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The oppression of the Kurds

The oppression of the Kurds

All indications of the existence of a culture other than the Turkish were to be exterminated.

Ever since ancient times, the Kurds and their homeland have experienced all kinds of military aggression, occupation, oppression and conquest – by Sumerians, Babylonians, Arabs, Mongols, and eventually Turks. For many centuries, the Kurds were under the domain of the two most powerful empires of the Near East and staunch arch rivals; the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the various Shia Persian Empires. During the nineteenth century, Kurdistan was shaken by numerous rebellions, which were usually bloodily crushed.

Post-WWI partition

After World War I and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialist powers Britain and France redrew national boundaries in the Middle East and divided Kurdistan, placing it under the rule of the Turkish republic, the Iranian peacock throne, the Iraqi monarchy, and the Syrian-French regime.

Although the Kurdish people had actively participated in the liberation war against the occupation of Anatolia and the founding of the republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the new republic destroyed their tribal scheme, the Kurdish principalities and banned their identity. So the Kurds undertook new rebellions and revolts, with devastating consequences for themselves.

Nationalism and the fascist epoch

Turkey adopted a strict policy of assimilation in order to enforce the unity of the remaining parts of the former empire and to create a Turkish nation-state. All indications of the existence of a culture other than the Turkish were to be exterminated. The republic banned the use of the Kurdish language and even the words Kurds and Kurdistan.

At the same time in the aftermath of World War I, Iraq and Iran were undergoing centralization and growing nationalism; the Shah of Iran established a terror regime in the spirit of the nationalist-fascist epoch. The repression of Kurds living within their boundaries intensified. In the Iraqi and Syrian parts of Kurdistan, Britain and France suppressed the Kurdish emancipation efforts with the help of their Arab proxies, establishing bloody colonial regimes.

Assimilation and oppression

The crushing of Kurdish revolts initiated a general phase of assimilation. No one questioned or followed up on the treatment of the Kurds including non-state actors like the UN, and the Kurds indeed had nowhere to turn to. Their nonexistence had been sealed internationally. The new state policies were bearing fruit. The policy of denial resulted in Kurdish self-denial; the policy of assimilation led to Kurdish self-assimilation.

The result has been that for almost a century now, the Kurdish people have been subjected to systemic genocides and massacres physically and culturally as well as forced displacement by the Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian states.

The Kurdistan Workers Party

In April 1973 a group of six revolutionary university students (two non-Kurds and a woman) came together in order to form an independent Kurdish political organization. They viewed Kurdistan was a classic colony, in which the population had been forcibly denied its right to self-determination. The group’s prime goal was to change this situation. The young movement gained momentum and found new followers. But as it did, the Kurdish aristocracy, rival political groups, and Turkish security forces became interested and violently attacked its adherents.

On November 27, 1978, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was founded in a small village near Amed (Diyarbakır). Twenty-two leading members of the movement took part in the founding congress of the PKK, of which two were women (one of whom was Sakine Cansız, murdered in Paris in 2013). A modern national liberation movement was born with Abdullah Öcalan clearly emerging as its ideological and political leader.

Turkish military seizes power

The Turkish authorities reacted harshly to PKK propaganda efforts, tolerating none of its peaceful political activity. Detentions and armed clashes followed. In 1979, observing signs of an imminent military coup, Öcalan and some other members left Turkey. His foresight secured the survival of the PKK. On September 12, 1980, the Turkish military seized power, resulting in thousands of detentions and widespread torture.

Under the military regime, struggling for Kurdish people’s fundamental rights through political means became extremely difficult. From abroad Öcalan continued to lead the PKK’s political activities and began preparations for the armed resistance that began in 1984.

“My son, we are like dead wood. Will you really be able to make us grow leaves?”

But Öcalan soon realized that armed struggle could not bring a final resolution to the conflict. In the early 1990s, he tried to shift the focus to a political solution. In 1993 he voiced the possibility that Kurds could live peaceably within Turkey instead of seeking a separate state. He held indirect talks with President Turgut Özal, but the result was his mysterious death and horrific and bloody times and further oppression for the Kurds.

A revival of the Kurdish People

Until the Öcalan-led movement appeared in the 1980s, the Kurds had nowhere to turn and were gradually losing their identity and dignity as a people. One of Öcalan’s earliest discussions of the Kurdish question was with an elderly man under a mosque’s shade. Ocalan spoke passionately about the Kurds, after which the elderly man responded: “My son, we are like dead wood. Will you really be able to make us grow leaves?”

The true test of a leader is the ability to gain acceptance for unpopular and surprising steps. Öcalan has done this over and over again during the thirty-six years that he has led the PKK. First, as leader, Öcalan proceeded to make the Kurdish people aware of their identity. He encouraged them to affirm their culture and identity proudly. The effect of his influence was to prevent the loss of Kurdish culture and language.

Restoring dignity and liberating women

By the 1980s, to most Kurds Öcalan had become a symbolic figure for Kurdish resistance against the oppression of dictatorships and military regimes, against denial, annihilation, and genocide. The success of the Öcalan-led resistance restored confidence and dignity to the people.

At his urging, women’s freedom has become a major issue not only within the organization but also within Kurdish society. Öcalan helped to push back male dominance and create space for women to organize and to participate in all areas of life and within the movement. Despite occasional backlashes of this, this policy allowed for an immense development not only for Kurdish women but for the whole society. By the 1990s the Kurdish people’s movement was focused not only on Kurdish identity but on gender equality the oppression of women and women’s freedom. This in itself was a revolution on its own considering the position of women in such movements not only amongst Kurds but also in Turkey or within the Middle East in general.

State-controlled death squads

The 1990s saw the killing of more than 30,000 people, most of them Kurds. Thousands became victims of state-controlled death squads. More than 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed. Kurds in their millions became refugees internally and internationally. Torture and oppression were widespread, and an immense number of human rights violations of every kind were committed. In 1993, as indirect talks with President Özal began, Öcalan declared a cease-fire for the first time and announced that Kurds could live within the borders of Turkey. He did so not at a moment of weakness but at the peak of PKK’s strength. In 1995 and 1998 he initiated two more unilateral cease-fires. While these cease-fires met with no response from the state, within the PKK, Öcalan faced resistance for his line to press for a political solution.

With the onset of the new millennium, Öcalan was able to develop his new paradigm further and steer the Kurdish freedom movement and the Kurdish society towards a non-state solution to the Kurdish question and formulate a resolution suitable for all peoples in the Middle East. In the 2000s he thus became a symbolic figure for Kurdish people’s freedom from oppression.

NEXT: Abduction and imprisonment


The above text is from a document that was prepared by the International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan–Peace in Kurdistan”.

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