Visit to Kurdistan.
Stephen Smellie, South Lanarkshire UNISON branch secretary, recently visited the Kurdish area of Turkey as part of a trade unions delegation. Here he gives a report of the continued repression facing the Kurdish people in Turkey.
Turkey continues oppression of Kurds
The Kurds refer to this area as Kurdistan. The Kurds have their own language, culture and history as ancient as any other people in the region. Historically they have suffered oppression in all 4 countries that they inhabit.
When modern Turkey was established in the 1920s the Kurds were denied any distinct identity by the Turkish state who refused to acknowledge them as a minority group, referring to them as "Hill Turks." Over the years there have been a number of uprisings by Kurds trying to establish their own state, autonomy or simply their own identity. These risings have met with brutal responses from the Turkish state on each occasion.
In the 1980s the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an armed struggle. This led to a prolonged period of civil unrest with the Turkish military occupying the area under military rule and brutally suppressing any support for the PKK. 30,000 people died during the conflict, thousands of villages were cleared with people forced to migrate to the cities, to western Turkey and abroad. Many came to live in western Europe, including Scotland, as asylum seekers and refugees.
During this period thousands of people were detained and tortured by the military. Many of these people disappeared. Families were persecuted and victimised.
A member of SES (Health and Social Workers Union) in the city of Van, Turkey brought home to me just how heroic ordinary Kurdish trade unionists need to be to struggle for basic human rights. He said "The head of our union in Van was suspended and exiled for making a statement to an Italian delegation. Since so many more people are here tonight I expect there to be many more suspensions."
I heard similar stories from trade unionists throughout the Region. The Secretary of KESK (Confederation of Public Service Employees) in Diyarbakir explained that when they elect their branch committee they also elect a second committee. This is because the state will target the committee members and probably exile them to other cities in Turkey. The members of the second committee are then able to step in to replace them. However, he pointed out, the second committee often are targeted as well. This makes it difficult to organize, he said with what must be an understatement.
The Kurdish (south east) region of Turkey suffered from years of brutal military rule as the Turkish state fought to defeat the armed struggle of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 3 years ago the PKK’s leader, Ocalan, declared a ceasefire and since then the PKK armed units have retreated over the border into the hills of Iraq. This however has not ended the human rights abuses of people suspected of supporting the PKK, trade union activists, Kurdish politicians, socialists, lawyers and anyone else who argues for rights for the Kurds or working people.
During the time of the conflict the military destroyed thousands of villages and forced the small peasant farmers to migrate to the cities, to the west of Turkey and to Western Europe. The Kurdish cities were given no additional funding to cope with this huge influx of people. Many of these people had been victims of torture, had seen members of their family detained or murdered by the state or by the village guards. These guards continue to be a problem. Employed originally by the military to report any sympathies among the local population for the PKK, they have now became local warlords who terrorise the villagers and steal the best land for themselves.
Lawyers who represented people accused of supporting "separitism" were themselves targeted by the security forces. 70-80% of the members of the Bar Association in Diyarbakir were prosecuted or had charges brought against them. According to the Medical Association, Doctors, who examined people who had been detained for weeks before they appeared in court and who reported signs of torture, were threatened by the military.
Since the ceasefire the situation has improved but there are still reports of people being tortured in prison. Any country which sends 2 or 3 security police to wait for a Unison activist to come down to breakfast in the morning and follows him around all day for a week clearly has some way to go before it achieves a genuine democracy.
The Turkish state does not allow any language but Turkish to be used in any official setting. So even in schools where the children speak Kurdish teachers must only use Turkish. Failure to stick to this ruling can result in teachers being disciplined or exiled to another city. In the past year a campaign for the right to be taught in Kurdish has gathered momentum amongst students and parents of younger children. Signatures were collected on petitions to be presented to University rectors. This mild form of protest was met by a brutal response by the military. When Razat Bapci, a 19 year old student at Dija University, went to present a petition, he and his 2 colleagues were arrested, searched and beaten up by police before being detained for 3 days. They were sentenced to 3 years and 9 months in jail. They were also suspended from university just at exam time so they were unable to sit them. They are now appealing their sentence.
The teachers union, Egitim Sen, have always supported the right to "Mother Language Education." However when Abdullah Demirbas, the Chair of the unions Diyarbakir branch, made a statement on the subject he was sacked from his job. In the union office he showed me photographs of numerous union activists who had been shot by the state over the years.
While I was in Turkey the election campaign had just begun and many of the trade union and human rights activists I met were supporting DEHAP (the Democratic People’s Party)*. This was an alliance of the Kurdish party HADEP and 2 small socialist parties (EMEP and SP). This combination of nationalist and socialist outlooks continually emerged in the discussions I had with people I met. On the one hand they would emphasise the democratic struggle for Kurdish rights and on the other point out that the struggle in Turkey was against globalisation. On more than one occasion the view was expressed that the unions in Western Europe had not done enough to resist privatization and the programme of the IMF.
The activist from the SES in Van ended his contribution by making a plea for the movement against the War against Iraq. A war would not help either the Kurds in Iraq or in Turkey he said. "I am asking the socialist groups in your country to help us."
*In the election DEHAP received over 40% of the vote in the Kurdish region but only 6% of the vote nationally. They failed to win any seats in the Parliament as parties need to get at least 10% to get candidates elected.