I had been to Turkey before but never to the neglected southeast, the redoubt of the sizeable and bitterly oppressed Kurdish minority in the country. In 2012, I arrived in Diyarbakır, the capital of what the locals call Kurdistan, at four in the morning, and the airline had lost my baggage. I went outside to get a taxi, which took me to the imposing walls that ring the Old City, where I had a sleepless night in a grim hotel. I noticed that the guest book was full of names from Iraq, someone from Mosul, another from Kirkuk, and one more from Baghdad. Diyarbakır is just 160 miles away from Iraq, another country in which the Kurdish minority has been treated with brutality. Now, though, in the aftermath of the US–UK invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Kurds were enjoying more autonomy than ever before. The Turkish government, at the same time, was growing fearful of this newfound independence. When I woke in the morning it was as if I was no longer in Turkey. Diyarbakır looked centuries older than Istanbul with its Gucci advertising-hoardings and appearance-obsessed elites. I walked south out of the city walls and there was a vast panorama of rolling verdant hills with a stunning stone bridge in the far distance that traversed the Tigris River, which flows all the way into Iraq. I had organized to meet Nurcan Baysal, a Kurdish activist, who was a friend of a friend, at the offices of her non-governmental organization (NGO) on Lise Caddesi street just outside the city walls. It was a big, well-kept office, with reports written by the collective displayed on desks. Nurcan was an old hand at talking to journalists, but that didn’t stop the passion coursing through her voice. A young and inspiring Kurdish woman, she has been at the forefront of the fight for freedom and independence her people have been seeking for centuries. To take that fight forward she set up Disa, a Kurdish research organization, to combat the hold the Turkish state and its media had on the narrative about the conflict between it and the Kurdish population. “I’m angry at people who do research from the West,” Nurcan told me. “There are many institutes in Istanbul and Ankara and they do research on Kurdish people, but they are run by Turkish people. Most foreigners know about the Kurdish question in the abstract, we know it by birth.” Many institutions that work on the forced migrations in Turkey’s southeast call the victims merely “internally displaced people”, for example. “But when you use ‘internally displaced people’ you can translate it into Turkish in two different ways,” she added. “The main translation makes it seem like what happened is very passive: like the Kurds came, and they left. Kurdish people want ‘forced migration’ used, they want people to understand that force was used.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, with US diplomatic support and US-supplied weapons, the Turkish military cleared large parts of the Kurdish southeast in the name of fighting terrorism – in this incarnation, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. It became merely a war against the Kurdish population, who, like indigenous people in Guatemala during their US-instigated civil war, became synonymous as a whole with the Leninist group regardless of their activities. Today in Diyarbakır there is a savage poverty mainly due to the thousands of people who came here after the forced migrations from the villages. The Kurdish people of Turkey have actually been through a prolonged nightmare since the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. Kemal Ataturk, the war hero and founder of modern Turkey, aspired to an ethnocentric country, which meant Kurds were stripped of their identity and referred to as “Mountain Turks”. Banned from speaking their own language or expressing their historic culture, they have spent the ensuing 90 years resisting a racist state that is trying to extinguish the merest memory of their different lineage. Ataturk massacred those Kurds who opposed his plan, but those who took on his mantle – called today, the Kemalists – have become more extreme than their idol. A secular, fascist-tinged elite have dominated Turkish politics since the time of Ataturk and liquidated democracy throughout the 20th century when anyone threatened to usurp their power. Meanwhile the elite established a Turkey that suited their interests: they tied themselves tightly to the US empire and its racket as it established its domination over the Middle East, filtering cash through international financial institutions to a well-served rentier class. The current set of authoritarian nationalists are still using a nasty little constitution instituted by fascist general Kenan Evren in 1981 after a military coup. That document has dogged Turkey ever since and caused thousands of lives to be wasted in jail or ended in cold blood for merely speaking out.
The tactics of the Turkish government in combating the Kurdish intifada in the 1980s were straight out of the handbook of the British empire the Turks had fought and beaten in their own war of independence. In 1985, Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal, who was a close friend of Margaret Thatcher, co-opted a small elite in the Kurdish villages of the southeast and plied them with US-supplied weapons and orders to do battle with the PKK. These paramilitary units, called Village Guards, were entrusted by the Turkish government to police the southeast from within and a blind eye was turned as they committed all sorts of atrocities. Human Rights Watch say they have opposed the village guard system since 1987, the year they released their first report on the subject, State of Flux: Human Rights in Turkey. Even that early it documented emerging evidence of “brutality and corruption among village guards”. The brutal 1990s US-backed state clampdown on the southeast under the guise of a War on Terror, furnished with weapons by the John Major government in the UK and Bill Clinton in the US, saw the destruction of hundreds of villages in a scorched earth policy, and the displacement of thousands of Kurdish civilians. In the 2000s, the Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) loosened restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language in the media and schools, which had previously been banned. Martial law in the area was lifted and the AKP has allowed the establishment of the first Kurdish-language television station; at the same time the imprisoning of Kurdish politicians and the shutting down of their parties abated somewhat. But in this period of glasnost and reconciliation under the AKP, the village guard system was left in place, even as its raison d’être disintegrated. There was a real hope that change was coming, as the Islamist party, which had been a victim of harsh repression itself, seemed to offer a different way of doing things. As the Kurdish proverb goes: “The victim understands the victim.” But it wasn’t to be. The “democratic opening” came to an abrupt halt in 2010 when seven PKK fighters arrived in Diyarbakır to cheers from the locals, many of whom were seeing long-lost relatives for the first time. Nurcan said she was in the office on that day. “I was with a young Kurdish student. I went to see what people were doing, and of course there were many congratulations to the fighters, it was like a festival. I was working and I thought, ‘Nurcan, don’t believe them, don’t be happy, something bad will happen,’ and I am 37, I saw the 1990s.” Her instincts were right. “I saw an old Kurdish woman crying,” she continued. “I asked her why she was crying, and the old woman said because today is ‘bayram’, which means celebration. I shook her and said, don’t believe them, there is no celebration, you don’t know the bad things they will do after today.”
Meanwhile, in the mainstream Turkish media the story was that the ungrateful Kurds were celebrating the return of the terrorist PKK. But what they didn’t say was that many of these people were celebrating the return of loved ones. “These are our children,” Nurcan said. “It’s a very important thing. I saw on the street many old women who saw those fighters return, and thought maybe my son will be next. For that reason they were out celebrating.” The seven fighters were eventually put in prison, alongside the thousands of Kurdish political prisoners held on spurious charges. The window for change closed, and repression as usual returned. “It’s hard to attract western media attention because Turkey is a US ally,” said Nurcan. “It’s also hard to get the attention of the Turkish public. Sometimes I feel like it is another world, we are not in the same country. What we saying here in Diyarbakır is different to what they are saying in Ankara or Istanbul. It is very hard to get their attention.” The Turkish media has never been a free media: ordinary Turkish people don’t know what is happening; if they want to know they have to check. Most Turks, like most Americans, don’t check.
Nurcan is an assimilated Kurd, and there are millions like her: they don’t know Kurdish, their dreams are in Turkish, Turkish is their main language. Millions of Kurdish people now live in the west of Turkey, in Izmir and in Istanbul, which has the biggest Kurdish population in the world (5 million Kurds). But they know what happened. And they do not intend to forget and let the oppressors win. “In my mind and in my heart I don’t know if I can forgive them for what they did,” she told me. Many Turks cannot see why someone like Nurcan, who has benefitted from modern Turkey, would complain. “They are telling me why are you sad because you don’t know your mother tongue? It’s very good that you grew up you knew Turkish, you had chance to go to those universities, just enjoy being a Turk. They don’t think that because I don’t know my mother tongue, because of the restrictions at that time, I never had a close relationship even with my mother, and I never had the chance to talk with my grandmother, or my aunt. It’s like you are coming from nowhere, there is no past. They think they are doing a very good thing for us, it is crazy. After this meeting I will go to buy books and presents for my friends in prison. And when I tell my friends in Istanbul that all my friends are in prison in Diyarbakır they say ‘Really?’ And the thing is I still had some patience to deal with Turkish people, trying to tell them what is happening. But after a while I said, ‘Why?’”
The most emblematic of the many sins against the Kurdish people carried out through the long “counter-insurgency” campaign of the 1980s and 1990s, and before, was the outlawing of the Kurdish language. In the Turkish state’s quest to dissolve any sense of a Kurdish identity separate from Turkey, the destruction of the fundamental cultural artifact of language was central. Nurcan told me she saw someone shot in the street because he was heard speaking Kurdish, and in her school if a child was heard using a Kurdish word, even just one, they would be taken out and savagely beaten.
Kurds who refused to be assimilated as merely “Mountain Turks” were tortured, murdered and “disappeared”, while whole villages were scorched in the battle against the “enemy”, which was publicly the PKK, but actually became the Kurdish community at large, especially those who refused to abide by the cultural genocide being imposed on them. In Diyarbakır mainly people speak Turkish, but when you go to the peripheries of the city, they haven’t forgotten Kurdish; the language is still used despite the attempts to literally beat it out of their heads.
Kurdish children in the 1980s didn’t even know they were Kurds. The constant government and military criminalization of the idea of the Kurd meant that many were ashamed to be Kurdish. “My mother and father came from the village, they were not educated, and most of the families at that time, like this, their main aim was to protect us,” said Nurcan. “I was thinking that the teacher is not using Kurdish, and they are saying that Kurdish is bad, so then someone who uses Kurdish is bad. My mind was working like this. And I was thinking that because my mother was sometimes using Kurdish, and I was wondering if she was bad. We were ashamed to be a Kurd at that time, because the school and all of society were telling us this. One side we were ashamed of it, the other side we were afraid of it. Because, for example, I broke all my teeth, and I needed to go to hospital every week to get them fixed, and I was afraid that if my mother said something Kurdish what will they do to us? Maybe they wouldn’t do anything, but I was very afraid. I remember lots of people being killed in that period. Just for example in this street they killed someone I remember. They killed one of my friend’s fathers because he was selling a newspaper. It wasn’t even in Kurdish – it was just writing about the rights of the Kurdish people.”
The US has been a staunch Cold War ally of Turkey for over half a century. It is still selling guns to Turkey, and the Kurds were sold out many times by the US, famously in 1975 when Henry Kissinger allowed them to be massacred, and in 1991 when George Bush senior, after telling them to rise up against Saddam Hussein, allowed the dictator to massacre them again. The situation changed slightly after the attack on Iraq in 2003 when Kurds in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) believed they could become strong allies of the US because of the changing dynamics in the Middle East. The reasoning is that the US needs sound allies in the region, like the KRG and Israel. The people in the KRG believe, perhaps naively, the US cannot turn their back on them now. “If I was an American citizen I would ask myself why my taxes were buying these guns and killing people,” said Nurcan. “I don’t understand why they don’t ask this. If we have war here today, I’m not saying it’s because of America, of course, it is not, but it continues because of guns, and if there were no guns it couldn’t continue … and the guns come from America.”
One brave young American, Jake Hess, saw what was being done in his name and decided to do something about it. He went to live in Diyarbakır and surrounding areas of the southeast to investigate human rights atrocities being carried out with weapons his own taxes were paying for. What happened next was a terrifying but salutary tale. He was detained and deported in 2010 on “terror” charges, which specifically meant “knowingly or willingly supporting a terror organization without being part of its hierarchical structure”.
“I was in custody for about 10 nights,” he told me. “During my interrogation, they asked me about my reporting on human rights abuses, contacts with NGOs in Britain and Turkey, and views on political issues.” Unlike other less fortunate Kurdish activists, Hess was not tortured. The government has a public posture that is “zero tolerance” for torture, but if you are one of the thousands of Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey – held often for years without a conviction – such high-minded rhetoric often does not translate into on-the-ground policy. The US embassy offered consular assistance to Hess to secure his release on the trumped-up charges, but he refused, citing the treatment that they allowed to go on unhindered against Kurdish political dissidents and activists. “In the 1990s, these people would have been disappeared or assassinated; now, they’re held in prison indefinitely,” he told me. “The US government has murdered journalists both directly and by proxy for years. They bombed Al Jazeera in Iraq and Afghanistan. They bombed the Radio Television of Serbia in 1999, killing 16 civilians. The US was Turkey’s chief military supporter as scores of journalists were being murdered there in the 1990s, and continues to provide key military and political backing for Ankara’s current assault on the Kurdish movement. Of course I couldn’t accept the embassy’s help in that kind of situation.”
Most Americans hearing about this brutality would be shocked to learn that their tax dollars have been instrumental in propping up this racist and genocidal policy against the Kurds in Turkey. In fact, the US and Turkey have had one of the most close-knit security tie-ups in the world since the beginning of the Cold War, as Turkey was viewed as a front-line state in the NATO alliance against the Soviet Union. In another part of unspoken history, it was the US placing of Jupiter missiles, armed with nuclear warheads, in Turkey in 1961 on the borders of the Soviet Union, that led the Russians to move nuclear warheads to Cuba, which, in turn, precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later. Operation Gladio, set up by NATO, created underground “stay-behind” armies to retain a position in the NATO states early in the Cold War. Many analysts now conclude that these forces went on to become the infamous “deep state” in Turkey, which, Hess said, “is basically an unelected shadow government that has been involved in political killings, coups, and generally fomenting chaos in the country”. In Turkey, governments come and go – it’s the state bureaucracy and the army that run the country.
Such a state of affairs has been mirrored across the other crucible states within NATO that might become susceptible to communism, clearing the way for brutal campaigns against some of the same forces that had helped defeat Nazism, from Greece to Spain. JİTEM, the death squad that was established to murder Kurdish dissidents and intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s, also grew out of these NATO structures. The military relationship continued even after the Cold War ended. During the dirty war against the Kurds in the 1990s, the US supplied Ankara with 80 percent of its weaponry, worth some $10.5 billion. Many human rights groups documented how US-supplied hardware was used to commit abuses, including extra-judicial killings and destruction of villages. Washington provided Ankara with more military aid during its war of terror in the southeast than it did during the entire Cold War.
Turkey is a relatively stable country in one of the most strategically important parts of the world, and the US has used it as a base for imperial operations. In 2003, Turkey refused to let the US open a northern front in Iraq from Turkish soil. However, Ankara later allowed the US to use its territory as a transport hub for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a Congressional testimony in March 2007, Robert Wexler, a supporter of Turkey who was then Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Europe, pointed out that “The US depends greatly on Turkey to pursue shared objectives in support of the Iraqi and Afghan people”, by which he meant the brutal military occupations of those countries. He went on, “Turkey’s grant of blanket over-flight clearances to US military aircraft is of critical importance to our military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan”, and noted that “Turkey … provides extensive logistic supports to our troops in Iraq. This critical life line includes the cargo hub at Incirlik Air Base through which … we ship 74 percent of our air cargo into Iraq.” Indeed, Wexler explained: “The substantial majority of the military assets used by American troops are flown into Turkey, and then transported to Iraq.”
In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal in 1997, senior Republican foreign policy official Zalmay Khalilzad summarized the importance of Turkey for the geopolitics of energy. He argued that the US and Turkey “should work together to ensure the security of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Basin regions. The US already has security commitments in the gulf, an area that is vital to the world’s oil supplies. The relative importance of the Caspian region is growing, though, due to its tremendous oil and gas reserves … Turkish military facilities provide an excellent location for projecting power to both the [Persian] gulf and the Caspian Basin. Much of the world’s energy resources are within 1,000 miles of Incirlik. Access to the Turkish bases can reduce the amount of military presence required in some of the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Turkey is also a viable pipeline route for bringing some of the oil and gas from the Caspian to world markets.”
The US has fully backed Turkey’s war against the PKK, despite the fact that there’s near unanimous agreement that there is no “military solution” to the conflict there. The Bush and Obama administrations declared the PKK “a common enemy”, and the US supplies the Turkish military with intelligence on PKK movements in northern Iraq. WikiLeaks cables show that the US is enthusiastic about supplying Turkey with drones, despite its horrific human rights record, which never seems to come up in meetings between Turkish diplomats and US. The PKK is a left-leaning popular movement that has defied NATO’s second-largest army and its US patron for decades, so it has to be crushed. They’ve committed human rights violations over the years, but nowhere even approaching the level of Turkey, so US opposition can have no humanitarian basis.
Many thousands of activists and politicians, including elected mayors, human rights defenders, journalists, women’s rights advocates and students, have been arrested on “terrorism” charges. There have been very few convictions or acquittals up until now; thousands of people have been held without conviction for years. “I’ve looked at several of the indictments dealing with these cases, and it’s just beyond dispute that these people are being tried for political reasons,” Hess said.
In recent years, Turkey has become more involved in the Middle East. Its outreach to Syria and Iran, along with Hamas, has at points brought it into conflict with the US-Israeli-Saudi Arabian reactionary front in the region, leading to considerable outrage in Washington policy circles. Despite the extensive debate about how the West has “lost” Turkey in recent years, the US may actually be happy that Turkey is playing a more assertive role in the Middle East as a sort of alternative or rival to Iran and Hezbollah, both of whom have seemingly lost influence since the Arab Spring. Basically, the US might be able to retain some of its waning influence in the region through an active and engaged Turkey. Turkey has suffered several of its own foreign policy setbacks in recent years, and it seems very unlikely that Ankara will entirely break from the US.
“I don’t think Americans are all that aware of the situation,” said Hess. Some American NGOs did great work documenting US-funded Turkish atrocities in the 1990s, but these received little attention, unlike, say, the atrocities in Bosnia or Kosovo. In recent years, corporate media outlets and more establishment-oriented think-tanks have started to criticize Turkey, mainly because Ankara has challenged Washington on a few important issues, especially the Israel–Palestine conflict. Hess added: “The coverage is nowhere near where it should be, and there are still no foreign correspondents based in southeastern Turkey. The media coverage leaves a lot to be desired. It’s shocking how frequently people who are supposed to be experts on Turkey get basic details about the conflict wrong. For example, the PKK is almost universally described in the media as ‘separatist’ even though they backed away from their demand for an independent state in the early 1990s. Writers often disproportionately quote western or Turkish ‘experts’ when covering the Kurds, and for some reason feel compelled to constantly point out that the EU and US consider the PKK a ‘terrorist organization’. Okay, but what do Kurds think about the PKK? Doesn’t their perspective count? There seems to be this conceit that the only people who can comment on the Kurds are either American or Turkish ‘experts’ who speak English and have fancy titles. Beyond the Kurds, US media coverage of Turkey relies on very simplistic binaries that easily fit with western prejudices, like ‘East vs West’ or ‘secular vs Islamic.’ The press doesn’t really reflect the reality of Turkey.”
In 2004, while in Turkey, George W. Bush gushed about the AKP: “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and the rule of law and freedom.”4 What Bush didn’t mention, but was surely of interest to his administration and his friends at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was that while President Recip Tayyip Erdogan may be a moderate on religion, the AKP was economically fundamentalist, hell-bent on turning Turkey into an IMF experiment. Though the AKP campaigned on promises to the poor and working classes, only a month after it was elected in November 2002, the party announced its plans to embark on mass privatization of state-owned industries, from the national airline to the nationalized oil company. The deputy prime minister at the time, Abdüllatif Şener, admitted that his inspiration was Margaret Thatcher; his close associate Turgut Bozkurt, who was head of the Privatization Administration, spelled out their ambitions as straight from the Thatcherite handbook: “The basic goal is to transform the economy from a state-led economy to a market-driven liberal economy,” he said. “Transferring state-owned companies to the able hands of private entrepreneurs will help rationalize structure and run according to rational or scientific principles in order to achieve desired results.”
As is the case for most close US allies, the economy of Turkey has gradually grown more and more like that of its patron. Agriculture died in southeast Turkey after the forced migrations of the 1990s and neoliberal economic policies in the 1980s. It is a common theme all across the “underdeveloped world”. In southeast Turkey 20 years ago they were selling livestock around the world – like Haitian farmers once sold rice and Mexican farmers once sold maize. That was before the racket rode into town. Now in this region of Turkey they only buy meat. In one region near Diyarbakır there are lots of villages and in the not too distant past all the food from Diyarbakır was coming from that region. Now the children who don’t still live there are picking through the rubbish of the western city of Izmir. Because of this lack of production, the major cities, particularly Istanbul, have been flooded with Kurdish people migrating from the rural areas. They now form an underclass, often living 10 people in one room, in adverse conditions. When you go to Istanbul, the children who clean there are Kurdish; when you go to Izmir, the children who pick through the rubbish are Kurdish. Most of the gecekondus in Istanbul are also filled with Kurds. It’s close to an apartheid situation – certainly economic apartheid. Every year more than 200 workers die because of no security at work. Most of them are Kurdish, their lives expendable. “I always think that if we had a color, if we were black or red, I am sure that then the Turkish people would see it,” said Nurcan. “Now they don’t see it, but the poverty in Turkey has a color, a race. It’s like apartheid, and those in the worst conditions, they are Kurdish.” But one thing the Turkish state didn’t count on was that living at such close quarters and in such dire circumstances has created a highly political will among the Kurds. If they do decide to rise up again at some point they will have a lot of power, but the war against them will be fierce once again. The racket does not shy away from using force to realize its economic or geopolitical ambitions.