The mythical land of Kurdistan, high up in the mountains, safe from persecution and tyranny, a land that the Kurds can finally call their own- it is this myth that has propelled the Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Turkey and for the recognition of their rights in Iraq and Iran. The Kurds, numbering approximately 15-20 million (depending on who compiled the statistics) are an ethnic and linguistic group residing in the Taurus Mountains of eastern Anatolia, the Zagros Mountains of western Iraq, northern Iraq and adjacent areas. The Kurds are most prominent in Turkey where they constitute almost 20% of the population. Most Kurds are Sunnite Muslims but among them are also many Sufis and other sects. The Kurds have for long demanded a separate homeland encompassing parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
Following the First World War and Woodrow Wilson’s proclamations regarding self determination, the Kurds were enthused enough to present their case for a separate state at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. The Treaty of Sevres of 1920 was a lost opportunity for the Kurds as it recognised the setting up of a separate state called Kurdistan. But this was never to be. With the revival of Turkey under Kemal Ataturk, Kurdish ambitions remained unfulfilled and the later Treaty of Lausanne (1923) contained no mention of a separate homeland. The coming to power of Ataturk marked a change in Kurdish fortunes. Revolts by the Kurds in Turkey in 1925 and 1930 were forcibly suppressed. Apart from the physical repression, there was an attempt by the Turkish government to strip them of their identity and heritage. The Kurds were designated as ‘Mountain Turks’ rather than a separate ethnic group, their language was outlawed, they could not set up their own educational institutions and even the traditional Kurdish dress was banned. With the coming to power of the Ba’ath party in Iraq in 1958, the Kurds may have hoped for a reprieve. Their hopes were quickly belied. They were only granted limited autonomy that most Kurdish leaders considered hopelessly inadequate.
Kurdish nationalism took on an organized form only in the 1970s and 1980s with the formation of the PKK (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Started as a movement in 1974 by the charismatic student leader Abdullah Ocalan, it was formally founded as a party, in November 1978. While their initial resistance to the Turkish state did not attract much attention, post 1984 the conflict became messier and bloodier. The Turkish government imposed emergency on the southeastern provinces and the PKK retaliated with violence. It is believed that between 1984-1997, over 26,000 lives were lost.
In the 1990s, Kurdish fortunes took a turn for the worse when they were again the victims of chemical warfare unleashed by Saddam Hussein (they had been gassed earlier by the British using mustard gas in the 1920s and 30s). The US government, which had encouraged the Kurds to rebel at the conclusion of the Gulf War, suddenly withdrew support and the Kurds were massacred by Saddam’s troops, most notoriously at Halabja where in one hour chemical warfare killed 5000 Kurds. The UN’s attempt to create a ‘safe haven’ for the Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1991 failed miserably as UN personnel withdrew at the first sign of trouble and Saddam’s forces over ran Irbil.
In Turkey, in the meanwhile, there was some sign of progress under the new Prime Minister Turgut Ozal who was willing to negotiate with the PKK. The PKK changed its demands from independence to autonomy and a ceasefire was in place by 1993. However, the death of Ozal resulted in a resumption of hostilities. This time, the Turkish state responded with brutality. Villages were evacuated and burnt by Turkish troops, forcing the Kurds to flee to the urban areas. 70,00 Kurdish villagers were provided arms to ‘defend’ themselves against the PKK and if they refused, the villages in question were burnt. The Kurds retaliated with violence of their own, especially in Germany where many of them re-settled. The PKK firebombed Turkish newspapers, businesses, cultural centres throughout Germany. The German government banned the PKK and Kurdish demonstrations in major German cities in 1996 led to violent clashes with the German police.
Turkey now changed its tactics vis-à-vis the Kurds and the PKK in particular. The strategy was to bring more moderate Kurdish groups to the negotiating table and isolate the PKK while simultaneously trying to wipe them out militarily. The PKK in 1995 and 1996 declared cease fires but to no avail. Ocalan was forced out of hiding in Syria, captured by the Turkish authorities after trying to seek refuge in different embassies across Europe, tried and eventually sentenced to death.
This sordid tale of crushed hopes and brutality is still not over. The Ocalan saga continues and he remains for many an incarcerated hero. His Turkish supporters call him “Apo”, the Kurdish word for ‘uncle’ but many Turks see him as a murderer and a terrorist. “Even if 100,000 people die this year, our movement cannot be disrupted,” he declared in 1992”. But his belligerence was tempered over time by military reverses. By the time of his trial he had alienated many extremist Kurds with his new moderate agenda and his call for political dialogue with Turkey. In September 2002, Turkey commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment and he will now spend the rest of his days in a lonely prison cell in Imrali, south of Istanbul.
Apart from the brief heroics of Ocalan, the Kurdish cause has been largely forgotten by Western governments. It is interesting to note that the same governments that condemn Saddam for his gassing of the Kurds in 1988, are more than willing to provide aid to Turkey, a key NATO ally, that has for years, systematically used its state machinery to eradicate not just the Kurds but the Kurdish way of life. Even those Turks who believe that Ocalan is no innocent choir boy were appalled at the way the Turkish government publicly paraded a handcuffed Ocalan after his capture, arousing indignation and protest from Kurds across Europe. Of course, the Kurds have become a pawn in the latest imbroglio in Iraq as well. While some may believe that the Kurds would welcome US intervention in Iraq, many Kurds themselves do not want war. They remember the Allied betrayal and Halabja all too clearly and fear that a US attack on Iraq would endanger them. The recent international demonstrations against the war saw Kurds join the anti war protesters most notably in London carrying banners proclaiming ‘The Kurds don’t want war, do you?’
In fact, as I write this, war is looking increasingly likely in Iraq. In that case, already embittered relations between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq could worsen further. This is especially likely given that Turkey will probably close its border to refugees once the bombing starts. Currently in the north of Iraq the Kurds live in a fairly secure enclave, protected by the no fly zone. There are of course internal divisions between the two principal parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But all this could change once the war breaks out. The Kurds live in fear of another chemical attack, of being hounded out of their safe haven, of being denied asylum by Turkey and of becoming pawns in a complex international game that they do not care for, and where no one really cares for them.
For the Kurds, there external threats are not all that they must grapple with. They have consistently struggled to develop a sense of community and nationhood. They have failed to resolve the question of how an ethnic group should seek to transform itself into a nation especially when they have no common geographical territory to call their own. Perhaps, the common language they share, a West Iranian language related to Farsi and Pashto, could be the necessary binding factor. Perhaps the common ancestry they share could be used as a tool to build cohesion. Or perhaps, they could just evoke memories of that mythical land in the mountains, safe from the outside world, where the Kurds hope they will one day find true peace.
Yes, there are many Kurds who want war. But there are possibly an equal number that don't. If you are interested in the Kurdish response to the prospect of war in the Middle East, check out http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/2791229.stm