Kurds ain’t sexy

A colleague told me that a few months ago. ‘Kurds just ain’t sexy’, she said. As I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about the attractiveness of Kurds, I figured she must be meaning it in a journalistic sense. Sexy being sellable. That when you propose a story about Kurds to any media, they immediately jump on you. Kurds! Yes, we want a story about Kurds!

I can see where she is coming from. She is talking about five, ten, fifteen years ago. The news about Kurds in Turkey was dominated by the war between the state and the PKK. It was dragging on. Foreign media would only want a story about it if there was something actually changing in the conflict (read an earlier post about that here), if more than maybe twenty people died in one attack, or when it affected tourism.

Headlines when PKK leader Öcalan was arrested. Headlines when violence flared up. Headlines about a bomb on the beach. And occasionally a story about human rights abuses, but since they happen everywhere in the world, they have to be exceptional to get more than a few lines.

Some 40 million world-wide

The same counts for the Kurds in Iraq. They were interesting mostly when related to the Gulf wars and the American presence in Iraq. The Kurds in Iraqi perspective, just as the Kurds in Turkey were mostly written about in a Turkish context. Despite being a people, a nation of some 40 million world-wide, the stories about Kurds were always put in the perspective of the countries the Kurdish lands are divided over.

And those in Iran and Syria? Oh, there are Kurds there too?

I understand my colleague, but I don’t agree with her. The Kurds are becoming more sexy every day. Developments in every country in the region where Kurds live contribute to that, but I prefer to see it from a Kurdish perspective. Don’t see the Kurds only as citizens of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but as a nation in their own right, with their own political, social and economic dynamics. Who are no longer subject to whatever happens in their countries, but increasingly help define the present and future of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, and even the wider region.


They help define the course Turkey is taking, now that their thirty year old struggle has lead to peace negotiations between their most important leader, Öcalan, and the government. Not that the process is going anywhere, but the Kurdish issue is talked about more openly than ever, the Kurds are confident and really don’t need an armed struggle anymore to demand and take their rights.

The Kurds in Iraq have had autonomy for years now and have managed to keep their lands very peaceful compared to the rest of the country. The economic boom in Iraqi Kurdistan is redefining the Iraqi economy as a whole, and reshaping foreign relations from both the Kurdish capital Hewler and the national capital Baghdad.

The Syrian Kurds have decided not to take sides in the civil war in Syria, but instead carve out autonomy for themselves. With a regional administration, a swearing in ceremony in the three languages that are spoken in Syrian Kurdistan and elections to be planned before the summer, they set a democratic example for the Middle East.

More influential

The developments together are more than just the product of its component parts. They accumulate into a dynamic that will make the Kurds stronger, more influential and confident. Intriguing in itself, and who knows how this will affect the Kurds in Iran, for now the most invisible group?

Can it get any sexier? And lucky me: I am going to report it, now that I have finished my book about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, which I explain by a thorough investigation into the Uludere/Roboski massacre of 28 December 2011. (It will be published in the Netherlands around 20 February, and you can pre order it here. I am working on English and Turkish and possibly Kurdish translations and will keep you posted on that.)

Once a week

As the only foreign correspondent based in the unofficial capital of the Kurds, Diyarbakir, I have started to  interest media worldwide in stories about the Kurds, and convincing them how sexy they are.

First, I got the opportunity to report with my own page on the American journalism site Beaconreader. I will publish a story about Kurds and (the whole of!) Kurdistan at least once a week, and you can subscribe to that for only $5 per month. The first story is an interview with the famous Turkish sociologist and expert on Kurds Ismail Besikci, which I link to the Syria conference that started this week in Geneva, to which the Kurds were not invited.

Currently I am working on my first story about the Kurdish issue in Turkey for an English language paper – I will publish it on this site too, stay tuned. I have plans to write for more international media, and am expanding my network to that end now. It looks promising! And starting next week, I will publish a weekly column on the new Turkish website Diken (Thorn), and also report for them from the Kurdish regions of Turkey.

The Kurds ain’t sexy? We’ll see about that!


It’s all vanity. I just couldn’t resist when national IMC-TV asked me to be on their late night show to talk about developments in the Kurdish issue. In Turkish. Vanity, a will to be part of the debate, a wish to speak out. Could I do that properly in Turkish? The funny answer is: I’m not sure.

I know my subject, I don’t doubt that. I have an opinion about it. And I try to analyze what’s happening – that’s the hardest part. While formulating my thoughts, I always wonder if there is something I have overlooked, any development I failed to take into account, or if I’m not too negative, or too positive. I think nuance is very important, and so is admitting sometimes that you just don’t know the answers to some questions. Especially when it comes to the Kurdish issue in Turkey, there are so many blanks. What is happening behind the scenes? So when you talk on TV, you want to show that you know your subject, but also that you realize there are many unknowns and not every question can be answered.

Less seriously

In Dutch, that’s easy. In English I can do that too. But in Turkish? Nowhere near as well, of course. And that made me very nervous and insecure. More insecure than I need to be, actually. Because for IMC-TV, and for other TVstations I’ve appeared on (AHaber and CNNTürk), perfect Turkish isn’t necessary. All they are interested in is how a foreigner, one who actually moved to Diyarbakir as the only foreign journalist in the country, looks at the matter.

That my language has flaws is not at all a reason for them to take me less seriously. On the contrary: speaking in Turkish, even if it’s broken, is considered way better than in perfect English with a simultaneous translator, which would be seen as arrogant.

One mistake

So if speaking in Turkish as a foreigner actually contributes to my credibility, why would I be insecure about it? For one of course because I want to explain myself as good as possible, but I think it also has to do with where I come from, the Netherlands. There you have to speak flawless Dutch before anybody will take you seriously in a debate. How well you know Dutch seems to get linked to your intelligence. One mistake and you’re out! And giggled at, at least. Even though I find this ridiculous, it does play a part in how I judge myself. I take myself less seriously because my Turkish isn’t flawless. How stupid is that?

In short: it was a nerve-wrecking experience, and my most difficult TV appearance ever. I hope it takes some time – let’s say five years – before I’m asked again, so I have time to further improve my Turkish. And if there are any earlier invitations? I’m afraid I won’t turn them down. Like I said: it’s all vanity 😉

Want to see the show? I’m not sure if it’s online already, but I admit I didn’t really search properly. 

The boys are dead

Life was good in Gülyazi, I heard. Poor and not easy, but good. Happy, even. I wish I had been here a year and a day ago, so I could have experienced it myself. But a year and a day ago, I, like many other people, had never heard of a place called Gülyazi, a town in the Uludere district.

Everything changed last year. With a bombing in which 34 villagers were killed, twenty of them children. They were smuggling, like the people of this region have done for decades to earn a living, and were ‘mistaken for PKK fighters’. Thirty four bodies ripped to pieces and burned beyond recognition  – they were smuggling petrol.

Who gave the order to bomb?

It is as I predicted after the bombing: the state has done nothing but cover up the Uludere massacre. A commission was set up in parliament – a subsidiary commission of the parliamentary human rights commission – and several times they announced a date for release of the report with their findings, but the report never came and has now been postponed to January. But in no way can I pat myself on the back for predicting this. Anybody could have known this in advance, because till now the state has never answered any questions about murders they have committed, now or in the past.

That’s why my next prediction is easy too: even if the report is ever published, it will give the villagers none of the answers they need. Where did the intelligence come from, who interpreted it and how, and based on which information was the decision taken to bomb the smugglers? How come the one(s) ordering the bombing didn’t know that the smugglers were on their way again, like it was always notified to the gendarmes? Or did they know? Who gave the order to bomb? Why did it take so long before help came to the place where the bombing happened, to try to save the lives of the few people who didn’t instantly die?

A sincere show of regret

I visited Gülyazi right after the bombing – read the publications of those days here – and I came back for two weeks in spring, and I returned again for the Feast of Sacrifice, in October. And now I am here again, to commemorate the loss of 34 lives and to report about what’s happening.

I have seen no healing in this year. The people don’t get the chance to heal. The state is scratching the wound open over and over again. Not only because they don’t give any answers to all the questions, but also because cruel things have been said by several members of the government (read an example here), no sincere apology has come. The damages the state says it has paid were not accepted by the people. Culturally, it is not necessarily a bad idea to apologize for and compensate a loss with money, but it only works when it is accompanied by a sincere show of regret, and with opening up.

Old men at the graveyard, 27 December 2012

What has struck me this year and what really makes me so sad is how the bombing has affected everybody in the village in so many ways. For example, in October I talked to a 17 year old boy who I had talked to earlier that year as well. I just wanted to chat a bit, so I asked how school was going. He had to quit school, he said. He couldn’t concentrate anymore after what happened, he failed all his classes and he had to pay a lot of money before the principle of the school would allow him to do the same school year again. His family didn’t have that kind of money.

This week, something similar happened with another boy I talked to. He also quit school, like many of his friends, he said. None of these young students can concentrate on their school work anymore, and at the state school they attend the bombing and the loss of their close friends is never discussed. All these kids (still) go smuggling every now and then to contribute to the family income. That’s what hits me when I see them walking in the village: it was kids just like this who died. It must be burning inside them too: it could have been me. How can you deal with that as a young man of 16, 17, 18 years old?

A huge field surrounded by mountains

‘The boys are dead’. That’s what a young woman who just turned 18 told me earlier this year. Again, I was just trying to chat a bit, and after she told me she had just turned 18 I asked her if there was any wedding in the picture. ‘I will never marry’, she said. ‘All the boys are dead’. One of the boys who died in the massacre was her brother. He was only 13 years old.

Since the massacre, no weddings have been celebrated. People get married, but only in front of the imam, not officially, and there is no party. I have seen a video of a traditional wedding here, taken before the massacre. Picture a huge field surrounded by mountains, and then picture a huge, huge circle of people doing the traditional Kurdish wedding dance. The men in traditional costume, the women too, in brightly coloured glittering dresses. All in the past now. I tried to figure out when weddings will be celebrated again. Nobody had an answer. ‘Never?’ I asked. They just don’t know, but for now, they cannot picture ever celebrating a wedding again.

This is little Mahmut, mentioned in the blog post, holding a picture of his dad. The neighbours, also related, mourn next to the fresh grave. The picture was taken by Serpil Polat, and I took a picture of it at a photo exhibition about the massacre in Diyarbakir.

Just like the women may forever wear black. The brightly coloured skirts and shirts that they got as presents from the wife of opposition leader Kilicdaroglu, who visited Gülyazi this year with some members of the women’s branch of the opposition party, are in cupboards now and won’t ever be worn. Some women were actually a bit pissed off after the women of the party left: do they actually think we wear skirts with orange and yellow flowers?

I don’t know if Gülyazi will ever really heal. The state is forgetting about it slowly, as it has  forgotten about all the other unsolved murders it has committed in the past in this region. But the people will never ever forget. It changed their lives forever. They do find some comfort though. I asked Pakize (29), who lost her husband Osman (32) in the bombing and was left to look after Özkan (12), Esra (11), Sinem (10), Hülya (8) and Mahmut (6), how she deals with the pain, and if she still has any hope of ever getting answers. She said: ‘I pray for it. That gives me some peace. Allah knows everything’.

Hunger strike in Turkey: will people die in vain?

What’s going on?
Since 12 September an increasing number of inmates in Turkish prisons have been on a hunger strike. Recently, on 15 October, a huge new group of prisoners joined in, exactly how many is not clear, but at least 628.

Who are these prisoners?
Kurds, mostly political prisoners. Many of them are imprisoned (on remand) for the KCK case, but people who have been in jail for much longer are also joining. Let me mention especially today that even the imprisoned elected mayor of Van, Bekir Kaya, has joined the hunger strike. His city was hit by an earthquake exactly one year ago today.

What is the aim of the hunger strike?
There are three demands. 1. PKK leader Öcalan must be accepted as part of the political solution to the Kurdish issue, 2. Education in mother tongue, 3. Guarantees for the Kurdish identity in the Turkish constitution.

Why do they choose hunger strike? Isn’t that what you do when you really have no options left?
Yes, but the people joining feel that that is exactly the point the situation in Turkey has come to. Many of the prisoners were not involved in any crime, but fought peacefully for the Kurdish cause. They are for example journalists, mayors, municipal workers, students, union workers and academics. But it is not because of their own situation that these people started a hunger strike. Their own release or acquittal in the court cases against them is not part of their demands.

They feel the political process in Turkey towards a solution for the Kurdish issue has come to a stalemate. Öcalan has not been permitted any meetings with his lawyers since 27 July 2011, and has only seen his brother once, recently. He is the most important Kurdish leader in Turkey, and the Kurdish movement feels (and I agree) that there can be no solution to the Kurdish issue without him being part of it. But if he is not even allowed to see his family or his lawyers, if earlier negotiations between the state and the PKK have been broken off and seem unlikely to be resumed any time soon, if year-long demands to talk to Öcalan are not heard, what can the Kurdish movement do? They want to stick to peaceful action, and yes, in that case a hunger strike is the option you turn to when you feel no other options are left.

Also when it comes to the other demands of Kurds, there is no or hardly any progress being made. Yes, there is ‘Kurdish as an elective class’ now in state schools, but that is not what Kurds want, and it is also not what will help preserve the language. And the government doesn’t seem to have any intention to broaden language rights in education. A good indication of that is the fact that YÖK (the state controlled Board for Higher Education) suddenly cut the amount of master students at the Faculty of Living Languages (read: Kurdish) at Mardin University from 500 to 250. (Read a blog post about it here, on my site about the Kurdish issue.) This university is supposed to educate the Kurdish teachers of the future. Besides that, in every political party there is strong resistance to full education in Kurdish. The topic cannot even be debated. And by the way, talking Kurdish in school is still strictly forbidden – only the kids who follow Kurdish classes (2 hours a week) are allowed to speak it, and only during that class.

And when it comes to guarantees for the Kurdish identity in the constitution: no progress there whatsoever. A parliamentary commission with all parties in parliament is working on a draft constitution, but they only agree on trivial things. Why this guarantee is so important? The things the government has done for Kurds, are very tiny steps in the first place, but they mean even less without any guarantee. If Erdogan wants it, he can close the state Kurdish TV (TRT6), close the Living Languages department at Mardin university, cancel the Kurdish elective classes, etcetera. Not that many Kurds will miss TRT6, but the point is: Kurds don’t want small close to meaningless presents from the government, they want their fundamental rights for once and for all, so that nobody can ever take them away again.

All the politics they have been made for all these years, have only landed them in jail. So where can you go from there?

Doesn’t sound like these demands are any time soon met, does it?

So when some hunger strikers started on 12 September, it’s not much longer till people will die?
It sure looks like that. Some seem to be in serious health condition already. But the prisoners on hunger strike don’t accept visits anymore, not from their families and not from their lawyers. It would ask too much from them physically to come to the visitors or the lawyers room to meet anybody. They need to stay put as much as possible.

And how does the government react?
Not at all.

And the people in Turkey?
Most of them don’t know about it. The TV and papers are not or hardly reporting it. Turkish channels do report about it when there is a demonstration, when people keep vigil, march or sit-in to support the hunger strikers (and there are a few of them every day!), but only when it gets out of hand (usually because the police starts using tear gas) so they can show ‘violent Kurds’ on TV. That’s how Kurds are framed in general in the media and it’s no different now with the hunger strike. So people don’t know, or they don’t give a damn.

So what’s the point of it all? Turks don’t know or don’t care, the government doesn’t react and the demands are unrealistic. People will die in vain!
That’s how you could think. But that is certainly not how it is perceived in the Kurdish movement. For close to thirty years now, the Kurdish struggle has claimed many lives. In the eighties and nineties, Kurds died, and also held hunger strikes, to demand things that seemed impossible at the time. Now Kurds are no longer called mountain Turks, the extrajudicial killings that happened all the time in the nineties are over, the existence of Kurds is being recognized. The people who fought and died before, either while carrying arms or committing themselves to peaceful struggle, contributed to what has been reached in thirty years. When in time the current demands of the Kurdish movement are met, the people on hunger strike now have contributed to that achievement.

At a sit in in Diyarbakir last week, I shortly talked to independent (BDP) MP Aysel Tugluk. I asked her why the hunger strikers have demands that will definitely not be met before they give their lives. She said: ‘We don’t formulate our demands based on what the government may be willing to give. We have our demands and they just need to be met.’

Hello crowd, it’s your turn!

Do you want a Kurdish senses package, normal size or XL? A package that lets you smell, feel, watch and listen to the Kurdish regions of Turkey? There is a way! It’s one of the perks I thought of to stimulate the crowds to contribute the funds I need to continue working on my book about the Kurdish issue. Want to contribute immediately? Go to www.indiegogo.com/KurdishMatters. Need some more convincing? Please read on!

The point of my book, for now named Kurdish Matters, is to show the human side of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. The matter is usually in the news only when there is violence and death to report. Of course, as a journalist, that doesn’t surprise me, I know how media work. But that doesn’t mean I need to accept it. I travel around a lot in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, and I have seen from close by that there is much more to the Kurdish issue than the violence. In fact I think that without hearing the personal testimonies of the people directly involved, it’s impossible to understand what is really happening in the region and in Turkey regarding the Kurds.

In the daily news, there is not much space for these important personal stories. As a journalist, I contribute to the one-sided reporting on the issue, because many of the media I work for focus on news, and not directly on the human stories. I feel the responsibility to help balance the coverage of this matter. And to do that properly, I want to publish a book. Yes, in English (and in Dutch).

Convinced? Almost? Why don’t you go to www.indiegogo.com/KurdishMatters and watch the video I made especially for the project. And check out what other perks there are to be had for any contribution you make! Thanks so much in advance!

Inside all those houses

I’m on the sixth floor of a big apartment block of some twelve floors. From the balcony I look out on the surroundings and chat with R., the lady of the house. The area is called Diclekent, a huge and still new part of the city. The block where R. lives with her husband and three children was completed in 2007. Luxurious, spacious apartment blocks, parks in between, children’s playgrounds. Diyarbakir is still growing fast, and new areas like this continue to be built. It all looks very modern.

It looks modern, but that doesn’t mean life is always very modern here. We look out over other apartment blocks and a small new park with baby trees, but, behind that, over a huge wasteland. There are two fires there, with women sitting around it. ‘I often go there too’, R. says. She is originally from a village in the province of Hakkari. She continues: ‘We make a fire and we grill vegetables, mostly peppers and eggplant. It’s very tasty’.

I know, I have tasted that often in Turkey, and it’s multi-purpose and is also used for a very nice dish, eggplant salad. R. opens the drawer of her fridge and shows me a few big frozen packages: ‘See’, she says, ‘I make a lot at one time and freeze it. I love going there. We sit together with the women, we chat and we grill. It’s very traditional; we don’t give it up even though we live in these modern houses.’

Diclekent (though not the part where R. lives). On the left behind the buildings a wasteland used for grilling and such. Click to enlarge.

In the corner of the wasteland there is a pile of stones. I recognize it from the distance: it’s a bread oven. You make a fire inside and stick the flat bread to the inside of the oven. It’s ultra tasty once it’s ready. I remember once when I was strolling around in Diyarbakir a woman insisted on giving me one. She just stuffed it in my backpack; I felt the heat of it through the fabric on my back. Not too far from this wasteland in Diclekent, there is a bakery shop. Of course, many people go there to buy bread, but the oven is also used on a daily basis.

It is nice to hold on to old traditions. That the women still come together for these traditional ways of cooking, despite not living in villages anymore but in a big city. But a few days earlier, I also heard about the other side of holding on to traditional life. It happened when I was walking in a park close by my house in the evening.

As I was sitting on a bench, two young men came towards me. Could they ask me something? Yes, of course. They recognized me from a TV appearance on CNN Turk, earlier this year. ‘We loved it’, they said. Could they sit down and talk a bit? Of course.

Three minutes later they had told me they were gay. Very suddenly, after asking where I was from and after getting my confirmation that yes, gay marriage was legal in my home country, ‘We want to go there!’ they said. ‘What a freedom!’

I use exclamation marks, but they were actually sort of shout-whispering. Because they soon added they were secret gays. Nobody knew. They met each other via an internet site and became good friends. One of them had a boyfriend, the other didn’t. Nobody could ever know. ‘You have heard about gay Kurds being killed by their families, haven’t you?’ Yes, I have.

Gay rights demo earlier this year in Diyarbakir, organized by local group ‘Hebûn’, meaning ‘To be’. Click to enlarge.

I brought up a gay rights group in Diyarbakir, that actually held its first gay rights demonstration this year in the city. Did they attend? ‘No, definitely not. Hardly anybody from Diyarbakir did. It’s too dangerous. The participants were mostly from other parts of Turkey, just here to support gays in this region. Which is great, of course.’

They dreamed of moving to other parts of Turkey. Izmir, on the west coast, was their dream destination, or Istanbul. There they could live a more free life, away from the pressure of their families. But they worried about living in those cities too. ‘It’s not easy being a Kurd in the west of the country. There is discrimination, you know. When you say you are from Diyarbakir, you are treated differently. So if we ever move there, we will have to be secret Kurds.’ They laughed. ‘It’s tragic-comic, isn’t it?’, one of them said. ‘Here in Diyarbakir we are secret gays, in Izmir we will be secret Kurds’.

They looked around. Cars were speeding on the busy road alongside the park. An older part of Diyarbakir on one side of the park, brand new apartment blocks on the other. ‘Don’t be deceived by all these modern-looking buildings’, they told me very seriously. ‘It’s only the outside. Inside all those houses, life is still very traditional. You have to fit in. And it’s very difficult if you don’t.’

Black summer

We have to stay calm, says the Turkish government. But how can you stay calm in the middle of a black summer? It’s been the deadliest for many years, even continuing during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Monday evening’s bomb blast in Gaziantep was the lowest point: nine civilians, including four children, died, and 70 people were wounded.

So far it remains unclear who is responsible for the attack. As Ahmet Altan of Taraf newspaper put it: ‘The PKK says they didn’t do it. If that’s true, that leaves two other options: the Syrian secret service and the Turkish deep state. One of these three did it. Maybe two of them did it together. Or maybe all three did it together.’

The government was quick, very quick to blame the PKK for the attack. Now they are not so sure. It might have been Syria. Or no, it might have been Iran. Or some other country in the region ? But the damage of hasty conclusions had been done: offices of the pro-Kurdish BDP were attacked by angry people, including two in Gaziantep and one in Kocaeli, not far from Istanbul. Does the AKP now see that tension in society could just rise too high, and is that the reason why their suspicions are beginning to turn openly to beyond the Turkish border?

Demands for freedom

Maybe we should see the words of the BDP in that light too. They denounced the bombing from the beginning, but after a few days they went further than that. The BDP’s deputy group leader Gültan Kisanak said that ‘if the PKK did this, it harms the Kurdish demands for freedom’. Her fellow BDP MP Sirri Sureyya Önder was quoted as saying a few days after ‘Gaziantep’ that ‘bombs don’t lead to democracy’. Their contribution to easing tensions in society?

Many Turks have no doubt the PKK did it, and for the first few days after the bombing, the government confirmed it without knowing for sure. And even if the public thought the Syrian or Iranian secret service did it, or the Turkish deep state, where would they direct their anger if they lose control of themselves? Attack the Syrian or Iranian embassy? Throw stones at Turkish state institutions? Besides the security at those places making it practically impossible to do so, it’s hard to imagine that Turks who can’t control their anger and grief would consider taking it out on anything but the PKK, or, more preciese, on those who are somehow related to it.

And that is, however horrible and illegal, understandable. The conflict that is tearing this society apart now is not the war in Syria or the dictatorship in Iran, and not the actions of the deep state. It’s the Kurdish issue and the related war between the PKK and the Turkish army, (in which the deep state of course plays a role, but that’s another blog post). That is the conflict that has caused so much pain in both Turkish and Kurdish families. Openly for the last twenty-eight years since the PKK took up arms, secretly in the decades before that.

Cease fire

Of course, it is important that people stay calm and that the government asks them to stay calm. But look who’s talking. The government is responsible for keeping people as safe as possible, but failed to do so. Stay calm, ministers tell the people whom they have left standing in the cold, but they don’t stay calm themselves. Not right after the bombing, by pointing the finger at the PKK too soon, nor in their general approach to trying to reach peace in this country.

And as for the PKK, after the Gaziantep bombing they continued with attacks on military targets in the Southeast. Six soldiers died, if I managed to correctly keep track of the death toll this week. ‘Showing their strength in the region’, it’s called, and I even heard a PKK supporter say ‘they are very successful in that’. Wouldn’t be my choice of words, to say the least. How about a cease fire?

In the end, it’s not about who started the violence, but who feels calm and strong enough to give it up. Neither the government nor the PKK seem calm and strong enough. I cry for Turkey.

Historic handshakes

Usually a handshake only becomes historic when a remarkable deal has been made between two sworn enemies. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. Reagan and Gorbachov. Not in Turkey. Here, it’s already historic when two political opponents, CHP leader Kilicdaroglu and Prime Minister Erdogan, finally shake hands and talk for an hour about the biggest problem the state has faced in its entire history. The nation’s papers speak of a ‘historic step’, a ‘historic breakthrough’ even. Sorry, I have tried, but I really don’t see much reason for optimism here.

Some people see reason to be optimistic because the leaders of the two biggest parties now both recognize that there is a Kurdish issue that needs to be solved through democratic means. I’d almost say: isn’t that a reason to be pessimistic? After almost a century of oppression of Kurds and almost thirty years of horrible violence claiming thousands of lives, the two biggest parties sit down and agree to see what they can do to solve the problem. Is it only that far that Turkish politics has advanced? Okay, better late than never, but to see it as a sign of hope – no. That it is only now happening says something about their stance so far, doesn’t it?

All parties in parliament

The starting point of the talks between Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan was a ten point roadmap towards solving the Kurdish issue, put together by the CHP. One of its important aims is to establish a parliamentary commission of wise men and women to search for solutions. Nothing wrong with that, of course. The point is, though, both leaders immediately stressed that support is needed from all parties in parliament. While saying that, they very well knew that the ultra-nationalist MHP will never support it. The MHP says there is no such thing as a Kurdish issue, there is only terrorism. The AKP and the CHP say they will keep pressuring the MHP, for months if necessary. For months? A great way to lose momentum.

If Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan are serious about this, why did they not start neglecting the MHP as soon it made clear they refused to cooperate, which was right after the Kilicdaroglu-Erdogan talk? Why does Kilicdaroglu propose to not speak about ‘the Kurdish issue’ but rather about ‘terrorism’ to get the MHP on board? Why give a party which by a policy of denial places itself outside the political arena the power to redefine the issue yet again as a terrorism problem? If you say your goal is to solve the problem, how can you then possibly avoid even defining it honestly?

Nationalist truths

Maybe they need the MHP as an escape route. What if Kilicdaroglu’s party in the end doesn’t back him up? Not out of the question, since he is not that solid in his position as party leader. There are many staunch Kemalists in the CHP who could not live with the fundamental changes that are needed in, for example, the constitution to really solve the Kurdish issue.

And Erdogan? He is unchallenged as party leader, but is he strong enough as the country’s leader to push through changes? You could say ‘yes’, since he has done so in reducing the power of the military. But this is something else. Weakening the military was not a controversial issue among the voters, and he only angered people who were already against him. But his voters are not only pious, middle class Muslims, as they are usually defined, they are also nationalist. Like the average Turk: the state has been very successful in making people believe the nationalist truths the Turkish republic is built on, coming together with the slogan ‘one flag, one nation, one language’. No party in Turkey can survive without being nationalist. The MHP thrives on it, but the AKP and the CHP are in essence nationalist as well. Does Erdogan dare to alienate his voters? Or will he find a way to convince them – maybe just by telling them this is what needs to be done?

Outside parliament

What also worries me is that the CHP and AKP suggest they could solve the matter just by themselves if the other parties in parliament don’t want to cooperate. To do that, they could for example set up a commission outside parliament. One: the only place where the Kurdish issue can be solved is inside parliament. Two: the issue cannot be solved by talking about Kurds, but only by talking with Kurds. In other words, with the pro-Kurdish BDP.

The BDP has stressed several times that they support the idea and are open to talk. So why do Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan still suggest they can work on the problem as just the ‘two of them’? Why don’t they – soon! – meet with BDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş and shake hands with him and agree to work together? Why haven’t they done that already? Are they already afraid of the consequences of their handshake? Afraid that shaking hands with the BDP would suggest they admit they will have to talk with the PKK too, something that they know needs to be done but can’t easily ‘sell’?

Civilians and soldiers

Apart from the questions that can be raised, there are facts. Daily realities. They are another reason for me not to be hopeful. The arrests in the KCK probe continue: earlier this week, ninety (!) medical students were taken into custody and almost on a daily basis BDP officials are taken from their homes. This week, the mayor of (earth quake stricken) Van was arrested, sparking demonstrations. There are ongoing clashes between the army and the PKK, many of them never making headlines in the Turkish media. Soldiers and PKK fighters die, and this week a young boy was killed by a police bullet at the funeral of a PKK fighter. Last week, at several universities in Turkey, nationalist groups attacked Kurdish students, who were not protected by the police but arrested instead. Let’s not forget Uludere. The PKK has started kidnapping civilians and soldiers again, sometimes one, often groups of three to ten people. The tension, the frustration, the anger among Kurds is rising.

Did Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu speak out about these things? We know how Erdogan deals with Uludere – read more here and here. Erdogan supports the KCK trials and does so rather passionately. Kilicdaroglu never spoke out strongly against the KCK probe, about racist violence against Kurdish students, about the AKP policies that have increasingly treated the Kurdish issue as a terrorism problem over the last year or so. And from these men we now have to believe they are sincere about solving the Kurdish issue? Forgive me for being somewhat sceptical.

The state’s worst enemy

But of course I hope I am wrong. Who knows, one day we might look back and define this as one of the crucial developments on Turkey’s road to a solution. Maybe Erdogan will be President then. Will he, as the highest representative of Turkey, shake hands with the state’s worst enemy, who is imprisoned on Imrali island now but who – everybody knows it – needs to be part of the solution? Unimaginable? It is. Now. But historic handshakes always were.

Yours truly in the Turkish media

As you could read here, I have been to Gülyazi village for eight days last week. This sparked some interest from the Turkish media. It started with a column by my friend and colleague Amberin Zaman, who writes for The Economist and for daily paper Habertürk. She wrote a column about me on Tuesday, under the title ‘The journalist that makes me feel ashamed’, (in Turkish), about my journalism work here in the southeast.

Soon after that was published, a journalist from Habertürk called me for an interview for Wednesday’s paper. We talked some time on the phone, I didn’t see the article yet since I am now in a village where no newspapers are available. I hope to put a link to it later.

To my suprise, then also the huge Turkish TV channel CNN Türk called, if I was interested in appearing in the famous show of talk show host Cüneyt Özdemir. Also, to talk about my experiences in Gülyazi. Of course I was, and soon a regional camera team was on the way to Balveren village, some ten kilometers from Şirnak city, where I am staying now. Lights and camera were set up in the house of the family where I was staying, some neighbors came to curiously watch what was going on, very exciting indeed. See a pic here.
The interview on prime time was in Turkish, and apparently, I spoke a bit too open about the Uludere massacre and the Kurdish question. Several people told me Cüneyt Özdemir got rather uncomfortable with my open answers. Well, what else can I do than speak what’s on my mind? I didn’t dare to watch it back yet, but here it is.

Love and death

I am still in the south-eastern province of Sirnak, in the village of Gülyazi. Yesterday, I decided to take a bus to Uludere, the biggest town of the district of Uludere, some twenty kilometres away from Gülyazi. Just to take a look around. On the way back, something weird happened, and I had the weirdest talk in the bus.

It started in the main street of Uludere, from where the bus left. There was some sort of fight going on in the street; a group of men were trying to control two other men who were obviously very angry with each other. I recognized one man I had talked to a few hours earlier in the park, as he tried to calm things down a bit. When he walked away, I asked him what had happened. ‘A girl took off’, was all he said.

The bus driver got involved too, so when the bus left some ten minutes later I asked him what the fight was all about. I was on the front seat, and next to him, in between us, was a young woman of maybe just under twenty years of age. The conversation that unfolded didn’t get a serious tone for one second: my conversation partners were giggling and laughing, which felt totally unreal to me.

Me: ‘What was the fight about?’
Driver: ‘A girl ran away.’
Me: ‘I don’t understand, can you explain?’
Driver: ‘Okay, look, imagine you’re in love but your family doesn’t allow it. Then what do you do? You can run away.’
Me: ‘Together?’
Driver: ‘Yes, together, or the boy takes the girl.’

Me: ‘So what was the fight about then?’
Driver: ‘The two fathers had a fist fight’.
Young woman, laughing: ‘Sometimes they use guns, but this time only fists.’
Me: ‘So there is a problem with their children but they decide not to talk but to fight.’
Driver and young woman laugh very hard, and driver says: ‘Yes, that’s right, they fight.’
Me: ‘So now what’s going to happen?’
Young woman, talking very casually: ‘The girl will be killed.’
Me: ‘Where is she then?’
Young woman, laughing: ‘I don’t know, but they will find her.’
Me: ‘Why does she have to be killed?’
Young woman, in the meantime taking the wrapper off a chocolate ice cream: ‘For honour. You know, honour is the most important thing for us Kurds. So that’s why she has to die.’
Me: ‘How do you feel about that?’
Young woman: ‘How I feel about it? Well, it’s just the way it is, it’s about honour.’

Me: ‘Do girls go voluntarily with the boy, or not?’
Young woman: ‘Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.’
Me: ‘What’s going to happen to the boy?’
Driver: ‘He will be beaten.’
Me: ‘So he can stay alive?’
Young woman, laughing hard: ‘Yes, but you are right, they should kill the boy, shouldn’t they, I mean, the girl can’t help it that the boy takes her!’
Me: ‘Well, I was actually thinking: don’t kill anybody.’
Driver and young woman look at me puzzled and laugh – that’s a good one indeed, don’t kill anybody.

Me: ‘So, imagine, as a young couple, you want to run away because you don’t get permission to get married. Where do you go?’
Young woman, slowly eating her chocolate ice cream: ‘To a big city. Diyarbakir, Izmir, Istanbul.’
Me: ‘And if you get there and they don’t find you, your escape was successful.’
Young woman: ‘Yes, it sometimes happens.’
Me: ‘And if you don’t succeed, you will die.’
Young woman: ‘Yes.’
Me: ‘So soon there will be a headline in the paper: girl killed by family in Uludere.’
Young woman, laughing: ‘Yes, imagine a big headline: ‘In Uludere a girl..’
Driver takes over: ‘… ate a chocolate ice cream!’
The two laugh very hard at the joke.

Me: ‘And the police, what are they going to do?’
Young woman: ‘Nothing, they can’t stop the killing from happening.’

A few minutes silence. I wonder why the two find this such a funny conversation. The first thing that comes to mind of course that this is a way to deal with such horrors, but that’s a rather Western interpretation. I think they just found it very funny that I, a Western woman, didn’t understand this very fundamental issue and kept asking qustions about it. That these basics need to be explained!
Then the young woman takes her bag and says: ‘Can I show you a picture?’ Now she sounds serious.

She shows a picture of herself and a young man, they were photoshopped into the same picture. She says: ‘He’s dead.’
Me: ‘What happened?’
She: ‘He was killed together with 34 others in the bombing by the army when he was smuggling diesel, at the end of December. Have you heard about that?’
Me: ‘Yes, I know about it. My condolences. Was he your brother?’
She: ‘No, he was my fiancé.’
Me: ‘Oh, how very sad. So you were about to get married? Your dad agreed to your relationship?’
She: ‘I don’t have a father, he died when I was very young, I don’t remember him. But my family gave permission.’
Me: ‘But now he is dead.’
She: ‘Yes, I lose the people who love me.’