New Internationalist

Kurdish People, Statistics From New Internationalist

Issue 298

New day yet to dawn: the Kurds

Numbering over 26 million, the Kurds are one of the largest nations in the world without a state. Their homeland lies mainly in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, with smaller parts in Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

About 13 million Kurds live in Turkey, where they comprise about 20 per cent of the population. Under Turkish law it is forbidden to learn, write or publicly speak Kurdish. Anyone discussing the Kurds is accused of supporting the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers' Party) and faces imprisonment under 'anti-terrorism' laws.

The south-east of Turkey, where many Kurds live, is a region at war. In the last 13 years the death toll here has been well over 25,000. Over 3,000 villages have been systematically destroyed by the Turkish military and there are over three million refugees.

Abdurressak Ipek is a Kurd from Tirali in south-east Turkey. In his region the vast majority of Kurds speak in Kurdish dialect. Ipek speaks no Turkish. He is not even sure of his age ­ he thinks he is about 70 years old. But he does remember the day the Turkish Army entered his village. It was 18 May 1994. The Army accused the village of supporting the outlawed PKK. They torched the buildings and killed the livestock. Six men were arrested ­ including Ipek's two sons. Three have since been released, but Ipek's sons were not among them. The authorities deny knowledge of their whereabouts. For a while Ipek haunted the offices of the Turkish Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir, hoping for news. Then the offices themselves were raided by 'anti-terror teams', the workers accused of 'aiding and abetting the PKK'. The Association remains shut down. As do the hopes of Abduressak Ipek.

It is 21 March; Kurdish New Year. Nesibe Yilmaz, secretary of HADEP Women's Committee, and the people at HADEP (The People's Democracy Party) are celebrating. According to Kurdish history, Newroz (as it is called in Kurdish, which means 'New Day') dates back to 612BC when a Kurdish smith called Kawa led a successful people's revolt against a tyrannical ruler. But the festival has been banned in Turkey since the 1920s. It has become a symbol for Kurds of freedom, independence and unity for the Kurdish nation. In the last decade, the Turkish Government has resorted to violent means to suppress it ­ 109 Kurdish civilians were killed while celebrating Newroz in 1992. In 1995, then Prime Minister Tansu Çiller attempted a new strategy. Turkey claimed Newroz as its own festival. Despite this, all Newroz celebrations have to receive official permission. The party in the photograph has no such permission. Outside the building Turkish police observe.

Umur Hozalti (not his real name) was a journalist with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Demokrasí, which was closed down on 3 May 1997 for 'crimes against public security'. 3 May is, ironically, World Press Freedom Day. Demokrasí is one of a long line of Turkish newspapers closed down for their pro-Kurdish stance. These include Ozgur Gundem (Free Agenda), Ozgur Ulke (Free Country) and Yeni Politika (New Policy). It is a dangerous business being a journalist in Turkey. Newspaper offices have been bombed, and journalists harassed, attacked and imprisoned. Since 1992, 27 journalists and editors have disappeared and last year 421 were arrested. But the rest refuse to be daunted and as one paper is closed down another opens up.


Sanar Yurdatapan is one of the founding members and principal activists of the 'Coming Together for Peace' campaign, set up a year ago when Turkey's most famous novelist, Yasar Kemal, was arrested. The campaign is supported by some of the most distinguished Turkish writers, academics and artists as well as by Western playwrights Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter.

Yurdatapan is a leading Turkish composer. He published the book Freedom of Thought in 1995 in which 200 writers supported Yasar Kemal. This resulted in the prosecution of nearly 200 intellectuals under the Anti-Terrorist law.

On 22 April 1997 Yurdatapan was arrested and detained for 'supporting the PKK'. He had just interviewed two 'informers' on video for their collusion in state-sponsored murders of opposition figures. He was also attempting to take the military to court for the murder of village guards in Guclukonak. Amnesty International issued an appeal for urgent action and he has since been released on bail.

 

'Mothers of the disappeared', Galastaray, Istanbul. In 1996 there were 194 recorded 'disappearences' in Turkey.

Like their counterparts in South America and Bosnia, the mothers of the disappeared hold a vigil at noon every Saturday. They hold photographs of their loved ones. The mother in black is Emine Ocak, mother of Hasan Ocak. He disappeared on 21 March 1995. His body was found in an unmarked grave five days later. She served 12 days inprisonment for her vigil.


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Selma Tanrikulu is 33. She belongs to HADEP (the People's Democracy Party). She was voted in as MP for Diyarbakir in December 1995 but prevented from taking her seat because a party needs ten per cent of votes nationally. The Turkish Government is now trying to close down HADEP which, although not exclusively Kurdish, is the only political voice for Kurds in Turkey. To date, 92 members of HADEP have been killed and the party's offices in eastern Turkey have been bombed.

Tanrikulu has three children. Her political career was thrust upon her in September 1993 when her husband was murdered by unknown assailants. He was a prominent consultant and administrator at a local hospital.

'We do not have the right to life in this region,' she said earlier this year, 'and I am not even sure I will get home tonight. But I want my children to live in an environment of peace and I am willing to take risks for that...'

On 31 August this year she was arrested. Like Leyla Zana, another Kurdish woman MP who has been jailed for 15 years, she risks a long imprisonment.


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