Autonomy or Independence: The Kurds of Turkey (Sanliurfa, Turkey)

“Turkish people don’t go east, but we go west. We have no problem. We open business. We can go anywhere, but the Turks don’t come to the south-east,” says Hazhir, the name I have given my Kurdish host to protect his identity.

Hazhir asks for my discretion even outside this interview by illustrating a possible scenario.

“Some people don’t talk politics outside because special police in no uniform, like you like me, come. They speak languages very well, many languages, special person. They talk with you. Find out you stay in Kurdish guesthouse. ‘Ahh, I’m Kurdish too. We want autonomy,’ like that. And then after they come to me and put me in jail, close this place, stamp two-year, three-year [ban on conducting business], I cannot open again.”

Discussing Kurdish politics in Turkey is, for those like Hazhir, a difficult and even dangerous game.

The Kurds form the largest minority in Turkey and have been struggling, sometimes violently, with Turks for their voice to be heard.

Hazhir breaks down the Kurdish population figures:

“Turkey: 20 million. Five million in Iraq. Four to five million in Iran. Three million in Syria. Big population in Turkey, in south-eastern Anatolia.”

These are approximate figures. Tallying the Kurdish people in the many countries they inhabit skews the numbers to make their regional population seem more significant than it really is.

Facing the clear situation of a nation without a state, Hazhir explains some of their political goals. “We want autonomy, and they don’t want to give me autonomy. Not a different country. Outside together, inside different – like Spain, Basque, Barcelona, like Catalonia, like that. But we want, they don’t.”

“We have a parliament in Ankara. The Peace Democrat Party. Kurdish like very much democracy.”

Asli Postaci, a PhD political science candidate at Yeditepe Univeristy in Istanbul, who has joined me for this conversation with Hazhir, questions the preference of autonomy over independence that Hazhir argues for so vehemently. “Until recently the PKK [the Kurdistan Worker’s Party] and other Kurdish entities supported separation but they seem to have changed their goal to ‘autonomy’.

“Can this be due to the problems a separation would cause in the region?” she asks. Postaci is alluding to Turkey as a strategic player in an unstable and oil-rich region.

Postaci disagrees. “The Kurdish people are always talking about democracy but they don’t have a real sense of democracy.”

She believes that the Kurdish tendency to advocate for democracy is contradicted by their attitude towards women.

“They think that each person is one vote so they have big families. But do you think that in their homes the men act democratically? Do they ask their wives opinions? Women’s rights in Kurdish culture are non-existent. They only eat after the men do and then away from them in the kitchen where they can’t be seen.”

This lack of rights that Postaci highlights is something that many times results in more than just hunger: Kurdish women are sacred to the point that they should die before being disgraced.

Hazhir explains, “Kurdish culture very different. After married, we go in tent and after bring out blood sheet. No blood, big problem. Kill woman, like that. Very different Kurdish culture.”

The women’s’ own reaction to their disgrace is, in many occasions, self-inflicted violence. “A big social problem you see with the Kurds is the high rate of suicide amongst women,” Postaci states.

“This doesn’t mean that they are more depressed, but simply it is the choice that their family presents them with. ‘Do it for your family, so your family doesn’t have to do it themselves,’ they say. Or if not, they stage the suicide. The Turkish police aren’t going to investigate further.”

If a Kurdish woman keeps her sacredness, her future will most certainly consist of reproducing. Large families are characteristic of Kurdish culture.

Hazhir, for example, only in his sixties, has seven children, and a remarkable thirty-three grandchildren. I met his eldest son, Ado, who has six children of his own.

“I hope next year we have baby,” Ado says seriously. “Important, children for Kurdish.” He shows me his ten fingers.

“Kurdish family of ten – one die – nine.” He puts down a finger to show nine.

“Turkish, small family, two children.” Again, he shows me with his fingers. “One die, one child left.”

A small smile appears on his face, as he shows me a lonely finger. For him and for all Kurds, this simple mathematical calculation is sure to result in Kurdish autonomy—at least eventually.

Hazhir adds to his son’s calculations. “Slowly, slowly, we will be okay. Fast is no good.”

The belief that the ‘one person one vote’ method as a path to Kurdish autonomy is a recent one. There are times where the Kurds indeed used ‘fast’ methods to fight for independence.

“Twelve years ago we were fighting very bad. But now police come, we drink tea together. Before big problem. Now little. We have to fight and everybody fight. All the young were fighting, they take guns and go to the mountains. Guerrilla, ten thousand guerrillas in the mountains fighting army, police. The [Turkish] army was afraid because the guerrillas were very strong.”

Somehow the past decades of fighting for independence have overlapped with the current slow waiting period for autonomy, and it’s not very clear if the fighting is still going on.

“Turkish police very strong. They can make anything happen. They take Kalashnikov gun, come here, knock on door.” Hazhir recounts a common dialogue between Kurds and Turkish police in the days of fighting:

“Who is it?”

“It’s police, we come for operation, some terrorists here.”

“No, we are normal family. If we are terrorist, if we are guerrillas, we will take gun and go to mountain. We would not stay here.”

“No, open!”

“We opened door twenty, twenty-five years ago,” Hazhir narrates. “They smell like dog. They want to kill Kurdish people. Everybody come one room. Everyone afraid and they kill everyone. Like that.”

Postaci interjects with a possible explanation for this conflict and disastrous results. “The families have many kids and most of them become guerrillas, so many families who seem to have a normal life have a deep attachment with the guerrillas,” she says.

“The police or military sometimes suspects that a family supplies food, etc. to PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party) members and they investigate the issue. The families defend themselves by saying that they would go to the mountains if they were PKK members. Obviously, these supplies are vital for PKK to exist, so the state tries to seize the aid.”

Hazhir continues, “Army kill people, and cover them in land, like nothing. In the front you can dig and find people dead underground, twelve Kurdish people. But not just twelve, more, hundreds. They want to finish Kurdish families like in Armenia.”

Past atrocities are still vividly remembered and are present in the reality of the Kurdish.

“We will go to my son’s to watch Kurdish TV,” says Hazhir. “Official TV, but we can’t show in guesthouse. Not illegal, but they will say ‘you show foreign people propaganda.’ We can’t show here – official place you cannot. Terrorist propaganda, and my place is finished,” Hazhir laments.

The Kurdish household demonstrates the hospitality that exists within the state, a state that they hope will one day be autonomous –

We go back to Ado’s and begin to watch one of the two channels. The first channel is Kurdish news; protests going on in Diyarbakir, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan province of North Iraq, celebrating a new oil deal and car bombs in Kirkuk as Kurds try to claim it for Kurdistan.

The second channel is music videos. Kurdish pop stars follow Kurdish folk heroes, and political anthems in their importance.

What each video has in common is the Kurdish struggle for freedom. The guerrillas marching in the mountains, real-life footage of Kurdish demonstrators throwing Molotov-cocktails and rocks at Turkish police, and countless montages of Abdullah Öcalan, arrested political and militant leader of the PKK, also known as Apo (uncle).

This is what Turkey deems terrorist propaganda. All of these images imply that the fight is still very much alive.

The international community is aware of the hostilities in the region, yet news about it is hard to come by. The European Union is especially concerned. I ask Hazhir what he thinks about Turkey joining the EU.

“Some Turkish people don’t want, but every Kurdish people want. Because if Turkey joins European Union, they can’t fight Kurdish, they must give Kurdish autonomy. No European Union if they keep fighting.”

With so many Kurds in the region, I ask Hazhir how Kurds are treated in other countries. “North Iraq very nice, no war. Kurdistan not like Baghdad. They have army, very good people. No oppression. Go to Kurdistan. No Americans. American help, Jewish help North Iraq. Money, guns, technology.”

Hazhir continues, “They want to make an army station in Kurdistan. America doesn’t help for free. They help for money, for oil or war. Always things like that, always bad way, not good way.”

Terrorist propaganda, the phrase is repeated constantly. I go to Kiziltepe to speak with Murat, an Arab-Turk who teaches Kurdish children in a Turkish school.

“All children are Kurdish – nine years-old. I teach them Turkish,” says Murat. He pulls out his mobile phone to show me a video of his class. It is of a little shy-looking girl and she is singing to her class. “I don’t speak Kurdish,” Murat says, “but I understand this word: guerrilla. They sing songs like that.”

The whole class begins to join in with her.

In Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital of Turkey, I meet with another teacher, this time a Turkish woman from Ankara named Serpil.

I tell her that I was walking in the wrong part of town and two children threw stones at me. She wasn’t surprised.

“They see this kind of thing on TV and it is celebrated. Nobody is there to tell them what they are doing is wrong. They are brought up seeing this violence as something good, so they throw rocks at you because that is what they know.”

Hazhir adds, “Diyarbakir is no problem, Kurdish can do anything. It’s like capital city. Two million people and they are very strong. Even children are like this, they fight the police.”

Postaci, the PhD student, gives more insight into the conflict, and introduces probable outcomes from creating an autonomous Kurdish nation. “It is not realistic to assume that the Turks would agree to give up a part of the territory without a fight,” she says.

She concludes by asking, “Would the Western world favour a division which would cause a long-term turmoil in the region?” The question is rhetorical. More brutal things have happened in international relations.

Originally Published for Dispatches International 12/02/2011

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One thought on “Autonomy or Independence: The Kurds of Turkey (Sanliurfa, Turkey)

  1. Pingback: Turkey Protests (Alternatives International) | Fictionalized Truth in Motion

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