From IS to Turkey, Kurds Have Been Resisting Hard: Who Are They?
Here is a peek into the life of Kurds, a community that helped the United States fight the Islamic State.
(This piece was first published on 22.10.19, and has been republished in light of ISIS chief al-Baghdadi’s killing by US forces.)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not inclined to practice what he preaches. Recently, during his United Nations address, he said that the stability and prosperity of South Asia cannot be separated from the Kashmir issue. “One of the problems to which the international community still does not devote enough attention is the Kashmir conflict, which awaits a solution for 72 years,” he said, adding that in order for the “Kashmiri people to look at a safe future together with their Pakistani and Indian neighbours, it is imperative to solve the problem through dialogue and on the basis of justice and equity, and not through collision.”
Erdogan would be well advised to first address the separatist problem in his own country, where the Kurds, accounting for 18 percent of Turkey’s population, have been brutally suppressed for demanding independence.
Forsaken throughout history, they have lately been abandoned by their American allies whom they had helped overcome the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Subsequent to the American pull-out, Turkey invaded northern Syria to crush Kurdish militias who are still guarding ISIS prisoners in various camps. Many of the ISIS prisoners have escaped. The betrayal of the Kurds is bound to have far-reaching impact not only on the delicate politics of the Middle-East and Turkey – but also on America’s position as a ‘leader of the free world’.
The Wondrous World of Turkish Kurds
Kurds are surely one of the most endearing people I have met. A few years ago, I drove across Southeastern Anatolia, the wondrous world of Turkish Kurds, and experienced their joys and sorrows, their dreams and nightmares.
From the frontier township of Bazargun, in the northwest corner of Iran, I entered Southeastern Anatolia, the restless region of Turkey, bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria. A sociable fixer, capitalising on his network, smoothened my entry. To make some extra bucks, he insisted I exchange with him our Iranian riyals for Turkish liras. I said I would do so at the bank. Hitting his left palm on the clenched fist of his right arm, he bellowed: “Turkish banks! F*** them!” I had entered the world of Kurds.
I drove along the sprawling base of Mt Ararat, at 17,045 ft the highest mountain in Turkey, standing alone with no other elbowing mountains intruding upon its solitude and diminishing its grandeur.
After the Great Flood, Noah’s Ark is believed to have docked on Mt Ararat, and its passengers disembarked here before spreading out to distant lands.
Five km from the backwaters of Dogubeyazit, perched on a hilltop, lies the fabled Ýshak Pasha Castle, a jewel of Ottoman architecture. I sped there along the parameter of a Turkish army camp where young soldiers in full battle gear were exercising behind the safety of an electric fence and tall watchtowers manned by attentive gun-toting Rambos, their fingers lovingly caressing the trigger, in readiness for an assault.
Repression of Kurdish Uprising
Between the Gorbulak border and Dogubayazit, a thirty-minute drive, I was stopped twice at army checkpoints. Edgy soldiers checked my passport, and after satisfying themselves that I had valid travel documents, they welcomed and bid me farewell at the same time. “Al Hind, India! Go! Go! Go!” they shouted.
The military checkpoints were for the Kurds. At 28 million, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. Their determined effort to carve up a separate Kurdish nation spanning the borders of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, has only led to their repression and liquidation of numbers. All four countries fiercely resist any move to Kurdish independence.
Saddam Hussein dynamited, bombarded and poisoned 400 towns and villages in Kurdish Iraq, to eradicate their resistance movement. Many escaped into Turkey. The six million Kurds in Iran have had various uprisings crushed since the 1920s. Iran’s Shia clergy mistrusts the Kurds, mostly Sunni Muslims. The two million Kurds living under the Alawite Muslim regime in Syria are ostracised. Teaching and publishing in Kurdish remain banned.
Crumbling of Short-Lived Kurdish Empire & Aftermath
The most famous Kurd in history has been the 12th century general, Saladin, the traditional Western schoolbook villain, arch-foe of England’s Richard the Lionheart, the Islamic liberator of Jerusalem and ruler of an empire stretching limply from Syria to Egypt. However, soon after his death, the short-lived Kurdish empire crumbled, eventually divided between the Ottoman and Persian empires.
After the First World War, when the victorious Allies dismembered the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France put their promises of a Kurdish homeland on paper, in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres.
But this was shredded and renegotiated three years later, and the Kurdish longings were forgotten. Turkey, deprived of much of its former territory, was determined to impose unity on the rest, and stamped out repeated uprisings among its Kurds, today around 12 million of its total population of 80 million.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the government in 1984, and 30,000 Kurds have been killed in their fight for an ethnic homeland. It took Turkey 15 years, 50,000 troops and about USD 120 billion of military costs to subdue PKK’s separatist campaign. It was finally quashed in 1999 when Turkish forces trapped their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in Kenya. Ocalan’s death sentence was commuted to a life imprisonment, which he, now 71, is still serving out as the sole inmate on a prison island near Istanbul.
The Financial Disasters That Are Freedom Struggles
Violence tailed off after Ocalan’s capture. Kurds enjoyed a spell of peace. But by 2004, distrust of the state had deepened. PKK called off a six-year unilateral ceasefire and resumed its attacks on security and civilian targets. For the common folk, freedom struggles are a financial disaster. Unemployment rose to 70 percent. Livestock was decimated and villages emptied as the rural folk migrated to towns. Those left behind took to smuggling fuel from Iran. This was a profitable means of livelihood, given the enormous difference in prices.
In the last two months, violence had spread in all parts of Northeastern and Southeastern Anatolia, as Kurdish protesters armed with firebombs and stones battled with Turkish police. Ever since the US intervention in Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds, now enjoying extreme autonomy, were sheltering PKK guerrillas.
As the snow melted in spring, Turkey was expected to invade northern Iraq to swat PKK in its haven.
Leaving Dogubeyazit, I climbed higher and higher, along towering walls of ice, on roads wet with melting snow. Neatly stacked cakes of cow dung adorned the frontage of modest stone houses. From the top of a pass, at 6,501 ft, past the village of Somkaya, I looked down into a wonderland of snow, a grand sweep of a stark white valley, its floor layered with black rocks, scree and crags. Spires and pitted cliffs rose from the white carpet of deep snow. The haunting sense of isolation, loneliness and remoteness was entirely satisfying.
Exchanging Notes on Kurdish & Hindustani Words
Getting out of the snowscape, I stopped in a Kurdish village to thaw myself. Rough-looking men sat on pavements, easing their sorrows with a tipple of thickly sweetened cardamom tea. Hidden in plumes of tobacco haze, their unshaven faces were full of grace and dignity. “Pakistan? Al-Hind?” the men enquired. After having confirmed I was an Indian, they immediately warmed up to me, exchanging notes on words that they knew were common to the Kurdish and Hindustani languages. They insisted that their obscure language bears no semblance to Turkish, Persian or Arabic. Yet, they seemed proud of its vague association with Hindustani.
The roller-coaster highway cut through a range of mountains. Driving past Muradiye, Lake Van suddenly revealed itself. The 3,750 sq km lake is the largest body of water in Turkey. Its grand sweep of blue-white waters rimmed with a series of snow-clad volcanoes, their summits touching the billowy clouds, makes the lake exceedingly pleasant to the eye – though few venture to come here.
“On Their Own, These Kurds Won’t be Able to Achieve Anything”
Next morning, continuing westwards to Diyabakir, I took a lunch break at Bitlis. A Kurd gastarbeiter from Berlin cornered me. As I had already conversed with him in my rusty German, he thought I could do with some practice.
“How you like Kurdistan?” he asked.
“There is much abundance here. But people are restless. Turks believe Kurds are dogs.”
“But people here look happy to me.” It is best not to get drawn into political conversations with strangers. He could have been a Turkish intelligence agent trying to extract my views, to see where my sympathy lay.
“That is not the case. All these men you see hanging around here have nothing to do. No job. No business. And they live in constant fear of the state. Until last year, the Kurdish language and even the word ‘Kurdish’ were banned. You could be arrested for speaking Kurdish. I am glad I took my family away from here. But many of my relatives have suffered.”
“But now I believe that they have liberalised the laws and Kurds can express themselves freely in their language.”
“That is only because Turkey wants to be accepted in the European Union. The European Union is our best hope. Brussels has laid many conditions on Turkey that are favourable to our cause.
Kurds like me who live in Europe have also played our part by lobbying the European countries to arm-twist Turkey into ending its repression of Kurds. And let me tell you,” he said, looking left and right before whispering into my ears, “on their own, these Kurds will not be able to achieve anything. They are a fractious lot. They are always crying themselves hoarse about the suppression of their language rights – but they themselves speak mutually unintelligible dialects of the Kurdish and can’t even understand each other. It’s this lack of unity that has made it easy for countries to divide and rule them for 800 years.”
The ‘Wild’ Wedding Bash, Kurd-Style
After Bitlis the descent from the Taurus mountains was long and arduous. Landslides, sharp curves and the continuous on-coming army convoys added to my woes. The frequent sight of trucks rolled down the mountain slopes didn’t make things any easier. Getting off the mountain range, the road dipped and rose through undulated and wonderfully fertile landscape.
Crossing the Tigris River, I entered Diyarbakir, a teeming city enclosed within ancient walls made of forbidding black basalt during the Byzantine period. As an architectural deterrent to foreign interaction, the run-down wall has performed poorly. As embattled now as when the Romans fought the Persians here, Diyarbakir has been the hotbed of Kurdish nationalism. Earlier in the day, the police had killed two separatists in the city.
Next morning, before leaving Diyabakir for the Syrian border, I walked along the ancient wall in company of children begging for food, slapping their stomachs to exaggerate their hunger.
Passing Kirbasi, I noticed a crowd gathered in a meadow, singing, dancing and creating a ruckus. I slowed down and waved at them, in the hope they would invite me to join their merriment. They waved back and beckoned me to come over. I went off-track straight into the wild wedding bash.
Handsome Kurds rushed forward to welcome me. They were dressed in the traditional salvar, wide trousers cut like breeches, ending in leggings placed tight over the calves and buttoned around the lower leg. Brightly coloured sashes held the trousers in place. When they got to know I was from India, they opened their arms wider and hugged and kissed me, leaving me to wipe my wet cheeks.
Stunning ladies and fine-looking men mixed in a carefree way. Holding hands or clasping each other’s shoulders, they formed a ring, singing and shouting, and kicking and stomping their feet to the rhythm of the music blaring out of a car. Some of the men and women stepped forward to invite me to join the dance and, holding my hand, led me into the circle. Before leaving, for good measure, men, women and children fired in the air with their arsenal of 12-bore shotguns and pistols, shouting pro-Kurdistan slogans.
Do the ‘Ullu-Dhvani’ Like the Kurds
As I was ready to leave, another long procession of cars with roaring horns and women pouring out of the windows, waving scarves and shouting thunderously, sped into the meadow. The eccentric men got out of the cars and fired their shotguns recklessly in the air, shouting “Kurdistaaaan”. Just then the music struck up furiously from a car. Everybody dashed away to hold hands and form a circle and began swaying with wild energy and extravagant gestures. They extended their hands, inviting me to join the group. I sallied forth to meet them with gushing spirits.
The echoing way the Kurds hoot and wail, flicking their tongues in the insides of the mouth, is the same as the one used in eastern India, where it is called “Ullu-dhvani”, or “owl’s sound”.
The eucalyptus-lined road to Syria continued through undulating land with wheat fields inter-cropped with yellow mustard; through pistachio and olive plantations. We glided past the ancient town of Sanliurfa from where Abraham began his trek to Canaan. Nearby was Harran, where Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden, learned to farm. At Birepik, I crossed the Euphrates River. From Gaziantep I turned south towards the Syrian border, leaving my heart behind in Kurdistan.
(An author and explorer, Akhil Bakshi is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA and Editor of Indian Mountaineer. He tweets @AkhilBakshi1. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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