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Anything but an Ethnic Monolith

Thomas Goltz is author of "Azerbaijan Diary: A Rogue Reporter's Adventures in an Oil-rich, War-torn, Post-Soviet Republic."

For the past fortnight, television viewers around the globe have been treated to the nearly nightly spectacle of Kurds attacking embassies and consulates throughout Europe in a passionate if confused display of solidarity and protest over the capture of Kurd leader Abdullah Ocalan. First, Kurds occupied Greek and Kenyan facilities over the two countries’ reported involvement in Ocalan’s arrest by Turkish commandos in Nairobi on Feb. 15. After those assaults died down, diaspora Kurds attacked the Israeli consulate in Berlin, because of Israel’s putative complicity in Ocalan’s nabbing. Then, almost as an afterthought, they marched on overseas Turkish government missions and commercial offices, even coffee shops and restaurants owned or frequented by Turks in Europe.

Their message was unmistakable: Release the Kurdish leader or face the wrath of the united Kurdish nation. Last week, Ocalan was formally arrested and charged with treason. Turkish prosecutors will seek the death penalty.

What was missing from the images of devotion to “Apo,” as Ocalan is known, and absent in most commentary, were the voices of the millions of Turkish citizens of Kurdish heritage who regard the chairman of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, less as their leader than as a Stalinist villain who hijacked Kurdishness in the eyes of the world and whose hatred of Apo and the PKK equals or even exceeds that of the Turks.

In the Military Martyrs’ Cemetery in the Turkish capital, for example, lie 200 of the almost 5,000 soldiers of the Turkish military who have been killed in action during the 15-year fight with the PKK, a conflict that has claimed some 30,000 Turkish citizens, although the vast majority have been Kurds. The day after Ocalan’s capture, the cemetery was filled with families of the fallen, come to give voice to their loss and to silently thank the Turkish government for, they hoped, bringing the long nightmare to an end, or at least the beginning of the end.

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“We thank the state for having kept its word by bringing the baby-killing monster to face justice,” said a woman named Sadet Isprili from Turkey’s rugged northeast. “But nothing they can do will bring back the light in our lives.”

When asked what she thought Ocalan’s penalty should be, her response was that of many Turkish mothers who have lost their sons. “He deserves execution, but that is too good for him,” she said. “The best thing would be for the state to deliver him into the hands of families who have been ruined by his terror, so we might rip him apart with our fingers.”

But such sentiments are misleading. When asked if it would now be possible to forgive and forget and live once again as neighbors with Turkey’s many Kurds, Sadet snapped, “What are you talking about? This war is not between Turks and Kurds, this is between our country and the PKK!”

Others at the cemetery expressed similar views. “Please, please!” pleaded a grieving father, who then ticked off a list of the different ethnicities that make up of modern Turkey. “Tell the world that we are brothers! Turk, Kurd, Laz, Georgian, Circassian--all of us who live here! The PKK must not be allowed to get away with the its cheap propaganda and filthy lies!”

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Yet, almost without exception, the Western media portrayed Kurds as a uniform bloc of people who were solidly behind their “leader” Ocalan in his hour of need, thankful for his courageous resistance against systematic repression by an oppressive colonial power, Turkey. Kurds were not allowed to speak their own language or even identify themselves as Kurds, lest they be thrown into ghastly, “Midnight Express"-style prisons, claimed a fellow from a “Kurdish think tank” in the United States. The Kurds had rebelled against the Turks, reminded another expert in Germany. By invoking self-determination, Kurds were attempting to establish their own, ethnically defined country, the one they had been cheated out of by European powers at the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Turkish state.

Still, where were the other Kurds, especially those who can speak, read and write in their own tongue? Where, for example, were the Pesh Merga fighters, gallant in their baggy pants and cummerbund belts, associated with Northern Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani? They were fighting alongside the Turks in those areas of Northern Iraq outside of their control, in an effort to evict the PKK from the region. The Kurds of Syria and Iran were also nowhere to be seen or heard, perhaps because both groups have been plowed, however imperfectly, into the national ideology of the countries where they live.

And where were the voices of those Kurds who ended up in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union? The vast majority of them are scattered in squalid refugee camps among the nearly 1 million “internal displaced people” in the post-Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. They were ethnically cleansed from their native homes by Armenia during the war over mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh. What is notable about this little-known Kurdish tragedy is that the PKK and other Euro Kurds seen demonstrating over Ocalan’s arrest played an active role in the cover-up of the Caucasus Kurds’ disaster at the hands of the Armenians, the price, it would seem, for continued Armenian support in Europe, and the United States, for the anti-Turkish, Kurdish cause.

Kurds versus Turks?

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While hardly perfect, official Turkey’s means of dealing with its domestic Kurds--including about one-third of its Parliament and three former presidents, among them the late Turgut Ozal--has improved vastly over the past decade, partly, if not largely, in response to Ocalan and his PKK. Most of the protesting diaspora Kurds in Europe would not recognize the country they fled a decade or more ago. They remain frozen in time. The vast majority of Kurds, like those fallen soldiers who served in the Turkish military and fought the PKK, are an intimate if still sometimes problematic part of the demographic landscape that is Turkey. As for the protesting diaspora Kurds, they are increasingly a marginalized group of losers, who, aided by a Western media culture that relies on black and white answers to complex questions, may have been able to usurp the communal identity of the Kurdish people temporarily, but whose long-term claim to being the hearth keepers of Kurdishness is tenuous indeed.*


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