The history of the Kurdish people is one of blood, constant warfare, and manipulation. The Kurds are the most numerous remaining group of people who do not have a nation to call their own. Their homeland has been ruthlessly divided between countries that continue to deny their very existence. All together, an estimated twenty-three million Kurds are scattered among a remote and mostly mountainous region in the Middle East that spans the frontiers of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Ever since the early days of the Ottoman Empire in the 1600s, the Kurds were given few rights and were not acknowledged as a separate group. With more than a quarter of the Kurdish population residing in Turkey, Kurds comprise one fifth of the Turkish population. Up until the first World War, the Kurds were a pastoral people who by tradition herded animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats. They migrated from one area to another depending on the season, and lived simple lives that revolved around the animals they herded.
In modern days, the Kurds speak languages related to the Farsi language of the Persians. The languages they speak vary in different regions; some major dialects are Kurmanji, Zaza, and Sorani. Sometimes a Kurd from one area cannot understand the language of a Kurd from a different area, a fact which other countries use to dispute the Kurds' capability of forming a free nation. Most Kurds belong to the Sunni sect of the Muslim religion, while others belong to the Alevite sect. The Kurds have their own traditions and culture. Despite their many attempts to gain independence, a united Kurdish nation has never actually existed.
Origin of the Kurds
Looking back into history, the mystery of Kurdish origin is quite disconcerting. The Kurdish people themselves have often pondered the question of where they came from, and why they are in their present situation. The unceasing rebellions of various Kurdish groups for an independent Kurdistan, or “Land of the Kurds,” have often made the Kurds contemplate their own identity. Some consider themselves the descendants of Noah, who after the great flood supposedly landed on Mount Ararat, where Turkey, Armenia, and Iran meet, while others think of themselves as the offspring of the Medes. However, modern researchers have found that the Kurds are actually related to the Gutii, or Karducoi, a fierce band of warriors who dwelled in the mountains overlooking Assyria more than 2000 years ago. As a tribal group, the Kurds were frequently forced to submit to the will of the central ruling government in their region, ranging from the Persians to the Macedonians to the Arabs. After the influx of Turkish tribes into Asia Minor in 11th century B.C., the Kurds again found themselves faced with a group of rulers who would shape their future.
"Ataturk let people speak their own language, then after the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, everything changed. From then on, the Kurds couldn't talk about their identity. President Demirel still hasn't given us Kurdish education or television or cultural rights. What kind of admission of our existence is that? War achieves nothing. The Kurdish people have rebelled 28 times but each time they didn’t achieve anything. But the PKK are our people, our children. They don’t come from outer space. If Turkey gives us more rights, maybe the violence will stop. These rights won’t be for the PKK, but for the Kurdish people. If the Turkish Government introduces some rights for the Kurds, this problem can be solved through politics, not in the mountains. I would like to live with Turkish people on equal terms. If we Kurds had this, I don’t know what I would say about an independent state.”
The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918 at the end of World War I, and several nations were formed from former Ottoman lands, one of which should have been a nation called Kurdistan. Two years later, the Treaty of Sèvres was created by the European Allies, promising the Kurds an autonomous nation. However, Mustafa Kemal, Turkey’s first president, refused this proposition. Kemal, often referred to as Atatürk, or “Father of the Turks,” emphasized the need for national unity. In July of 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne came into effect; it failed to mention the approximately 20 million Kurds whose homelands were split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The treaty did state that “all citizens of Turkey should be equal before the law ‘without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race, or religion.” Despite this promising start, Atatürk carried out a ruthless crusade to forcably assimilate the Kurdish minority into the general population, forbidding Kurdish media, education, and culture.
Partia Karkaran-e Kurdistan
The Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or Partia Karkaran-e Kurdistan, was founded on November 7th, 1978, by Abdullah Öcalan and twelve of his fellow students. Öcalan is often called the ‘apo’, meaning uncle. His humble Kurdish beginnings did not limit this man's ambition. He was educated at Ankara University, and after he was arrested for handing out pro-Kurdish leaflets in 1971, he came out of jail calling himself a "professional revolutionary." He strongly believed in the Marxist-Leninist doctrines and eventually became a Maoist, advocating an uprising of the common people, or in this case, the Kurds. The PKK's enthusiastic young founders viewed themselves as progressive representatives of the Kurdish minority, with the sole intention of establishing a 'democratic and united Kurdistan.'
Unfortunately, frustrated by their initial attempts to realize their bright ideals, the newly disbanded PKK turned to terrorism. In their zeal, these PKK participants first targeted the landlords and leaders of tribes ‘representing the chauvinist class.’ After much bloody combat and controversy, the Turkish government and army started to take seriously the threats from this insurgent group of separatists. Soon after, a ban on speaking Kurdish was initiated, adding to the already existing bans on Kurdish radio programs, Kurdish newspapers, as well as teaching in Kurdish. Starting in the early 1980s, PKK guerrillas began to raid and spread fear among the border towns of Turkey. The PKK leader Öcalan directed his war against Turkey from Syria and Lebanon, countries happy to use the PKK to agitate their Turkish neighbors. According to Jonathan Rugman and Roger Hutchings, the authors of Atatürk's Children, "Turkey is unfortunate in being surrounded by countries which, largely because of the colonial Ottoman past, dislike Turks and want to keep Turkey's regional power in check."
In the early 1990s, the PKK changed its tactics, attacking urban areas rather than rural communities. With more than 1500 armed guerillas, the PKK in northern Iraq struck Baghdad, after the defeat of President Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, but this effort to gain control proved futile. Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in Kenya by Turkish government officials in 1999; he then declared a 'peace initiative' in order to increase the odds of his release, renaming the PKK the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK). Öcalan claimed that this new organization was focused on promoting Kurdish rights through acts of nonviolence.
The conflict between Turks and Kurds still exists as a major problem in the unity of Turkey. In 2002, Turkey was refused entrance into the European Union largely on account of past human rights records, and EU officials demanded the unconditional release of the Kurdish MPs arrested in 1994, including Leyla Zana. In early 2004, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met American president George Bush in Washington D.C., to discuss Turkey's potential admission into the European Union.