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Almost 100 years later, the boundaries of a state for the Kurdish people exist only in the hearts and minds of those who live within them. Twenty-five million Kurds live in these invisible borders today. They are the world’s largest stateless minority, and although they are divided by nationality, dialect, custom, allegiances and religion, they share a common desire: to be able to express their ethnic identity and to govern themselves in the areas in which they live.
In each of the countries they inhabit – Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran – that quest for self-rule has been suppressed. The history of the Kurdish people can be told in a cycle of uprisings, brutal reprisals and repression. Their struggle has truly been long and bloody, but today, while instability reigns throughout the Middle East, their prospects look brighter than they have done in a long time.
The fallout from the Arab revolutions that began in 2011 has prompted speculation on the precariousness of the borders imposed by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement (when Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire), and for no one is that more true than the Kurds.
Travelling across Kurdistan, from Diyarbakir in the west to Erbil in the east, over mountains and numerous borders, it is impossible to ignore the sense that change is in the air.
Turkey (Northern Kurdistan)
The Cigerxwin Cultural Centre in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, is a good example of their progress. The imposing building of sand-coloured brick and large strip windows took its name from the late Kurdish writer, Sheikhmous Hasan (known by his pen name Cigerxwin) – but the name itself was once a problem.
The repression of Turkey’s Kurds has been particularly violent over the past half century. One of the ways Turkish authorities suppressed calls for Kurdish autonomy was to ban any expression of ethnic identity – that included the use of the Kurdish alphabet on public buildings and documents, a ban on the teaching of the Kurdish language and even possession of Kurdish music. It was the policy of successive Turkish governments to deny the existence of the Kurdish people as distinct from Turks. They were referred to disparagingly as ‘Mountain Turks’.
The name of this centre – Cigerxwin’s name – contains two Kurdish letters . Ten years ago it would have been inconceivable that those letters would hang above the entrance to the building. But after a long battle, the gold metallic letters, each a foot tall, are displayed proudly.
“We have fought a long struggle over the past 100 years,” says Gultan Kisanak, an MP and member of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), sitting in a small office of the building. “As a result of that struggle we have won important freedoms.”
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Kisanak strides through the corridors of the centre followed by admiring teenagers. She, too, is a symbol of the progress made in Turkey. There was a time when belonging to any organisation that identified as Kurdish would have been grounds for imprisonment. But Kisanak stands as an outspoken champion for her community and a favourite candidate for mayor in Diyarbakir – the “spiritual capital for Kurds,” as she describes it.
The ancient sprawling city on the banks of the Tigris has become a centre for Kurdish nationalism. It has an independent spirit, evidenced by the graffiti that covers the narrow alley ways. When protests are held here, numbers reach to the hundreds of thousands. It is a poor city, in comparison to the rest of Turkey, as are most of the Kurdish provinces, but it is a symbol of hope for Kurds.
Gultan Kisanak’s popularity, and the reason she has to pause every 10 metres to pose for a photograph with a fan, comes in part from her fierce stand against abuses by the Turkish state. A powerful video of her admonishing the Turkish government in parliament, for failing to punish the air force commanders responsible for ordering an air strike against 34 Kurdish civilians, went viral last year.
“We have been here longer than a thousand years,” she shouts in the video. “We are rooted in those cliffs, rocks, Mount Cudi, Mount Gabar, Mount Agri, Mount Munzur. We are here and we have been here since the beginning of time.”
The struggle to which Kisanak refers has been a hard-fought one. Ever since the Ottoman General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejected a treaty which would have granted the Kurds a homeland at the Paris Peace conference in 1919, repression of Turkey’s 15 million-strong Kurdish population has been brutal. Numerous rebellions were quashed by the state in the early part of the century and hundreds of thousands have been displaced and killed in an effort to pacify the south-east. Kurdish nationalism gathered pace after 1978 with the foundation, by Abdullah Ocalan, of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist militant movement that aimed to create independent state from the Kurdish majority lands in Turkey (it later tempered its demands to calls for greater autonomy). Thousands of young Kurds went, and still go, “to the mountains” – a common refrain used to describe joining the PKK at their Qandil Mountains base in Iraqi Kurdistan.
A bitter war with the Turkish state followed the PKK’s formation, with abuses on both sides. A fragile ceasefire now exists between the two sides following 30 years of war and more than 40,000 killed. Shortly after the ceasefire announcement in December, on the orders of Ocalan, PKK fighters began withdrawing from Turkey back to the Qandil Mountains. The peace between the two sides remains precarious. Days before I meet Kisanak, two Kurdish protesters were killed by security forces, prompting large protests in Diyarbakir and across the south-east.
Last year, on an overcast evening in the Qandil, the PKK’s then military leader, Murat Karayilan, told me of disquiet in the ranks of his fighters. The leadership supported the ceasefire, he said. “But the PKK is a very large organisation. We cannot say that the middle ranks all feel the same way. We are having a problem convincing all of our comrades.”
An outline of the Kurdish population in the Middle East
Though the peace is holding, many Kurds feel that the Turkish government is not serious about the peace process.
“The meetings are important,” Kisanak says, “but they are not enough on their own.” She chooses her words carefully – with reason. In the courthouse down the road, a number of her colleagues in the BDP are on trial for links to the PKK. “They haven’t taken steps towards democracy, and have made no attempt to address the demands of Kurds.”
In the mountains, too, there are signs of disquiet. Cemil Bayik, the head of the PKK’s political wing, said recently that the group is ready to take up arms against Turkey once more if the peace process fails. But the PKK have reasons not to disturb the water too much. Like most Kurds, they are watching events over the border with a close eye.
Syria (Western Kurdistan)
Over the past year, the steady progress of Turkey’s Kurds – long the centre of attention in the community – has taken a back seat. Many Kurds are now looking south to be inspired – to Kurdish-dominated, north-eastern Syria, or ‘Rojava’.
“A few years ago, no one could have predicted what is happening now in Rojava [north-east Syria],” Kisanak says. “It has become an important symbol politically for Kurds in the four regions.”
From the outset of civil war across the border, Syria’s Kurds have pursued a difficult balancing act. The country’s main Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD, which has ideological ties with PKK), and its affiliated fighting force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have avoided major confrontation with Assad’s forces, which withdrew from the vast majority of Kurdish areas early on in the conflict to avoid fighting a war on two fronts.
As a result of their disassociation, the Kurdish areas remained relatively quiet in the first two years of the war. The PYD paid lip service to the stated aims of the revolution, but, perhaps learning lessons from the brutal repression suffered by Iraqi Kurds under Saddam Hussein, they aimed to stay out of the fighting.
The relative quiet on the north-eastern front between Assad forces and the Kurdish militias has led to claims of collusion with the regime – a charge the YPG strenuously denies. Indeed, the Kurds had as much motivation to rise up against the government as other Syrians.
The same denial of ethnic and cultural rights that occurred in Turkey over the past 50 years was also being practised with gusto by the Syrian government. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report documented the arrests and trials of at least 15 prominent Syrian Kurdish political leaders since 2005. “Security agencies prevented political and cultural gatherings, and regularly detain and try Kurdish activists demanding increased political rights and recognition of Kurdish culture,” the report noted.
A man walks past graffiti supporting the PKK in Diyabakir’s historic backstreets (Sam Tarling)
Despite a desire to remain out of the conflict, Kurdish forces were, perhaps inevitably, dragged into the war – not by the Syrian army, but by the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an extremist Syrian rebel group comprised predominantly of foreign fighters. ISIS began launching attacks against Kurdish areas in July last year, and were later joined by the official al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.
With a vast array of rebel groups having liberated much of northern Syria, it was inevitable that the Kurds would have to contend with the forces fighting against Assad in their quest for security and self-determination.
Polat Kan, a member of the YPG militia in the Syrian border city of Qamishli, speaks with disdain of “nasty, blind civil war,” but insists the Kurds had to protect themselves. After losing some territory to jihadists, the YPG eventually regained control of the majority of Rojava.
“From the city of Serekaniye to Ain Diwar village in the north-east is entirely liberated, except for Qamishli’s airport, a security centre and some villages south of Qamishli,” Polat says. “It can be said that 80 per cent of Rojava is liberated and now administered by the Kurds, together with Christians, Armenians, Assyrians and Syriacs.”
But Syria’s Kurds have done much more than regain lost territory. What has inspired their neighbours in Turkey and beyond is the giant leaps the PYD has taken towards autonomy.
In mid-November, the PYD announced plans to create a transitional government in the Kurdish areas of Syria. On 21 January – the eve of peace talks between the Syrian opposition and Assad’s government – the Kurds officially declared autonomy. The PYD have made it very clear that they will not accept a return to the status quo. “Assad cannot enter our area again,” a spokesman told The Independent at the time.
That sentiment is echoed by Kan. “The Assad regime never had much power in our areas in a military sense. It was only through police, intelligence and agents,” he says. “It will take Assad 10 years to build up his power again. Even if he wins, we are not the same Kurds we used to be. We have gained strength, experience and weapons. If the regime tries to re-occupy our areas, we will defend our people and our areas until the last YPG fighter. We will not allow any force [to] enslave us again.”
While the borders that divide the Kurds grow fainter, the boundaries of Rojava grow more embedded by the day. With Assad and the main rebel forces consumed with fighting each other, it appears unlikely that either will be able to assert their authority over the north-east.
“We currently have no demand to secede from Syria and we do not seek to establish a mini-state in Rojava,” Polat says. Betraying a vision that considers the next decade rather than the next year, he adds: “But if the Syrian state collapses along with the current borders that were drawn in the Sykes-Picot, and in case there is no longer a real link between the regions and areas of Syria, then we will not stand idly by. We will have our many choices.”
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan (Richard Hall)
Iraq (South Kurdistan)
Rojava has become a glimmer of hope for Kurds across the region. It was an unexpected source of inspiration for many, borne from a deep morass. But perhaps the greatest success story for the Kurds in modern times lies to the east, in Iraq.
The drive from Diyarbakir to Erbil is long and well-travelled. The coaches run regularly and take around 12 hours through the mountainous terrain. There is a border to cross, of course, but the welcome one receives is more often than not, “Welcome to Kurdistan”, rather than “Welcome to Iraq”.
The landscape changes when one nears Erbil – the capital of the semi-autonomous region administered by the Kurds in northern Iraq. The buildings, too. The centre of the ancient city is a picture of modernisation. In the shadow of the centuries-old citadel lies a park with dozens of fountains and benches. At the other side of the park, not a few hundred yards away, looms another, altogether more modern, structure. A gleaming shopping mall with 67 outlets.
Iraqi Kurdistan could be viewed as something of a model for Kurds across the region. Whereas, previously, Kurdish movements had sought the creation of their own state, most have tempered demands now to a degree of autonomy similar to that in Iraqi Kurdistan. The region has its own parliament, its own police and security services. Perhaps most importantly for Kurds, it is the one place in which they live where they are free to express their cultural identity without hindrance.
Over the past year, large parts of Iraq have been affected by extreme levels of violence, with every indication that things will deteriorate further. But Iraqi Kurdistan has prospered. Its success in managing vast oil resources has made the ‘semi’ of semi-autonomous almost superfluous. The move towards energy independence – and thus greater autonomy from Baghdad – was made official at the end of 2013 by a deal with Turkey to build a pipeline between the two countries with the potential of exporting one million barrels of oil a day. More foreign businesses are flocking to Iraqi Kurdistan to invest in the coming energy boom.
The path Iraq’s Kurds took to autonomy and prosperity is exactly the one that Syria’s Kurds are now doing their best to avoid. After a number of failed uprisings throughout the 20th century, the Kurds under separatist leader Massoud Barzani sided with Iran in its war against Saddam Hussein, in the vain hope that their allies might triumph and grant the Kurds independence.
Hussein’s vengeance was as committed as it was bloody. The Anfal Campaign, which began in the late stages of the Iran-Iraq War, was conceived with the aim of destroying the Kurdish population of northern Iraq and populating the area with Arab Iraqis. It was genocide. Anywhere up to 100,000 civilians were killed by air strikes and chemical weapons. Thousands of villages were destroyed – along with them churches, hospitals and schools. On 16 March 1988, a poison gas attack on the city of Halabja left an estimated 5,000 Kurdish people dead, most of them women and children.
Gultan Kisanak, MP for the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party: ‘We have fought a long struggle over the past 100 years and have won important freedoms’ (Sam Tarling)
As with Syria, it was the chaos of the wars in Iraq that gave the Kurds space to pursue autonomy. Saddam’s heinous repression of the Kurdish people prompted the Kurds to back the US in the first Gulf War in 1991. When the war concluded, the US implemented a no-fly zone over the Kurdistan region, paving the way for Kurdish self-rule. When the US invaded Iraq again in 2003, this time to remove Saddam Hussein from power, the Kurds welcomed the American troops as liberators.
While the US played a key role in Iraqi Kurdistan’s path to autonomy, the same cannot be said for Rojava. The US has stated its opposition to the formation of an autonomous region for the Kurds of north-east Syria, and has focused its attention on supporting moderate rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad.
“I understand politically that what the Kurds did is a reaction to their experience,” Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, said recently. “But I have to say that from our point of view, the Kurdish questions in Syria are constitutional questions. They have to be negotiated and agreed by all Syrians; they cannot be fixed by unilateral measures.”
At the moment, the Kurds have no powerful sponsor to ensure their rights or support their quest for independence. Neither the outcome of Rojava’s experiment with autonomy, the prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan or Turkey’s slow march towards autonomy is assured, but the Kurdish people are optimistic. It seems, at least for now, progress is in their hands.
“I feel as though the Kurdish nation has a historical opportunity,” Kisanak says at the end of our meeting in Diyarbakir. “At the beginning of the 20th century, Kurdistan was divided into four parts. Kurds were told they did not exist, their language was denied, their rights were denied. Now at the beginning of this century the Kurds are reclaiming what they lost in the last”
The Kurds: A timeline
1920 After WWI, when the Ottoman Empire is carved up, the Kurds are promised independence by the Treaty of Sèvres.
1923 Turkey rejects the treaty. Its forces put down Kurdish uprisings.
1970 Baghdad grants Kurds language rights in Iraq and self rule, but deal breaks down.
1974 New clashes erupt; Iraqis force 130,000 Kurds into Iran.
1978 In Turkey, Abdullah Ocalan establishes the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK.
1979 Ocalan flees for Syria.
1984 Ocalan’s PKK begins armed struggle. Turkish forces fight the PKK guerrillas, who also establish bases across the border in Iraq, for years. Conflict costs about 30,000 lives.
1988 Iraqis launch poison-gas attack, killing 5,000 Kurds in town of Halabja.
1991 After Persian Gulf War, northern Iraq’s Kurdish area comes under international protection.
1999 Two rival Iraqi Kurdish factions broker a peace deal; goal is for Kurdish area to become part of a democratic Iraq.
2008 Turkish forces mount a ground offensive against PKK Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq.
2013 A ceasefire is announced between the Turkish government and the PKK.