Monday, 30 April 2012


This text was written originally for a youth magazine published in London.

The history and existence of Kurds and Kurdistan goes back thousands of years and has existed in different forms and under different names, but the Kurdish ‘problem’ can be traced back to 1639 when Kurdistan (The land of the Kurds) was divided between the Ottoman and Safavid-Persian Empires. Although there were no nation-state structures at that time, Kurds lived quite independently under autonomous chieftainships and gave taxes and occasionally soldiers to the central power they lived under. However this divide created the first fracture and separation in Kurdish culture and identity. The similarities between Persians and Kurds (they are deemed cousins since their joint existence in the Medean Empire) softened the blow culturally but the separation was still felt strongly on a religious and political level. The seeds of the tensions between Alevi/Shia and Şafi/Sunni Kurds can be found here; as the Safavid Empire was predominantly Şia/Alevi whereas the Ottoman Empire Şafi/Sunni, they both used the Kurdish populations living under their rule against one another. As we will see often through Kurdish history, Kurdistan has been the site of historic battles and Kurds have been the victims or sacrifice in struggles between hegemonic powers and the classic policy of divide and rule has been implemented many times.
There were many Kurdish rebellions during the last 100 years of the Ottoman Empire, but these mostly remained local up until and including the Koçgiri (1920), Şeyh Said (1925) and Dersim (1938) rebellions which were just before and in the first years of the Turkish Republic (formation 1923). These rebellions all had a Kurdish character and some called for Kurdish national independence, but they were quickly and mercilessly defeated before they could gain momentum and mass support. It is not a coincidence that they occurred following the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formed the basis for the formation of the Turkish state and excluded all the other peoples’ living within the borders of Turkey. The Treaty of Sevres in 1921 had actually included autonomy for Kurds but during the next two years the unionist and nationalist wing of the Turkish National Movement gained strength and excluded the Kurds who had thus far been involved in the provisional Turkish Parliament and struggle for independence. The words ‘Kurd’ and ‘Kurdistan’ had been used many times in Parliament by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) himself. The Treaty of Lausanne also separated Kurdistan once more and this time into four pieces. As with 1639, the Kurds and Kurdistan, almost 300 years later became the biggest losers and sacrifice in a war fought between the rulers of the world. Kurdish existence, especially in Turkey and Syria was now illegal and would be crushed whenever and wherever it rose its head.
In later years The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad (1946) declared autonomy in the Iranian region but it was short lived as the Soviet Union withdrew its support within a year of its formation and its leader Qazi Muhammad was executed in 1947 by Iran. Kurds living under Iraqi occupation also gained autonomy in 1970 but became targets and victims in the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s; and were subjected to genocidal policies in Halabja and Anfal where thousands of Kurds were gassed to death by the Iraqi army. Their autonomy was strengthened in 1991 after the Gulf War and they became a federal entity with the Iraq Constitution of 2005, giving them greater freedoms from the central government. However unfortunately this happened with the 2003 invasion of Iraq which lead to the death of over a million people.
The modern Kurdish National Movement’s seeds were sewn from the 1950s onwards as many Kurds became introduced to socialist and national liberation movements. This momentum gained pace after 1968 as the need for separate Turkish and Kurdish organisations became clear; the Turkish left saw the Kurdish question as a secondary matter to the wider revolution in Turkey, but Kurds began questioning this ideological and practical stance because the needs of Kurds were not being met. When the first generation of Turkish revolutionaries were massacred by the Turkish state, many Kurds who had been organised in Turkish left movements broke away. Abdullah Ocalan and his friends, who had been influenced by the likes of Deniz Gezmiş and Mahir Çayan, also began organising at this juncture. Their thesis was that Kurdistan was a colony being exploited by the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian states and also other foreign powers who were in turn exploiting these other states. After several years of working and organising as a small group these cadres founded the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) in 1978 and began an armed resistance first against Kurdish feudal lords and then the Turkish state in 1984. In between these two dates was the important resistance shown by many leading PKK figures in Diyarbakir prison; the likes of Mazlum Doğan, Kemal Pir, Mehmet Hayri Durmuş and others either immolated themselves or were martyred in hunger strikes and became symbols of resistance against the September 12th 1980 coup and also for the resurrection of Kurds and Kurdistan.
Over the years and especially towards the end of the 80s the PKK began gaining mass support from the Kurds in North Kurdistan (Turkey), South West Kurdistan (Syria) and Europe. Thousands of young Kurds, men and women, began joining the guerrilla forces; Kurds aligned with the PKK began organising in workers’ unions, forming their own political parties, cultural centres and publishing newspapers; in short the Kurdistan Freedom Movement began infiltrating all spheres of life and became a mass peoples’ movement. To counter this the Turkish state tried many different tactics, from 17,000 extra-judicial killings to burning 4,000 villages and staging massive military operations against the PKK; which ended in the death of over 40,000 people on both sides.
There were two attempts at peace in the 1990s; first with Turkish President Turgut Özal and then with Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. Both were cut short in mysterious circumstances and the fighting intensified and continued until 1999 when PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was kidnapped in an international conspiracy carried out by the CIA and Mossad and handed over to Turkey. The attempts by Öcalan for a peaceful solution had begun in 1993, and in fact he had spoken of a solution within Turkey’s borders as far back as1988, but after 1999 these attempts intensified. Öcalan saw the aim of the international conspiracy as trying to begin a civil war between Kurds and Turks; so he began a process which would change his own, the PKK’s and also the Turkish state’s approach to the issue of Kurds and Kurdistan. For this he has written more than 10 books on the island prison of Imrali, including a road-map for the resolution of the Kurdish question. These books form the foundations for a democratic autonomous system in North Kurdistan and the other parts of Kurdistan in which there is a bottom-up organisation of society based around democratic socialist ideals, gender equality and ecology.
In the past few years a dialogue had begun between Öcalan, the PKK and the AKP government/Turkish state for a political peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, but it has turned out that this was nothing more than delay tactics. During that time over 8000 pro-Kurdish and Kurdish MPs, mayors, lawyers, intellectuals, academics, journalists and children have been imprisoned as part of the KCK (Union of Communities in Kurdistan) case. Furthermore Öcalan, who is the most important figure for negotiations, and has been in solitary confinement for 13 years, has not been seen by his lawyers for 8 months.
As I write this over 1,000 people in Turkish prisons, in Kurdistan and Europe are on indefinite hunger-strike and are calling for the freedom of Öcalan and a political status for Kurdistan. In essence they are trying to open the blockaded path for a political and peaceful solution to the Kurdish question before the snow melts and fighting resumes between the PKK and Turkish state forces, which will lead to more bloodshed and enmity on both sides. But also they want to make that sure that the Kurds are not the victim and sacrifice once again at a time when the balance of the region is changing.

April 2012

Memed Boran

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