sometimes through signs, sometimes through captivating myths and sometimes through oral stories. One Kurdish historian, Emir Sarafettin of Bitlis, writing in 16th century, relates the following tale for the origins of the Kurds. Since this is a lecture on understanding the Kurds, I thought of sharing it with you in the hope that it will shed some light on our earliest beginnings. From the book on Kurdish tribes, Emir Sarafettin writes the followings for our origins in the world:
“After the death of great Persian king Jamshid, the tyrant Zahhak usurped the throne and established a reign of terror. Besides being cruel by natural inclination, he suffered from a strange disease that made him even more of an oppressor. Two snakes grew out of his shoulders and caused him severe pain, which could only be alleviated by feeding the snakes human brains each day. So every day Zahhak had two young persons killed and their brains fed to the snakes. The man charged with slaughtering the two young people taken to the place each day took pity on them and thought up a ruse. He killed only one person a day, replacing the other by a sheep and mixing the two brains. One young person’s life was thus saved every day; he was told to leave the country and stay hidden in distant inaccessible mountains. The young persons thus saved gradually came to constitute a large community; they married among themselves and brought forth offspring. These people were named Kurds. Because during many years they evaded other human company and stayed away from towns, they developed a language of their own. In the forests and mountains they built houses and tilled the soil. Some of them came to own property and flocks and spread themselves over the steppes and deserts.”
As a Kurdish activist, I am consumed with any nuance or sign that sheds light on the Kurds, be it from myths whose origins go back tens of thousands of years. Like thousands of other Kurds, who spent their waking hours for the liberation of Kurdistan, I look to the past for clues to the future to preserve things Kurdish for succeeding generations. I am especially intrigued with the way Kurds thought of themselves in the wee hours of history. I don’t know what our adversaries make of this myth, but let me share with you some of my own thoughts about it.
For example, I accept the premise of the myth that the Kurds are a hardy, stubborn, and stout people. Many foreigners who visit Kurdistan note this up front about the children of the mountains. I will even go so far as to say that we may even be the oddballs of the Middle East. Let’s face it, spending time with flocks does not improve one’s mind. Nor does living on the outskirts of high and inaccessible mountains develop one’s skills for statecraft. To be sure, our ancestors have managed to save us from the marauding invaders, but they have left us with nothing to protect ourselves or repel those who are now assaulting us now with the weapons of mass destruction.
Precarious as is our situation, we number some thirty to forty million people in the Middle East. Our land is as large as France is. Up until recently, we still occupied our high mountains and lived a predominantly nomadic life not much different from the myth. But today, our flocks are no more. Their natural habitat destroyed with missiles and incendiary bombs of the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian fighter planes and helicopters, we have slaughtered them to survive or sold them in the market to be rid of them. Our once inaccessible mountain recesses, a refuge of last resort for centuries, are now fair game for the iron birds of our oppressors. They fly all over Kurdistan at will, bomb any sight on a whim and sometimes gas too, knowing well that the world is engrossed with today’s tabloid headlines and its international institutions are too weak or too complacent to do anything.
While the Middle East is home to our people, traditions and religion, the origins of the troubles of the Kurds have their beginnings in Europe, the birthplace of your ancestors, the place the world has come to look with mixed feelings of admiration and affront. In the 17th century, the continent was consumed with religious wars. From 1618 till 1648 battles raged all across the place, pitting the Catholics against the Protestants with blessings of God on both sides. In Westphalia, at the end, the heads of European states convened and signed a treaty of peace to save Europe from the ravages of its recent past.
To be sure, as we all know, war was not delegated to the realm of lesser beings or eradicated from the consciousness of the succeeding generations. But historians agree that something remarkable happened afterwards and that is, the children of the continent no longer fought over religion. It became unfashionable to shed one’s blood for Christ’s teachings no matter how varied were the interpretations. The new animus manifested itself in other fields, most notably against weaker nations. The French began to glory in their kind inadvertently forcing others to do the same. The idea traveled far and wide and reached the Middle East in about two hundred years.
The Kurds, the nominal subjects of the Ottoman and Persian Empires at this time, began experimenting with secret societies of their own to emulate what was taking place in Europe. The First World War offered vistas of unimaginable magnitude. The Ottoman Empire, the prison of several nationalities in the Middle East, sided with the Central Powers. The Arabs, the Armenians, the Kurds and even the Jews clamored for a state of their own. Britain, the supreme power at the time, helped. But another unexpected ally also emerged on the scene. President Woodrow Wilson in an address to the Congress in 1917 declared war on Germany, but also, most importantly, among his 14 point war aims listed support for the principle of self-determination.
The reaction of the subject peoples all over Europe and the Middle East was euphoric. Just as new nations emerged with the breakup of the Soviet Empire after 1991, the heads of secret societies hurried to Paris to demand a place under the sun for their own kind. While Mikhail Gorbachev got the credit for letting captive nations feel the sunshine of freedom in the recent breakup, President Woodrow Wilson was seen as the force behind the effort to free some of the subject peoples of the time at the deliberations that took place in Versailles, France, in 1920.
It may be interesting to note that an Algerian man, a French subject, wrote to President Wilson to tell him that he and his wife had just named their first born daughter, Wilsonia, after him. In the newly freed Czechoslovakia, the authorities did a similar thing and named Pragueís major train station after him. In Paris, the assembled diplomats often would tell each other of Wilson’s 14 points and some, in jest, pointed out that the American president’s points were four too many a reference to Moses’ Ten Commandments. But whatever the number, their effect was major. The Nobel Peace Committee rightly honored the American president with its prestigious award for being a visionary and the founder of League of Nations. The same honor, as we know, was also bestowed on Gorbachev for his contributions to the cause of peace after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Yet while Europe inched slowly towards the ideals of President Wilson’s 14 points in those hopeful days after the First World War, a new man was emerging in the Middle East that defied European statesmen and declared a Turkish state with a sizeable Kurdish, Greek and a decimated Armenian population. Mustafa Kemal, the young Turkish general, had headed east to Kurdistan as British were taking over Istanbul. Against the advice of the nationalist Kurdish leaders, the conservative Kurdish tribal elders supported the Turkish leader who stated he was fighting the Western infidels to liberate what was left of Ottoman Empire on a promise that the emerging entity would be home to both the Turks and the Kurds.
With the considerable support of Kurds, Mustafa Kemal won his wars and declared his republic to the world in 1923. At a time of fervent discussions on the rights of nations to the states of their own, he was careful not to alienate the Kurds or the Europeans for the recognition and acceptance of his fledgling state that included half of Kurdistan. To the international conference that was convened in Lausanne tasked with legitimizing or rejecting his gains, he sent his Kurdish emissary, Ismet Inonu, a turncoat, to allay the apprehensions of the European interlocutors who still harbored thoughts about the creation of an independent Kurdish state under the auspices of the League of Nations.
Perhaps no case better captures the events of those days than a series of incidents that unfolded on the hapless Kurdish parliamentarian, Hasan Hayri, around this time in Ankara, Turkey. Here was a Kurd who had supported the Turkish leader in the emerging state by throwing in his own considerable weight behind the new experiment called the Turkish Republic, the expressed home of two peoples in those early years. He had complete faith in the Turkish leader and believed that the salvation of the Kurds was with the Turks.
Ataturk, whose name means father of Turks in Turkish — a man who thought highly of himself and accepted the title without a blush and insisted that the children of Kurds call him their father too ó one day asked Hasan Hayri to wear his traditional Kurdish attire to the Assembly and address its members on the topic of unity between the Kurds and the Turks. He did. The event was noted by the foreign dignitaries who were intently following the pronouncements of the Kurdish leaders for signs of comity between the two peoples of the new republic. A few days later, Ataturk asked him to send a telegraph to Lord Curzon, the chief European negotiator in Lausanne, to express his support for the position of the Kurdish emissary, Ismet Inonu, who was insisting that the Kurds did not want a country and were rather happy to be with the Turks in newly declared republic. That too was done.
But after the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne and the acceptance of Turkey into the community of nations, Ataturk’s cronies arrested Hasan Hayri and accused him of treason. He was charged with engaging in blatant Kurdish nationalism for wearing Kurdish clothes. He protested by saying that Ataturk had asked him to wear them. His objections were of no avail. Hasan Hayri was condemned to death by hanging. As is customary in places where this act is still in practice, he was asked to state his last wishes. Hasan Hayri had finally learned the lesson of his life. But it was too late. He told the Turkish scribbler to write, “I want my grave to be in a place where the Kurds can walk by and spit on me because of my betrayal of them.”
Before a ditch became a grave for Hasan Hayri, Ataturk began to glorify the Turkish race and declared one Turk equal to the world. The Kurdish language was banned. The Kurdish culture was prohibited. The Kurds were told they were really not Kurds but mountain Turks who descended from their Asiatic Turkish ancestors — but somehow lost their Asiatic features in the Middle East — and now should come to the fold as lost tribes. A nation was asked to surrender itself not just for a time, but for perpetuity. The Kurds were asked to dig their own grave for the sake of a man who adopted the name their father — I don’t know if the word tough love was invented by then, but if it wasn’t, this surely was the time to coin it. Armenians had been subjected to genocide. The Nazis had not yet put their undesirables into the gas ovens. Kurds were to face a similar death not as brutal perhaps, but with the same end in mind.
The Kurds, as can be expected, rebelled. The wrongs they faced riled the hardcore nationalists as well as the tribal leaders. Religious Kurds soon joined the fray. Time after time, they rose to fight for their very existence and time after time they were defeated, their leaders hanged, their property destroyed and the survivors banished into exile. Contempt, as an Indian proverb notes, can pierce even the shell of a turtle. Kurds treated with disdain longed for the day of deliverance. If the West supported Turkey, they reacted the way the Irish have done with the British and sided with the opposite, in this case, the East. If Soviets supported Iraq, another state oppressing the Kurds, they hurried to Washington, London and Paris and lobbied the leaders of the “free world” for recognition.
While this transnational commerce with the potential sponsors of Kurdish liberation was going on, a group of Kurds under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan taking their cues from the successful revolutions in Vietnam and Nicaragua unleashed a guerilla war in 1984 to wrest away what was left of the Kurds from the Kurdish black hole called Turkey. Turkey, on the other hand, marshaled the might of NATO to crush the Kurds once and for all. A no holds-barred war has been going on with intermittent Kurdish cease-fires for the last 17 years. Close to 40 thousand people, mostly Kurds, have died. Over three thousand Kurdish villages have been destroyed. More than three million Kurds have become refugees.
The man who thought he had found a solution to the scarcity of patron saints in the world by ignoring them with the cultivation of Kurdish power alone did indeed prove his mettle and fought the modern Turkish army to a stalemate. In so doing, he earned the love of Kurds across the Middle East. But in the end, he too needed a place of refuge in another country and found himself un-welcomed both in the East and the West. Eventually, in 1999, an international conspiracy delivered him to the tender mercies of the Turks. Imprisoned now on an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, sentenced to die by hanging, with suppleness that surprised many, he has asked his fighters to silence their guns and has offered the Turks to accept the loyalty of his fighters for an exchange of granting the Kurds their language and cultural rights. It remains to be seen if he will be treated like Hasan Hayri or Nelson Mandela. One thing is certain, in spite of what the Turks may do to him, the Kurds have crossed the Rubicon and will never go back to pre-1984 years.
In the midst of this ugly war, to be sure, Turkey has also taken some very reluctant steps to accommodate the Kurds. In the election of 1991, 18 Kurdish representatives were allowed to take their seats in the Turkish parliament. One of them spoke Kurdish and caused uproar in the parliament. Another one was murdered. Four were later imprisoned. Six fled to Europe and the others had to change parties to keep themselves alive from the bullets of death squads. This fragile experiment in democracy struggled under great strains and finally was hospitalized if you will, with the imprisonment of Kurdish parliamentarians in a Turkish prison.
As this Kurdish death dance with the Turks has taken its course, our cousins to the south, in Iraqi Kurdistan, have had their own ordeals with the likes of Saddam Hussein. There, too, the commerce in death has been brisk. President Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, were the first to support us against Saddam Hussein to divert the Butcher of Baghdad from helping Syria and Egypt against Israel. When this was accomplished, we were sold in broad daylight to no other than Saddam Hussein for an exchange between him and the Shah of Iran. A decade later, President Reagan helped built Saddam’s deadly arsenal of chemical and biological weapons to stop Iran from reaching Jerusalem. Saddam did stop the Iranians in their tracts, but he went further and unleashed holy war on the Kurds. In Halapja alone, 5,000 Kurds dropped dead in one spring day in 1988 from a gas attack. Close to 187 thousand other Kurds have also met violent ends in his hands.
But it was ten years ago this month that the Kurds received their most humiliating blow ever from another administration in the White House. This time, President Bush, in the middle of the war against Iraq that began on January 16, 1991, urged the dissident groups, the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the South, to topple Saddam. Both groups had been abused for too long to need any prompting. They rose to undo a man and his evil system simultaneously and with great force. When it looked like, they might succeed, Saddam found an ally in the most unlikely of places again, and again at the White House. President Bush apparently did not want Iraq to be dismembered. He allowed Saddam to use his Air Force to crush the rebels with copters and fighter planes. A slaughter ensued. Kurds not wanting to be gassed again fled to the mountains. They died of hunger and frostbite as well as Saddamís bullets and bombs by the thousands.
There are of course the last ten years, the Kurds of Syria, Iran and sizeable pockets of contiguous Kurdish populations of Armenia and Azerbaijan that I have not even tackled. There is also a pending sale of 145 attack helicopters by an American company, Bell Textron, to Turkey, for some 5 billion dollars. In the interest of time, I will leave these areas untouched. I will, however, be open to take up questions on these topics in the course of questions and answers.
For now though, I wanted to cover one other area and that is to extend you an invitation to take part in a vigil in the nation’s capital. I have already made a reference to the plight of four Kurdish parliamentarians who were imprisoned by the Turkish government. March 5, 2001, will mark their seventh year behind bars. Accused of treason, each received fifteen years in prison. Some have had additional times added to their sentences. Amnesty International has adopted all four as Prisoners of Conscience. One of them, Leyla Zana, is the recipient of the European Parliament’s Sakhorov Freedom Award. She has also been a finalist for Nobel Peace Prize.
Three years ago, four Kurds and two Americans undertook a hunger strike on the steps of the United States Capitol to free Leyla Zana from the Turkish prison. Our effort lasted forty days and won the support of 153 members of the United States Congress. Last year, a Congressional Resolution in the House of Representatives to the same effect received the support of 106 its members. But neither the fast nor the congressional efforts have moved the Turkish government. Ankara now thinks that the world has forgotten the plight of the Kurdish representatives. It already knows that the Kurds are too weak to effect their freedom.
But we have news for the oppressors of the Kurds. So long as they continue to hold the Kurds and their representatives captive, those of who are free will join forces with friends of liberty and continue to advocate for their freedom. To that end, we are getting ready for a vigil near the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC. We plan to build a cell at the site and christen it the Cell of Atonement for Human Rights and Democracy or in short the Cell of Atonement. It will be the size of an actual Turkish prison cell and symbolize the place where the Kurdish parliamentarians are kept.
We are now asking friends across this land and abroad to help us keep continuos vigil in the Cell of Atonement. We intent to be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the simple preposition that the Kurdish peopleís will is inalienable and must be acknowledged, accepted and respected. More specifically, we want the Kurdish parliamentarians to be set free immediately and unconditionally. Early in spring, we will also be introducing another Kurdish resolution in the United States Congress expressing these very sentiments. There, we will strive for the passage of the resolution or aim for the support of 218 members. Our vigil will end when either the Kurdish representatives are free or we have succeeded to gain the support of more than half of the members of the United States Congress.
I hope some of you in this hall will join us in the Cell of Atonement in Washington, DC. I hope, those of you who can not come to nationís capital will lend us your support by urging your representatives to support the Kurdish resolution in the Congress. Please remember to check our web-site, www.kurdistan.org on the Internet for updates as well as the status of your representativesí stand on this issue. Together, I have no doubts, we can and will free the Kurdish representatives.
Freedom’s loss, says Herodotus, the Greek historian, condemns man to lose half of his manhood. The Kurdish predicament, I will be the first to acknowledge, is a malady as pernicious as cancer or as debilitating as Aids on the conscience of all Kurds. But this malady is not inborn; it is injected in us by minds less tamed and supported by policies misguided among the nations of the world. This degeneracy bodes ill for our common future. Liberty, the greatest gift of humanity to its children, remains under assault in vast areas of the world. As Kurds, we will strive mightily to achieve it. As Americans, its greatest benefactors and sometimes abusers too, I hope, you will help us to acquire it. I hope also that, one day soon, we will together be singing the Kurdish version of, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, We are free at last!”
Thank you. I look forward to your questions.