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5 July 1999

Is it true because a man dies for it?

Western Europeans see Kurds and their leader, Ocalan, as martyrs of Turkish oppression. Norman Stone

By Norman Stone

My cleaning lady came in, all beams, and was joined by the lodger, a graduate student of Kurdish origin. The capture of Abdullah Ocalan by the Turks, back in February, had been a national triumph. It affected them directly – my cleaning lady, because she had a son fighting a horrible guerrilla war against Ocalan’s men in the grim mountains of south-eastern Turkey; the student, because he had his military service to do, one day. But, beyond that, they both appreciated that the capture of Ocalan had been brilliantly executed. He had been tricked out of his hideaway in the Greek embassy in Kenya, his guards had been diverted on their way to the airport and Ocalan had been driven directly to an aircraft waiting to fly him back to Turkey to face justice.

The upshot, for Turks, was also quite gratifying. There was uproar among Ocalan’s adherents in western Europe, but they attacked Greek embassies, not Turkish ones. And the Greek government collapsed, losing three senior ministers, who were dismissed not because they had supported a terrorist movement in a neighbouring country, but because they had not supported it enough. It was altogether a matter for national celebration in Turkey, promising the end of a very nasty episode. Ocalan’s movement, the PKK, had been waging a guerrilla war for 20 years, and most of his 30,000 victims had been Kurds, not Turks. So the cleaning lady was beaming.

She might also have been thinking, and been too polite to say, that it was one in the eye for the Europeans. Ocalan had been forced out of Syria and landed, eventually, in Italy. He was wanted by the German government, on charges of extortion and murder (of Kurds who had defected from the PKK). He was on the Interpol red list, but the German government, fearing civil troubles, did not push for extradition. In Italy, Raidue, the communist television channel, staged long programmes in which the Turkish side was represented by middle-aged Gastarbeiter mumbling in Turkish, while the Ocalan side consisted of decently dressed Kurdish exiles smoothly talking the language of national liberation in Italian.

When it came to the man’s trial, recently ended, western European comment was, again, rather odd. The PKK has a group of supporters – Danielle Mitterrand in France and Harold Pinter in England head the lists. The trial was going to be staged, they said: Midnight Express all over again.

Julie Flint, in the Independent, had a field day. She made a weird claim that the Turkish interior ministry had ordered journalists not to use the word “Kurd”, but some circumlocution or other involving “secessionists”. My own Turkish is not very good, but I do try to read a main newspaper or two every day, and the word “Kurd” was all over the place. Cumhuriyet, equivalent of the Independent, advertised television programmes about “Turkish-Kurd identity” (they go in for long talk shows here). Ocalan, Flint went on, would be put in a bulletproof glass box, unable to communicate with his lawyers. Glass box, yes. This was a high-security trial, and the danger on such occasions is that the accused will be shot, either by one of his victims or by one of his own side, to silence him before he can confess. Of course, Ocalan could talk to his lawyers, but in fact he largely ignored them, to their discomfiture: a Dutch lady, no doubt looking forward to her the-quality-of-mercy-is-not-strained bit, looked particularly put out as Ocalan waved aside any defence and admitted to the charges. Again, he was very obviously not under torture or mind-bending drugs or whatever. His family had seen him. The one thing that might be said was that his lawyers had not seen him face to face, alone. But high-security trials are high-security trials. Both the Italians and the Germans, facing Mafia and Red Brigades, discovered that defence lawyers could abuse their privileges – carrying messages back and forth, or even weaponry. As to trial by jury, the British, who invented this centuries ago, had to abrogate it in Northern Ireland because juries could be intimidated by one side or the other. Ocalan has been sentenced to death, in accordance with a law on high treason.

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Along the way, Ocalan further discomfited his supporters by confessing to everything. He did not deny the terrible atrocities carried out by the PKK, the slaughter of whole families, tiny children and all, in vengeance killings, or the special targeting of schoolteachers who had exposed themselves in south-eastern Turkey because they wanted to bring education to the masses there. He did not say that the Turkish army had somehow been responsible for these massacres, dressing its soldiers up as PKK men (peshmergas) so as to push local Kurdish opinion on to the Turkish state’s side.

Ocalan’s present tactics are quite clever: perestroika hits Shining Path, you might say. He now condemns the violence and says that he will be a useful bridge between Turks and Kurds. He has expressly abandoned demands for separation and independence; he wants only cultural rights, he says.

If western Europeans are going to involve themselves, they will be waved aside as a contemptible irrelevance unless they recognise, to start with, three things. The first is that the PKK has been a very nasty outfit, its finances dependent on drug- running and protection rackets in western Europe (including London: the police know all about this). The second is that the Turkish state should be congratulated, not abused. When the PKK began, in the late seventies, Turkey was in a bad way: 20 people killed every day as part of an on-going civil war, and the economy in a mess. Progress in the past 20 years has been remarkable: at the last count, the Turkish GDP has overtaken the Russian and even the Swedish, though Turkey has no significant raw materials to speak of.

My third point concerns the Kurds. Turkey’s progress has affected them, as well, but in different ways. Those who migrated from the drought-stricken Kurdish south-east have often done very well indeed, and great numbers of them have succeeded in business, politics, the army or whatever. There is no discrimination; there is a great deal of intermarriage.

The demand for “Kurdish culture” is not easy to fulfil. There is not, for instance, “a” Kurdish language. If you want to check this, get hold of Baran Rizgar’s Kurdish-English dictionary, published in London in 1993. The author has done a lot of work, but admits he only covers one dialect, Kirmanci, and, when you look into things further, a great many of the 15,000 words he identifies are Turkish or Persian. This is what you may expect from a largely nomadic people.

As the preface shows, it is just not true that the Kurdish language is forbidden in Turkey. It mentions periodicals produced in Izmir and Istanbul (though most, admittedly, come from Sweden). Unfortunately, Kurds do not read these publications, which fold after a fitful existence. Med TV, the allegedly Kurdish-language television station which our Independent Television Commission suppressed three months ago because of its advocacy of murder, actually used Turkish most of the time. In these circumstances, the demand for Kurdish schools or whatever really boils down to a demand for the Kirmanci variant to be imposed, with state money, on the other variants, Zaza, Dimili and so on, which are often so different as to constitute, so my Kurdish graduate students tell me, different languages. This is surely not a point to be put aside in the name of alleged violations of human rights or Council of Europe minority clauses and the rest.

There is a further division, of great importance. Kurdish society was clan-based, with the Macdonalds-and- Campbells divisions that you would expect. Two of the main tribes, the Bucaks and the Turks, took opposite sides on any occasion, regardless of the merits of the case. There is a further problem, namely that old-fashioned Islamic polygamy still goes on, and the resulting demographic problem has to be seen to be believed: tiny little girls, in gaudy, raggedy clothes, dragging even tinier brothers across busy roads. This is a terrible headache for the Turkish state, and the PKK, by targeting schoolteachers, has made it, as with everything else, much worse.

There is a final matter, which greatly complicates “the Kurdish question”. There is an important religious difference. Most Kurds are strongly Sunni, and if you, like Bettina Selby in her wonderful Beyond Ararat, find little boys throwing stones at you as, bare-legged, you bike around in eastern Turkey, do not be surprised. But about a third of the Kurds in those parts are Alevi, adherents to a very different kind of Islam, which owes much to folk memories of other religions, including Orthodoxy. There is drink and dancing, and the men and women are not segregated. In the great Kurdish risings of the past, Sunni and Alevi clans and regions often took different sides, and the same is true today.

Such, at any rate, are the realities that, after four years in Turkey, I can see. I may be wrong: Palmerston always said that when he wanted to know what not to think about a country, he asked someone who had lived there for 30 years. One final point, however. You will hear, in this context, that the Turkish state has made this or that mistake, that its forces have committed this or that crime. Guerrilla wars are a very ugly business. It is also true that, to stop the PKK from terrorising villagers, the Turks evacuated the villages (mostly poverty-stricken hamlets in the mountains). The villagers, congregating in the nearest big towns look desolate, and for foreign journalists who do not know the background, it is easy to jump to conclusions. But it is not true that the Turkish state has neglected the area, as far as investment is concerned. In fact, this is where hope may emerge. There is an enormous scheme for the irrigation of those parts, which has started with the Ataturk dam on the Euphrates. It has cost £10 billion so far, and the effects are already clearly visible. Vast regions that have not seen water since Ur of the Chaldees are now green. A once-dusty, provincial town, Antep, is experiencing a boom, as local entrepreneurs discover the European market, whether for agriculture or for spare parts. These irrigation projects, and the European market, will do far more in answer to the Kurdish question than the hot air which the Ocalan case has generated.

The writer is professor of international relations, Bilkent University, Ankara

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