Turkey: What Is the Kurdish Question?

By Dr. Amy L. Beam:

What is the Kurdish Question?  From Istanbul to Ankara, one is likely to hear the resentful, bitter lament “What do Kurds want?  They have all the same rights as we do.”  There remains a deep chasm of animosity between they and we.  After ninety years of Kurdish persecution and thirty years of armed conflict, only one who has been hypnotized by mainstream media can fail to know what Kurds want.

They want the Turkish government to stop killing them and to recognize their Kurdish identity and language.  They want peace and democracy.  They want the military occupation of their towns and cities to be withdrawn.  Every news story about the Kurdish Question includes the boiler plate statement that over 40,000 people have died in Turkey’s internal conflict since 1984, but conveniently omits the fact that most of them have been innocent Kurds killed by their own government.

Thus, the uninformed reader might erroneously infer that it has been mostly Kurdish guerillas killing Turkish soldiers.   The notion is planted, unchallenged by international mainstream media, that all Kurds are terrorists and those dropping the bombs and destroying peaceful, law-abiding communities are merely providing security.   It is not uncommon in western Turkey and among police posted to eastern Turkey to hear the sentiment that “every Kurd is a terrorist.”

The Process of Turkification

The modern Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923.  Its first leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is revered by Turks for creating a secular state.  It is with some irony that Turkey’s founder has taken on myth-like proportions after the policy of religious assimilation transformed the population to 97.8 percent Muslim.  Assimilation’s aim is to create one cookie-cutter citizen proud to recite the national pledge “How happy is he who says I’m a Turk”.

The process of Turkification was implemented through the Ottoman Turk’s practice of village evacuations and destruction.  During the final years of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, over one million Christian Armenians were displaced (1915-1917) and their properties appropriated by the State.  This was the Armenian Denial.  According to The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, denial is the eighth and final step in the process of genocide.

From 1917 to 1923, 1.2 million Christian Greeks were sent to Greece in what was  euphemistically named, after the fact, Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations [1].  While Greece remembers it more accurately as The Asia Minor Catastrophe [2] that it was.  Six hundred thousand Greeks never arrived.  They were massacred or marched to the interior [3] where they died of starvation.

Kurdish Displacement and Assimilation 1920s and 1930s

After this process of religious Turkification, the Republic of Turkey was created in 1923, and the Turkish government began its assimilation campaign against the 20 million Kurds in eastern Turkey.  The north Kurdistan region was renamed Anatolia.  “Kurdistan” was stricken from the Turkish vocabulary.

The Kurdish names of families, rivers, mountains, cities, and villages were changed to Turkish names beginning in 1934 [4]. Dersim became TunceliAmed became Diyarbakir.  As early as 1924, the Kurdish language was officially outlawed. Later the letters q, w, and x were outlawed.  Thus, Wan became Van.  Kurds have persisted in calling their villages by their Kurdish names, despite government signs bearing the Turkish names.

Bilican, Turkish name for Ağori on north side of Mt. Ararat

Bilican, Turkish name for Ağori on north side of Mt. Ararat

Ortasu, Turkish name for Roboski in Uludere, Sirnak

Ortasu, Turkish name for Roboski in Uludere, Sirnak

The practice of village evacuations was codified in the 1934 Turkish Resettlement Law [5] (law no. 2510) in defiance of international law.  This gave legal sanction to a long history of massacres from Ararat [6]. (1930), Zilan [7] (1930), and Dersim [8] (1937-38) up to more recent massacres including Bilge [9] (2009) and Roboski [10] (2011).  The list is too long to name here.

Scorched Earth Policy and Village Guards 1980s and 1990s

In the 1980s and 1990s the Turkish military and Gendarmerie carried out a scorched earth policy against the Kurds.  Turkey’s persecution of Kurds reached a peak between 1991-94 when over 2260 villages [11] were evacuated, resulting in the death or displacement of over one million Kurds.  The number of evacuated villages is now estimated between 3,000 and 4,000.

In 1985 the Village Guard system was created.  It armed local Kurds as paramilitary units to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or be forced from their village.  The first invitation would be presented in person by military forces.  If it were not accepted, within days planes bombed and killed their sheep, cows, and horses as a warning to what might happen to them.  Most “chose” to leave “voluntarily” rather than risk death.  After the villages were forcibly evacuated [12],they were burned and bombed to prevent villagers from returning.  The government spun its campaign of terror with the cover story that Turkey had to deny shelter for the PKK guerillas.

Hilal, Uludere, burned in 1994, displacing 5600 residents. 3000 went to Iraq. Others went to Mersin and Mardin.

Hilal, Uludere, burned in 1994, displacing 5600 residents.

K 04 20131022_oldhilal_hs (2)

3000 residents went to Iraq. Others went to Mersin and Mardin.

According to a 1995 Human Rights Watch report [13]:

“Evacuations were unlawful and violent. Security forces would surround a village using helicopters, armored vehicles, troops, and village guards, and burn stored produce, agricultural equipment, crops, orchards, forests, and livestock. They set fire to houses, often giving the inhabitants no opportunity to retrieve their possessions. During the course of such operations, security forces frequently abused and humiliated villagers, stole their property and cash, and ill-treated or tortured them before herding them onto the roads and away from their former homes.”

Only the poor with nowhere to go joined the Village Guard.  But there were thousands of poor Kurds enticed by a monthly government paycheck, so the Village Guard swelled to over 70,000 people.

The Turkish government carried out its scorched earth policy against the Kurds by the book.  What book was that?  Turkish practices bear a 100% correlation to the Army manual on counter-insurgency used by its close ally and military advisor, the United States.  U.S. Army Field Manual FM 31-20-3 [14], Foreign Internal Defense Tactics Techniques and Procedures for Special Forces, sets out the methods by which the U.S. sowed dissent in Latin America  in the 1970s and 1980s to overthrow elected democracies in countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  We owe gratitude to Wikileaks for making this public.

The manual on counter-insurgency techniques explains how to establish Civilian Self-Defense Forces (CSDF).  Especially in El-Salvador and Colombia these were known as “death squads”.  It states:

“When a village accepts the CSDF program, the insurgents cannot choose to ignore it. To let the village go unpunished will encourage other villages to accept the government’s CSDF program. The insurgents have no choice; they have to attack the CSDF village to provide a lesson to other villages considering CSDF. In a sense, the psychological effectiveness of the CSDF concept starts by reversing the insurgent strategy of making the government the repressor. It forces the insurgents to cross a critical threshold-that of attacking and killing the very class of people they are supposed to be liberating.”

As implemented in Turkey with the village guard system [15], this means Kurds were forced to take up arms against other Kurds or have their village destroyed, risk death, and face possible charges of aiding a terrorist organization.   The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) which had only taken up arms in 1984, inflicted retribution against villagers who had joined Turkey’s village guard.   This was easily predicted behavior as described in the US counter-insurgency manual.  The goal of sewing internal discord among Kurds worked as planned.

In a 2013 Guardian interview [16], a Kurdish woman in a mountain village stated, “Village guards first wounded and then burned my son alive, dragged his dead body behind a car and left it to the dogs.  I hate the village guards more than I hate Turkish soldiers, and if I could find those who did this, I would kill them myself.”

If it had not been for the village guard system, the 30-year conflict would not have been so prolonged and bloody.  According to the records of the Interior Ministry [17]  between 1985 and 1996, a total of 22 thousand village guards were relieved of their duties due to severe misconduct.  Between the years of 1985 and 2006 a total number of 5139 crimes were committed by village guards; only 264 village guards have ever been sentenced in court.

Ali Gokpinar, a Fulbright  scholar,  fictionalizes the history [18] of the village guard creation thus:  “This system could be established in any village based on a request from the village headman and approval from the regional governor.”  This is the sort of deceitful propaganda that gets published in western media with credentials such as “Fulbright scholar”.  One must wonder how many survivors of the 2260 destroyed Kurdish villages Mr. Gokpinar interviewed.

State Terrorism Backed by United States Military Arms Sales

The Turkish Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Organization (JITEM) [19], whose existence had been denied, is believed to have been responsible for several thousand extrajudicial killings and disappearances of Kurds during the 1980s and 1990s.  Most of these cases remain unsolved.  Many murders were falsely blamed on the PKK to successfully turn public opinion against the PKK and Kurds.

A typical example occurred in 2005, in Şemdinli [20] Hakkari, near the southeast border of Iraq, when two grenades killed a person in a bookstore.  The press immediately blamed it on the PKK, but bystanders captured three suspects who were said to have been members of JITEM.  They were convicted and sentenced to 39 years in prison.  After the conviction, all the judges and prosecutors associated with the case were transferred from Van to other cities.  Another alleged JITEM murder was when Yakup Kara, mayor of Hilal, was murdered [21] in 1991 for speaking out against the village guard system.

In 1995, the Human Rights Watch [22] interviewed a number of high-ranking American military officers.  When asked about Turkey’s human rights abuses, they all took the position, as stated by U.S. Colonel Edward Fitzgerald, “It was not my job to evaluate these problems.”

The Turkish government remains unrepentant for the suffering and financial ruin inflicted upon an entire ethnic population.   The U.S. stood staunchly behind Turkey’s policy of village destructions.  In 1995, the U.S. Clinton administration stated it supplied Turkey with 80 percent of its foreign military hardware[43] including grenade launchers, tanks, Black Hawk helicopters, and F-16 planes used to destroy villages.

Yet, the U.S. consistently refuses to link arms sales to improvements in Turkey’s human rights [44] record.   The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of arms and Turkey is one of its top four customers.  The U.S. has exported 19 billion dollars in arms to Turkey [45] since Turkey’s armed conflict began in 1984. Sales peaked at 2 billion dollars in 1993 in spite of pleas from human rights groups to halt arms sales.  The level of U.S. arms exported to Turkey directly correlated with the level of military violence inflicted upon the Kurds.  It would take willful ignorance on the part of the U.S. Congress to blind itself to the fact that it was fueling the war on Kurds in Turkey.

Between one and three million Kurds were forced from their villages in the 1980s and 1990s, thus, solidifying support for the PKK by the general Kurdish population.  Every Kurdish family knows someone who has gone to the mountains to join the PKK.  Thus, in the eyes of the government, it is easy to accuse nearly any Kurd of “associating with a terrorist organization.”

In the last few decades the prisons have filled with thousands of students, activists, academicians, journalists, lawyers, and even children and musicians convicted of “aiding a terrorist organization,” “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization [23]”  or “inciting hatred and hostility.” Turkey continues with its mass show trials of lawyers [39], elected politicians [40], journalists [41] and generals [42].

What do Kurds want? 

Twenty million Kurds in Turkey want:

  • the right to return to their family land
  • damage awards for their destroyed villages
  • government investigation and prosecution of those responsible for extrajudicial murders
  • revision or abolishment of anti-terrorism laws
  • release of political prisoners accused under anti-terrorism laws
  • the release from prison of their leader, Abdullah Öcalan
  • removal of the PKK from the terrorist list so their sons and daughters can come home
  • to speak Kurdish in schools, courts, hospitals, and public offices
  • government employees . . . teachers, police, prosecutors, doctors, nurses, and civil servants . . . to be able to communicate with them in Kurdish when in Kurdish-speaking regions
  • equal opportunity and human rights in their own country . . . Turkey
  • a halt to building new military posts in the Kurdish-inhabited areas

Most Kurdish children under age six and women over 45 do not speak Turkish.  Imagine starting school as a small child and your teacher is speaking a foreign language.   Imagine the humiliation of a woman having to take her son along to visit a gynecologist and translate about her female problems.  Imagine going to court where the judge and prosecutor do not speak your language.

Things Are Getting ‘Better’ in 2000 – 2014

If one asks most Kurds today about the Kurdish political climate in Turkey, one will be surprised at the response.   “Things are getting better.  In the nineties they killed us.  Now they just lock us in prison,” says the conscientious objector known as Black Crow.  “The more they kill us, the stronger we become.”

The concept of resistance or uprising, known as Serhildan, has united the Kurds.   Resistance is a way of life.  Toddlers learn the imprisoned Kurdish leader’s name, Apo, at the same time they learn Baba (father).  When there is a grievous injustice against Kurds, businesses in every city in eastern Turkey are closed in a show of solidarity.  Millions of Kurds fill the streets in a sea of non-violent protest which western mainstream media ignores.

Only when police violently attacked demonstrators in Gezi Park [24] in Istanbul in 2013 did Turks get a dose of the state brutality that Kurds have been subjected to for decades.  International media came alive and covered Gezi demonstrations as if police brutality were something surprisingly new to Turkey.   Kurds silently thought, “Welcome to my world.”

Police target reporter in Istanbul with water canon

Police target reporter in Istanbul with water cannon

Diyarbakir funeral for slain Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Doğan, Leyla Söylemez

Diyarbakir funeral for slain Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Doğan, Leyla Söylemez

One must not refer to eastern Turkey as Kurdistan for fear of being accused of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization, although Prime Minister Erdoğan insists Turkey has a free press.  May 13, 2014, Erdoğan criticized US-based watchdog Freedom House for downgrading Turkey’s status from “partly free” to “not free.” Freedom House said Turkey had seen the biggest decline in press freedom in Europe.  After Erdoğan and many of his government associates were exposed on Twitter and YouTube for allegedly participating in corruption, Erdoğan banned Twitter and YouTube in March 2014, and then criticized the courts for overturning his orders.

Peace Process Mostly Symbolic

Government progress in the Kurdish peace process has been mostly symbolic.   The AKP government now allows Kurdish to be taught in private schools.  As a result of pressure from the 2012 Kurdish prisoner hunger strike, the Kurdish language may now, theoretically, be used in court.  The government promises to provide Kurdish interpreters in hospitals.

In 2009, two historians, Ercan Öksüz and Oktay Candemir, were sentenced to prison for publishing an interview with a 94-year-old Dersim massacre survivor.  In 2011, PM Erdoğan apologized for the Dersim massacre of 1937-38 and opened the Dersim archives.

In November 2013, when Prime Minister Erdoğan met with KRG President Massoud Barzani in Diyarbakir, Erdoğan for the first time ever pronounced the word “Kurdistan.”  Prior to local elections in Diyarbakir, in March 2014, an AKP banner with Erdogan’s picture [25] had Kurdish words, where only a few years ago banners with Kurdish words would be torn down by police.

Prime Minister Erdoğan on Kurdish language poster

Prime Minister Erdoğan on Kurdish language poster

Diyarbakir city hall adds Kurdish name Amed

Diyarbakir city hall adds Kurdish name Amed

On January 24, The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) fined Turkey over 60,000 euros in the case of several politicians who were all tried and convicted by Turkish courts for speaking Kurdish during election rallies.  Kurdish may now be spoken during political rallies.

In March 2014, the bans were lifted on former Kurdish names for settlement places.  Diyarbakir city hall added Amed to its name.  On March 27, a Turkish court released 45 defendants, including journalists and political activists, accused of links to Kurdish militants.

In April the ECHR fined Turkey 1.1 million euros [26] for the disappearance of villagers under military custody in southeastern province of Şırnak in 1993.

In May a signboard [27] reading “How happy is he, who says I’m a Turk” was removed in Amed’s Kulp district by municipal workers.  Kurdish school children no longer have to recite this pledge.

New roads, hospitals, and universities are being built throughout eastern Turkey.  In Dogubayazit a water purification project funded by the European Union is near completion to provide safe drinking water.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward in 2014

On March 7, 2014, a Turkish soldier was killed [28] in Roboski when a grenade was thrown into a Turkish army convoy, thus ending the one-year cease fire.  This is in response to Turkish military on the border at Roboski.  In a statement by the People’s Defence Force (HPG), they accused the Turkish army of having broken the ceasefire by setting up military posts on the border.

The following day the house of Servet Encu [29] one of three survivors from the Roboski massacre in 2011, was attacked.  One hundred bullets were shot into his house while he and his family were inside.  The Gendarmerie refused to respond saying they could not investigate because it was dark.

According to the ‘Withdrawal and Resolution Process Monitoring Commission’ [30] established by the Human Rights Association (IHD), in the last year the decision has been taken to construct  341 new military posts and bases.  Eleven security dams are planned near the border and 820 kilometers of “security roads” have been built along the border.  Additionally, 2,000 new village guards have been recruited.

In every Kurdish town and city one cannot avoid feeling the sense of being in an occupied territory.  In Dogubyazit, a small town of 75,000 situated at the base of Mount Ararat, there are at least six different bases and stations between the Gendarmerie, local police, MIT, and secret police.  More than a dozen large military tanks with missile-launching turrets are parked at the edge of town.  Armored police tanks with turrets regularly drive through the city center causing resentment and unnecessary provocation.

Kurdish people do not want to live under military occupation.  On May 16, two soldiers were wounded [31] in clashes in Dersim when an armed group opened fire targeting the military base under construction in Kırmızıdağ area near the village of Sütlüce.

After the March 30, 2014, local mayoral elections which announced Kurdish BDP Sirri Sakik [32] and Mukaddes Kubilay [47] as the winners in Agri, the AKP party demanded 14 recounts of votes.  At last, unable to show the AKP candidate had won, the government set a new election date for June 1.  There were accusations of electoral fraud in many Kurdish jurisdictions. The Turkish government is sending 12,000 police to Agri [46] for the elections to the tune of $1 million US dollars.

AKP party lost Agri mayoral election by 15 votes.

AKP party lost Agri mayoral election by 15 votes.

  Widespread reports of votes destroyed in Kurdish districts, March 30, 2014

Widespread reports of votes destroyed in Kurdish districts, March 30, 2014

The youngest mayor ever to be elected in Turkey, with 91% of the vote, was 25-year-old Rezan Zuğurli. After being elected BDP co-mayor of Lice on March 30, 2014, she gave a speech in Kurdish.  Like Leyla Zana [33] who served ten years in prison [34] after daring to speak one sentence of Kurdish when she took her oath in Parliament  [35] in 1991,  Rezan Zuğurli [36] was sentenced on May 7, 2014, to 4 years and 2 months in prison for participating in three rallies in 2010 and 2011.  The court found her guilty on charges of committing crimes “on behalf of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)” [37] although she is not a member of the PKK.

This punishment from the State in seeming retaliation for a Kurdish woman being elected mayor only exacerbates the conflict and cannot lead to peace.  When one Kurd is attacked, twenty million Kurds feel it personally and, thus, become more resolute in their determination to achieve their human rights.

Thousands of Kurds remain in prison, convicted under the anti-terrorism laws which have not been changed or rescinded.  Millions of Kurds have had no justice for the murders and disappearances of their loved ones.  They have received no damages for the destruction of their villages.  The persons who made the decision to bomb Kurdish villagers from Roboski and Gülyazı go unidentified and unpunished.  Lawyers for Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned on Imrali Island, have been barred from meeting with him [38] since July 27, 2011.

The hour is very late for Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP party to resurrect the defunct peace process and answer the Kurdish Question:  How much longer must Kurds wait?  Their cup of endurance is running over.

The Kurdish Question - how long must Kurds wait?

Dr. Amy L. Beam is a retired I.T. software developer who first visited Turkey in 2007 and fell in love with the wide-open rugged beauty of Kurdistan and Kurdish hospitality.  She promotes tourism to Mount Ararat and eastern Turkey.  Beam writes on free speech and human rights, focusing on the Kurdish peace and democracy movement.  Contact her at amybeam@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter @amybeam.  Older blogs on the Kurdish question are at http://www.climbingmountararat.blogspot.com and www.kurdistantribune.com .

Amy L. Beam, Hilal Lake, Uludere, Sirnak, SE Turkey

Amy L. Beam, Hilal Lake, Uludere, Sirnak, SE Turkey


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45. “Searchable database for international arms sales by country and year,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), http://armstrade.sipri.org/armstrade/html/export_values.php

46.  “12 thousand policemen to Agri,” May 24, 2014, KurdishInfo.com, http://www.kurdishinfo.com/12-thousand-policemen-agri

47. “More AKP Psychological Warfare Against Kurdish Councils!” Hevallo, Mar 4, 2008, http://hevallo.blogspot.com/2011/03/more-akp-psychological-warfare-against.html

7 Responses to Turkey: What Is the Kurdish Question?
  1. seyda alpsen
    June 3, 2014 | 14:34

    very good background but wrong dîrectîon. kurdîsh problem cannot be solved or waît tîll turkeys democracy. ît can be solved when kurds have rîghts to establîsh theîr own state. dont you thînk spaîn îs a democracy. or uk. so why bask. katalan or îrîsh or scottîsh problems are there?

    • Amy L Beam
      June 3, 2014 | 21:29

      The Kurdish problems and obstacles have many similarities with minorities struggling for human rights and language rights in other countries. When people come from all over the world to climb Mount Ararat, they often share with me how these issues are addressed in their own countries. For example, Switzerland is divided into 4 areas, each with its own language. Everyone seems satisfied with that. In Sicily, after decades, a Sicilian still feels he or she is living in an occupied territory by Italy. A comparative analysis would be quite welcome. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Leslie Kayilibal
    June 3, 2014 | 20:24

    What a wonderful article! First time I have seen the issues aroud the Kurds in Turkey explained so succinctly. As someone married to a Kurd, I have become quite informed about the Kurdish problem from my husband. I am forwarding this article to several friends of ours as a way to help them understand also. Thank you!!

    • Amy L Beam
      June 3, 2014 | 21:25

      Thank you for your comment and thank you SO MUCH for sharing. We inform people one person at a time.

  3. Salah Zandi
    June 4, 2014 | 01:43

    Great article

  4. […] “Things are getting better.  In the nineties they killed us.  Now they just lock us in prison,” says the conscientious objector known as Black Crow.  “The more they kill us, the stronger we become.”  KurdistanTribune.com […]

  5. Amy L Beam
    January 17, 2015 | 02:13

    In the last ten days 5 children were killed in Cizre in southeast Turkey. After a crumbling peace process, Kurds still want the same thing: for the Turkish state to stop killing Kurds. If the tanks would withdraw from the cities of the southeast, there could be peace.

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