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While in Ankara, Aykut and I spent a day trying to find the local offices of various Iraqi and Kurdish opposition groups including the KDP and PUK. We were looking for various officials who might be able to help me when I went to Diyarbakir in the southeast and on to Iraq, but we weren’t having much luck, and kept driving through twisty neighborhoods hoping the cops weren’t following us.
At one point, the comedy descended into farce, as we drove into a military residence area looking for the embassies. We found the embassies, but the PUK still eluded us. We drove past the Jordanian, Syrian and Saudi Embassies, but finally stopped outside the the United Arab Emirates while Aykut jumped out of the car and asked a bored-looking security guard for directions.
“Excuse me, where are the offices for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan?” Akyut asked while I shrunk into my seat and tried to look invisible.
The guard, a Turk and apparently no friend of Iraqi Kurds, looked him up and down, looked me up and down, and then motioned off down the road.
Aykut dropped his bulk into the drivers’ seat and smiled at me.
“Don’t do that again,” I said.
He apologized, but at least the guard’s directions were good. We finally found the rather sad looking house that was the office for the PUK. No one was around except for a plainclothes guy who watched us closely and smoked a cigarette like a fugitive. He made me nervous, so we left to go meet A. Turan Demir, the deputy chairman of HADEP, the Kurdish party in Turkey. The transcript — from Aykut’s translation — follows:
We’re heading to Diyarbakir on Tuesday, and we’re hoping to find out what’s been happening there since 1998, how things have changed, how people are coping with the depressed economy. Are people getting better or staying the same?
The interior fighting has been stopped in Turkey, and we’ve observed people have partially been getting better, all around Turkey but especially in southeast Turkey. Because the people in the region have suffered a lot from the fighting going on in that area. When the fighting was going on for many years, there was martial law and emergency rule going on in the area, for 20-25 years, either martial law or emergency law in the area starting from 1980. But the martial law was established in 1978 even before the military takeover.
Why was it established in 1978?
Because in 1978, there was fighting going on all around Turkey, that was the reason why the military takeover happened. The fighting all around Turkey at this time was between the left groups and the rightists. But of course the one which we witnessed in the last couple of years was much worse, in the southeast this time. But those days, all Turkey was in fighting. That was the reason for the military takeover in 1980.
We are optimists that the Emergency Rule will be finished in two cities and will be finished two months later in the other two cities [Ed. Since this interview, emergency rule has been lifted in much of southeast Turkey.] We are optimists about this. But you see, the habits that have been established in the area by the local authorities cannot be changed very quickly. They may change the Emergency Rule, but practically, we’ll see
Who are those local administrators?
They are administrators and military/police power of the area that are appointed by Ankara. Of course, not [HADEP] mayors (He laughs). For example, the governor did not even accept the mayors. There are many examples like this in the southeast. You’ll see it in Diyarbakir. While the local administrators who wanted to attend the local ceremonies on the national days were rejected by the governor or the military powers of the area.
So how are the mayors doing their job?
In difficult conditions! But to come back to your question, when you compare it with the old days, there is some optimism. It is hard to say that there is a positive effect on the economic and social life of the people in the area. For example, in the days when the people had to live their villages, four million people had to leave 3,000 villages. They still can not go back.
Is that because the Army won’t let them?
Yes. The army doesn’t let them. They are accumulated in the cities in the area, some of them have moved to the cities of the west, Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin, like those cities.
If the war’s over, why aren’t they being allowed to go back to their villages?
This is the negative aspect of the government. We do not understand the reasons why the government doesn’t let the people back.
What reasons have been given?
They don’t give any reasons! But sometimes, not officially but personally, when we talk to the local officials, sometimes they say we can go back. But they won’t take the first step. In three or five villages, just for propaganda, they let people go back to their villages. Individually, when the people attempt to go back to their villages, they are not let back in, they are pushed back.
Are these villages now abandoned?
Abandoned, yes, abandoned.
How many of these villages are there?
Close to 3,000.
Can you show me on the map?
(He points to the eastern and southeast parts of Anatolia and in around Lake Van, encompassing vast swaths.) There are many villages like this, we’re talking about all eastern and middle eastern parts of the country.
Is that one of the main goals of HADEP, to enable people to come back to their villages?
Of course. We have been trying really hard. We didn’t know how many villages were empty, how many people left from those places, where did they go, in which conditions they are living now—
HADEP didn’t know any of this.
We knew it, but we wanted to have it documented. There is also an association known as GÃ–Ã‡-DER [an internal refugee association in Istanbul], that has been established to help these people go back to their villages. This is the solidarity association for those who have been displaced.
There are 50,000 family applications to HADEP. And also 17,000 families applied to GÃ–Ã‡-DER. They said, please give our petitions to the central government in Ankara, please let us go back to our villages.
What’s the time frame on these petitions?
They started a year ago, and it lasted about 5-6 months, but HADEP has a lot of things to do and couldn’t get too deeply involved. As a result, all of these people — even though there is no reason that all these villages are empty and the fighting is finished and the organization known as the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] took all their armed forces away from the borders — the reason these villages were empty is that these people were accused of helping the PKK. But now there’s no reason, since there’s no PKK. At least there’s no armed forces guerilla group.
Turkey is now going through a very big economic crisis, and the reason Turkey is going through this crisis is this, I think. When the war ended, there was a refugee problem. Of course, the bill of the war is really big. Official estimates are that it’s about $100 billion dollars. But you see, all in these areas, the people who were displaced can’t do agriculture. They are not producing anything and they can not do anything economically. They can’t put anything into the economy of the Turkey. Cities are accepting these people and these people are now living in the squatters’ sections. And they problems of these cities are also growing very fast. Cities like Diyarbakir, Izmir, Istanbul, Marsin
What was HADEP’s official position regarding the PKK?
PKK is out of our organization. It’s an illegal organization, was an illegal organization. That’s important. Because there is no PKK existing anymore. They disbanded. We do not have any organic relation with the PKK. But there is a reality and we always say this very clearly, the Kurds who are living in the east and southeast parts of Turkey, most of them feel close themselves to the PKK. For example, more or less, one in three families gave their children to the guerilla group PKK. And generally, they (Kurds) say that since we are sensitive to the democratic problems of Turkey and especially in the southeast and east, of course they have sympathy to HADEP as well. This is because all of these organizations they have a common group of people and interests. This is the relation. Otherwise, we do not have any organic relation.
[Ed. The term “organic relation” comes up a lot in conversations, and it’s a result of Aykut’s translating. It’s best thought of as a natural alliance, such as one that might occur between the Green Party and the Sierra Club in America.]
But from the beginning of HADEP, we all wanted to stop this fighting. And we all spent a lot of effort for that. Even now still we support this idea. From now on Turkey has to finish this fighting. There has to be established constant interior peace in Turkey in order to establish this, there has to be a democratic situation as well. That’s to say, concretely, the government has to declare an amnesty and PKK has to disband all its armed forces that are still kept beyond the borders of Turkey and struggle in the legal way.
There are some urgent measures to be taken for the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Generally, all the people have to expend effort to the solution of the problem. The Copenhagen Criteria have to be established in Turkey.
What is the list of priorities of HADEP?
We want to see a civic life established under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This democratic status that exists in Europe has to be established in Turkey. The constitution is a military takeover constitution and we still use it. This  constitution has to be demolished and written again. Mostly the NGOs have to give advice for the reconstruction of the constitution. The constitution has to be up for debate among all the institutions of Turkey.
So you don’t think the recent amendments go far enough.
No. [Ed. Turkey recently passed 14 amendments that would bring Turkish law in line with EU standards, but they fall far short of what Demir is asking for.]
The Kurds make up 20 million people in Turkey. This is an ethnic group with its own history, its own language. So first of all, they (Turkey) first have to accept the existence of this ethnicity. And as being another ethnic group, they have to have some basic rights. They must be able to express their identities freely so they can express their feelings with their mother tongue in their social life. They must be able to practice their culture freely without interruption. [Ed. The 1924 Treaty of Lausanne, which established modern Turkey, laid out the rights of ethnic minorities in the new state. Kurds are not listed among them.]
Last year, university students applied to their faculties to have the right to have education in their mother tongue. But as a result of this, they were expelled and some of them arrested.
Nearly all universities. Every university! In some universities 15, in some universities 500 students were expelled. In their petitions, which is their natural right, they didn’t write down that education has to be done in Kurdish. They wanted Kurdish taught as a language. They didn’t want all education in Kurdish. They wanted it as as English and French are taught in the high schools as second languages, they wanted Kurdish to be taught like this as well.
The other problem here, it is also written in the constitution that everyone can give a petition to the government. If it doesn’t accept the petition, that’s OK. But why are they [the students] sentenced? This shows the quality of this political regime.
The Kurdish problem can be solved only by giving cultural rights to the Kurds but not by splitting the country.
This kind of intense desire to express your culture, it’s hard to understand for Americans. Most Americans would say why don’t they just blend in, why don’t they just go with the flow? So maybe you can explain and help me understand why the intense feelings?
The question is, to the people of America, if somebody forbids them speaking their own language, taking from them the rights of education, what would be the response? These are the basic human rights, the values of today’s world. People are now talking about Third generation rights. This is so bad to us, that we have to reject our own identity of a people. This is the worst thing to us, to reject this identity.
Would HADEP consider working with KADEK in a democratic context?
No. This is important. It seems the PKK has disbanded itself and it seems KADEK has emerged from the PKK. As far as we know, as a style of organization and also the political perspective, it seems that it’s partially different than the PKK. And as we know, they are not only interested in the Kurds in Turkey, but in Iraq, Iran, Syria, anywhere Kurds are living. This is a different, new organization, but it’s an illegal organization in Turkey.
Of course, there is no relation established with these people.
Do you trust them?
It’s quite difficult to say anything now, as I told you. Our priority is that Turkey has to apply democratic rules and we’re trying to establish there are no illegal organizations in Turkey. So we want that everyone has to express themselves legally in a democratic situation. This is our priority. This is the solution. Otherwise, these [PKK and KADEK] are very popular organizations. But there are many, many others minor organizations. These are not the only ones. Turkey is the graveyard of political parties. In the last 40 years, 40-50 political parties have been shut down by the Constitutional Court, like HEP, OZDEP and DEP.
HADEP is currently on trial in the Constitutional Court. Very soon, they’re going to make a decision for HADEP, since they opened a case in 1998. We don’t know but it seems all the justice process has been finished and this is the last process now. In our last defense, we demanded the case be dismissed because the government had recently changed the law regarding political parties in Turkey. This last change destroys the reason for our party to be closed.
But on July 9, they’re going to debate this demand (for dismissal.) After they took this demand, it could be a week or 10 days or a month. They don’t have to give a time frame. So this is related to the powers that control Politics in Turkey.
Does HADEP have a position on Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the PKK who was captured in 1998?
Recently we declared our perspective, as a party that is pro-democracy. Even though it is applied in your country, we definitely reject his execution under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1994, when we formed this party, we rejected execution. So how can we say this should be applied to Ocalan? This was also declared by the government before. If Ocalan’s execution is passed by parliament, it would lead Turkey to chaos. Unofficially, people from the government say this will lead Turkey into war again. When you consider the positions of the Kurds, you can imagine what would happen in the southeast.
How did you get involved in Politics? What’s your background?
I was a leftist (Socialist) when I was a student at Izmir University studying history. I was a teacher afterwards. After that, I worked for leftist organizations such as the workers unions as a specialist and an administrator. And afterwards, I took part in a political party that was formed in the 1970s, the Turkish Socialist Workers’ Party (TSIP.) I worked for the Human Rights Association in Izmir starting in 1989 and I was the chairman of the Izmir branch and also in the administration of the whole organization in Ankara. So starting in the beginning, I was in HADEP. I was the local director in Izmir. In 1998, I was chosen as the general secretary and I was arrested that year and spent a year in jail.
Why were you arrested?
In 1998, when Ocalan was loose, local chapters of HADEP allowed individual Kurds to stage hunger strikes in their offices in cities around Turkey in support of Ocalan. Police came to the headquarters in Ankara and arrested several people, including myself. After four days in custody, I were taken to court and charged with aiding the PKK under section 169 of Turkish law [which deals with aiding illegal organizations.]
I was in prison for eight months while on trial. It was then that parliament passed a law that allowed for the conditional release of certain prisoners and I was one of them. The trial was never finished.
I continued my political activities however, and was jailed again for 10 months, being released in Sept. 2001. Today, I face still more charges, but I don’t know how many.
(He rummages in his desk and finally slaps down a 2-inch thick stack of indictments against him.)
This is democracy in Turkey.