By Raffi Shoubookian
Their tragedy started in the aftermath of World War I. Despite the promises of the Allied Powers, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s plans for the self-determination of indigenous peoples conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and despite the stipulation regarding a national homeland set forth in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, their territorial, political, social, and cultural rights continue to be trampled upon and now they face genocide on their own land, not dissimilar to that of the Armenians.
They are the Kurds – a dispersed nation that shares with Armenians geography, history, and aspirations for a national homeland on their ancestral soil.
An ancient people of the Zagros Mountains and the eastern extension of the Taurus Mountain range, the Kurds are an ethnic minority of some 20 million, living in an area where the borders of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq converge, and small enclaves of about 500,000 each in Syria and the Soviet Caucasus.
Around 51,000 of them live in Soviet Armenia, where they have their own newspaper, theater, and academic research center. Their history in Armenia dates back to the Seljuk conquest in the 11th century. For a time after Soviet rule replaced the Russian Empire, the Armenian alphabet was adapted for use by Kurds of the Soviet Union. It was later replaced by the Latin and Cyrillic.
But the larger groups are actively involved in underground wars against the central governments in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, seeking autonomy in their mountainous regions.
In Turkey, Kurdish guerrillas have been fighting for an independent Marxist state in the eastern and southeastern parts of Anatolia.
Since the summer of 1984, when they started hit-and-run attacks, and up mid- April, more than 2,500 people have been killed (roughly equal numbers of Kurdish militants, and security forces as well as civilians) as a result of Kurdish clashes in Anatolia.
Kurds make up about one-fifth of Turkey’s population of 55 million. Historically, Kurds have never achieved sufficient unity to produce even the prototype of an organized political movement for independence. Kurdish life in its traditional setting may be too organic, too close to nature to permit evolution of political figures. At the same time, the forbidding mountains of Kurdistan have always granted an effective local autonomy to Kurds.
“Although Kurdistan is divided among five nations…and recognized by none, its people are united by blood, language and sentiment – a sentiment often manifested in violent rebellion, which even the most brutal suppression has failed to stamp out,” Archibald Roosevelt, a former senior official of the C.I.A. and presently director of International Relations for Chase Manhattan Bank, wrote in his memoirs.
In the past decade, the most brutal suppression that Kurds encountered came at the hands of the Iraqis. Successive regimes in Baghdad have pursued policies designed to dispossess, diminish, displace, and recently to destroy outright the distinctive ethnic identity of the 3.5 million Kurds that live within Iraq’s borders. Between 1985-87,781 villages in the Sorani region were destroyed. The campaign culminated with the chemical attacks by the Iraqi Air Force in March 1988, which left 5,000 Kurdish civilians dead and nearly 10,000 injured in Halabja. The genocidal attempt resulted in tens of thousands of Kurds seeking refuge across the border, in Turkey.
Now, probably encouraged by the success of the Palestinian “Intifada,” the Kurds in Turkey’s southeastern provinces have entered a new phase in their struggle for independence. For the first time in the provinces of Mardin, Siirt, and Elazig, teenagers are throwing stones at the security forces, erecting roadblocks, and burning tires. People have closed shops, officers, and schools to protest the sometimes brutal action of the Turkish Interior Ministry.
At the same time, a new wave of violence swept not only the countryside but also urban areas. Since the beginning of March, 105 people were reported killed in Kurdish clashes. This compares with only 16 terrorism-related deaths in the whole first quarter of 1989.
Until late March, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, also know as PKK, raided villages, “executed” so-called village guards and their collaborators, and sometimes killed entire families.
But now, according to a recent Turkish intelligence report, the PKK operates in major cities, encouraging popular resistance to the authorities and security forces. It urges organized demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and seizure of public buildings.
The unpublished report said intelligence units have established that four Kurdish organizations based in Syria, Iran, and Iraq have reached a clandestine agreement with the PKK to set up liberated regions in eastern and southeastern Anatolia, reportedly with the support of Syria – Turkey’s neighbor to the south.
The four organizations in the united Kurdish front plan to establish themselves in Turkey through sudden attacks from the countries in which they are based. With a joint force of 500,000 men, the front will carry out attacks on Turkey’s involve their host countries as well as Syria in their war against Turkey, the intelligence report said.
Prime Minister Yildirim Akbulut and other senior government officials publicly played down the uprising, but the government could not but adopt new security measures to fight the latest upsurge of Kurdish unrest.
On April 10, the parliament approved and put into effect a decree which restricts news coverage of incidents in southeastern Anatolia, and increases the powers of the regional governor in charge of the 11 provinces where most of Turkey’s estimated 9 million Kurds live. The governor was also empowered to ban strikes and expel residents deemed threats to public order.
The decree prompted a wave of protest both from the inside and outside of Turkey. Turkish journalists and left-wing opposition political parties immediately attacked the decree as anti-democratic, while the London-based International Press Institute on April 17 sent a letter to President Turgut Ozal protesting the restrictions of news coverage and the “gross violations of basic and internationally recognized human rights.” The independent institute, with offices in London and Zurich, represents leading publishers and editors in more than 60 countries.
Defending the disputed measures, Ozal, in an April 15 television address, said they are “aimed at protecting the inseparable unity of the Turkish state.”
“No one will be strong enough to ruin the integrity of the Republic of Turkey,” said the Turkish President who, a week earlier, had authorized the use of modern military equipment and helicopters to intensify the government’s operations against the Kurdish rebellion.
Although the Army has successfully fought Kurdish militants in the eastern mountains and rural areas, officials say, the task is more difficult now that the rebels are moving to urban centers. For the first time, senior officials and officers have talked publicly about the possibility of an Israeli-style assault against PKK headquarters in Damascus and its camps in the Bekaa Valley in Syrian-controlled Lebanon.
Armenians and Kurds are two peoples locked in the same geographical area and with the same national aspirations, with their territorial claims overlapping parts of Western Armenia. Their shared history is marked with bilateral relations that have been both friendly and antagonistic. With the ongoing realignment of political relations of the superpowers as well as the countries in the region, the destinies of the two people are certain to intersect in the near future.