It was our first night in Turkey. We’d crossed the border at sunset and were pumped up on the delicious and varied food we’d found for dinner. So we were all smiles when we met Memet on the street. We really couldn’t have predicted our conversation would bring him to tears within four sentences. But it did:
Where are you from?
New Zealand.Ah, you are of ANZACs. In world war the Ottomans killed many ANZACs. Just like many Kurds.
*Welling of tears*.
I felt an unexpected twinge that Memet’s first association with New Zealand was the ANZACs, but nothing that would bring me to tears. I guess the difference is while we have cast away the animosity that led Australians and New Zealanders to invade Turkish shores a century ago, the divisions between Turks and Kurds are still real for many.
There are about 15 million Kurds in Turkey, making them by far the largest minority group. About half of them are well integrated into Turkish society and live in the big cities of the west. The others are concentrated in the south-east, including in the town of Doğubeyazıt, where we met Memet, and where the population is almost exclusively% Kurdish.
Kurds speak a language that is closer to Persian than Turkish. Many identify more with other Kurds in Syria, Iran and Iraq, than with Turkish government in Ankara. You can start to see why when, until recently, the official government line was that Kurds were simply ‘mountain Turks’ and when, even today, Kurdish isn’t an option to stamp on a government ID, or an ethnicity box you can check in the census.
There is a spectrum of how different Kurds have responded to this situation. An international relations graduate turned tour guide we met was completely non-plussed. He was much more interested in winning us over to Islam than Kurdish independence (It is hard to say which is the more viable cause). Then again, Doğubeyazıt virtually shut down on our second day, as shop owners and restauranteurs joined a massive demonstration to mark the suicide of a Kurdish separatist in jail.
He was a member of the Kurdish Worker’s Party – the PKK – who represent the pointy end of the cause for Kurdish independence. The civil war they fought against Turkish forces saw martial law in Turkey’s south-east and 40,000 die in the latter half of the twentieth century. The conflict has mellowed since: in 2002 the government approved the first Kurdish language broadcasts, and we understand that 2014 was one of the first years that full Kurdish language schooling was available in Doğubeyazıt.
The enemy of my enemy is ISIS
Memet invited us to drink tea with him on the curb. Occasionally he would break the flow of conversation to thrust his fist in the air – “Kobani”, he’d say, “Kobani, three days!” He was talking about the Kurdish village in Syria and the battle there that is raging between ISIS, and Kurdish fighters coming in from all around. Unfortunately his prediction that the battle would be over in three days has not come to pass. This despite American warplanes dropping bombs on ISIS and supplies to the Kurds that fight them.
Just as things were starting to settle down with the PKK, Turkey has a whole new Kurdish problem in its neighbourhood. Or at least seems to think it does. The Kurds fighting in Kobani share the ideology of the PKK, and the PKK is fighting alongside them. And so Turkey has been reticent in providing support in Kobani, even though its own military forces are within a good binocular’s view of the battleground.
This is not to imply that Turkey is anti-Kurdish. They’ve already accepted 180,000 refugees from Kobani, mostly Kurdish. They’ve also given weapons and support to Iraqi Kurds and, as of today, opened a corridor to help them get from their homes, around other ISIS controlled areas, and into the fray in Kobani. It’s just that Turkey seems to be having a hard time picking between ISIS and the PKK, both of which it sees as terrorist groups. It is almost as if, in ISIS, it sees the enemy of its enemy as its friend.
Should the Kurds get their way?
For Memet the tragedies of Kurds who died at Ottoman hands a century ago, and those who are dying in Kobani right now seemed as real and present as the illness of his ex-wife which he told us was the reason for his return to Doğubeyazıt. The tears he cried on my shoulder were real (and, for me, pretty darn awkward).
It doesn’t follow that the Kurds need a separate state though, provided they’re provided for adequately within existing ones. That means new broadcasts and schooling in Kurdish language are good, and census forms still need to be changed. It also means that Turkish politicians should stop equivocating, step up, and support Kurds – Syrian, Turkish or miscellaneous – against ISIS.
Memet certainly had this right: whether it’s a state or not doesn’t matter so much so long as it isn’t forgotten. And so we repeat now what Memet shouted to us as the waiter cleared away our tea, he wiped his last tear, and we headed off back to our hotel: “Do not forgetting Kurdistan!”