Leyla Zana and the Kurds of Turkey by David Reeves

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. Divided up today between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, their struggle for self-determination has lasted for centuries. Much can be written on the plight of the Kurdish peoples in each of the states that they occupy, as well as the millions of Kurds uprooted and exiled from their homes. This essay will focus on the Kurds of Turkey.

To understand the struggle of the Kurds inside of Turkey today, we must first go back, at least, to the end of World War I, with the victorious European nations salivating over the corpse of the beaten Ottoman Empire.

The Kurds had observer status at the conference which produced the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. With the idea of self-determination ruling the day, this treaty between the allies and the Turks called for the creation of a Kurdish state in present-day south-east Turkey, with the Vilayet of Mosul (present-day northern Iraq) also included in the Kurdish state. But this state, even though a vast amount of Kurdish areas were left outside of its boundaries, was never to be. Soon Kemal Ataturk and the Turkish nationalists toppled the Ottoman Sultan, and refused to recognize the Treaty. A new treaty was created and signed which incorporated what was to be the Kurdish state into present-day Turkey. The British took Mosul, and incorporated it into Iraq. The French took control of Syria, and the rest of the Kurds remained in Iran.1


areas of kurdish majority

As soon as Ataturk consolidated his control over the region, he set about to create a solely Turkish state, if not in fact, in practice. The names of Kurdish towns were changed. Kurdish names became illegal. The Kurdish language was banned. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution states that "No other language other than Turkish is conceivable as a mother tongue for the citizens".2 Since then, the Kurdish people have been struggling non-stop, using both violent and non-violent methods, to publicize their plight and bring freedom and self-determination to their people. For the last fourteen years Kurdish rebels have been fighting the massive Turkish military in a war that has cost some 28,000 lives.3

But as recent as this year the Turkish Prime Minister, Mesut Yilmaz, stated: "I see that problem as a southeast problem. I think that the problem is fed by the social structure and the level of economic development in that region. I think that the separatist organization is exploiting that situation to promote separatism by playing on ethnic discrimination and cultural identity… We do not acknowledge the existence of a Kurdish problem…We claim that Turkey has a southeast problem and that this problem is being deliberately misrepresented as a Kurdish problem…"4 Even though the Prime Minister says that it is a social and economic problem, the government deals with the problem militarily. As a U.S. Congressman, Bob Filner, pointed out in a speech: "…innocent Kurdish civilians are being massacred, entire Kurdish villages are being destroyed, and millions of Kurds are forced to flee their homes, forced to cities where unemployment and inflation are extremely high. The entire region of southeastern Turkey has been ravaged --- it has become an economic and humanitarian disaster area."5 The Turkish government, while admitting the social and economic problems that need to be dealt with, only answer those problems by oppression and murder. And this is not just confined to Turkey. In recent years, the Turkish military has found it necessary to invade northern Iraq frequently to smoke out and destroy Kurdish rebels there. Another U.S. Congressman, Steny Hoyer, points out that "Widespread reports indicate Turkey is using napalm and cluster bombs, despite international covenants banning their use."6 This is how you deal with an economic and social problem? No wonder the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK), in May of this year, called "on our people to actively exercise their rights to self-defense in a more powerful and organized manner through any means without hesitation."7 With each oppressive measure, the armed resistance to the Turkish military grows, and the death count, of both Kurds and Turks, rises.

The vehicle by which the Kurds of Turkey maintain their armed struggle is the PKK, led by Abdullah Ocalan. The PKK advocates self-determination through violent means, and therefor are considered a terrorist organization by Turkey. They are also a handy means by which to label any Kurds that actually profess their Kurdishness; they're all PKK terrorists.

But there is an option to violence. Turkey is considered a democracy. In 1991, 18 Kurds were elected to the Turkish Parliament. Of those, one has been executed, four have been imprisoned, and six have been exiled. Leyla Zana was one of those elected. The first Kurdish woman to sit in parliament, she was elected with 84% of the vote. Accused of "separatist speech", she was arrested in March, 1994, and has been in prison since. Their case was based on her advocacy for Kurdish human rights, including the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and U.S. Congress. Her political party has been banned, the Turkish government calling it a front for terrorists. But unlike the PKK, she has spent her lifetime advocating peaceful coexistence and democratic solutions to the many problems that face both Kurd and Turk. In a letter she wrote to Yilmaz, she urged him "to solve the Kurdish problem with dialogue and create a democratic Turkey that is at peace with its own people."8 Yet the authorities continue to brand her, and any others who speak of Kurdish rights, a separatist, a terrorist.


leyla zana

In 1995, Leyla Zana was awarded the Sakharov Peace Prize by the European Parliament, and she was a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. In 1997 Amnesty International declared her a prisoner of conscience. She has stated that "For me, the Kurdish people's freedom is more important than my own personal liberty… I view my imprisonment as a necessary price to be paid for peace, brotherhood, and the establishment of true democracy in Turkey. Therefor, I am honored and happy to be doing my share in this manner."9 Leyla Zana is a symbol for those in the world that work for non-violent change and human rights not only in Turkey, but around the world. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize again.

Recently, Turkeys application for admission into the European Union was denied. Turkey claimed that they were turned down because of ethnic and religious discrimination, ignoring Europe's stance regarding their suppression of human rights. Omer Akbel, the Turkish Ambassador to Austria, stated that 'Many people in my country have the feeling that we are not welcome because we are Muslims."10 In a reply to these accusations, Achille Occhetto, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Italian Chamber of Deputies, stated: "The Turks think that there is some kind of Islamic prejudice against them, but they are making a big mistake in thinking that: It is precisely because Turkey is an Islamic and at the same time a moderate country that it would be a good thing if it were to join Europe. What they fail to understand is that the caution being displayed over their application to join is due to something else, namely the issue of human rights. The example of the Kurds is a blinding example, there for all to see; Ankara cannot continue to deny that the problem exists."11 If Turkey wants to continue on "a steady course…marching from East to West" as Ataturk called for in 1922,12 it must become a true democracy with full respect for the human rights of all its subjects. The payoff for the Turkish government is clear, recognize the Kurdish problem and work towards creating a true pluralistic society, and not only may peace come to the region, but Turkey will be embraced by the Europe they so eagerly want to be a part of. But asked about the rights of the Kurds, Akbel said that talks are not conceivable with "terrorists".13 As Abdullah Ocalan has said, "Everyone in the world, except for the Turks, is concerned about the humanitarian problems of the Kurds."14

It is time, now, that the Turkish government starts to discuss the problems that they have, and realize that a military solution is not the answer. If anything, state terrorism against the Kurdish population only increases armed resistance. It is time that Turks and Kurds sit together and bring to an end the violence that is ravaging the land where they both must live. The first thing they must do is lift the ban on so-called "separatist speech", for in a true democracy free speech must be in place. Leyla Zana and her imprisoned Kurdish parliamentarian compatriots must be released from jail, and their political party legalized. This perhaps could create a counter-balance to the PKK. It would give the Kurdish people an alternative to violence. With a legalized Kurdish party, peace talks could begin. This will be accompanied no doubt with great praise throughout both the Western and Islamic world. This would lead to pressure on the PKK to relinquish its armed struggle and join the peace talks, with the eventuality of their party becoming a part of a truly democratic Turkey. Kind of like the Irish peace process, but of course, different. This will by no means be an easy feet, but the only alternative is the genocide of the Kurds of Turkey. They will never quit; this seems to be clear. There is much that the world community can do to help the plight of Leyla Zana and the Kurds of Turkey, and one of those is to award Leyla Zana the Nobel Peace Prize of 1997. This would send a clear message to the Turkish government that the world supports the peaceful ressistance to human rights abuses and advocates a non-violent solution to the Kurdish problem. As Congressman John Porter wrote to the Nobel Prize Committee: "It is plain that the Turks and Kurds must talk to one another. I am, accordingly, asking that you give…consideration to the nomination of Leyla Zana for the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, an act that could pave the way for the initiation of a dialogue that could bring peace. Such an award would symbolize both the hope for peace in the region and the degree to which the world is troubled by the lack of such peace. Such courageous action by the committee would serve to light a candle in a part of the world that has been kept in the darkness for too long. I hope you will agree that such a light is needed to bring an end to the long misery of the Kurds."15

Footnotes 1 John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds, 90-91.
2 Edgar Auth, White Paper Recomends Switzerland as Model for Turkey, FBIS/WEU 1-20-98.
3 Interview with Kani Xulam, Democracy Now, Pacifica Radio 6-10-97.
4 Hasan Cemal, FBIS/TOT 2-11-98.
5 Speech given by Congressman Bob Filner, 9-23-97.
6 Speech by Congressman Steny Hoyer, 11-7-97.
7 National Liberation Front of Kurdistan, FBIS/TOT 5-7-98.
8 Stephen Kinzer, Turkey May Free Critic Before Prime Minister Visits U.S., New York Times, 12-7-97.
9 Leyla Zana's letter to President Clinton.
10 Interview with Omer Akbel, Turkey: EU Should Revise Its Mistake, FBIS/WEU 3-3-98.
11 Interview with Achille Occhetto, "Behind the Arrest, a Struggle Between Hawks and Doves Over Europe, FBIS/WEU 4-30-98.
12 Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, 283.
13 Interview with Omer Akbel, Turkey: EU Should Revise Its Mistake.
14 Med TV, FBIS/TOT 2-13-98
15 Congressman John Porter, letter to Nobel Peace Prize Committee, 1-23-98.

Many thanks to the American Kurdish Information Network for much valuable information. Look them up at www.Kurdistan.org. Also be sure to check out the Budget Press Kurdish bibliography and link page at http://members.tripod.com/~johnniebbaker/bpressindex.html

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