A Kurdish spring

Fighting in Iraq led to the outlawing of celebrations for the Kurdish New Year, blocking a time-honoured tradition of cultural protest for Turkey's 17 million Kurds


    the potholed streets of Diyarbakir, the de facto Kurdish capital of south eastern Turkey, the Newroz is the biggest party of the year. The spring celebration of the Kurdish New Year is an excuse for the city’s people to dress up in the dazzling colours of their finest headdresses and shawls, and forget for a moment the poverty and joblessness of their region.


    But if economic hardships are put to one side, the wider misfortunes of the Kurdish people are not, and Newroz has become a traditional opportunity for Turkish Kurds to voice aspirations they normally keep to themselves.


    With dancing and singing, shouts and chants they have turned Newroz into annual demonstration for greater Kurdish rights: freedom to speak the language, broadcast and teach in it. Above all, Turkey’s estimated 17 million Kurds ask that they be given greater autonomy.


    The very vocal demands are rarely met with sympathy by the country’s powerful military machine, which sees itself as the guarantor both of Turkey’s secular constitution, and of its borders – vastly shrunken from the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.


    Confrontations between Newroz protestors and security forces routinely turn into running battles. The biggest death toll, in 1992, saw more than 50 demonstrators killed.


    But in 1992 both Kurds and the Turkish army were routinely taking casualties. It was the height of Turkey’s 15 year civil war, when Abdullah Ocalan led the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in a bloody separatist uprising against the Turkish state that eventually cost 30,000 lives.


    Four years ago Ocalan was captured in Kenya by Turkish special forces, repatriated, and sentenced to death after a trial criticised as unfair by the European court of Human Rights in March. The sentence was later commuted and he is now the only inmate on the prison island of Imrali, in the Sea of Marmara.


    The crucial capture sapped the PKK’s morale and, unwilling to fight without its inspirational leader, it declared a ceasefire in September 1999 that has lasted to this day.


    The end of hostilities led to an easing of tension in south eastern Turkey. Diyarbakir’s nightly curfew was lifted, police and army checkpoints on the roads were thinned out, and many Kurds battered by 15 years of insurrection, went about rebuilding their lives.


    Ismael, a 33 year-old man who lives with 130 others in the broken down hamlet of Inci, near Turkey’s border with Iraq, was one of them. 


    “When the war was on there were five checkpoints between here and Cizre,” he said, referring to a town only 10 kilometres away. “It could take hours to get there. We had to get permission just to leave the village.


    “Before 1999, the army would come here once a week a take everybody, men, women and chlidren, down to the football field before dawn, then they would search all the houses to see if we were hiding anything for the PKK.”


    Ismael lives in cramped mud and straw brick buildings with his huge extended family, including his uncle, who has two wives, 16 children and more grandchildren than he can remember.


    They moved here in 1992, the same year as the Newroz massacres, when Ismael says his father was killed by the military police, or jandarma, as part of an anti-PKK crack down. Many Kurds were on the move then, thrown out of villages they had occupied for generations and ushered into the big cities of the region, in an operation which security forces hoped would eradicate the PKK’s local support networks.


    Unlike most, Ismael did not head to cities like Diyarbakir or Van, but came to Inci, which he prefers to call by its Kurdish name of Mehmedi. His family left behind a prosperous life, and now they rent the scrubby field they cultivate to put food on the table.


    Today, for the first time since the capture of Ocalan and the fragile ceasfire was declared, the Turkish army is back in huge numbers on Ismael’s doorstep, and the tension he associates with it has returned too.


    The Turkish army, which will brook no further retreat from the Ottoman remants the country was left with when it was founded in 1923, has made no secret of its intentions.


    Tens of thousands of troops are massing on the border with Iraq, reinforcing thousands more who are already across the frontier. Turkey’s newly elected Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, has promised that they are there to for “humanitarian” reasons.


    Turkey is desperate to prevent a repeat of 1991, when an estimated 500,000 Gulf War refugees flooded across its border, stretching an already ailing economy.


    It also wants to conduct “anti-terror” operations against PKK fighters it says fled into northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.


    "A vacuum was formed in northern Iraq [after 1991] and that vacuum became practically a camp for terrorist activity. This time we do not want such a vacuum," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said last Friday.


    But Kurds in northern Iraq, who have been living in an autonomous zone under western protection since 1991, are highly sceptical of Turkey’s avowed intentions. They protest that the Turkish army is determined to make a charge for the oil rich towns of Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq, a claim Turkey denies.


    America, too, is concerned. Washington fears that Turkey’s incursion will spark fighting between Turkish forces and the Kurdish irregular army in northern Iraq, known as the peshmerga, unleashing ‘a war within a war’.


    The US has instructed Turkey not to enter Iraq. But Turkish officials have confirmed that the first reinforcements have already crossed the border. Now the question is ‘How far will they go?’


    The answer is likely to have the biggest impact in Turkey itself. For though Washington and London may be prepared to accept a small Turkish ‘buffer zone’ - a 20 kilometre corridor the length of the border has been suggested in negotiations - the proposal is already outraging its own Kurdish population. 


    And at the Newroz festival in Diyarbakir this year, the usual colourful finery on display was accompanied by the fiercest rhetoric in years.


    "Turkey is not a democracy," said Ahmed Turan Demir, member of the outlawed pro-Kurdish party HADEP, before addressing a large crowd.


    "If Turkey forces its way into Northern Iraq there will be renewed civil war here," he added.


    In the most sensitive Kurd-dominated regions of south-eastern Turkey, where the Turkish army’s tanks and armoured personnel carriers are now rumbling the last few miles to the border with Iraq, this year’s Newroz celebrations were outlawed altogether.


    In Diyarbakir however, Kurds made their feelings clear, crying out in support of the driving force behinds Turkey last civil war, in whose name a new uprising could begin.


    "The God of Peace is in Imrali," they chanted, in veneration of their absent hero, Abdullah Ocalan.


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