Sharpeville, Cizre and Pristina

Event Scenes

Sharpeville, Cizre and Pristina

I would suspect that most middle-aged liberals with a social conscience and politically aware younger folk would be able to react in some way if they were challenged to explain what they knew about the Sharpeville massacre or the bombing of Pristina. One a poignant historical moment in the quest for democracy in South Africa, the latter a present day human catastrophe which seems to me at the time of writing this article a major humanitarian blunder on the part of the NATO strategists. After forty years the horror of Sharpeville is still ingrained in the psyche of a generation as a turning point in the freedom struggle of the black majority in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime. Pristina is currently the centre of the struggle for self-determination by the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo; events in Kosovo packaged for us within the sanitized rhetoric of CNN sound bites. The purpose of this article is to highlight another recent set of events involving thousands of Kurds who chose to demonstrate across Europe and around the world in recent weeks. Cizre (pronounced “Jizeereh”) is a Kurdish town. What can the average person tell me about this dusty town close to the border between south east Turkey and Syria, an area referred to on many maps as North Kurdistan.

Unfortunately for the Kurdish people, the world does not know of what happened in Cizre on March 21, 1992, coincidentally the anniversary of the horrendous massacre of March 21, 1960 in Sharpeville. I came across a videotape of the Cizre massacre, filmed by a German documentary team, whilst I searched for the reason for such a well organised and spontaneous wave of demonstrations by Kurds around the world in the wake of the recent abduction of Guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya. My investigations designed to get to the root of the anguish and draw conclusions in an attempt to explain the tremendous outpouring of despair by Kurds of all political persuasions throughout the Kurdish Diaspora, following the arrest of Ocalan. The most shocking manifestation and most difficult aspect for many westerners to understand were the many cases of self-immolation in protest at the abduction of Ocalan. What could drive so many human beings to such despair and frustration as to commit this ultimate act? I directed my investigations into the Kurdish psyche in an attempt to understand what could drive so many people to articulate their inner pain in inflicting upon themselves such agony.

I intended to visit the south east of Turkey during the recent Kurdish New Year “Newroz” celebrations. However, due to a complete media clampdown journalists were strictly forbidden from entering the region. An action which brought no outcry from Turkey’s NATO allies even though similar tactics in Kosovo by the Serbian authorities of course drew international condemnation about the suppression of press freedom. So given the restrictions in Turkey I began to carry out research to try and get close to the problem at hand. I started by carefully reading the Turkish constitution. Having visited Turkey as a journalist in the past I know the beauty of Turkey. A country with so much to offer the world and strategically so important to western interests in the Middle East. However, I did find the constitution a little draconian to say the least. The constitution can be found on the website of the Turkish Embassy in Washington. This constitutional document, drawn up following the military coup of September 12th 1980, is very much the legacy of a man who in the words of the document is described as Turkey’s “Immortal leader and unrivalled hero” Mustafa Kemal, known to the Turkish people as “Ataturk” – father of the Turks.

As a member of NATO with the second largest armed forces in the alliance one may be forgiven for believing that the current excursions into Serbian airspace and the threat of ground troops being sent into Kosovo is being fully supported by Turkey. However, the current conflict has led to many allegations in the western press and television phone in programmes on CNN of double standards. Turkey’s position in NATO and the treatment of the estimated 12 million Kurds within Turkey’s borders being analogous to the attitude of the Serbs to the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The Turkish attitude to the ethnic Kurds who make up an estimated one quarter of the Turkish population minorities being curiously similar if somewhat larger in scale to the situation in Yugoslavia. In Turkey it is claimed that all people are equal under the constitution and it is a fact that Kurds can play a role in Turkish life at all levels as long as they agree to one precept. This precept is written in the constitution and as an ideology seen by many Kurds and western observers to be equally as abhorrent as apartheid. Namely, the Turkish policy of enforced assimilation and attempted extermination of the existence of the Kurdish identity. During a press briefing on CNN (second of April, 1999) Emma Bonino, European Union spokesperson on Humanitarian Affairs stated that it is equally as much an act of genocide to strip a people of their homes, identities and culture as the total extermination of the people themselves. Of course she was talking of the stripping of identity from the Kosovo ethnic Albanians fleeing the carnage in Pristina and throughout Kosovo, not the Kurds.

Article Three of the Turkish constitution states that “The Turkish state, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity. Its language is Turkish”. In some ways I can understand the simplicity of this aspiration. When the Turkish state was formed following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the trauma of the first world war, Ataturk must have felt the need as a leader for consolidation. The many ethnic peoples would have to give up their identity in the interests of a strong Turkish nation. Social engineering was not a new concept in the region; recognition by the French government recently of the genocide in Armenia is ample evidence of the Turkish policy of ethnic cleansing in the first quarter of this century. The Turkish constitution states that although all citizens have rights, the constitution states that these rights are withdrawn once a Turkish citizen expresses the need to exhibit the culture and language of their specific subculture within Turkish territorial boundaries. These acts are deemed by the constitution to be separatist and therefore terrorist in nature. The message is clear, direct and rigorously enforced. This means that the Kurds in the south east of the country have since 1922 been forced to submit to a policy of assimilation to the prescribed identity of the Turkish constitution. If Turkey’s NATO ally the United Kingdom enforced a similar policy as lain down by the Turkish State authorities, it would mean that the Welsh language would be banned. Tanks could be deployed on the streets of Welsh villages, if in defiance of the constitution, Welsh people gathering to sing using the Welsh language, dance and dress in accordance with Welsh culture, be at risk of death, incarceration and torture; celebrating St. David’s day would be seen as a separatist act, all participants would immediately be stripped of their rights under the constitution.

In 1992, the Kurdish New Year celebrations in Cizre witnessed, as every year, undaunted by savage repression, a gathering of thousands of Kurds. They come together as they have for centuries to celebrate their culture in defiance of the ban. Watching the documentary about Cizre reminded me so much of the Sharpeville massacre, I was transported back in time to the evening I first watched the scenes of that grim day in the Townships of the Apartheid regime. I recalled the discussions around me, the measures that should be taken against such a regime, and the expressions of disgust and indignation at the act perpetrated on people protesting with dignity in peaceful defiance of an ideology both repugnant and indefensible. However, that was the sixties and now due to world pressure the people in the Townships have their President released and the truth and reconciliation commission tries to smooth the path toward the “Rainbow” nation. The world took action in the case of South Africa and the apartheid regime was dismantled as the South African government was forced to come into line with world opinion.

I interviewed the South African Member of Parliament and spokesperson on Justice and Foreign Affairs, Mr. Imam Gassan Soloman in Istanbul some 18 months ago. I was in Turkey on assignment and chose to attend a press conference called by Mr. Soloman and other’s who had attempted to visit the stricken Kurdish areas in vain. Turkish police stormed the press conference for the meeting was deemed illegal as promoting separatism; many western journalists were beaten and arrested including my colleague Julia Guest, a freelance photographer from London. Mr. Soloman, was convinced that there were indeed great similarities between apartheid and the assimilationist policies in Turkey, primarily the methods used to implement both ideologies. “The Kurdish population of Turkey is in exactly the same position that the black majority in South Africa found themselves in 1974. The patterns of repression and achievable goals for the 12 million Kurds in Turkey are those we faced at that time,” he told me in the Istanbul hotel which had its revolving door completely destroyed by riot police in an attempt to stop him addressing those assembled. Mr. Soloman was a participant on the “Musa Anter Peace Train” initiative. An initiative within which many leading political figures and human rights representatives, of all political persuasions, attempted to travel to the capital of the predominantly Kurdish south east for a cultural festival, only to be turned back by tanks 40 miles short of their destination. An estimated one thousand Kurds were arrested as immeasurable numbers gathered in Diyarbakir to greet the delegations who were prevented from arriving by the Turkish authorities.

Like the people of Sharpeville in their day, the people of Cizre suffered greatly during the Newroz celebrations of March, 1992, so vividly captured by the German documentary team of Michael Enger and Hans-Peter Weymer. Some 150 people died in the mayhem that day in Cizre including a journalist accompanying the German duo, as in Sharpeville, many of those who died were shot in the back. This year’s news blackout of the happenings in the Kurdish areas of Turkey during the Newroz celebrations has raised renewed cause for concern. Turkish Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit stated in a recent interview circulated by Reuters that “There is no Kurdish issue in Turkey just a PKK problem”. The PKK being the Kurdistan Worker’s Party whose leader Abdullah Ocalan’s arrest sparked the protests within the Kurdish Diaspora in Europe. The Turkish Prime Minister chose to ignore the CNN reports of 8000 arrests during the Newroz celebrations.

In an attempt to put things into context I visited the website of the United States, State Department and looked for documentation on the Human Rights record in Turkey for the past year. I found a document drawn up by the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, dated 26th of February, 1999. The document some 29 pages long, a litany of human rights abuses against the Kurdish population in Turkey that makes the footage of Cizre and Sharpeville combined seem feeble evidence in comparison. No PKK propaganda here just hard facts from the United States, State Department a document that surely lies in the files of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s office. Six extracts from the report:

“The (Turkish) constitution does not recognise the Kurds as a national, racial, or ethnic minority.”

“Extrajudicial killings, including deaths in detention from the excessive use of force “mystery killings” and disappearances continue. Torture remains widespread.”

“The government continued to use the 1991 Anti-Terror Law, with its broad and ambiguous definition of terrorism, to detain both alleged terrorists and others on the charge that their acts, words, or ideas constituted dissemination of separatist propaganda.”

“In January (of last year) journalists Mehmet Topaloglu, Selahatin Akinci, and Bulent Dil were killed in a police raid on an alleged militants’ house in Adana. According to Human Rights Foundation, the evidence of witnesses did not support the police version of events. An autopsy on Topaloglu found 11 bullets and a broken shoulder. Cigarette burns, drill marks, multiple fractures and traces of strangulation were noted on Dil’s body.”

“In April (of last year) the Istanbul Chamber of Doctors certified that two and a half year old Azat Tokmat showed physical and psychological signs of torture after detention at the Istanbul branch of the anti-terror police. The child was burned with cigarettes and kicked in an effort to make Azat’s imprisoned mother confess to PKK membership.”

“The exact number of persons forcibly displaced from villages in the south east since 1984 is unknown. Most estimates agree that 2,600 to 3,000 villages and hamlets have been depopulated. A few non- governmental organisations (NGO’s) put the number forcibly displaced as high as 2 million.”

It seems that NATO countries “depopulate” while NATO’s enemies “ethnically cleanse”. We are not talking about Serbian attacks on Kosovo here, but Turkish policy in the Kurdish regions of the south east and throughout Turkey. So as a westerner I now start to understand what will make a Kurd living in alienation in the west turn to the action of self-immolation, to commit an act of premeditated suicide in protest. There can be no more painful way to die than in a ball of flames followed by agonizing hours on operating tables. To be viewed as so worthless that the world fails to act when atrocities such as Cizre take place. There have been countless Cizre’s in Kurdistan not to mention the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign in Northern Iraq, (South Kurdistan) typified by the chemical weapons attack in Halabja, in which 5000 persons died. The singer, much loved amongst the Kurds, Shivan Perwer composed a song about Halabja entitled “Hawar”. I spoke to one Kurdish journalist and asked him to define the word “hawer” to me. “It is difficult he said, wait one minute”. He returned with a picture of Iraqi motorists applauding at the roadside as Kurds were being lined up and shot during the “Anfal” campaign. He pointed to the look of terror on the face of one woman, screaming skyward as the bullets hit her body. “This is “hawar”, sheer hopelessness, sorrow, dejection, with no road to safety, whichever way you run. This is the plight of the Kurds”.

Maybe one day the Kurds may gain the right to live within their own culture in a greater Turkey, or within the “safe havens” of Northern Iraq. The average Kurd being offered the same rights as their European minority counterparts such as the Welsh, Scots, Flemish and Wallonians, or those within the cantons of Switzerland. Surely, that will be the day Turkey can become a genuine European partner, and a respected member of the NATO alliance, not before. Surely, Turkey will firstly have to become a “Rainbow” nation inclusive of the yellow and green of the one quarter of the population to add to the red with white crescent of the Turkish majority. Only when the Kurds feel that the world genuinely sees them as worthy of cultural identity, human rights and dignity like the black South African majority and the people of Kosovo. Only when the feeling of being ignored by the world dissipates, will the protests and self-immolation stop, the Kurdish issue is not going to go away, freedom is a process not an event. It is time the United States and Europe acted to ensure that the process gets under way for the Kurds.

Joseph Cooper is a freelance journalist.