Abdullah Ocalan; face, heart and soul of Kurdish Resistance for autonomy, dignity and reconciliation.
It is an old piece on Abdullah Ocalan (1997) but brings out all aspects of the Kurdish problem from the beginning of the establishment of the secular republic of Turkey by Kemal Ataturk in 1922.
ABDULLAH OCALAN AND THE KURDISH PROBLEM
Abdullah Ocalan (c=j), the convicted Kurdish rebel leader represents the violent face of resistance since millennia by a minority tribe, community or a nation against forced assimilation by majority ethnic, linguistic or religious groups. The death sentence by a Turkish Tribunal was not surprising for; since 1984, Ocalan led PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) rebellion for a Kurdish state in South and East of Turkey has already cost over 35,000 lives, mostly Kurds and includes over five thousand soldiers. Thousands of Kurdish villages have been bombed, destroy-ed , abandoned or relocated and millions of Kurds have been moved or migrated to shanty towns in South , East and West wards .Added to the migration for economic reasons , it makes half the Kurdish population now resident in Western Turkey .With 1/3rd of Turkish army tied up in South East, the cost of countering the insurgency has mounted to $6 to $8 billion per year , shattered the economy of the region and brought charges of police and military brutality and human rights violations in the West to which Turkey is linked through NATO and OECD. It has also harmed its chances of joining EU, with which it entered into a Customs Union in 1996. The consequences of Ocalan's sentence carried out or not will be a major defining moment in the history of the Republic. Already April 1999 Elections have highlighted an upsurge of nationalism giving the ultra-nationalist National Action party (MHP), second slot from nowhere and the top slot to Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democrat Left Party (DSP) for his successful hounding and capture of Ocalan, further polarizing Turkey's already fractured polity.
The problem was brought to a head when late last year Turkey, hoping to give a hammer blow to the Kurdish rebellion threatened war on Syria to force out Ocalan and PKK, sheltered in Syria since 1980s ,as a lever against Turkey for denial of its fair share of Euphrates waters and irredentist claims over Hatay province annexed to Turkey in 1939.The situation was defused but a some what isolated Syria had to expel Ocalan , who first went to the Russian Federation and then to Rome looking for asylum .The Italians instead arrested him on an FRG warrant, the latter sensing further mayhem and the strife by its Kurdish and Turkish populations, did not extradite him .Nor was he extradited to Turkey causing bad blood between Turkey and EU. In mysterious circumstances with some Greek assistance Ocalan then disappeared looking for a safe haven but found none .Eventually ,he was apprehended in Nairobi on 16 Feb,1999 by Turkish agents assisted by other countries and brought handcuffed to a rapturous Turkey .His capture was followed by violence and demonstrations in Turkey and Europe ,where Kurds number 850,000 among 3 million immigrants from Turkey ( 2 millions in FRG alone of which nearly half a million are Kurds) .
Majority of Kurds in Turkey would be satisfied with cultural autonomy but the hounding of Ocalan , touched an emotional chord uniting Kurds all over the world against their persecution over millennia and suppression of their aspirations for autonomy and freedom The Kurds , an Iranian related people totaling over 25 million straddle mostly the mountainous regions of Turkey (14 million), Iran (8 million), Iraq (4 million ) and nearly 1/2 million each in Syria and in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia ,have been caught up in ethnic upheavals and intermingling of Aryan, Turkic and Semitic races going on since two millennia. Descend-in from Medes they were first mentioned as the Kurduchoi who had harassed Xenephon retreating towards the Black Sea 401 BC, whereas the Turks started moving into Anatolia only in 11th Century after the Byzantine defeat at Manzikert. But barring petty dynasties and some principalities in the region, the Kurds, most Sunni Muslims, have failed to carve out a lasting kingdom and Salahaddin remains their greatest medieval hero. They have been kept divided and exploited as pawns by the ruling Persian, Turkish or Arab empires and colonial powers , enjoy-in autonomy only when the Empires were week .Sunni Ottomans used them to guard the frontiers against Shia Safavids of Iran. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria might have adversary relations with each other but when it comes to Kurds they close ranks. But throughout history whenever suppressed the Kurds become outlaws and take to the mountains.
Belonging to Iranian language family, Kurdish is spoken in 5 dialects and many sub-dialects but the divisions among Kurds are reflected not only in the dialects or the countries they inhabit. Differences among them have persisted throughout history .In N Iraq the Kurds are split among Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani and Kurdish Democratic Movement (KDM) of Masud Barzani who have been warring with each other since decades. But, even when divided, they have enjoyed some semblance of autonomy, first under the British mandate, then the leftist regime of Brig Kassem and even under the kid glove and poisoned sword treatment of Saddam Hussain, With an almost free run during Iran-Iraq War and then US led protection after the Gulf War the idea of a Kurdish identity while suppressed in the unitary Turkish state has been kept alive across in Iraq
The Iranians have manipulated Iraqi Kurds as had the Russians the Iranian Kurds during the 2nd World War encouraging them to declare the Mahabad Republic, which after the Russian withdrawal in 1946 was annihilated. Iran gives shelter and arms to Iraqi Kurds and PKK...In return after the 1979 Khomeini revolution the Iraqis supported Iranian Kurds. But unlike Iraq, Iran and elsewhere, the Kurds in Turkey are the best integrated with other citizens. Unfortunately they have been subjected to growing harassment and discriminations since the Kurdish insurgency began, although they enjoy equal legal rights .Ataturk's right hand man Ismet Pasha, later President had Kurdish blood as did President Turgut Ozal .The former Foreign Minister and the Parliament Speaker Hikmet Cetin, a full blooded Kurd is another of many such examples of prominent Kurds in Turkey.
However, the 1990-91 Gulf War proved to be water shed in the evolution of the Kurdish problem. The current nebulous and ambiguous situation in North Iraq emerged when at the end of the War , US President George Bush encouraged the Kurds (and the hapless Shias in South ) to revolt against Saddam's Sunni Arab regime. Turkey, as it would have given ideas to its own Kurds, Saudi Arabia and others were opposed to the idea a Kurdish state in the north and a Shia one in south Iraq The hapless Iraqi Kurds and Shias paid a heavy price. Earlier 1988 gassing of Iraqi Kurds and international media coverage of their pitiable condition, escaping Saddam Hussein's forces in March 1991 led to the creation of a protected zone in North Iraq, now patrolled by US and British war planes. The Iraqi Kurds have since even elected a Parliament, which never functioned. But Barzani and Talabani run almost autonomous administrations in their areas; which allows PKK a free run .Many times Iraqi Kurds have cooperated with Turkish military in its many punitive forays against PKK in North Iraq .But the attitude of Iraqi Kurds to PKK, in spite of differing outlook and philosophy remains ambivalent and their natural sympathy cannot be doubted.
President Turgut Ozal, confident after turning around the Turkish economy and perhaps looking for a larger role in the region by bringing Iraqi Kurds under Turkish control , softened the rigors against his own Kurds .He publicly proclaimed in1991 that there were 12 million Kurds in Turkey and allowed them use of Kurdish in speech and music. Earlier in 1989 acknowledgement of his Kurdish ancestry had ended the legal taboo on the use of word "Kurd" since 1924. The Kurds had to be called Mountain Turks. On this writer's first visit in 1969 to Diyarbakir ,the biggest Kurdish city ,he was soon accosted by urchins singing Kurdish songs and muttering defiantly 'Kurdum !Kurdum' (I am Kurd ) As recently as 1979, when a former Minister for Public Housing said that there were Kurds in Turkey and he himself was one ,he was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment. In 1924 Kurds were also debarred from adopting Kurdish names so they take on Arabic ones. They, therefore, found Turkish protests hypocrite-cal when Bulgaria forced its Turkish origin citizens to take on Bulgarian names in late 1980s.
Not only Ozal but many Turks remain fascinated with the dream of 'getting back' Ottoman province of Mosul and Kirkuk ; which were included within the borders of the Republic by the National Pact of 1919.The oil rich Mosul region was annexed to Iraq by the British in 1925 much to Turkish chagrin. At the same time Turks remain equally apprehensive of an independent Kurdish state evolving in Iraq which will act as a magnet for its own Kurds .In the after-math of the Gulf War Turkey has lost out much instead of gaining. The closure of Iraqi pipeline, economic sanctions and loss of trade with Iraq, which used to pump in billions of US dollars into the economy and provide employment to hundreds of thousands, with 5000 trucks roaring up and down to Iraq, has only exacerbated the economic and social problems in the Kurdish heartland and center of rebellion.
Nicknamed Apo (uncle in Kurdish), Ocalan born in 1949 at Amerli, a small town on Euphrates in Urfa was one of seven siblings and claims a Turkish grandmother and some Arab blood too. His family took the surname of Ocalan ( avenger ) having rebelled against Ataturk's Republic in 1920s .With mixed population in South Turkey , many people speak Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic. More fluent in Turkish than Kurdish, Ocalan was a bright student and after the usual religious education in the village Mekteb, at which he excelled ,he won a scholar-ship to the prestigious Political Science Faculty at Ankara , a breeding ground for Turkey's intellectuals, civil servants and even politicians .In the heady days of early 1970s after the Paris students uprising, it had become a center of leftism. To begin with, Ocalan was an admirer of Ataturk but the total suppression of ethnic or cultural pluralism as if Kurdish history and identity did not exist and a spell in prison after a crackdown on radical students in 1971, where he met with similar minded Kurdish students, turned him into a hardened Kurdish nationalist.
After the first tentative steps in 1974 to initiate a Kurdish liberation movement at Ankara , PKK (in Kurdish -Partial Karaka-e Kurdish ) -an alliance of workers , peasants and intellectuals for a democratic independent Kurdistan based on Marxist –Leninist principles was founded by Ocalan with 12 others in the village of Lice in Diyarbakir on 27 Nov 1978 .The circumstances of its origins; tribalism , feudalism , the grinding poverty of the region compared to the growing prosperity in Western Turkey makes Marxism an abiding ideology which attracts poorer but educated youth of both sexes. After unsuccessful. Attacks in 1979 the real violent incidents, which brought recognition to PKK as a terror outfit ,were carried out in 1984 in Spirit and Hacker near the Iraq-Iran border. From a few hundred in 1984 the number of PKK cadres has now gone up to thousands and had peaked in the first half of 1990s when PKK was churning out 300 fighters every quarter. If the state has used all brutal power at its command the PKK has fought back savagely by killing govt village headmen ,guards , teachers ,doctors apart from innocents and the military and police soldiers. Brutal reprisals and killings by security forces brought in thousands of volunteers to PKK.
Ocalan left Turkey for Lebanon just before the 1980 military intervention. Afraid that Islamic revivalism and Kurdish nationalism were undermining the state ,the military junta banned major political parties and debarred politicians ,came heavily on media, politicians , students and Kurdish radicals .But the prisons only proved to be academies for new recruits to the PKK cause. Ocalan first contacted PLO leftists but was soon adopted by the Syrians , who provided him a residence in Damascus and Bekka valley for training his cadres. He spent some time in GDR , but mostly functioned from Syria and Lebanon .A ruthless and cruel leader, with a charismatic hold over his followers and in spite of never returning to Turkey , Ocalan is revered by his dedicated followers and feared and obeyed by most. Except for 1993 cease-fire pause the PKK- State violence increased from 1991 and continued unabated till 1996 peaking during the 1992 Navruj and after the break down of March 1993 cease-fire.
The roots of the Kurdish problem lie buried deep in the Turkish psyche .The seeds were sown during the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic after the 1st World War. Under the Ottomans ,its Christian, Armenian and other millets enjoyed religious freedom with autonomy in their personal laws and education .Turks complain that the Christian West used the stick of religion and nationalism in Eastern Europe to break up the Empire during the 19th and early 20th century .The first to leave were the Balkan Christians and in late 19th cent it was feared that even the Kurds might desert like the Egyptians. But the last straw was the revolt by Muslim Arabs , for the Ottomans always were Muslims first and then Turks .In fact the word 'Turk' , untill Ataturk endowed it with dignity ,was used as a term of contempt by the Ottoman elite. Hence Turks manifest a pervasive distrust of any cultural or autonomous move-ment that might lead to fragmentation of the unitary Republic .It revives memories of western conspiracies against Turkey and the ungratified 1920 Treaty of Sevres forced on the Sultan by the First world War victors which would have divided Anatolia with outright independence to the Armenians and autonomy to Kurds leading to independence and zones of influence for France, Italy and Greece .The Ataturk led War of Independence and a new Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 , undid the Sevres Treaty without any mention of Armenia or Kurds in it–not even their language Kurdish though it permitted Geeks , Armenians and others to speak their tongues
To begin with Ataturk himself had talked of Turks, Kurds, Lazes and others but a dramatic change came over in 1923 -24 and he opted for a unitary state .Perhaps because of the British detachment of the Mosul region , ambivalent attitude of many Kurds and minor revolts after the Treaty of Sevres .In 1924, he abolished the Caliphate and Kurds were just turned into non-persons ; their language, music, dress and culture ,even use of Kurdish first names made illegal .The conservative Kurds led by Sheikh Said, a follower of Nakshabandis sect ( as are many current Islamic leaders like former Prime Minister Necemettin Erbakan ) who had earlier enjoy-ed almost total autonomy and religious freedom in their domains rebelled against the ungodly laic state in 1925.The fledgling Republic, under pressure from the radicals , suppressed ruthlessly the rebellions, some of which lingered on into 1930s The influential Kurdish families were relocated to Western Turkey , which were rehabilitated back only after the introduction of multi- party democracy and slackening of unitary state's heavy hand in 1950s .
Turkey's Constitution describes itself as a Laic state, which according to many is more Jacobin than genuinely secular. It is based on nationalist philosophy of Zia Gokalp, himself perhaps a Kurd , who unfortunately used for laic /secular the word "la din" ie anti- religion .After the founding of the Republic ,its Christian minorities were exchanged with Turks from Greece and the remaining squeezed out later, few left in South East are leaving now .So the concept of secularism in Turkey has become anti religion and tends to become anti this or anti that and intolerant .The Sunni dominated police establishment have regularly harassed the Shiite Alevis ,ironically perhaps the original Turcoman who helped conquer Anatolia and now the Kurds. But perhaps the major problem lies in the fatal belief of the establishment; a curious amalgam of military led secular elite and Sunni dominated interior ministry to resolve problems by force as a compromise might be seen as weakness. It considers Islamic revivalism and Kurdish rebellion as two major threats to the security, stability and integrity of the State .But left of Center Social Democrat Party( SHP) then led by Ismet Pashas' intellectual son Real Inonu (who became Deputy PM in Suleyman Demirel's' coalition Govt in 1991-95) had come to the conclusion in 1990 based on a study that neither Kurdish nationalism nor Islamic fundamentalism posed a threat to the Republican order .Many other subsequent reports have confirmed the same conclusions, underlining that most Kurds want respect for their identity ,use of Kurdish language for education and Television and cultural freedom.
Apart from foreign hands , specially of the neighbors ,the Kurdish problem has now acquired complex internal dimensions Attempts to even look at the problem dispassionately have come to naught .Unfortunately Ozal , who helped bring out the problem into open and might have found a solution, died in April,1993. Soon after his death , the unilateral cease fire by PKK , tacitly observed by the Govt , broke down when in May, 1993 near Bingol 33 unarmed soldiers were massacred by PKK .The PKK countered that the State had not keep its 'promise' and had continued to lean heavily on militants . New Prime Minister Chiller's probing attempt in 1974 to look at the Basque model was brushed aside by the military Pashas and new President Demirel, who has not shown as much vision as Ozal in handling the problem.
Many analysts feel that under the pretext of guarding Ataturk's unitary state, any solution to the problem has been thwarted by the vested interests, which have also been cited as an obstacle for keeping out the Islamists from power as the former do not wish to share the economic cake with the rising conservative classes from the heartland of Anatolia and elsewhere, who support Islamic parties. There is also considerable leakage in the billions of dollars spent in security operations against the Kurds and scandals crop up from time to time. Like rebellions elsewhere PKK has been accused of funding itself from the drug trade (also from donations, extortions and taxes in Turkey and Europe) but some in the establishment have also been accused of the same charge, with scandals cropping up from time to time .Many, including politicians bemoan of the long shadow over democracy of Turkish military, the self styled guardians of Ataturk's unitary and secular state, making political solutions difficult.
Because of Turkey's continued importance for NATO, PKK' s Marxist ideology and Soviet support earlier, PKK remains an anathema to USA but Europeans , specially with Kurdish populations are more sympathetic to their plight .Peaceful espousal of the cause has been allowed by Europeans in spite of Turkish protests But when the PKK resorted to violence and started attacking Turkish interests as in 1993 ,they came down heavily. Europe has also provid-ed a safe haven to expelled and persecuted Kurdish MPs and others. Many Europeans ,Parlia-mentarians and others, notably Danielle Mitterand, have extended vocal support to the Kurdish cause raising Turkish heckles and accusations of western conspiracy. But compared to say Kosovo, Europeans in general and USA in particular have been soft on Turkey's human rights record , because of the need to humor an ally , who is also a useful buffer against the volatile Middle East and for its links and usefulness in Caucasus and Central Asia..
Forming nearly 20% of the population ,normally 100 Kurds get elected to the Parliament ,but their cause is not taken up by their parties nor are they allowed to form a Kurdish party to politically ventilate their grievances . Such attempts have led to harassment ,removal of immunities, jailing and even killings. Kurdish parties like HEP ( Kurdish Labor party), DEP (Democracy party) and HADEP (People's Democracy party) were obstructed and suppressed and their members harassed, jailed and even killed with radicals across the board setting the Agenda discouraging any peaceful and meaningful discussion in the Parliament or outside .Since early 1990s attempts to explain the Kurdish view-point through media by newspapers like Ozgur Gundem (Free Agenda) Ozgur Ulke (Free Country) and others were stopped through harassment , imprisonment ,and even outright murder of journalists and distributors with connivance or even help from the establishment. Even main line media is punished for writing about Kurds , their problems and even mishandling of the rebellion. When Urfa born popular Kurdish singer Ibrahim complained that he could not sing in his mother tongue he had hell to pay .Kurds and even Turks including famous writers like Yassar Kemal continue to be harassed and imprisoned for writing about Kurds and their problems . .
But the Govt reaction before and after the verdict has shown some circumspection ,underlining that the law take shall take its course. The Parliament even replaced the Tribunal's third military judge with a civilian one. Although the death penalty remains on the statutes book, since 1984 , of many scores convicted to death , not one has been hanged .The Ocalan verdict will be challenged in the Supreme Court and then goes for ratification via its Judicial Committee to the Parliament and finally to the President. And then an appeal can be made to the European Court..Any show of leniency in the highly charged atmosphere now seems improbable, but with time consumed in legal formalities it might be possible to let Ocalan live on .Making him a martyr would be a terrible political mistake , apart from re-igniting the insurgency..
Unlike the violent protests against Ocalan's capture , the reaction abroad after the verdict has been muted and peaceful barring some violent acts in Turkey. No doubt ,Ocalan is in custody and has promised peace and to bring down PKK fighters from the mountains. Awaiting a certain death sentence in the glass cage ,Ocalan's performance was sober and consistent in his defence.. Apart from 1993 conditional cease-fire , he had offered the olive branch many times in 1994 and 1995 .The first offer was made in an interview in mainline Hurriyet newspaper in 1990. After the rapturous joy in Turkey at Ocalan's capture and an orgy of celebrations after the death verdict ,there appears to be now a feeling of the night after the binge ,some signs of rethinking and perhaps ,even some softening of attitude towards the Kurds.
Poet philosopher PM Ecevit is opposed to death sentence on principle. He has initiated steps for partial Amnesty and Repentance Law .The insurgency is now much degraded on the ground. Ideological benefactor former USSR no longer exists. Hafiz El-Assad is more interested in peace with Israel. Greece burnt its fingers in the Nairobi event .There is also a chorus of demand from the West including USA against hanging Ocalan .But political parties have taken rigid and some irreconcilable positions There is always a danger of politicians outdoing each other in whipping up national fervor for short term political gains ,specially the ultra-nationalist MHP which has recently arisen like a Phoenix .Many a times even when politicians had want-ed to calm down the situation the establishment puts spanners in the path e g the continued harassment of PKK in 1993 even when the state had tacitly accepted the cease fire and creation of the Hizbullah with its murderous squads in East .
But the Republic instead of resolving problems politically tends to use legal measures ie closing down political parties ;not only Islamic but others and there are military takeovers or extra-constitutional threats which force out elected Govts , as in1971 and 1997 .Is the State now confident enough to address the underlying, social and economic causes of the rebellion ie the Kurdish aspirations for cultural autonomy and economic development of the region .Many analysts feel that after 75 years, the Republic has matured enough and is strong enough to resolve problems politically. But many a times the Turks have the habit of turning logic upside down .
Amb (Rtd) K Gajendra Singh. Bucharest. 22/7/99