issue 223 - September 1991
A Kurdish voice
Lies and blind eyes
Thousands of Kurdish people dying on bleak mountainsides shocked
the world. But it was just one more episode in a history of homelessness
and insecurity. Hazhir Teimourian, himself a Kurd, tells the story.
It was about 5000 years ago that Kurdish peoples migrated from the north to the mountains where 20 million of them live today. This area – stretching from western Iran to eastern Turkey and about half the size of France – is known as Kurdistan.
They set up the empire of the Medes in 612 BC but this was conquered by Cyrus, the first of the Great Kings of Persia. The pattern was repeated time and time again: although Kurdish tribes built scores of kingdoms over the centuries each lasted only a few decades before being conquered and scattered.
But after World War One the chance of becoming united at last came into sight. Under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres the Euro-pean victors, Britain and France, promised to give the Kurds an independent state.
Just three years later this undertaking was conveniently forgotten under the Treaty of Lausanne. The Allies were far more concerned with supporting an anti-Communist Turkey against the rise of the new Bolshevik state in Russia. Autonomy for Kurds fell by the wayside.
Things went from bad to worse for the Kurds. While setting up the state of Iraq, Britain bombed protesting Kurds into submitting to Arab rule in Baghdad. This was followed by a promise from the British that the new state would always remain under its influence and that it would respect the Kurds’ separate national identity.
Now it was the USSR’s turn to make promises – and break them. In 1946 Stalin agreed that a Kurdish republic could be established in Iranian Kurdistan which was then being occupied by his troops. But he too backed down after settling for oil exploration rights in northern Iran. A year later, the Shah of Iran publicly hanged the Kurdish leader of Iranian Kurdistan when he refused to flee.
For 14 years – from 1961 to 1975 – the Kurds tried to mount a rebellion. But it collapsed when thousands were murdered or deported to the Arab parts of Iraq. The fiercely nationalistic Socialist Arab Renaissance (Ba’ath) Party of Iraq then set out to obliterate Kurdish culture. Schools were closed. Over 3,000 villages and some 15 towns were razed to the ground. Kurdish land-owners were evicted and Arabs settled their territory.
And all the time this was happening, the Kurds were assured that they were being granted autonomy in their internal regional affairs. In fact their so-called autonomous regional government usually convened only a few days each year.
More horrors were to come. On March 15, 1988, Iraq gassed the town of Halabja as part of its eradication programme. The town had just fallen into the hands of Kurdish nationalist guerrillas when waves of Iraqi aircraft bombed it with nerve and mustard gases. At least 4,000 civilians died over the next two days and some 30,000 were injured. The survivors fled to Iran, where many still linger in refugee camps.
Soon after that act of genocide, Britain doubled Iraq’s credit facilities for the importation of British goods and France and the Soviet Union sold Saddam even more military aircraft with which to bomb the Kurds. Some 200 villages were destroyed with gas in the following months.
The treatment meted out to Kurds in neighbouring countries was little better. In Iran, the Kurdish home-rule movement has been put down with extreme brutality. And in Turkey, where nearly half of all Kurds live, even speaking Kurdish was a criminal offence until recently; no publication is allowed in Kurdish.
The Turkish authorities have also taken advantage of violent excesses by a small breakaway Kurdish group called the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK). This Marxist-Leninist outfit has been responsible for the deaths of some 3,000 Kurds and Turks since 1984. And the Turkish army has used the PKK as an excuse to destroy many Kurdish villages where inhabitants were suspected of harbouring Kurdish nationalist sympathies.
Kurds are one of the largest minorities in the world still without any national rights. It is terribly unjust that the homeland of 20 million people who call themselves by a common name and who wish to be free should be carved up by five states which use force to prevent contact between the various people. If these states will not grant Kurds self-determination, outside countries must press them to at least allow home rule in Kurdish regions and to relax their frontier controls.
More immediately, Western people must push their governments to keep troops in northern Iraq to protect the refugees there. After the horror of watching women and children dying from cold and hunger on mountain tops last April, the world should no longer allow the United Nations to hide behind the pretext of not interfering in the internal affairs of states. The UN’s own 1948 convention on genocide gives it all the powers of intervention it needs.
Hazir Teimourian is a Middle East specialist on The Times newspaper in London.