Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Mona Lisa of Kurdistan

Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

--Randall Jarrell, "90 North" (1942)

Aynur ("moonlight") is her name, and though you can't see it, in her right hand she carries an AK-47. She died, aged 23, on 30 September 2005, somewhere on the slopes of Cudi Dagi (pron. Judi Dah), a mountain just north of the Iraqi-Turkish border and immediately east of the River Tigris. It was, said the PKK dispatch, the result of an accident, not combat. A fall? It's certainly possible. Something else? The imagination recoils. Anything could have happened, including many things that don't bear thinking about. At least she wasn't ripped apart by gunfire. "And I am glad," some Turkish draftee's mother might say, "that she didn't get a chance to kill my son."

A draftee may very well have feared Aynur, for she had joined what is probably the most formidable women's army in the world. Still, it's hard to look at this beautiful girl with anything but pain and regret. Her youth has been cut off, and for what? (Always a fair question when talking about war, and always impossible to answer.) But say this for Aynur: she had a life. It may have been short, and it may have ended badly, but it was a life. She didn't spend it covered by a black tent, looking at the world through two slits in the cloth. She didn't "dishonor" her family by getting raped, or falling in love, or smiling too often, thus obliging her father, or brothers, or other "restorers of the family honor" to throw her off a cliff, shoot her, throw her in a river to drown, or mash her face to a pulp with rocks. On a more humdrum level she didn't get worked to death carrying eight children, picking cotton in 100-degree heat, or serving as a beast of burden for a husband chosen by her family. She didn't have to follow the cows around on hot summer days, picking up their warm shit in her hands and forming it into cakes to be burnt for fuel in the winter. Hell no to all of this. She had friends in high places. She got to be a guerrilla.

Aynur was born in 1982 in Siirt, capital of the like-named province in southeast Turkey. Siirt, mainly a Kurdish town, with a few Turks and Arabs for good measure, lies in the mountain-rimmed valley of the Bohtan River, a tributary of the Tigris which rises in the high mountains to the south of Lake Van. We can't tell from the martyrs registry at HPG-Online whether Aynur was born in the town itself or in a neighboring village. It could have been either one. For the last thirty years and more, the story of Kurds in southeast Turkey has been one of westward migration: from war-ravaged village to town, from the town to the large cities--Ankara, Izmir, Istanbul--and from those cities to Europe. It is one of the great migrations of history. Istanbul, with 2 million Kurds, is now the largest Kurdish city in the world. Kurds turn up on Greek Island shores and in the streets of Athens. They've been videotaped bursting out of a detention camp in Calais and storming (unsuccessfully) the entrance to the Channel Tunnel. In 2001 one refugee ship, a decrepit Cambodia-registered hulk, was pointed at a beach on the French Riviera, between Cannes and St. Tropez, set on course to ground itself, and abandoned by its Greek crew, who made their escape in a speedboat. Packed onboard were 908 Kurds from Iraq and Turkey, including three babies who had been born enroute. Aynur's family were probably on the same kind of journey, refugees from poverty and war in the East. We can assume this because of where she joined the PKK--on 1 October 2002, in Istanbul. This is a long way from Siirt.

Why did she go off to war? Why would she leave behind the possibility of middle-class happiness--of education, marriage, and a family? And it is, indeed, a possibility. Turkey's burgeoning middle class is full of such success stories. It could have been for a hundred reasons, from youthful idealism to anger to despair. Perhaps she was already betrothed to someone that she hated. That may have been reason enough. But the important question is, why did she find the PKK attractive? And why do young Kurds continue along the same dangerous path?

Many Kurds, after all, would find mountain life totally repugnant. They are known traditionally as a mountain people, but now most are city-dwellers. A rebel group needs discipline to keep its soldiers in line. This requires ideology, the kind of indoctrination that needs regular attendance at meetings where boredom is not allowed. But Turkey's Kurds have plenty of experience with boredom and indoctrination, having faced it all their lives at school. Now, instead of Ataturk-worship, love of The Charismatic Leader (Abdullah Ocalan, or "Apo") is required. Love of one's opposite-sex comrades is (alas!) forbidden, but once again, they are coming from a society that has perfected sexual repression. Though not without its bucolic compensations (see past posts), the romance of mountain life must wear off quickly. In "Mehmed's Book," by Nadire Mater, Turkish soldiers complain of the huge, ravenous ground fleas native to the East, and it's unlikely that these would affect PKK fighters any less. Above all, it is Hobbesian in the extreme--that is, if Hobbes's nasty, brutish world included high-powered assault rifles, digital cameras, satellite phones, and regular postings of casualties on the Internet.

Life in the PKK is not summer camp. You can get killed just traveling to the mountains, and after you're there, killing is the name of the game, with a high probability that you too will end up as a corpse, and a mutilated corpse at that. Turkish commandos, all professional soldiers or highly trained volunteers, have made a reputation for it. In the '90s, photos appeared on the Internet showing members of the Hakkari Mountain Commandos posing with the severed heads of PKK guerrillas, whose blood stained the snow. In "Mehmed's Book," one returned soldier described how the Bolu Commandos obtained the distinctive key rings worn in their belt loops. These in fact were the severed ears of PKK guerrillas, which had been soaked overnight in Coca-Cola to eat away the flesh. The remaining cartilage formed the perfect shape for stringing keys.

If mutilation isn't deterrent enough, there is the brutal truth of what modern weaponry can do to the human body. Here it's best not to linger. But one often-ignored fact must be mentioned. The high-velocity ammunition fired by modern assault rifles, especially the American M-16 and its derivatives (including the "Bushmaster" used by John Muhammad, the D.C. Sniper), produces gaping, catastrophic exit wounds. These are not the neat, precise kills produced by deer rifles. By their very nature they are mutilating weapons.

So why do volunteers continue to make their way to the mountains, to join up and die? I can think of a lot of reasons, including a simple, unforced comradeship that is evident in so many of their photographs. But sooner or later it comes down to one thing: the nature of the Turkish State.

The people of the Republic of Turkey have been laboring for 84 years to establish a prosperous, unified nation-state, and despite formidable obstacles--a landscape packed with barren mountains, minimal arable land, and few natural resources--they have succeeded to a remarkable degree. When I was in Turkey, beginning in 1965, it was not unusual at all to see peasants harvesting grain by hand and threshing it on stone floors, using ox-drawn wooden sledges whose runners were studded with flints. To get rid of the chaff, they did what people had done for millennia: pitch the grain into the air and let the wind carry it away. In Ankara, horse carts made most of the deliveries, and peasant boys, even in the middle of the day, could be seen huddled with flocks of sheep on the traffic islands. Now, an ad in the 17 Nov. 2007 Economist exhorts: "Invest in Turkey: Population of 70 million...400,000 university graduates per year...17th largest economy in the world...6th largest economy in the EU...Average GDP growth of 7.4% per year..." Even allowing for the hyperbole of such ads, it is obvious that the wooden sledges are gone forever.

Then there is the unity, the State-enforced Turkishness which is supposed to dominate all. In one important way, this ideology is totally justified. In 1841, while traveling alone in the far east of Anatolia, an American physician, Dr. Asahel Grant of Waterville, New York, wrote a letter home. There were, he said, forty people traveling in his caravan:

"Not one with whom I can exchange a word in my native language, but Turks, Armenians, and Koords as they are, they all speak Turkish, and in this I converse, think, and dream."
As Grant noted, Turkish truly is the language of Anatolia, and it has been for close to a millennium. With its relative simplicity and regularity (no irregular verbs, no gender problems in its nouns and adjectives, no complicated verb declensions), Turkish makes an excellent common language, and the ease with which it can adopt foreign loan words is truly remarkable. The Kurdish PKK guerrillas use Turkish for their press releases and website. Their jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, speaks excellent Turkish. Under the Ottoman Empire even the Greek Christians of Anatolia spoke Turkish, and their churches featured inscriptions in the Turkish language--written using the Greek alphabet. After 1923 these Turkish-speaking "Greeks" were shipped off to Greece in the great population exchange which followed the Treaty of Lausanne, and Greek-speaking "Turks" came to Turkey. In Turkey, no matter what the province, the Turkish language dominates--and will for a very long time.

One central fact should be remembered when we look at the Republic of Turkey and its desire that all its citizens call themselves Turks. This is the fact that in 1923, when the Republic was declared, Turkey contained a large number of Muslim refugees, peoples driven from their homelands during the previous century of Ottoman wars. Among them were Georgians, Circassians, and other Caucasian tribes. ("Circassian" and "Caucasian" being in fact umbrella terms covering many separate linguistic groups.) From the Balkans came Pomaks (Bulgarian Muslims), Bosnians, Albanians, and Macedonians. Greek Muslims came from Crete, the Greek Islands, Thrace, and the mainland. Tartars came from the Crimea, and Azeri Turks from Azerbaijan. Even Mustafa Kemal himself, later Ataturk, was a kind of refugee, since his birthplace, the city of Salonika (now Thessaloniki) was no longer in Turkey. Given these facts, and the commonality of the Turkish language, it is quite logical that the Nationalists of Mustafa Kemal would say to this diverse group, "Now we will call ourselves Turks."

All, that is, except for one group. They also--the men at least--had long used the Turkish language as a medium of trade and intercourse. But the Kurds were an indigenous Anatolian people, with their own languages, dialects, songs, and traditions. In fact, they had lived there long before the Turkish language arrived. Even in the Haymana plateau, immediately to the west of Ankara, there existed Kurdish tribes who were native to the area. And there were so many of them, so many who had fought faithfully with the Turks during a multitude of wars. For immigrant Georgians, Albanians, etc., voluntarily assuming a Turkish identity made sense. But for millions of Kurds who had always lived in Anatolia it made no sense at all. It is not possible to turn Italians into Germans by passing a decree; nor did it work for the Kurds.

And yet, that is precisely what Turkish Nationalist governments set out to do. When Freya Stark passed through Hakkari in the 1950s, she noted that officials never used the word "Kurd." Usually they were "the local people"; officially they became "Mountain Turks." One allegation held that their name ("Kurt" in Turkish) was just an anagram for "Turk." According to official mythology, this name was imitative. It snows a lot in the East of Turkey, after all, and when people walk on its crusted surface their boots make a sound like "kurt-kurt-kurt." As simply as that, their origin was explained. They were really just Turks who crunched the snow. As for their language, this was dismissed as gibberish, a muddied-up version of Turkish. Its use was forbidden: in the street, in school, in business--theoretically everywhere, even in the home.

This last insult was the least tolerable of all, for there is nothing that defines a human identity more than the language he speaks. Not for nothing is this called his Mother Tongue. Language gives us birth; it shapes our primal relation with our selves, our friends, the world in which we live. Also, on a more practical level, it is called our "mother tongue" because it is in those sounds that we first speak to our mothers. And even in a relentlessly male culture like Turkey, no one is more important than the mother of the family. In Turkey, when a person's "ethnic" background is in doubt, you don't ask for a label. You ask what language he speaks to his mother.

Kurds who grow up in such a system become like seedling oaks sprouting in pavement. Consider the case of Serafettin Elci. Born in Cizre, on the Tigris near the Iraqi border, in 1938, he went to university and grew up to become a thoroughly-assimilated Turkish Kurd. After years in Parliament, from 1979-80 he served as Minister of Public Works in the government of Bulent Ecevit. Finally, he got fed up, and in 1979 he uttered the unspeakable. "I am a Kurd," he said. "There are Kurds in Turkey." For this he spent two years in prison. Now he is a free man, and he is left alone by the authorities. But it's safe to assume that he will never again be a government minister.

Then there was the massacre of Guclukonak (Pron. Gootch'-loo-ko-nock), in 1996. In a report by Amnesty International the facts are laid out, and their essence is such that no adjective really does them justice. Briefly, this is what happened. In January 1996 a minibus carrying eleven Kurds, most of them affiliated with the Village Guards (Kurds recruited by the government), was attacked by persons unknown near the village of Guclukonak, in southeast Turkey. The van was riddled with gunfire and set ablaze. All eleven men died. The PKK, or "Kurdistan Workers Party," was immediately accused of the massacre, and the Turkish media accepted their guilt unquestioningly. But the facts didn't add up.

For one thing, the minibus had been attacked on a road that was very close to two military checkpoints, in an area right next to the Tigris River and a guard post on the opposite bank. As a nearby villager noted, they had to be "birds or earthworms" to get away unseen. Next, the victims showed no sign of having tried to escape the fire. Moreover, their identity cards had all survived the blaze, and there was no indication that the cards had been through any kind of fire, especially one fueled by gasoline.

In view of these and other suspicious facts, a delegation from several non-governmental organizations (trade unions, human rights organizations, etc.) came out to inquire. Their report, presented in April, stated the obvious: that the security forces were deeply implicated in planting and suppressing evidence, and that an independent government agency should begin an immediate investigation. When nothing was done after a year, three members of the delegation repeated their statement. Their reward: indictment by the state prosecutor on charges of "insulting the military and security forces." After a short trial they were convicted and sentenced to ten months imprisonment. No one from the military, meanwhile, was ever charged in the Guclukonak massacre. To this day it is referred to in the media as an example of PKK terrorism.

Consider this tale and a thousand injustices like it, and imagine their collective impact. Imagine that you, like Aynur, are a youth of Kurdish background living in Turkey. It is possible that you have attended school, though it might not have been well-equipped with instructors or modern equipment. But even if you received a good education you aren't likely to forget the language of your mother, and you'll be even more disinclined to tolerate the relentless self-congratulations of a State which continues to beat up your friends. So you hope for a normal life in your own beloved homeland, the kind that newspapers, television, and the Internet have flashed in front of you: higher education, perhaps, a decent job, and a family, to name but a few. Like anyone your age, you are prey to a thousand notions, enthusiasms, and misconceptions, and nowhere is it easy to see a way through the fog of state brutality and propaganda. Meanwhile, looming above you, blotting out the sun, your government bears down like a giant hydraulic press, whose bearing plate, waiting to crush you, is etched with the grey visage of Father Turk. If you think this is an unattractive prospect, you are right. And yet you must make a choice:

"When you and yours have absolutely no future, when you have seen and suffered unspeakable horrors, when you can see no way forward, it is very comforting to find a simple, straight way forward, and it is even an added bonus that this path does not involve critical thinking." (Paul White, Lecturer in Kurdish Studies, Deakin University, Australia)
This is why, despite all the Turks' American bombs and high-tech gadgetry, the PKK continues to gain recruits. And it is, we can assume, why the beautiful Aynur lies in an unknown grave, on the original mountain of Noah.

Note: This is a rewritten version of a post which originally appeared at


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