By Kani Xulam

March 4, 2001

[Editor’s note: a shortened and slightly changed version of this article also appeared in Nonviolent Activist, Volume 18, Number 2]

On March 5, a group of Kurds and their American friends will construct a replica of a prison cell and camp in it for an open-ended vigil at a city park to effect the freedom of four parliamentarians who have been imprisoned for seven years. The city is Washington, DC. The park is Sheridan Circle. Located across it is a building of the Turkish Embassy, the object of the protesters’ rage, a symbol of one of the blackest crimes in our times: the cultural genocide of the Kurds.

The immediate goal of the vigil is to embarrass the Embassy staff and alert the Massachusetts Avenue commuters to downtown D.C. with placards bearing silent witness to the abominable plight of the Kurds. Their long-term goal is to stay in the park for as long as it takes to spark a grassroots campaign for the passage of a resolution in the U.S. Congress to bring about the freedom of the Kurdish parliamentarians.

Who are the Kurds? Why are their representatives in prison? Can the activists really free them? What does the State Department think of this?

The Kurds are an indigenous people. They live in the Middle East. They occupy a track of land called Kurdistan, presently controlled by Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran Azerbaijan and Armenia. They number some 30 to 40 million heads. Despite their history, location and numbers, an eerie aura of fog and mystery surrounds their present situation throughout the Middle East.

For some, the Kurds are exotic creatures to be classified and catalogued as if one were conducting a survey on the nature of inanimate objects. For others, they are stepping stones to reach higher goals. Those who dislike the Kurds, our immediate neighbors, wish we did not exist. The Kurds themselves, of course, have their own views of themselves and some lately have realized that these views do not necessarily accord well with those who speak for the earth.

Imagine a stranger coming to your house and claiming it to be his! Imagine further, he tells you that you may stay, but you will not be able to speak your language, you will have to learn his and if you don’t, you will be punished for it. Such wanton disregard for the rights of individuals in the U.S., at least, would warrant the intervention of the police and the perpetrator would find himself handcuffed and placed in a cell to await the judgment of a judge.

When the same crime is committed by a state and a whole people lose the right to claim their land or speak their language or move around freely why doesn’t the international community take action? Comparing our private morality with public policy, one can not help but ask the question: how can we allow such blatant hypocrisy? This is what we Kurds have been asking the world with no one giving us an answer and it is also the reason the activists are forgoing their comforts to goad an indifferent world to do good.

As humans whose lot has fallen to these times, we face a crisis in the ill-regulated public policy especially in international relations. Like children entrusted with decisions that go beyond their comprehension, we tackle the fate of the earth and its children blindly and sometimes wildly and often cause misery sometimes in the name of good. We may be equal in the sight of law, but like the currencies that we carry in our pockets, we vary in worth as we do in our rights.

It was not always like this, for us Kurds, at least. Three hundred years ago, for example, the lot of the Kurds was relatively quiet. Tucked away in our mountains, we were the subjects of two theocratic governments, the Ottomans and the Persians. Accepted and respected us as the children of God, we were taxed for the glory of administering states, but our language was never banned and we were left on our own to lead unmolested lives.

Today, the Kurds are still the subjects of Turkey and Iran, successor states of Ottoman and Persian Empires, as well as of the newly created states of Syria, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The freedoms the Kurds of 18th century enjoyed when Isaac Newton was alive are no longer ours and unless we put a stop to the designs of our misguided rulers, there will be no Kurds left in three hundred years from now.

Why would those who fortune has catapulted to the summits of the world to speak for all the children of earth bless the policies of our misguided adversaries to effect the ends of the Kurds? Are the Kurds that bad, the way our contiguous neighbors think that we are, to be left to the merciless policies such as gassing in Iraq, cultural genocide in Turkey and assimilation into the dominant cultures by the force of law in the other countries?

In his inaugural address to the nation on January 20, 2001, President Bush made a reference to America’s past and noted, “[ours was] a slave holding society that became a servant of freedom.” I had to pinch myself to make sure that I had heard him right. The next day, it was all over the papers as well. I was reminded of another line, from a Kurdish child who urges his semi-blind grandfather to rush for shelter from a Turkish operated U.S. helicopter on a mission in Turkish Kurdistan in the documentary Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, “Oh Grandfather, Run! Run! This is the Cobra coming.”

The American involvement in the misfortune of the Kurds, notwithstanding its expressed ideals, is the most unfortunate. Turkey, controlling and misruling half of the Kurdish territory with its 20 million inhabitants, can only keep its tyranny over us because of its access to the Made in USA weapons. This is tantamount to entrusting the head of a dysfunctional and violent family with his choice of weapons and saying that what he does inside his home is his business only.

What has happened in that house is not a pretty sight. Kurdistan is drenched in blood. Smoke is billowing to the skies. An entire people are cowed into submission with the power of “law” and with the U.S. weapons as cudgels.

The Kurds, of course, are painfully aware of the inhumanity of their foes and the damage it has done to the Kurdish body politics. One Kurdish leader, who fought the Turks to a standstill and elevated the Kurdish Question from whispers in dark alleys to open discussions on the Turkish television — and the world for that matter, after a costly war tried the chances of peace with the hopes of recognition for the Kurds only to find out that he was the subject of an unholy alliance to end his life together with the aspirations of his people. Like all politicians, he had said many things to qualify for everything but his greatest misfortune was to start the war on the wrong side of the Cold War that earned him the status of a persona non grata in the West. His gestures to appease the Turks and to allay the fears of the West were spurned. An International conspiracy worthy of a Tom Clancy novel nabbed him in Nairobi, Kenya and handed him over to the Turks.

Abdullah Ocalan, a dissident of his times, confronting a rightwing evil system that remains unchanged, fought great odds and won great battles, but in the end, could not avoid the long arm of the West — sometimes in the service of the most brutal regimes in the world, — which feared that he might mean a modern day Spartacus as opposed to Nelson Mandela that he was aspiring to be. As one sanctuary after the another rejected him in an ordeal that took 131 days in 1998 and 1999, something remarkable happened in the Kurdish world that hardly got the notice of any of those who were writing about them. His followers, sensing his imminent fall, began to set themselves on fire to show not only their loyalty to him but also express indignation with the way the world was treating him.

Close to 76 of these true believers engaged in this act both in Turkey and Europe. Many of them died on the spot or shortly after in the hospitals. There is something to be said for the nobility of the soul that sacrifices the love of life for the love of a people or its leaders. Wrong as some think were intentions of these courageous Kurdish fighters, wrong lessons were also drawn from them as preparations are continuing to raise a permanent Rest in Peace sign over the heads of the Kurds.

The adversaries of the Kurds would do themselves and their children a favor to forgo from such delusional designs and seize the peaceful overtures of the Kurds with candor and frankness. Souls capable of these supreme acts can hardly be subdued. The United States could certainly weigh in with its clout and standing as one of the best practitioners of liberty at home with some claim to guide it abroad. This could also be the greatest gift of a descendant of a slave who now occupies the position of Secretary of State in Washington to the Kurds whose plight casts a shadow on the decency of those who speak for the world.

The Kurdish parliamentarians who are now languishing in a Turkish prison in Ankara, Turkey are part and parcel of this larger Kurdish Question that refuses to go away. They first came into limelight in 1991, when Turkey under the leadership of Turgut Ozal experimented with the idea of glasnost and entertained, for a very short while it turned out, the practice of democracies, the unfettered representation for all the constituents whatever their views or hues. But the practice proved to be an entirely different thing. Eighteen Kurds, literally dodging insults, beatings and sometimes bullets were barely elected to the Turkish parliament.

Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman ever elected to a seat in the Turkish parliament, caused an uproar when she took her customary oath of office in Turkish and added in Kurdish, a forbidden language: “I am taking this oath for the brotherhood of the Turks and Kurds.” Proceedings that were broadcast live on all Turkish television stations — Turkey had only a few at the time — were interrupted. Eyewitnesses to the event later noted that, Leyla Zana was almost lynched.

Two years later, Leyla Zana was invited to the United States Congress to testify about the plight of the Kurds. She did. The authorities in Ankara, still hurting from her iconoclastic act in the parliament building, accused her of engaging in sedition. She had urged the members of the Clinton administration to side with the forces of freedom and put down the flames of war for the good of both Kurds and Turks. While Washington demurred, Ankara was building a dossier to land her in prison.

As a Turkish proverb puts it, a rooster that crawls too much gets beheaded first. As Leyla Zana continued to engage in her peaceful advocacy on behalf of the Kurds, those who were consumed with the hatred of the Kurds tried to stop her. A pack of hungry wolves followed her as if she were a sheep. In September 1993, she survived a bomb attack. Obscene phone calls were always accompanied with death threats. The death of a few army cadets after a bomb attack provided the authorities with the alibi to lift her immunity and arrest her and her friends at the exit of the Turkish parliament building.

Months later a most curious indictment hit the news stands alarming the friends of democracy in Turkey and abroad and delighting those who wanted to kill her and drink her blood. She was accused of fomenting hatred for speaking her mother tongue, Kurdish. Her testimony before the U. S. Congress was also cited as part of her treasonous act. Arrested on March 5, 1994, she was handed a sentence of 15 years on December 8, 1994.

Our vigil at the Sheridan Circle aims to free her and her friends who were elected with overwhelming margins by the Kurds but were denied to serve their times in the parliament. For us, the activists, the will of the Kurdish people is sacred. We want it to be restored, accepted and respected. We are calling on the friends of liberty around the world, to help us make our vigil a success by either taking part in it or supporting our resolution in the United States Congress.

It was an American revolutionary, John P. Curran, who said, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” We believe, after two hundred years, he is as relevant today as he was at the birth of this great nation. Our symbolic act is for freedom of Kurdish parliamentarians as well as a tribute to his memory. In this land of the free, we wish the fruits of liberty for Kurds who live in captivity. We hope our American friends will honor us with their presence as we gear ourselves for what looks like might be a very long vigil.

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