At the end of March, local elections will be held in Turkey. The political contest in Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the southeast of the country, will be one of the most exciting. Wordt Vervolgd talked to Kurdish youth there. Will the voter let his Kurdish or Islamic identity be heard at the ballot box?
Diyarbakir – Don’t mention brotherhood to Tirvan (not his real name). He knows some Kurds feel brotherhood with Turks and want to solve the Kurdish question together with their Turkish brothers, but not him. ‘The Turks never treated us as brothers. Kurds played an important role in the Turkish war of independence ninety years ago, but after that were only denied and humiliated.’
Tirvan (23) tells his story in the hall of a deserted hotel. In this neighbourhood, within walking distance of the Diyarbakir’s city centre, are the tea houses where young, aggressive Kurds know exactly who to talk to if they want to be a PKK fighter. Tirvan has been about to take up arms several times, but concern for his sick mother has so far stopped him. ‘When she dies, I see no more reason to stay in the city. And all the more reason to go to the mountains and fight for my people.’
Pro-Kurdish DTP, Democratic Society Party, now holds the mayor’s post with popular mayor Osman Baydemir, but the governing AKP party gets support because of its Islamic character and its power at national level. The question is: will the voter let his Kurdish or Islamic voice be heard at the ballot box?
Besides this conflict there is another one in the southeast demanding attention: the one between the Turkish army and the Kurdish separatist movement PKK. This is a fight closely connected to the elections. The AKP got a lot of support in the last local elections, in 2004, partly because they promised the region a big economic boost and more rights for Kurds. Those promises have not been kept. More importantly, since one and a half years ago the Turkish army was given a free hand to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq, the number of casualties has risen dramatically among both military and PKK fighters. That’s exactly what makes young guys like Tirvan consider taking up arms. ‘Turkey betrayed the Kurds time and time again. I don’t trust this country anymore.’
A good goal
Tirvan will vote on March 29. For the DTP of course, he says without any passion. ‘We have more rights than before, but that’s no thanks to politicians but thanks to the PKK. That’s also why the PKK has to keep on fighting until the Kurdish identity is fully recognised. Prime Minister Erdogan comes to this region at election time and says he will make an effort for Kurds, but a few days later in parliament he once again says that in Turkey ‘we are all Turks’. What good is such a man? Becoming a PKK fighter would be a good goal in my life. I have nothing, no education and no work, and no city and no country where I can feel at home and be myself. In the mountains I would belong to something and make a real contribution.’
Kader (24) sees that the position of Kurds has improved over the last few years. Before, politicians would simply deny that Kurds existed and the Kurdish language was forbidden. Now it is acknowledged that the Kurdish question exists, the language is no longer forbidden (even though Kurdish may not be used at political events and in communication between government and civilians, something that some municipalities in the southeast would like to do to reach their citizens better), and the Turkish state television even started a Kurdish channel.
But, according to Kader, these are just sweeteners and far from what she says is real recognition of the Kurdish identity in the Turkish constitution and a society that no longer sees Kurds as second-grade citizens. ‘For that, the Turkish education system also has to change, because it turns young Turks into nationalists.’ Does she want an independent Kurdish state? ‘No, it’s not about borders. It’s about we Kurds, like Turks, having lived on this land for centuries and just having the right to live our own culture.’
Kader is active for the youth organisation of DTP in Diyarbakir, a big and passionate group of young Kurds. For three days now they have been holding meetings to make decisions about the elections. During the breaks they walk up and down the hallway, smoking and calling each other ‘comrade’. In their meeting room there are a few pictures on the wall of young men who lost their lives as PKK fighters, on the cupboard there are huge piles of the youth magazine Yurtsever Gençler (Fatherland-Loving Youth) and prominently a portrait of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. His arrest on a charge of terrorism and separatism in 1999 caused a wave of shock in the, at the time, very young Kader. ‘From that moment on I wanted to do something for my people’, she says. She joined a Kurdish women’s movement that now works together with the DTP, despite fierce protest from her father and brothers: ‘I come from a traditional Kurdish family in which the father and brothers are in charge. A woman that wants to go into politics and develop herself, could diminish their power. But, well’, she laughs, ‘young Kurdish people are stubborn, so I went anyway.’
Kader explains how she first had to become aware of being a woman before she could focus on liberating the Kurdish people. ‘I only attended primary school, but in the women’s movement and in the DTP I have learned so much.’ For example, she says, about how the armed struggle is connected to the fight for democracy: ‘Thirty years of armed struggle has put the Kurdish question on the agenda, but now we have to work from the inside out too.’ She explains that the Kurds should not only point their finger at the Turkish government and the Turkish army when it comes to a lack of rights, but also at themselves: ‘How much equality do we have in Kurdish society? In the families? How much are Kurdish children stimulated at home to make something of their lives, of their future? A lot of work needs to be done, and I feel so useful when I join projects in which we invest in families, in children, in the future of our people. Without this effort on a democratic level the holy deaths in the mountains are worth nothing.’
Besides being a city of emigrants from villages, a city of pverty and Kurdish resistance, Diyarbakir is also a university city of some fame. Youth from around the region come to study at Dicle University. Because studying and trying to guarantee a good future for yourself , is another way to break away from poverty and inferiority. It’s exactly the choice that Celil Can Çetin (22) made. He is in his fourth year of dentistry and not involved in politics at all. ‘Becoming a dentist is not my boyhood dream, but I will be able to make a living with it. That’s my most important goal. My family pays a lot of money to send me to university, so it’s my responsibility to finish my studies as soon as possible and start earning an income.’
Not that the Kurdish question is not close to Can Çetin’s heart. ‘I am pro Kurdish education. Children must learn their mother tongue. I learned Kurdish as a child but I forgot it again after I moved to Antalya with my family. I feel very sad about forgetting it. But if you plea for Kurdish education in Antalya or whichever Turkish city, you are immediately considered a separatist. And I’m definitely not a separatist. On the contrary: I feel Kurdish, but also Arabic because my mother is Arabic, and a bit Turkish because I grew up in Antalya and have a lot of Turkish friends. Yes, a bit Turkish. I keep some distance from that part of my identity because I don’t feel totally accepted by Turkey.’
Especially because of his mixed background – not a rare thing in southeast Turkey – Celil still has a lot of faith in the future of peoples that have been living together on Anatolian soil for so long. ‘But Turkey could show more brotherhood. Or at least have more faith in the will of people to live together. Turks are my brothers, I don’t want to be separated from them. And not from the rest of Turkey either, for that matter. Imagine if ‘Kurdistan’ were to exist, in what sort of country would I live then? Closed off, unwanted by its neighbouring countries. Now after my studies I at least have the possibility, if I want to, to get away from this city and build a better life somewhere else in Turkey.’
Kurds: no Kurdistan
It’s a persistent misunderstanding that a big majority of the Turkish Kurds want an independent Kurdistan. Bekir Agirdir, researcher at Konda Research in Istanbul, published a big survey of Turkish Kurds’ feeling of identity at the end of 2008, and he concludes from the results that only about a fifth of the approximately 15 million Kurds in Turkey want an independent Kurdistan: ‘For example, we used sample statements to find what Kurds think is the cause of the problems faced by Kurds in Turkey. More then 90 percent believe the state treats Kurds differently, and even more Kurds believe it’s because Kurds want to express their own identity. Only thirty percent believe the problems are caused by Kurds wanting their own state.’
The research also showed that about half of the Kurds identify themselves as Kurds, but almost the same amount of Kurds think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims. For about a third of them, apart from their Kurdish or Islamic identity, their Turkish identity is also very important.’
At the end of 2007 another bureau investigated whether Turkish Kurds would want to live in an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Only one percent answered that they would move immediately, while an overwhelming majority of 95 percent claimed to prefer to stay in Turkey.
For more than a year now, there has been a court case going on against the pro-Kurdish DTP: the prosecutor claims the party should be banned because of ties with the PKK and for campaigning for separatism. If the party is closed down before the elections, DTP candidates could stand as independent candidates. Even though that wouldn’t help Diyarbakir’s DTP mayor Osman Baydemir: the prosecutor is also demanding a ban on political activity by several prominent DTP politicians, including Baydemir. Political analyst Ahan Özkan however doesn’t think that the case will conclude before the elections: ‘I believe there is a silent deal between the AKP, the DTP and the prosecutor to keep the DTP going at least till the elections. It would be a very bad signal to ban a party that is important in the local elections at this moment. The Kurdish independent candidates would of course do much better after such a ban and the AKP would lose votes. A ban now doesn’t do anybody any good.’