The breakup of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires in Eastern Europe and the Balkans was the result of a series of nationalist agitations that, at the end of the World War I, ushered in new nation-states. In the Middle East, by contrast, the dissolution of Ottoman dominion was the starting point of nationalist movements—Arab, Kurdish and Turkish, among others—that strove to win national territories in the shadow of intervention by the victorious powers of Western Europe and the Soviet heirs of the czars. The success of these new nationalist movements varied greatly. Turkish nationalists, who had the experience of administering a territorial state, managed to consolidate a republic in the heart of Anatolia. Others achieved an apparent, but questionable success.
“There’s not a kid in this neighborhood who hasn’t shined shoes or sold tissues,” says Mehmet, 19, laughing deeply. His is the black humor born of misfortune: Like so many Kurdish youths in Diyarbakır, seat of Turkey’s troubled southeast, Mehmet slowly made his way to the city with his family after watching his village burn during the war between Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas and the Turkish army in the 1990s. Temporary, off-the-books jobs are all that stave off hunger for countless families of Kurds settled in and around Diyarbakır since their forcible displacement from the subsistence economies of the countryside. Stark socioeconomic inequalities are nothing new for this region, of course.
By leaving Ankara, we became a party; by going into the Middle East, we became an army; when we go out into the world, we shall achieve a state.
Landing at the shiny new airport in Erbil, seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, I could not help but notice that the cleaning crews are not staffed with locals. The cleaners are from Southeast Asia, giving the impression that Iraqi Kurdistan is blessed with full employment and needs to import labor. Among the arriving passengers, however, were more than a dozen young Kurdish men who had been turned back from destinations—likely, in Europe—where they had gone in search of the same menial jobs that are now handed to migrant workers in their country.
Erstwhile kings of the mountains, Iraq’s Kurdish parties have become kingmakers in Baghdad. No federal government can be established without them—and they know it.
Like the Palestinians, the Kurds are routinely described as a “question.” The label refers, in one sense, to their status as a people who sought self-determination in the wake of World War I but whose claim is still unsettled. From the standpoint of the states that divided the population of Kurdistan among themselves, the Kurds are a “question” as the Palestinians are to Israel today, or as the Jews of Europe were in the past, a troublesome, bumptious minority and a running challenge to the states’ preferred notions of national identity.
On July 23, the day after the ruling Justice and Development Party won Turkey’s early parliamentary elections in a landslide, Onur Öymen, deputy chairman of the rival Republican People’s Party (CHP), interpreted the results as follows:
To what extent should national security trump democracy? Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, this question has been pertinent everywhere, but it is especially pressing in Turkey.
Diyarbakır, the political and cultural center of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces, displays its beauty in springtime. The surrounding plains and mountains, dusty and barren during the summer months, shine in shades of green and the rainbow colors of alpine flowers and herbs. Around the walls of the old city, parks bustle with schoolchildren, unemployed young men and refugees who were uprooted from their villages during the Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s.
Iran is not a Persian monolith, as it is often portrayed. Owing to waves of migration and foreign invasion over its long history, the Iranian plateau has become home to a diverse assortment of people speaking a range of languages and adhering to numerous creeds. The “Iranian” languages spoken in Iran include Persian, Kurdish, Luri, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Tat and Talish. But there are also Turkic languages such as Azeri and Turkmen, and Semitic languages such as Arabic, Hebrew and Assyrian. Likewise, Iranian citizens profess many different religious beliefs, including the dominant Shi‘i Islam, but also Sunni Islam and several kinds of Christianity.
“The aim of the Turkish armed forces is to ensure that the separatist terrorist organization bows down to the law and the mercy of the nation.” Thus did the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Hilmi Ozkok, brusquely dismiss the one-month ceasefire announced on August 19, 2005 by the Kurdistan People’s Congress (or Kongra-Gel). Kongra-Gel is the name adopted in 2003 by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had renewed its armed struggle with the Turkish state just over one year before proclaiming its latest truce.
Never have the gardens of Sarchinar and the slopes of Mount Azmar welcomed so many Kurdish families fleeing the heat of Suleimaniya than during the exceptionally long Indian summer of 2002. Squatting on the ground or sitting around tables, grilling shish-kebabs on improvised barbecues or unpacking home-cooked dishes, women dressed in colorful robes mix with men in traditional attire, listening to the last cassette of the Kurdish crooner Omar Dizai, drinking yogurt mixed with water, tea, beer or raki, while children run around nearby. The crowd revels late into the night, seemingly without a care in the world. "For once," says Azad, an engineer, "we Kurds are on the right side of the fence."
As the winds of war steadily gather strength in the West, the Iraqi Kurds walk a tightrope between US interests and Iraqi government threats. Recognizing that it has little control over US decision-making, the Kurdish leadership is struggling to strike a delicate balance between a US-led "regime change" and the preservation of hard-won gains in two self-rule enclaves in northern Iraq.
Six bodies uncovered in February during construction on an old Iraqi army base in Iraqi Kurdistan were grim reminders of the Ba'th regime's past genocidal policies towards the Kurds. "The past is ever present in Kurdistan," as one Kurdish journalist says. But little reminder is needed of past atrocities when the present provides an ongoing illustration.
Surrounded by four states that do not wish it well, officially embargoed, still divided by internal conflicts, Iraqi Kurdistan hasn't had it this good for years. Paradoxically, Kurds in northern Iraq are hoping everything stays exactly the way it is.
"If the government comes back we lose everything," says 35-year old farmer Chasim Abdullah Azi. Azi leans his wooden-stock Kalashnikov in the corner of his hut, taking off his shoes for tea. He needs the gun to protect the sheep, he says. "My kids are small so they don't know."
This document is excerpted from a longer report by the Netherlands Kurdistan Society, Forced Evictions and Destruction of Villages in Dersim (Tunceli) and the Western Part of Bingöl, Turkish Kurdistan, September-November 1994 (Amsterdam, 1995).
The emergence of legal Kurdish parties and the frequent occurrence of death squad-style political assassinations were two developments in Turkey’s political life during the 1990s. For the first time in Turkey’s history, there was a group in the parliament that represented — if only implicitly — Kurdish nationalist opinion and systematically protested humans rights violations against Kurds. At the same time, a number of influential Kurdish political and community leaders were killed, many of their deaths described as “murders by unknown actors” because the police usually failed to find the assassins.