‘So’, the young man in the group I talk to in a park in Sirnak summarizes, ‘you are looking for several Kurds to interview about the situation thirty years after the first PKK attack on the Turkish state, and that will be published in the Netherlands? Somebody is interested in that?’ He laughs; he just cannot believe it. I can only say: ‘Yes’, and shrug my shoulders.
I understand why he doesn’t believe it. The world’s media don’t have history of showing much interest in the Kurds. And if the Kurds are written about, it is often in the context of the country they are living in. Kurds as a nation of their own, with their own history, their own culture, language, politics, dreams and problems, are somehow not very ‘sexy’.
Examples? It’s been hard to write about the thirty year struggle of the Kurds against suppression in Turkey. It’s a long-lasting conflict, which usually only attracts the media’s attention when something exceptional happens (like in 1999, when Öcalan was captured) or when the violence takes a higher than usual toll (like when more than 20 soldiers die in one attack). Human rights abuses? They happen anywhere in the world, so they have to be exceptionally cruel to make it to the media. Tortured Kurds? Who cares?
You see the same in Iraq. The world’s media gather in Erbil as soon as ISIS is starting to take over much of Iraq. Kurdistan is safe so they make their stories from there. When you’re lucky, they call the region by its name ‘Kurdistan Region’, but often ‘Kurdish region’ seems to be the way to refer to Kurdistan. Why is Kurdistan safe? Who are these Kurds, building a successful semi-autonomous state in which there is place for minorities’ rights? No wait, that’s a good news story. Good news is no news – with an exception for oil stories of course, but preferably when there is a conflict.
How much good news is no news I noticed last week, when I pitched a story to a human rights magazine about the human rights situation in Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan. I wanted to focus on child soldiers, whom the military force in Rojava, the YPG, had started to demobilize. The YPG promised to not arm minors anymore, and those children who do show up and refuse to be send home (if they have a home to return to in the first place) will be kept in separate camps, far away from any hostilities, where they will get educated, get exercise and free time.
‘Hmm, not too spectacular, right?’ the editor mailed. The Kurds are doing good, incredibly good, when it comes to human rights; they are an example for the whole region and their solutions and institutions deserve attention, but sorry, it’s just not a story. Suspicion is part of it too, I sometimes notice. Can there really be a military force in Syria that seriously demobilizes child soldiers? Can there really be a Middle-Eastern, a Muslim people that actually cares about women’s rights and puts its beliefs into practice? The Kurds are almost too good to be true.
Definitely, Syria is the saddest example at the moment. There too, the Kurds are seen within the reality of the dissolving country. The Kurds have been fighting ISIS for some eighteen months now, but their territory is small, there are many international interests at stake, and nobody writes about it. Now there are continuous ISIS attacks of the Kobani canton of Rojava. The Kurds stand strong, but they don’t get help from anybody, while ISIS has a whole new arsenal of weapons seized in Iraq. How much longer can the Kurds, who brilliantly set up their own administration and managed to keep their region relatively stable and peaceful, withstand ISIS? Who is going to help them out? Who is going to speak up for them? Up till now, nobody. The Kurds are usually not even represented at international conferences about the countries where they live, because they have no state. They are usually ‘represented’ by the states that oppress them.
‘Can we trust you?’, another young man in the group asks. What am I to answer? Would I say ‘No’ if I were untrustworthy? If I were an ‘agent’, as they most likely suspect? So that’s what I answer: ‘Yes you can trust me, but I have no way to prove that. If you don’t trust me, there is little I can do to change your mind. The distrust comes from you, from your experiences, not from something I did. Or it must be that I live here, that I write about Kurds. I understand you consider that to be very suspicious. I know where that is coming from. That’s all I can say.’
Let’s see in the coming days if that has helped. But no doubt one way or the other I will get the story I am after. When it’s printed, I will send a copy to these young men, who are heard by almost nobody. Some journalists, some media, do see what Kurdistan has to offer in its own right. Or, in journalism jargon: that Kurds definitely are sexy.