SYRIA: Kurd’s death at Nowrouz celebration highlights growing tide of cultural and political repression

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Mohammad Haider’s family buried him quietly, without a funeral, as they had been instructed.

The Syrian Kurd’s body was returned March 23, two days after security forces in Syria opened fire on a Kurdish new year’s celebration in northern Syria sponsored by a Kurdish political party, human-rights groups said, in a killing that underscored worsening conditions for the minority.

Syrian Kurds, who live in the north of the country near the border with Turkey, have a long and fraught relationship with the state. In recent years, Syria has begun tightening its suppression of Kurdish identity. Kurdish language, customs and even traditional folk dances have been increasingly discouraged or outright banned.

Among these cultural rites is Nowrouz, the ancient new year’s celebration observed by Iranians, Kurds and other groups in the region. In recent years, Nowrouz has become a flash point for violence between Kurdish activists and Syrian security, leading to a number of deaths and increased scrutiny of the Kurdish community.


According to Human Rights Watch, Syrian forces this year demanded the event’s organizers take down Kurdish flags and pictures of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish political leader currently imprisoned in Turkey. The organizers refused, and some began throwing stones at the security forces, who responded by firing into the crowd, killing at least one and wounding others.

Some were wounded and hospitalized or arrested on the spot. A full list of names of those jailed has not been released. Human Rights Watch’s Nadim Houry, based in Lebanon, says he can confirm at least seven individuals are still in jail, including minors.

“This is not an active armed rebellion, this is people putting up posters and showing the Kurdish flag,’ said Houry, who told The Times that Human Rights Watch relies on a network of Kurdish activists and lawyers for their information. ‘These basic things are getting people thrown in jail.’

In November, Human Rights Watch issued a report on the growing tensions between the Syrian state and Kurds, titled: ‘Group Denial: Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria.’ ‘The increased repression of the last five years is part of the Syrian fear that the Kurds will turn out to be separatists,’ Houry said.

He says most Syrian Kurds say they just want the right to practice their customs as a recognized minority within Syria.

‘The Kurdish minority never took up arms against the government of Syria, as in Iraq, Turkey or Iran,’ he said. ‘Their demands have been quite basic. They’re just being responded to with an iron fist, and it’s just pushing more and more young people to rebel.’

-- Los Angeles Times Top photo: Demonstrators hold a large Kurdish flag in northern Iraq earlier this month to mark the anniversary of the 2004 clashes between Kurds and Syrian security forces. Credit:Safin Hamed / AFP/Getty Images