The Statement of Kani Xulam
At the Symposium on the Human Rights Crisis in Turkey
Sponsored by Amnesty International USA
The Portland State University & Reed College
Portland, Oregon
Thursday, November 1 & 2, 2000

On October 18, 2000, Amnesty International launched its campaign against torture in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Members of Amnesty International wrapped the Palace of Justice, the site of the press conference, with bright yellow tape that read Zona Libre Tortura. It was a fitting demonstration for an organization that stands tall for human rights around the globe. What was even better was that the campaign began in the city that gave birth to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who held vigils in front of the Presidential Palace demanding the whereabouts of their disappeared ones. The symbolism was perfect. I hope the upshot will be as auspicious.

Perhaps we will manage to plant the seeds of love in the places that were once the fermentation grounds for hatred and for some black holes that devoured loved ones. Perhaps our brothers and sisters in Latin America will manage to do the unfinished work of countries that claim to be the embodiment of rule of law, such as England, who let go of General Pinochet notwithstanding his record of being the architect of Chile’s torture chambers. It is of course my ardent hope that Pinochet’s reporting to the dock will be followed by the likes of General Evren, Saddam Hussein, and many others who have disgraced our sojourn on this spaceship called earth.

I am here to talk to you about some other torture chambers in a place called Kurdistan. Let me, at this time, hasten to add that I am thankful to Amnesty International’s Portland Chapter and its able coordinator Nick Tanery for his kind invitation to address you on this very difficult topic. It feels a bit surreal to be called a witness of torture. I did not choose to be an authority in this field. The field found me because my people are tortured. I have now become the chronicler of our fall from grace, a part of the collective Kurdish experience called living hell and of our struggle to be ourselves in spite of persecution, oppression, and annihilation that goes on unabated throughout the Kurdish land.

But before I address the topic of torture, some generalities are in order. There are some 30 to 40 million Kurds in this world. Some like me have braved the cold of exile, but a vast majority of us still live on our ancestral land in the Middle East. Once a tolerated people tucked away on our highlands, we are now the subjects of a culture of intolerance, violence and, unless we change the course of history, extinction through slow-motion genocide. A culture as old as the dawn of history will vanish because the Kurds are weak, our adversaries are racists and innocents like you are usually indifferent.

It is a bleak future. The forces of darkness are making inroads with every passing day. Turkey, which controls half of the Kurdish land, refuses to even acknowledge our presence. Turkish Kurdistan is called Eastern Turkey. Kurds are called Turks and only recently and very reluctantly, Turks of Kurdish origin. The Turkish law prohibits the Kurdish language and culture. Mehmet Esat Bozkurt, a contemporary of Ataturk, a member of his cabinet, was not expressing a personal opinion or being ironic when he said, “We live in the freest country, which is called Turkey. The Turk is the only lord, the only master of this country. Those who are not of purely Turkish origin have only one right in this country: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves.” After seventy years, nothing has changed.

Those of us who have refused to be servants and slaves of another race — a race that takes pride in the fact that their pedigree includes the likes of Attila the Hun, Cenghiz Khan and Selim the Cruel — are at a crossroads. We have to either dismantle this edifice of hatred and inhumanity for a place of our own under the sun or succumb to their sinister plans with our death — with the only possibility of a future in the museums to satiate the curiosity of posterity. It goes without saying that, we view our struggle as a fight to restore the laws of humanity and to uphold the will of God.

This I thought you should know in terms of the background information. Let me add one other thing and that is that I am not a survivor of torture. Mine is a tormented soul burdened with the knowledge that a grave injustice is being committed against my people. And while the thought of it consumes me daily — adding grays to my hair and furrows to my face, I am, nevertheless, honored by the fact that a lecture on torture has brought so many of you out here. It is a testament to your humanity, the stuff that is, unfortunately, in short supply around the world. I am grateful that people like you exist. I wish there were more of you and not just now but at all times.

Tonight though, I want to tell you of torture, the ordeals of those who have been wronged because of their political views. There are thousands of torturers and millions of survivors and countless unfortunate victims who have met violent ends in quiet and dark places. I have chosen to share with you one story, of a man I knew as a political activist when I was in my teens. His story holds a mirror to the lot of those who are Kurdish dissidents. It is a harrowing tale of survival in the middle of death, of hope in a sea of suffering, and of pertinacious endurance in spite of hopelessness.

The story is of Mehdi Zana. He was a tailor who became the mayor of Amed, the largest Kurdish City in the world, in 1977. An articulate and able man, he captured our imagination as an honest administrator who openly sided with the Kurdish lot as well as its aspirations. Because he spoke Kurdish freely, we too took our cue from him and did the same. There were many other firsts. For example, I will never forget taking my first free bus ride in Amed under his administration. At the time a happy rider, only years later did I find out that those busses were the gifts of French municipalities to help a city in distress because its Mayor was shunned by the Turkish officials and denied a budget so that he would be a failure in the eyes of the Kurds.

As an avowed Kurdish nationalist, Mehdi Zana became the target of the Turkish government both for overt and covert persecution. After a tumultuous three-year service, he was arrested in the course of Military Coup’s sweep of Kurdish dissidents and placed in the infamous Diyarbakir Military Prison. A total of 650.000 people would be imprisoned then. Thousands of people like Mehdi Zana were accused of treason and tortured so bad that no one would follow in their footsteps. Some did brake down totally. Some burned themselves to death. Some went on open-ended hunger strikes and became a pile of bones and dry skin. Mehdi Zana survived, as he puts it, miraculously and has recounted his tale to an unbelieving world. Instead of me commenting on his ordeal, let me read you some passages from his book, Prison Number 5, now available on

“With three other Kurds, two of whom had been my deputies, I was transferred to the military prison number one in Diyarbakir. Whereas my friends were locked in the same cell, I was isolated in another. For three days I didn’t see anyone — a guard brought me my food and took the plate away. I knocked on the door in order to get the news. A sergeant told me, “It is for your security that you are locked up alone.” I stayed handcuffed in this disgusting cell for ten days, in total seclusion. However, compared with what I had already seen, this cell was rather spacious: two meters by 1.7 meters. There was a bed but no mattress. I was dirty and there was no way to wash myself. I wallowed in my filth, dreaming of a faucet, of a little bit of cologne on some cotton. After being in custody for thirty days, on the eleventh day of solitary confinement, I received a visit from a member of my family. We were forbidden to speak Kurdish. My mother cried, confronted with my silence. I refused to speak Turkish, and my mother lamented, “My son has become a deaf-mute!”

Everything was a pretext for beatings and torture. Ö No one wanted to anger a guard. If for some reason someone protested and the guard got a hold of him, he would make him pay dearly. No sooner was he carted off than, entirely undressed, he was held face down by four guards. Each one holding one of his limps, they then shoved a club as far as possible up his rectum. This is like the old torture by impalement, except that the club did not have a point in order to rip up the organs and kill the victims by inches. They were only trying to humiliate us down to our very core. While they were impaling us, they called us butt-fucked and asked us if we liked it.

Still worse, they [sometimes] let about fifty prisoners out of cell and in front of everyone, they would make one of us hold the club and another sit on it. If we refused to sit on the club, we were just as quickly beaten. Yet very few of us gave in. So the jailers ganged up in a group of seven or eight in order to punish and humiliate the rebel. They sodomized him with the club, in front of us, and when they took it out, all covered in blood, they shoved it in his mouth to make him suck it. Those who underwent this test were broken for months, their virility destroyed. We tried to boost their spirits. In order not to undergo this dreaded torture, the prisoners submitted [to many of the things that were asked of them]. So they were forced to shout, “I am so proud to be Turkish” or “A Turk is worth the whole universe” or “Turks have brought civilization to all the countries they have conquered!”

They also had Jo, a German Shepherd trained, it seemed, in Germany and which they used to terrorize us. After having ordered us to entirely undress, they let the dog loose on us, and he immediately bit our asses and testicles. But he had been trained not to bite them off; he just bit hard enough so that we screamed in pain and feared that we would be castrated. Then they called off the dog. In the night we heard him barking endlessly. He had also been trained to do that to prevent us from sleeping and to haunt our nightmares. “Watch out! We are gonna bring Jo,” shouted the jailers when they wanted to terrorize us.

In May 1991, at the end of one evening, I was set free. I was dazzled by the discovery of colors and daybreak. It took me a few days before I was able to adopt myself to light and colors. It was hard for me to speak. During long years of detention, I felt invested with a great deal of responsibility. As a mayor elected by people who trusted me, I had to hold up so that their hopes would not be crushed. Often those who tortured me said, “Well, Mr. Mayor, let’s see your Kurds come and get you out of here now.” I had to show myself worthy of the trust of the Kurds who had elected me in order that things change. My presence among the prisoners was important. I was the eldest. If I broke down, it would have serious effects for everyone. I had to hold out as an example, whatever the torture might be. I suffered [when the young ones were tortured], but I never broke down psychologically.

So ends Mehdi Zana’s book on torture in the city that once had elected him as mayor. Reading the whole book, one wonders how it is possible that a man can endure such evil. If you are an Amnesty International supporter, one other thing will jump at you, and that is that torture still goes on in Turkey. The Turkish government denies the charge, administers it in the name of greater good but has only earned the greater hatred from us. Some Kurds fight this evil with political violence. Some have decided to run away from politics. And a few still retaining their hope in humanity are engaged in acts of civil disobedience to prick the conscience of the world public opinion to put an end to this nightmare.

The evil system has hardly gotten a rebuke from Washington. It is called a democracy at the State Department. Mehdi Zana, despite enduring the unendurable and who still shuns political violence was almost denied a visa to the United States to attend a Congressional Briefing on torture while his torturers are given red carpet treatment at the White House. The honoring took on a new dimension last year when President Clinton visited Turkey in person and addressed its parliament without mentioning the word torture or culture, the issues that he could have addressed for the good of his hosts.

The man from Hope spoke well of Turkey. The Kurds, their pain or aspirations, were conveniently disregarded. Those who employ torture as an instrument of state policy were hailed as friends of long duration and strategic partners. The Turks did not bother to show their guest the torture chambers of Diyarbakir Military Prison; instead, they took him to Ephesus, in western Turkey, the site of Greek and Roman ruins. Had he gone to the East, he would have found that the Kurdish ruins are still smoldering, their destitute residents are cowed into submission, the friends he hailed as democrats are brutes far more primitive than the most racist Afrikaners in South Africa. The scene, of course, would not have provided good photo opportunities to the innocents at home.

But such abject display of America’s goodwill abroad should be a cause for alarm. Viewing Turkey without its Kurdish component, valuing its markets more than its cultures, supplying its generals with their choice toys, but denying its activists even an entry to the United States will only exasperate the crisis. Our hope remains that America will revisit its past and side with the cause of humanity and progress. If it needs reminding, its founding fathers fought the British over something far less consequential called, “No taxation without representation.” In other parts of the world, the French engaged the Nazis and the Blacks fought the Afrikaners. Perhaps it is the will of God that we have to assume this mantle of progress now against the Turks. We hope you will support us as we free ourselves and humanize our adversaries.

I thank you for your presence here and I look forward to taking your questions.

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