At around midday on 19 July, Koray Türkay boarded a bus in Istanbul and set off for the Syrian border. He was among a group of about 200 people going to help rebuild the devastated town of Kobani, whose Kurdish defenders had defied a four-month siege by the so-called ‘Islamic State’.
The volunteers had been drawn together through a media campaign. ‘Together we supported it, together we’ll rebuild it,’ was the slogan of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations. Those who signed up were mainly young, and almost all leftists; most were strangers meeting for the first time. Despite the sixteen-hour overnight journey, there was a buzz of excitement when the group arrived for breakfast at a cultural centre in the border town of Suruç the following morning. They had brought books, clothing, toys for children, all paid for out of their own pockets. Their plan was to plant trees, start a library, and build a playground. Türkay, a bespectacled gymnastics teacher with close-cropped hair and a goatee, was to conduct gym sessions with Kobani’s children. At 40, he was older than most of the others and had come alone, but felt in good company. The group prepared breakfast with food they provided themselves – cheese, bread, melons, olives – sharing and clearing the meal in an atmosphere of quiet industriousness and anticipation.
After breakfast, he and the other volunteers posed for a group photo behind a large banner, waving the socialist youth group’s red-starred flag, and listening to speeches by the organisers. Türkay went to the front to take pictures on his phone. Somewhere on the right in the background of his images is the blurry figure of a young man who was carrying a pack of explosives. Another video shows the moment he detonated his device: a snap of light like the sudden striking of a match, and the packed crowd simply evaporates.
Two weeks later, speaking in a hoarse whisper from his hospital bed, a white sheet covering his shattered limbs, Türkay told me what set him on the road towards Suruç. It was something that had begun years earlier, in 1998, when he was on his compulsory military service in Turkey’s southeast. The army was fighting the separatist insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. Türkay, a recent university graduate, was a staunch supporter of ‘Kemalism’ – the vision laid out by the country’s founder, Atatürk, of a nation bound by the glue of Turkish nationalism. He viewed the conflict in the black-and-white terms in which it was presented by Turkey’s media: a battle waged by brave soldiers against bandits and terrorists. Türkay was shocked by what he found.
‘We’d get information that this village or that village had been giving help to the PKK,’ he said. ‘We would go in there, look everywhere. We would throw all the belongings in the house out into the rain, out into the snow.’ Little by little, he realised he was not only fighting the PKK, but a whole population. He began to suspect that these people might have real grievances, at which Turkey’s politicians and media had never hinted.
‘I saw that what was being said in the west of Turkey about the war was a lie,’ he said. ‘These guerrillas didn’t come from space. They’re leaving something behind. When they leave home their average life expectancy is only two years, but they still do it… I changed day by day and eventually I said “no more” to the Kemalist ideology.’
The Suruç bombing helped lead to the collapse of a peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government that had become one of the last bright spots in the country’s already darkening political landscape. Thirty-three people were killed and more than a hundred were injured, but at times it seems that the explosion is still tearing through a society that long ago lost its ability to mourn or make collective sense of tragedy – in which each death brings only a deeper sense of polarisation and crisis. Over the previous two years Turkey had witnessed tightened security laws, a crackdown on the press, purges of the judiciary and police, rising social tension and political paralysis after an inconclusive election result in June. Yet even to the jaded senses of most observers of the country, the weeks after Suruç have been dreadful.
The PKK responded to the bombing, which appeared to be the work of ISIS, by executing two policemen: revenge against the Turkish government, which it accused of abetting the attack. Ankara hit back with an aerial campaign against PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then, the insurgency in the southeast has roared back to life. The upsurge in violence has claimed the lives of more than 120 soldiers and police, several hundred militants, and as many as ninety civilians. There have been mass arrests and prosecutions of Kurdish activists, politicians, and mayors; curfews and ‘security zones’ have been imposed in areas across the southeast; Cizre, a city of 120,000, was sealed off as security forces fought an urban battle with the PKK-linked youth militia that had seized partial control. Across the country, nationalist gangs have roamed the streets burning Kurdish targets, from offices of the pro-Kurdish political party, to groceries and bookshops. A mob in Istanbul marched to the slogan ‘We don’t want a military operation, we want a massacre!’ In one Mediterranean town, a man who had posted online a picture of himself dressed as an Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga fighter was hunted down by a mob, beaten, and forced to kiss a bust of Atatürk. ‘War is easy, peace is hard’ – the words of Turkey’s then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the outset of the peace process – now ring with ironic truth.
The causes for the dramatic return to violence lie within the same chasm that Türkay discovered as a young man – between the mainstream reality of Turkish society and the reality of the Kurdish southeast. Suruç was merely one step in a long process of deterioration, but it symbolised the tragedy of the peace process’s failure. Those who were maimed and killed that day were mainly Turks who, like Türkay, had sought to bridge that chasm.
Now, once again, the conflict is being portrayed within Turkey in the same terms as in the 1990s. The government and its supporters are trumpeting the viciousness and bloodthirstiness of the PKK, insisting that no substantial grievances drive or extenuate its existence. In the hysteria of the current environment, to even portray the guerrillas or their sympathisers as human, is becoming a taboo – an act of terrorist propaganda; and yet they are human.
I was in Diyarbakır, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region, in March 2013 at the start of what was billed as an historic effort to bring a peaceful end to the PKK insurgency that had blighted the southeast for three decades, and to address the injustices suffered by Turkey’s 15m Kurds – about 20 per cent of Turkey’s population. Abdullah Öcalan, the leader and founder of the PKK, had written a declaration from his prison cell proclaiming that the time for armed struggle was over, and calling on his fighters to leave Turkey for their bases in northern Iraq. Held on a prison island off the coast of Istanbul since his capture in 1999, Öcalan – or ‘Apo’ – hovers over the Kurdish cause like some divine being. Among most Turks, he is reviled as the instigator of a terrorist insurgency that has led to more than 40,000 deaths, yet in the southeast he can seem ubiquitous: his picture hangs in Kurdish homes, in the offices of Kurdish politicians, and is held aloft at political rallies.
Hundreds of thousands had gathered at Diyarbakır’s Newroz spring festival to hear his words read out. There was breathless expectation in the crowd. Some spoke of the process as the first step towards an independent Kurdistan; others likened Öcalan to Nelson Mandela, predicting he might one day be president of Turkey. Many admitted that they did not trust Erdoğan or the Turkish state, but they trusted Öcalan; they believed in him.
Erdoğan’s AKP, which won power in 2002, was more sympathetic to Kurdish grievances than any previous government. Öcalan’s capture had knocked the wind out of the insurgency and the intense oppression of the 1990s – death squads, routine torture, military security zones – became a thing of the past. The AKP sought to win over the region through economic development, expanded cultural rights and shared conservative values. Kurdish voters backed the party in growing numbers. In 2005, Erdoğan went to Diyarbakır and announced: ‘the Kurdish problem is my problem.’
But progress had been piecemeal. The PKK’s fight had turned it into a mass movement that extended deep into legal politics and activism, yet broad and draconian anti-terror laws meant that even oblique expressions of support could lead to serious jail time. When I visited the city in 2010, I wondered whether I was seeing a state protecting its people, or a city under occupation. Great tranches of land were given over to military bases and housing. Memorials outside celebrated the heroism of soldiers who had died for the Turkish homeland. State buildings were emblazoned with nationalist slogans: Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene – ‘How happy is the one who says, “I am a Turk”.’ But people I met would often look up at the sky and mutter under their breath as police helicopters buzzed overhead. The airport terminal shook with the roar of fighter jets taking to the air to bomb the sons and daughters of the soil who had joined the ranks of the PKK.
The first story I reported from the city was characteristic of AKP progress. The government was amending a law that allowed children facing terror charges to be tried as adults. It was a measure the AKP had brought in itself four years earlier under pressure from the military, which was unhappy with EU-inspired legislation protecting the right to protest. I met teenagers who had been detained at protests where Kurdish youth had clashed with police. Aged fifteen at the time of their arrest, they had been severely beaten in custody and had spent eighteen months in jail. The psychologist had told them they were terrorists, said one of those I spoke to – an intense, eloquent young man who gave the pseudonym Piremerd. ‘We said we weren’t terrorists, we just throw stones, but she said “no, you’re terrorists”… The problem isn’t us but the system, which sees us as an enemy.’ They had just been released, although their trials were continuing. Under the legal changes, they could expect sentences of ten to fifteen years in prison, rather than thirty to forty, but they viewed them as meaningless.
I tried to follow up on their cases whenever I was in Diyarbakır. At the time of our first meeting Piremerd had been working for a Kurdish-language newspaper, but a few months later, police harassment drove him to abandon it, and he joined the PKK. He was killed a year later: one of his friends told me that he was wounded in a clash with Turkish forces, and blew himself up with a grenade to avoid capture.
Returning to the city in the wake of Suruç, I met a leader of Dem-Genç, a youth organisation linked to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP). We sat in a conference hall in the party’s offices – the only quiet room we could find.
Like many of the people I met, he spoke under a pseudonym – ‘Berxweden’ – out of fear that his views could lead to his prosecution: ‘If this oppression stops, of course we will be able to give our opinions openly.’ Observers of Turkey’s Kurdish problem have long warned that the younger generation of activists, born into the violent years of 1990s, were more radical than their predecessors, that their radicalism was a time bomb, and that if the problems in the southeast were not addressed quickly, the Kurdish side may become too extreme and fractured to be appeased. The PKK youth militias now stalking the streets of towns and cities are seen by some as a fulfilment of those warnings.
‘This is the generation of torture and killings and burnings of villages,’ Berxweden said, his voice echoing across rows of empty seats. ‘These young people have lost their mothers, fathers, brothers, families, and have seen all this brutality in their childhood. Political parties can’t control them, in many ways the only thing that can control them is Mr Öcalan and his ideology, and these young people only respect his orders.’
Angry, disenfranchised youths at odds with authority are not unique to Kurdistan, but here they have become a part of the dynamic of the conflict, acting as a running sore on efforts at reconciliation or trust. The Turkish state sees them as proxies for the PKK; nationalist Kurds regard their clashes with police as yet another manifestation of Turkish oppression.
The former mayor of Diyarbakır once suggested to me that regionalised policing of the kind practiced in the US might ease this situation, but Berxweden’s views were more far-reaching. The situation could only change, he said, with the overthrow of the capitalist system and the end of a ‘nation-state mentality’.
‘That sounds like a utopia,’ he conceded, ‘but we think this is a process that can solve all the problems in Kurdistan, Turkey, even the Middle East. There is a model of communal government, a combination of all languages and religions and cultures of the people who live in the area. It’s an ideology that creates consensus about respecting other religions and peoples and allows them to have representation from the lowest to the highest level.’
He was talking about Rojava, the Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Syria. There, the PKK’s close Syrian affiliate has begun a radical experiment in ‘Democratic Confederalism’ – a system of government developed by Öcalan during his long imprisonment and inspired by the writings of the American anarchist and libertarian Murray Bookchin.
In 2012, I visited Afrin, one of Rojava’s three ‘cantons’, and did not see it as the utopia Berxweden described. In the company of a minder, we were shown around the town and met members of the civilian ruling council, saw the former Baath Party headquarters that had become a martyrs’ memorial, and saw classes of adult women learning to read and write in Kurdish. The organisation’s commitment to gender equality, and (at least rhetorically) to democracy and minority rights may be impressive in the context of the Syrian conflict, but there was also a less savoury side: Afrin residents I later contacted by phone and who I met in Turkey spoke of dissidents being imprisoned or intimidated and of forced conscription.
I was sitting in the office of a senior official when a woman burst in crying. ‘Don’t take my son!’ she said. ‘My other son is dead. Don’t let him fight for you!’ She was bundled out of the room, and I learnt no more about her situation. The room we were sitting in was festooned with the Kurdish national colours of red, green, and yellow as well as banners and posters of Öcalan: a Turkish state office, but in different colours, and with a different face on the wall.
Later that day, ‘Salih’ – my Kurdish translator – and I sat in a restaurant eating lunch.
We had met for the first time that day. He was in his 40s with a hard, lean face; he made no bones about his sympathy for the PKK, which made me a little uneasy. My usual translator had some critical detachment, but was unavailable, and I wondered whether Salih believed his primary allegiance was to me, or to the movement.
I asked him when he first became aware that he was a Kurd in Turkey, and told me of his school days in the village where he grew up in rural Diyarbakır. It was a hard introduction: the teacher spoke in Turkish, but most of the students could understand little of the language. Those who spoke Kurdish would be rapped on the knuckles, even beaten. He said that one child was assigned as a spy to inform on the others if they spoke Kurdish during break. By the time he attended high school, it was the late 1970s and there was a climate of rising political radicalism throughout the country. The school was buzzing with left-wing ideas.
‘There were lots of organisations inspired by socialism, but I never felt close to any of them,’ he said. ‘I came from a conservative family. Everyone at school was talking about Marx and Lenin and the Soviet revolution, but I didn’t like the idea of communism.’
In his senior year a young man came to the school who seemed different. He didn’t talk self-consciously about socialism. He was self-contained, serious – ‘honest, actually,’ said Salih. ‘When I spoke to him, he told me he was an “Apoist”. He said he was inspired by his leader Abdullah Öcalan. He talked to me about the freedom of the Kurdish nation.’
One day, the young man took Salih to a spot behind the school and produced from his coat two pistols. Salih pointed at me across table with both hands, thumbs cocked.
‘I couldn’t believe it,’ he said, leaning towards me, eyes wide open. ‘How did he get a gun in the school? He said they carried them everywhere.’
When the PKK was founded in 1978, it was one among a host of socialist or Kurdish groups preaching revolution. It was a chaotic time in which the state’s grip on the country was slipping, and by the middle of 1979 political and sectarian violence was claiming twenty lives a day. Most of the Kurdish groups were advocating revolution only in theory; they believed that national consciousness had not yet developed, and that political work was needed to sow the seeds for an uprising.
In Blood and Belief, a history of the PKK based on interviews with high-level defectors, journalist Aliza Marcus writes that Öcalan’s group was unusual in its insistence on immediate revolution. The group’s Leninist-inspired creed also held that the existence of other pro-Kurdish groups weakened and divided the revolution, and it became notorious for its aggressiveness to both rivals and defectors.
In September 1980 the army responded to Turkey’s slide towards anarchy with a coup d’état. Some 650,000 people were arrested, and hundreds disappeared – dying under torture or through extrajudicial killings in a nationwide crackdown.
Öcalan had fled to Syria the previous year as rumours spread of the impending coup. From there the PKK regrouped and planned its independence war with the tacit backing of Syria’s Assad regime, which allowed PKK recruits to join Palestinian training camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Ironically, given the current Turkish government’s staunch backing of the Palestinian cause, it was the Palestinian Liberation Organisation that taught the PKK the importance of establishing strong networks of civilian supporters who would act as the eyes and ears of the organisation as well as providing logistical support to its fighters.
From the moment it launched its insurgency in 1984, the PKK was concerned with how to bind the Kurdish population to its cause. The Turkish state was its chief ally. While repression of Kurdish identity had always existed, it had never been as intense and systematic as in the years following the coup. All avenues for peaceful activism were forbidden, and even speaking the language in public was banned.
As it flowered into a mass movement, the PKK used both hope and terror to extend its reach. When the Turkish government mobilised and armed a Kurdish rural militia known as the ‘village guards’ to oppose it, Öcalan’s guerrillas carried out reprisals against communities that – either willingly or through coercion – had signed up. In one incident in 1987, thirty rebels entered Pinarcık, a village with a population of sixty people that had ignored previous warnings to quit the militia. After a two-hour firefight, sixteen children and six women were dead. They took other oppressive measures to cement their control, including forced conscription, in which young men who resisted were sometimes abducted.
The internal dynamics of the PKK were equally brutal. Within its rigidly hierarchical structure and the cult of personality centred around Öcalan, defectors and internal critics were often killed. Paranoia peaked in 1989, when droves of young Kurdish students from the west of Turkey joined the rebels. More educated and critical-minded than the rural recruits the PKK had attracted previously, they were viewed with intense suspicion. By Marcus’s estimate as many as fifty to one hundred were executed.
As the PKK’s influence increased, any section of Kurdish society that lay outside of its control began to feel its pressure; those who wanted to carry out any kind of pro-Kurdish activism independently of the organisation found themselves caught between the rebels and the Turkish state. ‘For a long time I was considered a sympathiser of the PKK by the state, and the opposite by the other side,’ Nevzat Bingöl, a Kurdish journalist, told me.
But the Turkish state was always worse. Bingöl set up the country’s first Kurdish-focused TV channel in 1993, of which he was owner, director, and correspondent. A few weeks after it opened, security forces raided its offices while a panel show was live on air discussing the Kurdish problem. The electricity was cut and the interviewees were pressed to the ground with guns held to their heads. Eventually, Bingöl said, he quit after Diyarbakır’s security chief said he would be killed if he carried on. ‘Everything was illegal back then,’ he said.
The dengbêj house was tucked away in the narrow black basalt streets of Diyarbakır’s old city. Salih and I went there after lunch while we waited for calls on a couple of interviews. I had visited before to write about the dengbêj: folk singers, mostly elderly, many illiterate, with hours of traditional ballads locked in their memories comprising an oral history stretching back some 300 years. Their story offers a good illustration of the travails of Turkey’s Kurds over the past few decades. The culture was nearly extinguished in the 1980s when restrictions on spoken Kurdish were at their tightest. Most stopped singing altogether, and a world of myth and history was nearly lost: songs of cruel ağas, heroic warriors, warring tribes, doomed lovers. From the late 90s, a handful of amateur anthropologists took it upon themselves to hunt down the old singers and record their songs, and in the more liberal environment of the past decade, the dengbêj have started singing once more.
The pro-Kurdish municipality has taken the tradition in hand, and today several of the old boys who still sing are paid a stipend to spend their days at the house’s old stone courtyard, performing for tourists and whoever else comes along. There are new songs, and even without speaking Kurdish, one can recognise recent compositions as they tend to be peppered with the alphabet soup that make up the political, civil, and military organs connected in one way or another to the rebel cause: KCK, HPG, PYD, YPG, YPJ…
Visiting the dengbêj house again, I was less struck by the story of a culture rescued from the brink of extinction than I was by how – like so much else in Kurdish culture – the tradition has folded into itself the PKK’s narrative of resistance, martyrdom and national liberation. The last time I’d visited I met a 23-year-old man who was presented as the youngest dengbêj. The tradition was still dying, for all the reasons these things normally die: the end of the traditional culture of which it formed a part, the rise of new technology and media, and the lack of interest from a younger generation.
This young man had been the hope for the future, but on our second visit I was told he had stopped singing. One of the administrators at the house said he left because he felt uncomfortable having to sing at the funerals of PKK fighters – a pursuit that could get one in trouble with the law. ‘He left because he didn’t want to be associated with going to funerals and these things,’ I was told. ‘He didn’t want to be a part of this.’
In a quiet corner of the courtyard, one of the dengbêj sang about Kobani, his voice rumbling through the unmetered verse as if reciting a psalm, each section punctuated with long sighs like proclamations of grief.
Brothers! I am shouting but no voice comes out,
I am calling but no sound comes out,
I am screaming but no sound comes out.
As long as we live on this turning Earth, the cries and moans from the city of Kobani will not leave our hearts…
There can be few themes more suited to epic verse than the siege of Kobani. It has it all: a reviled enemy bent on annihilating its defenders; a rare moment of unity between feuding Kurdish factions; and then – with the eyes of the world watching – victory snatched from certain defeat.
In September 2014, ISIS launched its offensive on the enclave, one of the three Kurdish cantons in Syria. By the end of the month the fighters of the YPG, the armed forces of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, were surrounded and held only the centre of the town and the Turkish border gate. In the YPG’s ranks were large numbers of Kurdish men and women from Turkey. As the world media became obsessed with the town’s fate, Ankara, inevitably, was cast as the villain. Bemoaning the attention the town was receiving, Erdoğan characterised the fight as a contest between two terror organisations. Turkish officials loudly proclaimed that not a single civilian remained in Kobani, so why even care about its fate?
But many of Turkey’s Kurds viewed the town as their own soil, and its defenders their sons and daughters – and many of them were. By one recent estimate, 4,500 Kurdish citizens of Turkey have joined the YPG. On October 2, Öcalan made a statement warning that if the town fell, the peace process would be over. Five days later, however, Erdoğan predicted that it would fall nonetheless, in a statement that appalled many Kurds. The same day, the HDP’s co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş called for protests in support of the town, which served as a trigger to release days of pent-up rage. In two nights of rioting, nearly fifty people died, many of them conservative Kurds who were lynched by the crowds in the belief that they were ISIS sympathisers. By this time the United States had begun bombing ISIS in support of the Kurds, and a few days later Ankara allowed peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan to enter via Turkey, providing heavy weaponry and long range mortars that began to turn the tide.
The damage to the peace process was enormous. Kurds saw Erdoğan’s conduct through the crisis as a sign of his fundamental hostility towards them, and led many previous AKP supporters among them to abandon the party; for its part, the government was appalled by the mob violence unleashed over the town’s fate, and Demirtaş’ role in instigating it became a rod with which to beat the charismatic HDP leader, whose political rise was already worrying the AKP.
It was hard to see how the government could have successfully navigated the crisis. It tried to, by accepting some tens of thousands of refugees from the town, delivering humanitarian aid into the city, and allowing injured YPG fighters to be treated in Turkish hospitals. But how far would it ever really go towards helping an armed force that was so closely linked to Turkey’s own Kurdish insurgency? One side’s sons and daughters were the other side’s terrorists.
In the evening Salih went home, and I met a Kurdish friend for dinner. We invited along ‘Amed’, one of the jailed teenagers I had interviewed on my first visit to Diyarbakır. When I met him five years earlier, he was seventeen, and had just been released from prison. Before the law was reformed, he had a possible forty-four-and-a-half-year prison sentence hanging over him for a range of crimes, the most serious of which was throwing a Molotov cocktail, which he denied.
Back then I thought that of any of his friends, he would be the most likely to ‘head to the mountains’ – the common euphemism for joining the PKK. He had a soft-spoken, slightly thuggish charisma: a shaven head, wide features and a flat nose that had been broken so badly in police custody that he had trouble breathing through it. But it was Piremerd who had joined the rebels.
I tried to meet with Amed whenever I returned to Diyarbakır. In the end he’d been sentenced to fifteen years, but in the spirit of the peace process this had been suspended. He didn’t look thuggish anymore. On my previous visit he was working at a trendy café in an old caravanserai in the centre of town that served locally made wine, and he had introduced me to his girlfriend. This time, he brought her along for dinner. She was studying law in Istanbul; he was working for a local children’s TV channel that dubs cartoons into Kurdish. They were an attractive, sophisticated-looking couple. We sat and talked on low stalls at the rooftop table, falling silent now and again to listen as we heard the sound of explosions in the distance; in one of the outlying neighbourhoods, the PKK’s youth militia were clashing with security forces.
I asked if any of Amed’s friends had ‘gone to the mountains’ recently. ‘More than I can count,’ he replied. He said that five people he knew had left in the two months since the election. They included his girlfriend’s flatmate; she was 27 and had been studying French Literature at Istanbul’s prestigious Galatasaray University. The pair had returned to Diyarbakır for the holiday, and one day she simply disappeared. They hadn’t heard from her since, but were in no doubt as to where she’d gone.
‘That’s how it always happens,’ explained ‘Berfin’, Amed’s girlfriend. ‘I’d known her for seven years and she was always talking about it. Her anger wasn’t anything exceptional. It was a general anger at the system, at the situation of the Kurds.’
I asked her to elaborate, and she said it was to do with political consciousness, a kind of consciousness that, once it was awoken, meant that you could see the oppression of the Kurds wherever you looked. ‘Kurds who are not aware of themselves as Kurds, who don’t have that consciousness are OK. But for Kurds who have political consciousness, life is very difficult.’
My friend cut in: ‘It’s about how you define yourself as belonging, and about a psychological link to do with suffering. You can’t deny yourself. Everyone has to define themselves, and if you’re honest, and you’re aware of certain things, then you cannot help but feel bad. There are problems in this country that are so clear that they can’t be denied by anybody.’
‘When I was in prison,’ Amed added, ‘section eight was for rapists. They were coming for one month and being released. Maximum they were in for six months. We’d see them come and go. What kind of awful system is that? The rapists are released as if it’s a small crime they’ve committed, but people who were fighting for their rights are kept in prison for years.’
I asked if either of them ever thought of going to the mountains. ‘Of course we do,’ Amed said in a low voice. ‘It’s better not to ask this.’ The PKK offered clarity, moral purpose, an escape from the feelings of indignity and compromise that life in Turkey entailed. ‘The life is dangerous, you can die,’ said Amed, ‘but it is more beautiful than the life that most ordinary people lead. Life there has meaning much more than life does here.’
I looked at the two of them sitting across from me. I thought they had a good life: they were both young, in love, and had the prospect of a career. ‘It’s true, our lives are good,’ said Amed, ‘but we don’t know what will happen in the future.’
The next day Salih and I went to see Şahismail Bedirhanoğlu, an important local entrepreneur and head of a regional business association. I had wanted to speak to someone from that large section of Kurdish society that has little love for the PKK, and which had lent credence to Erdoğan’s promises for change.
‘Like many other people in this country, I trusted him and I believed in him,’ he said, sitting in his office in front of a wall packed with awards and certificates. ‘He was the main person driving the peace process and was behind so many good things in this country.’
Bedirhanoğlu had been part of a civil dialogue group that met several times with government officials to discuss measures that would help push the process forward. ‘When it started the peace process had a hugely positive effect on the region. There was a serious understanding that this question would be solved.’
Yet almost from the start it seemed strangely directionless. There was no clearly defined roadmap or structure for the talks. There was never any real discussion of the most fundamental issues: how would local government be devolved? How would security and policing be handled in the Kurdish region? The government was constantly afraid of angering its Turkish nationalist base by being seen to concede too much. One Turkish official had told me privately that they were willing to meet some of the key Kurdish demands, including mother-tongue education, and even freedom for Öcalan, or perhaps some form of house arrest. However, the official added, these were too sensitive to voice publicly for the time being.
Meanwhile, mistrust festered on both sides. The PKK halted the withdrawal announced by Öcalan at the outset of the process, accusing the government of constructing new military posts in areas it had vacated. The government in turn accused the rebels of using the cover of the peace process to entrench their hold over the southeast. ‘As time went on our expectations decreased,’ said Bedirhanoğlu. ‘Both sides were not acting in line with the process. There was no serious effort to eliminate the lack of trust on either side.’
In 2013, two crises rocked Erdoğan’s administration that appeared to dampen its enthusiasm for the process. Mass protests erupted against the government in June, and then a corruption scandal in December came close to bringing it down. Even as it was holding out vague promises of greater freedoms for the Kurds, the AKP began drafting authoritarian laws to shore up its own power, often in ways that had a very negative bearing on the Kurdish problem. A new security bill allowed police to use live ammunition against violent demonstrators, and sentences were stiffened on an array of crimes related to public protest. As the government stalled over even the more modest Kurdish demands, these measures were rushed through at lightning speed.
The process also became hostage to Erdoğan’s desire to extend his own powers. Both sides agreed on the need to replace Turkey’s authoritarian and implicitly anti-Kurdish constitution, drawn up by the 1980 military junta. However the drafting of a new national charter became bound up with Erdoğan’s own, far more controversial ambition of creating an executive presidency, which he would occupy himself. In the lead-up to the general election of June 7 this year, the AKP built its campaign around Erdoğan’s ambition, however much of the country viewed his plan as another step in Turkey’s march towards authoritarianism.
The polls showed a significant drop in support for the AKP. Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish HDP, with its charismatic leader Selahattin Demirtaş, was picking up votes. Like all previous pro-Kurdish parties, the HDP drew its support to a large degree from the support base of the PKK. Demirtaş’ own brother is a fighter in the rebel group, and its leaders refuse to describe the PKK’s actions as terrorism. But unlike previous Kurdish parties, the HDP was expanding its support beyond the nationalist movement, embracing conservative Kurds angered by the government’s handling of Kobani, as well as from some Turks attracted by its progressive platform and opposition to Erdoğan. It hoped to pass a 10 per cent vote threshold below which political parties are barred from entering parliament in Turkey. The barrier was largely put in place to stymy Kurdish representation, and no Kurdish party had ever surpassed it.
Demirtaş had made clear his opposition to Erdoğan’s plans for an executive presidency. ‘I will in fact express my message in just one sentence,’ he told an assembly of HDP MPs. ‘Mr Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, you will never be able to be the head of the nation as long as the HDP exists… We will not make you the president. We will not make you president. We will not make you president.’
When the threat posed by the HDP became clear, Erdoğan’s attitude towards the peace process appeared to sour dramatically. In late February, the peace talks seemed to have reached a breakthrough. The government, Öcalan and the PKK declared a ten-point charter of measures to be taken on behalf of the Kurds, in return for the implementation of which Öcalan called for the rebel side to hold a conference to start the process of disarmament. Yet, three weeks later, Erdoğan publicly disavowed the agreement, claiming – rather improbably – that he had not been informed of the details of the meeting. He also seemed to denounce the whole premise of the peace talks: ‘Who do you think you are, claiming to be an interlocutor? There is a state in this country. There is not a table that is being sat around.’
He went further, declaring in another speech: ‘There is no Kurdish problem in this country… What Kurdish problem? What have you not got? What else do you want? For God’s sake, what don’t you have that we have? You have everything.’
When 7 June came, HDP smashed through the 10 per cent barrier, surpassing pollsters’ expectations with nearly 14 per cent of the vote. Its success came at the expense of the AKP, which lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 12 years. For Erdoğan, who had been negotiating with the HDP camp for the past two years, and whose administration had done more for the Kurds than any previous government, this must have felt like a huge betrayal.
Bedirhanoğlu, however, believed the betrayal was Erdoğan’s. ‘Especially since he became president, his attitude and his statements about the peace process have even become an obstacle to peace. I don’t think he will get back to his former ideas and positions.’
‘This war is meaningless,’ he concluded. ‘Ceasefire and dialogue is the only solution. No matter how long this fighting goes on eventually it will have to come back to that. Why should we let lives be sacrificed in the meantime?’
As Salih and I spent more time together, I had begun to challenge him on some of his views about the PKK. I cited my impressions of Rojava, and he conceded that the organisation was politically repressive, ‘but they are fighting a war for survival there, and maybe that’s necessary in the context of Syria.’
In our final interview, I had tried to ask Bedirhanoğlu whether or not there was a concern that the current fighting would entrench the hold of the PKK over Kurdish civil society. He had stepped out of the room when I told Salih the question. It obviously implied that the PKK’s influence was a bad thing, and Salih stared at me with a look of incomprehension: ‘I don’t understand.’
I repeated it. He looked aghast.
‘You don’t get it,’ he said. ‘Without the PKK, there would be no Kurdish civil society. Everything we have won has come from them.’
There is, of course, a significant proportion of Kurds who have no sympathy whatsoever for the PKK, and speak candidly about their opposition to it. At a recent economic summit in Istanbul, Mehmet Şimşek, finance minister in the AKP government, denounced the PKK’s presentation of itself as the sole legitimate voice of Turkey’s Kurds.
Simsek’s childhood was not unlike Salih’s. He had grown up in a poor village in the Kurdish majority province of Batman. Nonetheless, he had risen to become a senior economist at Merrill Lynch in London before returning to Turkey to become finance minister.
‘Think of a family that does not know how to speak Turkish, in which both the mother and father are illiterate. But today I am the Finance Minister of the Republic of Turkey. My background is obvious. This is completely due to meritocracy, equality of opportunities.’
I had wanted to ask Bedirhanoğlu’s views about the influence of the PKK over Kurdish society, but I’d caved in to Salih and had rephrased my question in a different way, and he avoided the topic. As we sat over lunch I reflected on the interview and felt I had failed.
When I said goodbye to Salih at the end of the day we were both frustrated. He complained of being tired in the afternoon and had snapped at me once or twice as I peppered him with various questions. Later, I sat on a bench in the sun in the bare expanse of Dağkapı Square. On a tall military-owned building opposite was a mural seven stories high, on which was inscribed an aphorism of Atatürk’s: ‘From Diyarbakır, Van, Erzurum, Trabzon, Istanbul, Thrace or Macedonia, they are all descendants of one race, all strands of the same essence.’
Atatürk’s likeness was carved in relief below: a full-length profile in military garb, stooped over, thumb held pensively to his lip. The image comes from a photograph taken at the battle of Dumlupınar in August 1922, his first triumphant engagement at the outset of the offensive in which the rebel Turkish nationalist forces drove the Greeks out of Anatolia during the country’s war of independence. He is standing alone, surveying the field of battle from the hill of Kocatepe: the military genius, liberating his country from foreign domination.
It’s not hard to see how one might conclude that Öcalan and the PKK’s insurgency is no different from the war waged by Atatürk. Atatürk’s forces also committed atrocities – as did the Greeks; he also created an authoritarian regime; he also created a cult of personality. I thought of what Amed and the others had said the previous night about political consciousness, like a switch being flicked in the brain. The whole world changes colour, is distilled into a new clarity, and one begins to see injustice everywhere: the slogans, the military bases, the beatings, the prosecution, the party closures, the decades-long sentences.
Salih had said that he could not bring himself to describe the PKK as a terrorist group. ‘If Turkey provides all the rights of the Kurds, if we have all the rights that Turks have, and if the PKK still remain in the mountains and keep attacking and killing people, then I’ll call them a terrorist organisation. Right now my heart – my human dignity – does not allow me to call them terrorists.’
He cited mother-tongue education, freedom of expression, journalistic freedom, freedom from harassment in politics. But most of all, he added, ‘Turkey should recognise the existence of the Kurdish people as a nation.’
Turkey’s Kurdish movement is not asking for independence. That fact – ironically enough – is due to Öcalan, whose prison conversion to ‘democratic confederalism’ led him to abandon the idea of a nation state in favour of a kind of federal localism within existing borders. They are, however, demanding the freedom to develop and celebrate their own national identity on their own terms.
There has been progress: it is no longer unacceptable to simply be a Kurd in the way it was two decades ago, but the state is still trying to regulate what kind of Kurd one can be. You cannot be a Kurd like Salih, like Amed, Berfin, Berxweden, or Piremerd. You cannot openly celebrate the PKK’s struggle as integral to your history and identity. In the same way that Atatürk’s story became a kind of foundation myth for modern Turkey, Öcalan’s is becoming that for many of Turkey’s Kurds. It’s a deeply flawed one, but then so was Turkey’s.
The AKP, for most of its time in power, did the most sensible thing it could: it sought to bring economic prosperity to the southeast; it distanced itself from the Turkish supremacist rhetoric of its predecessors; it offered a viable democratic alternative to the PKK movement that appealed to many Kurds; it launched a peace process. But ultimately it only took modest steps towards changing the reality of Turkish state power in the southeast in a way acceptable to a people whose own sense of nationhood was blossoming in the atmosphere of relative freedom it helped create.
Regardless of whether the government wins the armed war, it has already lost the cultural one. The rebel group is so deeply interwoven into Kurdish culture that if it can be dislodged, it will not be by Turkish force – every prosecution, every police raid, only drives it in deeper.
The day after I returned to Istanbul, I got a call from a senior member of Erdoğan’s administration. The person was a contact I often meet with when I go to Ankara, who has a habit of calling me when he had seen a story in the international news that he particularly objects to.
This time he was angry at how the world press was portraying the breakdown of the peace process as a ploy by Erdoğan to revive his party’s fortunes ahead of the next election. ‘We are not monsters,’ he told me, ‘we would not play with lives like this.’ But he added that the time had come for the PKK to choose between democratic politics and violence – they could no longer have it both ways.
‘We went beyond the bounds of what any government would do to make peace,’ he told me. He said that they had known the PKK was collecting taxes in the region, establishing courts, and had prevented free voting in the last general election; but the government took no action because it didn’t want to be seen to be disrupting the peace.
I said that perhaps the reason the peace initiative failed was in part because there was still so much anger and resentment on the Kurdish side. I spoke about the legacy of the 1990s: the village burnings, the torture, the disappearances – things for which the AKP wasn’t responsible, but a legacy it nonetheless inherited.
‘You don’t know our history!’ he said in a sudden flash of anger. ‘People were hanging in the streets in my town and they left them there for two weeks.’ He was talking about the repression suffered by religious conservatives during the early years of the republic, in the 1930s and 1940s. Turkey’s conservatives often ask why, given that they were able to win their rights peacefully, the Kurds can’t as well?
‘As conservatives, we suffered ourselves, and we sincerely believe that no one should be persecuted,’ he told me. ‘Everything we did during the peace process we didn’t do because we were afraid of bombs, we did it because it was the right thing to do.’
But there would be no peace with the PKK, he added. ‘We love our Kurdish people, and they are the people who are suffering most from PKK terror. We will do away with this. We will make sure their region is as peaceful as any other in Turkey.’
‘Martyrs do not die; the homeland cannot be divided,’ read a mural at the top of a winding street of rundown houses in Istanbul’s staunchly Turkish nationalist neighbourhood of Gaziosmanpaşa. Further down the road, the names of young men on their military service were spray-painted on the walls of an empty playground, along with the dates that they departed. The Budak family are among the few Kurds living in the area.
‘My son was a rose growing up in this fascist district,’ said Murat Budak. We talked sitting in his son Vatan’s cramped bedroom. About two weeks earlier, he had packed a rucksack full of toys and books, set off for Suruç, and never came home. His bed was draped with the flag of Besiktaş football club, and a large cut-out image of an eagle – the team’s emblem – was pasted above it. He had just died from his injuries after fourteen days in a coma. His father had warned him about the danger of the undertaking. ‘Everyone does the easy things, but it’s the difficult things that are important,’ his son had replied.
You would never guess Vatan was a Kurd from his name. Murat said he had tried to call him Welat, the Kurdish name for ‘homeland’, but because the letter ‘W’, which appears in the Kurdish but not the Turkish alphabet, was effectively illegal in those days, a bureaucrat changed his name to ‘Vatan’, the Turkish word for homeland, and which has unmistakably nationalist overtones. It was hard for him growing as a Kurd here, Murat said. ‘He had no friends. All his friends came from elsewhere.’
He pointed out a red cross that someone had spray-painted on the family’s house a few weeks earlier. Its meaning was clear: it was the same symbol used to scare the Armenians and the Greeks in the lead-up to pogroms and ethnic cleansing of the past century. ‘We know who you are,’ it said. ‘Leave while you still can.’ No one from the neighbourhood had come to offer their condolences in the wake of his death.
He is scared for the future. ‘People have lost their empathy towards each other. Every day there are people dying and the only ones who care are their families. There’s a fire burning in Turkey, and that fire is starting to burn everybody.’
I thought about the hundreds of dead since Suruç, about the cross on Murat’s home, about the mobs in the street, about Amed and his girlfriend and the thousands of young people like them, balanced on a knife-edge; and I also felt scared for Turkey’s future.