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A Lecture about the Kurdish People and their Struggle for Freedom

It is a hot summer on Haifa’s sandy beaches. Unlike the birds that come in the autumn from cold Europe, summer is the visiting season for people. Until recently the visitors were coming almost only from the rich countries, but, as the third world is now rising to the center of the world stage, we have the chance to meet people from many other places. This week, for the first time, we had a visitor from Kurdistan, Ercan Ayboga (*). As we hold a special warm place in our hearts for the Kurdish people as sisters and brothers in struggle, it was a great opportunity to learn more about Kurdistan, its people and their struggle.

With short notice, Herak Haifa called for an open lecture in Haifa AlGhad club, on Monday 10/6/2013. As I was writing the invitation, I had a problem. Should I write that Ercan comes from “Turkish Kurdistan”? It smacks of ownership. I’m always annoyed when I’m introduced as “coming from Israel”. One important thing that I learned in this lecture is to call the part of Kurdistan that is colonialized by Turkey “Northern Kurdistan”, as “Eastern Kurdistan” is held by Iran, the South by Iraq and the West by Syria. I always prefer to look at things through the eyes and the language of the oppressed people, even though the language that connected us in the lecture was English.

The report below is based on Ercan’s lecture but doesn’t claim to reproduce his very words. I also made some quick research and tried to tell a consistent story as much as I could. I hope you will find it informative as well as inspiring.


Kurdistan and the Kurdish people have a long history. Much of it is characterize by the Kurds having some level of self rule (or rule by their local feudal lords) – but under the influence of more powerful regional powers. For a long period Kurdistan was in the borderlands between the Ottoman Empire and Iran. The Kurdish language is close to Persian but many Kurds were integrated in the Ottoman state to the level that when they felt pressed by emerging Turkish nationalism few of the Kurdish lords called for restoration of the Caliphate.

The beginning of the twentieth century, and especially the new division of the region after the First World War, saw the emergence of new states guided by the principle of Nationalism. The Kurdish national movement was late to come, and confronted the fate of Kurdistan divided between the neighbors.

The establishment of Turkey as a national state, in a region that was mosaic of different ethnicities, religions and nationalities, was especially cruel, forged by genocide and systematic ethnic cleansing. At first the Turkish leadership succeeded to mobilize some Kurdish support against the Christian Armenian and Greek population in the name of Islam, but soon the Kurds encountered the fire of Turkish nationalism turned against them.

Between 1920 and 1938 there were several Kurdish rebellions against the Ottomans and against Turkey. In one rebellion in 1925 we already hear the complaints about the wiping of the name Kurdistan from the maps, about oppression of the Kurdish language and about forced population transfer.

Between 1928 and 1931 an independent Kurdish “Republic of Ararat” existed until it was crashed by the Turkish army. But none of these rebellions succeeded to unite all the Kurds, or even all the Kurds under Turkey’s rule, in a single independence movement. Turkey had a clear military advantage and cruelly crushed each rebellion with severe consequences to the fighters, their political leaders and the civilian population.

In 1937 and 1938, in the oppression of the Dersim rebellion, (Dersim is an area in North West Kurdistan from where our guest Ercan came), about half the regions’ population was wiped out in massacres and almost all the rest was deported by force. Between 1925 and 1965 North Kurdistan under Turkey’s control was declared a military area and foreigners were banned from entering.

After 1938, as the independence movements were crashed, about a third of some 20 million Kurds in North Kurdistan immigrated (most of them since the sixties) to other areas in Turkey and many Kurds succumbed to forced Turkization.

The Modern Freedom Movement

The roots of the current Kurdish freedom movement are in the radicalization of students and other sectors of society in Turkey in the seventies of the previous century. Since then the most influential force in the Kurdish movement is the Kurdish Workers Party – known by its initials as PKK and officially founded in 1978 – and its leader Abdullah Ocalan. For this reason it is important to understand what is special about this organization.

In addition to its leftist ideology, Ercan mentioned two significant factors that played a role: The PKK cadres, though initially students, were drawn mostly from the poor classes and always remained committed to the defense of the poor peasants and workers; In 1980, when there was a military coup in Turkey and many of the activists had to go to exile, the PKK leadership preferred to gather its forces and set its main new bases in the Arab countries of Lebanon and Syria, not going to the comfort of Europe where other left organizations gradually lost their revolutionary perspective.

This helped to forge an alliance and common thinking with the Arab and Palestinian left, most significantly with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). In many aspects the Kurdish movement followed the steps of the Palestinian National movement – the adoption of Marxism and the perspective of National liberation as part of a global movement for social liberation; The adoption of armed struggle as a central tactic which came as a response to the military coup and intense repression; Since the beginning of the 90’s there was a new turn toward mass struggle, which, according to Ercan, was influenced by the success of the first Palestinian Intifada.

The PKK was more successful from the Palestinian left in becoming the main force of the Kurdish national movement, maybe because the Kurdish cause seemed to be a lost case and there was less competition and outside meddling. Now the Kurdish national movement, with the PKK at its center, is a school of its own. It is building on the ground and developing theory for a progressive national movement that adjusts to changing circumstances and tries to get the best for its people.

Through 35 years of heroic struggle the Kurds paid a very high price. It is estimated that 3,500 villages and towns were destroyed and millions became refugees. Tens of thousands of martyrs paid with their lives. Today, according to Ercan’s estimation, there are about 10,000 Kurdish political prisoners out of a total of 12,000 political prisoners in Turkey.

In 1998, after pressure and threats of war from Turkey, Syria expelled Ocalan and there was no state that will give him official refuge. In an international man-hunt operation with the help of (or orchestrated by) the Israeli Mossad, Ocalan was arrested in Kenya on February 15, 1999, and handed over to Turkey. In spite of being sentenced to death (later substituted by imprisonment for life) and being held in harsh conditions, most of the time in isolation, he is still the main leader of the Kurdish freedom movement. On March 21, 2013, it was Öcalan which declared the new ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish state, in the framework of new negotiations for a peaceful solution that will protect the rights of the Kurdish people.

Popular Struggle and Popular Democracy

An important achievement of the Kurdish freedom movement is that it is not confined to one region, one organization or one sector of the population. Since the beginning of the nineties the armed struggle is only one tool for the building of an expanding popular base. It begun with mass funerals for martyred freedom fighters, continued with mass demonstrations and clashes with the repressive forces, went on to the organization of legal political parties, the participation in local government, declaration of cease fires and peace initiatives. The celebration of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, became a yearly major patriotic event with mass participation of hundreds of southlands and sometimes even millions.

One important aspect that distinguishes the PKK and the modern Kurdish freedom movement is the prominent role of women in all aspects of the struggle and on all levels. In a society that is mostly rural and conservative, Kurdish women fight side by side with their male comrades. It is estimated that women are around 30% of the PKK fighters. A similar proportion of women may also be found in the PKK’s leading bodies and in other parties and mass organizations. In 1994, Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of treason and terrorism after she dared to speak the Kurdish language in parliament.

Popular support and the possibility to legally organize opened new opportunities and fields of action in front of the freedom movement. Ercan expanded his explanation about the establishment of elected local authorities as a field where local people can organize and the movement can prove that it can serve the masses in a good way and to good purpose. It also exposes the movement to the danger of corruption by some of its own local leaders – and tests its ability to fight this corruption. Here the importance of the socially progressive character of the movement and the commitment to the interests of the poor people is essential for success.

He talked about the concept of popular democracy that the movement tries to promote. Elected councils start at grassroots levels. They include direct representatives of the people as well as political parties and civil society. Here again the role of women is essential. The direct involvement of the popular masses in the councils keeps them at tune with the political organizations and keeps the organizations in full awareness of the needs and sentiments of the people. All this is used to look for practical solutions to the issues of economic development, defense of democratic rights, cultural identity and social justice.

With all these achievements, the parties that are identified with the liberation movement receive just about half the popular vote in elections in North Kurdistan. There are still conflicting local identities and interests and scars from the long years of repression and struggle. Some 40% of the Kurdish vote goes to AK, the Islamic party that governs Turkey over the last eleven years. And, as mentioned before, almost half of the Kurds of northern Kurdistan now leave in other regions of Turkey. These facts are taken into account by the freedom movement when it comes to propose a political solution.

New Political Perspective

The PKK went through ideological struggle, trying to adjust its view of the world, its political platform and praxis to the changing world map as well as to local conditions. An attempt to change the orientation of the movement to give up socialism and turn toward the US was rejected. But significant adjustments were made.

Now the main goal of the movement is not separation of North Kurdistan from Turkey but participation in the design of a new decentralized democracy. It could be good for the Kurds, let them control their own affairs, but also for the rest of the people in Turkey.

Around this line the Kurdish parties now try to build new alliances with different progressive and democratic movements and parties in Turkey. For this reason Kurdish activists also participated in the new popular protest movement that was ignited in Istanbul and spread all over Turkey. The connection to the mass movement was all important to them, in spite of the participation of some extreme nationalist and fascists in the movement and the call by some elements for restoration of military rule.

The movement in North Kurdistan has significant influence over the Kurdish people in other regions. In Syria the main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is associated with the PKK. They regard themselves as part of the Syrian revolution, even though they don’t belong to any of the current leadership coalitions of the Syrian opposition. In South Kurdistan traditional leaderships still play a major role and progressive forces are still small – but in East Kurdistan there are stronger protest movements, based on the youth, which are more radical and democratic.

A similar concept of democratization and de-centralization, people’s power from bottom-up, is also promoted for the larger region. It was conceived as a framework for the solution not only of the Kurdish question but of the needs to get rid of tyranny and find a way for all the diverse religions, national and ethnic groups to live together.

As part of this concept, the Kurdish movement initiated the Mesopotamia Social Forum. They are interested to promote discussion and build cooperation with other movements in the region. Maybe this is what brought Ercan to far-away Haifa.

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(*) Ercan Ayboga (pronounced almost Erjan) is a hydraulic engineer who has lived in Germany and in North-Kurdistan; the latter is his home country. He coordinates on international level the campaign against the destructive Ilisu Dam on the Tigris and is part of the ecologic movement in Kurdistan. Furthermore he is engaged in the Mesopotamian Social Forum (MSF) which brought together in 2009 and 2011 parts of the civil Kurdish and Middle East society. He writes regularly for different Turkish, Kurdish and German newspapers and journals on ecological and political issues.