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Nameless Kurds of Turkey

Times Staff Writer

ERGANI, Turkey -- Berdan Acun remembers the icy tone of the birth registrar’s question a year ago. “Hejar Pola? What kind of name is that?”

“It’s Kurdish,” said Acun, cradling his newborn. Hejar means “innocent,” he explained proudly, and Pola means “steel.” “My son, like me, shall have a Kurdish name.”

“We cannot register such a name,” said the clerk, a Turkish woman Acun had known for years. “We have new instructions.”

Acun was stunned. The war was supposed to be over.

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“Let me see the instructions,” he said, struggling to control his anger.

“I cannot. They’re confidential.”

Four years after crushing a Kurdish separatist guerrilla movement, Turkey has found no peace with its largest and unruliest ethnic minority.

The 15-year war that cost more than 30,000 lives in the nation’s southeast has moved into courtrooms and civil registry offices. Refusing to assimilate, the Kurds who dominate the region in numbers insist on the right to hear broadcasts and study in their own language and to give their children such names as Arjin, Baran, Berfin, Berivan and Mizgin, which mean “spark of life,” “rain,” “white as snow,” “milkmaid” and “good news.”

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Turkey’s rulers resist these demands as subversive. Over the past year, they have voiced growing alarm that separatist violence could erupt anew if war in Iraq leads to formal autonomy for an Iraqi Kurdish homeland across the border. That scenario is one reason this nation, though part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is reluctant to back a U.S. assault on Iraq.

As the Pentagon takes aim at Baghdad, Turkey’s security forces are zeroing in on babies. Kurdish names -- long common in Turkey, though most Kurdish families do not use them -- suddenly became taboo here in December 2001. The defeated but still-armed Kurdistan Workers Party called that month for wider use of the Kurdish language as an assertion of ethnic pride, prompting a government warning that any Kurdish name given to a child would be interpreted as terrorist propaganda.

Military police have swept through Kurdish towns and villages, checking birth certificates of infants and toddlers. Citing a constitutional clause that children must be named “in a manner appropriate to our national culture, moral principles and customs,” the Interior Ministry has quietly instructed prosecutors to annul hundreds of children’s Kurdish names and replace them with Turkish equivalents.

At least 39 families resisting the orders have been taken to court, according to the bar association in Diyarbakir, the region’s largest city. Some of them have been threatened with prosecution for “separatist propaganda,” which carries a three-year prison term. Others, including Acun, have sued the Turkish state for rejecting names they chose for their offspring.

No official has stepped forward to explain or justify the name ban, and the Turkish deputy governor of Diyarbakir province this month denied any knowledge of it. Yet Kurdish lawyers and human rights advocates say they’ve seen the Interior Ministry instructions for the ban, which remains in force.

“The Turkish political system is in denial about cultural diversity, out of a fear that the country could be partitioned,” said Dogu Ergil, a political sociologist at Ankara University. “This objection to Kurdish names is a declaration of ineptitude, a lack of confidence that we Turks can manage our population in a democratic way.”

Turkey’s 12 million Kurds, who, like most of the nation’s citizens, are Muslim, make up nearly one-fifth of the population. They are free to speak their distinctive language only in private conversation. The constitution drafted at the creation of modern Turkey in 1923 recognizes only non-Muslims as minorities, reflecting founding father Kemal Ataturk’s ideal of uniting all Muslims under a single Turkish culture.

The Kurds have rebelled periodically against this ideology. In 1991, at the height of the most recent separatist war, an elected Kurdish member of parliament named Leyla Zana took her public oath in Turkish, as required, but afterward announced in Kurdish: “I have completed this formality under duress.” She was later banished from office and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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Since the 1999 capture of Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, the bulk of his estimated 4,000 armed followers have retreated to northern Iraq and kept a cease-fire.

Kurdish politicians demand amnesty for the fighters and the thousands of Kurds who, like Zana, were imprisoned for nonviolent disobedience. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Kurds driven from their villages during the war are seeking to reclaim property seized by Turkish-controlled militias.

But it is the Kurds’ postwar demands for linguistic rights that most troubles the government, because they are backed by the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join.

Turkish authorities have responded with a mix of unfulfilled legal concessions and periodic crackdowns. Police arrested hundreds of high school and university students last year for petitioning for optional courses in Kurdish. Some were seized after parliament in August adopted constitutional changes that would end prohibitions on Kurdish-language broadcasting and Kurdish-language education.

Parliament’s hotly debated decision has since been hedged with bureaucratic restrictions and not yet carried out. The Kurdish language, for example, is to be allowed only on state-run radio and television, for just two hours a week, and only for adult programming.

Last month, the government ended nearly two decades of “emergency rule” in the southeast, stripping the police of legal power to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge. But police continue to videotape public meetings, where speeches in Kurdish remain banned, and infiltrate informers into private gatherings. They arrest such Kurds as Ali Aktas, a 33-year-old crooner who was in court in Diyarbakir on New Year’s Eve to explain why he sang in Kurdish at a recent wedding. Bureaucrats still ban plays, films and exhibitions deemed to be “separatist.”

Huseyin Nail Atay, the appointed deputy governor of Diyarbakir province, said the government eventually will allow Kurdish-language broadcasting on private as well as state media but will move cautiously to keep “terrorist organizations” off the airwaves.

“Linguistic rights can be a tool for those who still have separatist ideas,” he said in an interview. “Thousands of people have lost their lives in this conflict. These changes cannot happen overnight.”

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He said Turkey must be even more careful because of what might happen across its southern border in Iraq if U.S. forces oust President Saddam Hussein. Turkey’s civilian and military leaders worry that Hussein’s departure would solidify the de facto autonomy enjoyed by Kurds in northern Iraq thanks to U.S. and British enforcement of a “no-fly” zone since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

That, Turkish leaders say, could rekindle violent Kurdish separatism in this nation and dreams of a “greater Kurdistan” uniting the 25 million or more Kurds scattered across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the former Soviet Union. “It would destabilize our country and could even be a reason to declare war” on Iraqi Kurds, Atay said.

Western diplomats, Kurdish leaders and some Turkish intellectuals dismiss such thinking as paranoia. U.S. officials have assured the Turks that they oppose Kurdish separatism. In conversations across the region, Kurds say they are fed up with violence and have abandoned the goal of independence.

Rather than facing east to their poorer, landlocked ethnic cousins in Asia, Turkey’s Kurds say they are looking west, hopeful that the European Union will one day accept Turkey as a member and oblige it to meet European standards for treatment of minorities.

Acun and his wife, Sibel, have taken the dispute over their son’s name to the European Court of Human Rights, whose jurisdiction Turkey accepts. Acun, a 30-year-old lawyer, says he is confident of winning and believes that Turkey’s drive for EU membership will strengthen democratic forces in the country, helping other parents prevail in the nation’s courts.

Since his son was born 13 months ago, Acun has gone to the aid of other couples challenging the edict against Kurdish names and recently won his first case: A judge in the city of Dicle ruled in favor of a couple who insisted on naming their daughter Rozerin, the Kurdish word for “yellow sun.”

“The European Union leaves little space for ethnic discrimination,” Acun said. “Once Turkey joins, I am optimistic that Kurds and Turks will enjoy equal rights.”

Meanwhile, young Hejar Pola Acun remains a nonperson in the eyes of the state -- rejected as an unwitting agent of subversion and denied a birth certificate. Sibel, a doctor, has taken charge of her son’s medical care but worries that his lack of an official ID might disqualify him from specialized treatment in the event of serious illness.

Wearing a red romper, the boy cruised into the living room in a walker as Mom and Dad were telling his story. A cowlick swept his chestnut hair to the left, and his fat cheeks bracketed a big smile.

“Bah!” he said.

“We did not name him for any guerrilla fighter,” his father said. “We named him ‘Innocent’ because Kurdish culture is innocent. And we named him ‘Steel’ because it reflects the Kurdish resistance to cultural assimilation.”

Sibel said she liked Hejar because it is the name of a 6-year-old Kurdish orphan girl in “Big Man, Little Love,” one of Turkey’s most soul-searching movies about Turks and Kurds.

In the film by Turkish director Handan Ipekci, the girl loses her parents in the war, then survives a deadly police raid on the home of a family friend who was sheltering Kurdish rebels. A retired Turkish judge takes the girl in, but she speaks no Turkish and he objects to the use of Kurdish in his presence. Eventually, he confronts his prejudice and the two form a bond that transcends culture and age.

Released in October 2001, “Big Man, Little Love” won best picture honors at Turkey’s leading film festival before the government banned it last March for its negative portrayal of the police. A Turkish court overturned the ban last month.

Kurds say they are hopeful that the state, like the retired judge, will come around.

“Within the mentality of the Turkish republic, the parliamentary reforms on language are a remarkable achievement,” said Feridun Celik, Diyarbakir’s elected Kurdish mayor. “Whenever they take effect, you will start to see more trust between Turks and Kurds.”

“If the Kurds in Iraq get their independence, then of course, deep down, we will want our independence too,” said Aktas, the Kurdish wedding singer. “But we know that conditions in Turkey make that impossible. Still, if I can have my culture, my identity, my language, I will be happy. What harm could I do then? How could I be a threat?”


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