The Armenian Weekly April 2013 Magazine
Is it true? Are things really changing in Turkey, the land of genocides, pogroms, repression, and a prolonged war for the past 30 years with its own Kurdish citizens? Is the war that has claimed more than 40,000 lives—mostly Kurdish—in Turkish Kurdistan really coming to an end? Is this nightmare, which has played out not only in the mountains but also in cities and towns, almost over, allowing for a normal life—a life that children and adults under 30 have never known?
These were the questions crucial not only for the Kurdish people’s future in Turkey, but also for everyone who demanded real democracy, the full observance of human rights, equality, justice—in short, a better life to live. For us, the success of the Kurds’ struggle meant the opening of the road that would lead us all to a more promising future.
But now, everything seems blurred and vague. It is as if we are walking on a tightrope and, at any moment, we can fall into a bottomless abyss. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s recent statements during the negotiations and, ultimately, his letter read out loud during the Newroz celebrations were a disappointment for many.
During the civil war, Newroz meant the violent intervention of security forces, sometimes with firearms, sometimes with tear gas and water cannons, causing deaths and injuries. It was a time of military raids in towns and rural villages, a time when villagers were arrested en masse and taken away, when civilians were killed during military operations. Kurdish human rights fighters, lawyers, and journalists were kidnapped and found dead by the roadside, and sometimes not found at all. During these years, more than 3,000 villages were evacuated and burned down. More than 3 million Kurds had to leave their homes and migrate to nearby towns and cities, totally helpless, jobless, unable to earn a living. Forests were set on fire by the soldiers. The whole landscape turned into a desert—a bare land with ghostly images of destroyed villages, with the remains of houses blackened by fire.
Newroz, in those years, was invariably associated with brutality and loss of human lives. It was during the Newroz celebrations of 1992 that nearly 140 civilians were killed and hundreds of others injured following then attack of the security forces on demonstrators, and the subsequent operations—accompanied by bombings—carried out in the province of Şırnak and its district Cizre. Those nightmarish “celebrations” were followed by a large wave of Kurdish immigration to nearby cities.
Hopes for peace
This year’s Newroz celebrations were held in dramatically different circumstances. The so-called “Peace Process” had started; negotiations with Öcalan, who had been isolated in prison for 14 years, were ongoing. Deputies of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) visited him twice. Letters between Öcalan and the PKK headquarters in Qandil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, were exchanged.
The celebrations everywhere, both in a number of western provinces, including Istanbul, and in the Kurdish provinces, particularly in Diyarbakir, were spectacular. It was for the first time a real celebration with enthusiastic festivities. Hundreds of thousands of people came together, with women dressed in bright colors, and children dancing and singing joyously.
All were waiting for Öcalan’s letter to be read out loud in Kurdish and Turkish. He would make his final statement, the outcome of his “peace” talks with government authorities, in his cell.
In addition to the Kurds, and since the defeat of the Turkish left by military rule in 1980, veteran socialists and communists, and others who stood for democracy, human rights, and freedom, had all set their hopes on the Kurds’ struggle against the establishment in Turkey. It was because the Kurdish political movement had done something that the Turkish left had always dreamed of, but never achieved, during its long years of struggle. The Kurdish political movement had mobilized masses of ordinary people, both in rural and urban areas, and integrated them into the struggle. It was this struggle that made it possible for the forces of democracy in Turkey to make progress—no matter how modest—in freedom of speech. It was not a coincidence that the Armenian Genocide started to be discussed in Turkey during the years of the Kurdish insurgency—an insurgency that could not be defeated in 30 years by the Turkish Armed Forces, Europe’s biggest and the world’s 8th biggest army, second only to that of the U.S. in NATO.
Öcalan calls for withdrawal
When Öcalan’s letter was read in Diyarbakir—before an audience of hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million—declaring a cease-fire and instructing PKK guerrillas to withdraw beyond the borders, it was clear Öcalan was aware of the criticism against his statements in the minutes of his meeting BDP deputies during the “peace” process leaked to the press which resonated an overt antagonism towards non-Muslim peoples of Asia Minor. So he was careful to include Armenians and other peoples making up the Anatolian population in the scope of his endeavor to bring peace to the country.
In the aforementioned meeting with the BDP deputies, Öcalan had, for instance, referred to the “Armenian lobby” as a force that, historically, has never wanted peace in Anatolia. “The Armenian lobby is powerful. They want to dominate the agenda of 2015,” he had said. The Kurds were marginalized during the creation of the Turkish Republic as a consequence of the efforts of the “Israeli lobby, the Armenians, and the Greeks, who had decided that their success would depend on marginalizing the Kurds,” he continued. “This is an ongoing, thousand-year tradition.” He had added, “After the Islamization of Anatolia, there has been Christian anger that has lasted a thousand years. Greeks, Armenians, and Jews claim rights to Anatolia. They don’t want to give up their gains under the pretext of secularism and nationalism.”
Despite some references to Armenians and other non-Muslims, Öcalan’s Newroz letter—full of enthusiastic rhetoric about peace, fraternity, the peaceful coexistence of peoples of different beliefs and ethnicity, and a new era of peace—was no consolation to those of us who demand real justice in this country.
Muslim brotherhood brings chilling memories to mind
The most alarming aspect of the letter was its emphasis on Islamic brotherhood, a brotherhood that saw the death, agony, plunder, and annihilation of the Christian children of Asia Minor. His reference to the Turks’ and Kurds’ “historical agreement of fraternity and solidarity under the flag of Islam” sounded like an ominous prophecy. His praise of the so-called “Liberation War” of Turkey, which was, in fact, the continuation of the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Anatolian Greeks, was a perfect echo of the Turkish official mindset. “During World War I, Turkish and Kurdish soldiers fell together as martyrs in the Dardanelles. They fought together in Turkey’s Independence War, and together opened the 1920 National Assembly. What our mutual past shows is the mutual necessity of forming our future together. The spirit of the 1920 National Assembly enlightens the upcoming era,” he said. What he doesn’t mention is that the spirit of 1920 was a genocidal spirit that was determined to complete the annihilation process of Christians and also to repress Kurdish national identity with bloodshed.
The result is that now, people in Turkey who stand for human rights, democracy, and peace are forced to choose between one of two evils: Either be presented as one who does not want peace, or support something that may be reconciliation between Kurds and Turks but not real peace for all in Turkey.
Is Öcalan a true respresentative?
I know and respect millions of Kurdish people’s devotion to their leader Öcalan. But I also know that Öcalan and the politically conscious Kurdish people, as well as some sections of Kurdish political movement are not one and the same. There is the Kurdish political movement, with its political party, its armed units in the mountains, and the millions who protest courageously at the risk of being shot; and there is Öcalan, who has been confined to a solitary cell for 14 years, disconnected from realities on the ground.
After all, it is the Kurdish people who lost family members in unsolved murders; who cried after their children joined the guerrilla movement, and were later found dead, half burnt, with their eyes scratched out; and who stood totally armless against tanks and panzers in revolt against repression. And it is the guerrilla fighters who put their lives at risk for so many years in the mountains.
Karayılan, one of the chief commanders of the PKK, in an interview with the journalist Hasan Cemal, repeatedly confirmed that while they are loyal to their leader, they had some reservations: “There will be no withdrawal without the state doing its share.”
“Mid-level command elements especially have some concerns; we have to persuade them.”
“Yesterday I talked with 250 mid-level people. They say, ‘We came here to wage war, and we’ve been here for 10 years. We’ve come to the point of accomplishing a result, then you ask us to stop.’”
“At this point, leader Apo [Öcalan] should get involved in the persuasion process, and for this reason direct contact between Öcalan and the Qandil headquarters should be established.”
Karayılan’s criticism of the BDP co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, was very unusual. Demirtaş had recently said that 99 percent of the armed campaign of the PKK was over, and that the resolution of the remaining one percent was up to the government. “This is a shallow approach by the BDP,” commented Karayılan. “This shows that they cannot comprehend the retreat process in depth. Complete finalization of the armed campaign is not such a simple issue.”
Kurds: both perpetrators and victims
Now the crucial point: Many local Kurds in Western Armenia, not only the chieftains but also ordinary villagers, were, alongside with the Turks and other Muslim peoples, the perpetrators of the genocide of the Armenians and Assyrians. They were not only “tools” that were “used” by the Progress and Union Committee (CUP), as some of the Kurdish political leaders have put it; in many places and in many instances, they were quite conscious of what they were doing. They were not the decision-makers but the implementers, unaware that soon they would fall victim to, and be forced to revolt against, their accomplices in the genocide—the successors of the same ruling power they cooperated with in exterminating their Christian neighbors.
The history of the Turkish Republic is the history of Kurdish uprisings and their violent repression through bloodshed. The last uprising, which was the longest, was not based purely on nationalistic aspirations, but involved leftist, even Marxist, elements, with much emphasis on freedom, equality, and human rights, not only for Kurds but for all in Turkey. And it was the first and longest-lasting radical opposition movement in the history of the Republic, and was not only able to undermine at least the ideological and moral supremacy of the establishment, but also to challenge with some success the “invincible” domestic image of the Turkish military.
Those in the Turkish media, then, who criticized Abdullah Öcalan’s statements, both in the meeting minutes and his letter of cease-fire, were calling on the Kurdish opposition to not enter into a deceitful truce with this system of annihilation and denial.
Can they also be peacemakers?
Of course, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the Kurdish oppositionists to lead the way for the acknowledgment of the Kurdish people’s complicity in the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia—the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks—and take steps toward the restitution of the immense losses they suffered.
Without fulfilling this responsibility, the Kurdish side of the conflict cannot possibly pave the way for, and urge the Turkish state to agree to, a real peace—the ultimate sovereignty of justice throughout the country.
The Kurds are both perpetrators and victims, the victim of their own comrade-in-arms during the genocide. In order to be the peacemakers now, they must refuse Öcalan’s offer of a so-called “peace” between Turks and Kurds based on the common denominator of Islamic brotherhood, the driving force behind the genocide.