Shells at the Kursunlu Mosque in Sur, Diyarbakir
25 March 2016
The following in-depth interview with Besime Konca, People's Democratic Party (HDP) Siirt deputy and Muharrem Erbey, Democratic Regions Party vice-chair and a long-standing former chairman of the human rights group IHD was conducted during their visit to Berlin on December 19th, 2015. It was first published in German in the March 2016 edition of Kurdistan Report.
The interviewees talk about the deteriorating situation in Southeast Turkey (N.Kurdistan), democratisation, a resolution of the Kurdish question, and the Turkish government's islamisation policy and support for jihadists.
What are your thoughts on your current trip to Germany?
Besime Konca: In the last months there has been increasing talk about the atrocities of the Islamic State (IS), but we are here to clarify that the question of human rights in the Middle East should also be viewed from another angle. It hasn't been understood in Europe and the West that the AKP government hasn't moved an inch in relation to human rights and that the statelessness of the Kurdish people has not been given any time by Germany and the West. This is only ever discussed when there is a war, but even then no solution is put in motion. In the nineties, three million Kurdish people were sent into exile, and a million are living here in Germany, but here the Kurds cannot live their own culture, they are criminalized and assimilated, as well as exploited as cheap labour power. The Kurdish question is an international question, not just a question for the AKP or Turkey. The solution, therefore, can only be international.
In your opinion, how is the war in the cities of north Kurdistan understood in the western Turkey? Is there solidarity, as there was with the Gezi protests?
B.K.: In thirteen years of the AKP government, Turkey has been changed in a profound way. Both the press and the opposition have been silenced, one half of society imprisoned through economic means, through money, the other half oppressed by violence – there was a climate of silence, and this silence was ruptured in the Gezi resistance. In particular the massive organization of ISIS in Turkey and the support lent to them by the state, has led on the one hand to solidarity among the oppostion, but on the other hand to fear and intimidation. As the HDP we are representing a very strong coalition, one which comes from very different areas -- leftists, socialists, intellectuals, democrats, the women's movement -- but in western Turkey there is still no strong mass focus on the situation in the Kurdish cities. This is because those who are seen to be a part of the protests either end up in prison or, as we have seen in, Ankara, are blown up. The imprisonment of Can Dündar and Erdem Gül (the editor in chief and the office manager of the newspaper Cumhuriyet) has made this politics quite clear. There are always people who raise their voice, but there is no mass activity. About 60 channels are transmitting the propaganda of the ruling AKP, while only two or three channels are reporting from our perspective. Everything is forbidden in Turkey. The website of the news agency DIHA has been closed, internet and social media are blocked and all distribution channels are dominated by the opinion of the government, meaning that we really can speak of a very serious manipulation of information.
Let's talk about the situation in the north Kurdish cities. Why have the curfews been imposed by the state? Is there a connection with the elections of June 7th?
B.K.: The AKP has enforced a regime change, regardless of the presidential system which they want to introduce, effectively transforming Turkey into an islamic republic. They want to establish a conservative islamic Turkey. They repress the Kurds, the Alevis and all other ethnicities, as well as the secularists of the Republic People's Party (CHP). They want to construct Turkey on the basis of an islamic ideology. They were able to rule alone up until June 7th 2015, but when the HDP reached 13% of the vote, thus overcoming the electoral threshold, the AKP could no longer govern alone and started a new phase. The AKP did everything to heighten confrontation, because the fact that the HDP had superceded the hurdle of the ten percent meant that the one-party rule of the AKP was over and the democratization of Turkey would be imminent, because the structure of the HDP consists of all the denied, ignored identities and ethnicities. That these identities were now also in parliament meant that neither the AKP nor the CHP could have ruled alone. A coalition government would have meant a democratization of Turkey. The only aim after the elections was thus to pressure the HDP by all means so that they would fall under the threshold, to terrorize them and to present the war as necessary to the European and American public. So that no organized opposition could arise, HDP supporters were slandered as supporters of terrorism, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) used as the basis for this manipulation. What the AKP wants is autocracy, so as to introduce the presidential system and suppress the whole opposition.
What led to the announcement of “democratic autonomy”?
B.K.: This phase was introduced on June 8th. The autocracy of the AKP was over, and Erdoğan made an appearance saying “I don't accept this election, I will set up new election.” Because of this, the (Dolmabahçe) agreement with Abdullah Öcalan was denied, and the decision of a war against the Kurds was declared. The support for IS, and Erdoğan's desire to see Kobanê fall, had already made this clear. When Kobanê couldn't be destroyed by IS, the AKP's politics once again targeted the people. And it unfolded from a logic of prohibition, repression, and a politics of war, so as to halt the success of Kobanê spreading in Turkey.
Concretely, what has the construction of the councils and self-defence meant?
B.K.: The program of the HDP and the DBP is already anchored by the principle of self-administration and it was clear that this principle would need to be implemented after the Dolmabahçe agreement with the Turkish government. As our decisions were not recognized after the election, new district councils, youth councils, women councils were founded. The people have themselves started to organize the system of self-administration on political, cultural and economical levels. The district councils promote the foundation of communes. They started to declare their autonomy on their own initiative: just like district A, we as district B declare our self-administration, and so on. We are organizing our own administration and culture, including lessons in Kurdish, we are building our own schools, and managing ourselves according to our own will and deciding upon our own leadership. The sites of self-defence, of barricades and trenches, are places where the HDP and DBP won 90-95% of the vote. These are the places in which the people organize and represent themselves completely by their own self-administration. The process of the construction of the communes has been like this for years, but hampered by state repression. Councils have been formed again and again, and the representatives arrested, including mayors and co-chairs of the councils. Who ever talked or participated was detained. There were also education centres and Kurdish schools, but the state always forced them to close So the people said: "We're developing our own forms of self-defence and we'll dig trenches, armoured police are not allowed in our districts nor allowed to make arrests." In practice, the whole thing is based on the example of Rojava or rather, this model had been already discussed in this region ten, fifteen years ago, and its practical construction by the instutions of the youth movement and the women's movement has been a decade in the making.
How far does the support for the self-defence go?
B.K.: The trenches aren't a strategy for a solution, but a consequence. They are the expression of legitimate self-defence. They aren't everywhere, only in some parts, in some districts. To be precise, in four. But the AKP has expanded their war and their politics of denial to the whole of Kurdistan. Of course, because of the militarised situation, many are concerned. Of course for the middle classes, the officers, there are still more doubts of a different character, but they are not against autonomy and self-administration. If we look at the 80-90% at the elections, this shows that they are not against this perspective. But the fear is there because the state has been massacring us for forty years. That's what they're afraid of. The vote losses of the HDP after the June 7th isn't due to a political change but rather to the chaos which has overtaken Turkey. The AKP didn't win any votes from the HDP. Their gains came from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), so its not only the HDP which has lost out.
Muarrem Erbey: And you have to add that the HDP's electoral campaign wasn't allowed by the AKP. We can report of five, six bombings, over 200 attacks on the HDP, including the party headquarters in Ankara, as well as assassinations, arrests and the attempt on our co-chair's life. Because of the attacks in Ankara and Pîrsûs (Suruç), it was impossible for the HDP to campaign prior to the new elections.
Would you say that Turkey has moved on from a police state to facism? In this context, does parliamentary work make any sense at all?
M.E.: The HDP isn' t only going down the parliamentary route. We want to undergo the democratization of Turkey together with all of the ethnic, belief and other groups of the region. It might be the case that today resistance is the appropriate method to find a solution, which is what we also say concerning Rojava. Rojava is demanding a democratic Syria with a democratic constitution, and in Turkey the situation is the same. Today we are in a military phase, and when we construct our self-administration within this context we can finally find a solution, through political methods. The AKP is making this impossible, and we are ready for that situation. They want to change the constitution not to help the people and democratize themselves, but to gain more power. Because of this we say that the parliament currently isn't a place in which to find a solution, but on the other hand, if a new democratic constitution is introduced, then we can develop and utilise other methods.
You hear again and again about conflicts within the HDP on the subject of the presidential system alone. What do you say to this?
M.E.: There are no great conflicts within the HDP, especially not on the subject of the presidential system. There were discussions from when the peace process was still ongoing, from the Newroz-declaration 2013 to the Dolmabahçe dialogues in 2015. Since 2007, when the AKP took over state power, there has always been a delegation which negotiated with Imralı (Öcalan) or went to Qandil, and there were the conditions for a possibile solution with the AKP. There were some individuals who wanted a campaign declaring "you're not our president", but it's not like that today. These were the opinions of some individuals, including some of our former deputies. The press has a great interest in playing up the conflicts within the HDP.
As a long-standing representative of the human rights group IHD, could you draw a comparison between the current situation and the one in the nineties?
M.E.: The situation now isn't any different from the nineties. The Kurdish population is being subjected to a politics of destruction, and those who are active are killed. But the methods of the perpetrator have changed. In the nineties there was more fear among the population, because in that period they targeted trade unionists, human rights activsts and journalists, as well as all other opposition groups, who were taken at night with white Toros cars from their houses and executed. Today the Kurdish population resists in a united manner. There are groups and special units which advance on the population, calling themselves Osmanlı Ocakları (Ottoman Centres) or Esedullah (the Lions of Allah). The Esedullah special units consist of bearded men who previously comprised the death squads of Turkish nationalists and right-wing extremists but now have an islamic appearence, growing their beards and writing nationalistic, sexist phrases, words with islamic references on the walls. In this context we find that the destruction is the same as it was in the nineties, but the methods have changed. But while the attitude of the perpetrators might have changed, those who are killed are the same. Before, people were killed secretly, today they are shot in public. Indeed, today the situation is more dangerous than in the nineties. At that time everything happened in secret, today everything is public, in front of the eyes of the families, and the perpetrators do not even bother to run away, because they can rely on their impunity. Those mayors who take part in statements are immediately arrested and relieved of their duties, but the police, who murdered my friend and colleague, the lawyer Tahir Elçi last week, were neither suspended nor arrested, they were simply summoned as witnesses.
How do you see the connection between jihadist groups and the AKP ?
M.E.: Everyone knows that the AKP supports IS and other jihadist groups. It is also known that those who join IS sometimes enter via Turkey with Turkish passports and receive medical care in Turkey. There is a training camp in Serê Kaniyê (Ceylanpınar). It is well known that Yazidi women in Dilok (Antep) were sold to IS. In Turkey they are Hüda Par (the Free Cause Party, successor to the Hizbullah, defeated in 2000), in Rojava they are IS. A thousand trucks of arms and logistical supplies have passed through Turkey to IS. Turkey doesn't want to close their borders to IS. Even though the USA and the West, along with Russia, pressure for its closure, they are doing everything to make sure that this won't happen. It is not a question of Islam, because while the Turkish government sheds crocodile tears for the situations in Gaza and Somalia, they aren't at all interested in the situation of the majority Muslim Kurdish population in Rojava and Turkey. Their approach is sectarian and nationalist, and they are using the Turkmen in this context. There are still 5000 Yazidi women held as sex slaves by IS. Because of this, regions are being ruled like medieval states, strengthened through Turkey's support and its oil trading. Europe has to choose a side, either with the equality and emancipation of the Kurdish people, or with the AKP and IS, where women and men are sold into slavery. The suicide bombers in Amed, Pîrsûs and Ankara were all trained in Semsûr (Adıyaman) and they were also under the observation of the Turkish intelligence agency MIT. The families had reported them long before they blew themselves up. The people who blow themselves up in Turkey all have a connection with the MIT. We don't know if they are IS or Hizbullah, but we do know that they are in contact with the state. This is about destroying, at all costs, the gains made by the Kurdish people in Turkey, in Rojava and around the world. They let IS attack people in Syria, force people to flee, then they come to Turkey where it is our city council who takes care of many of them, while Erdoğan sends them to Europe as bargaining chips.
Turkey repeatedly says that they have accepted millions of refugees and are taking care of them. How do you evaluate this statement?
M.E.: The majority of refugees arriving from Syria are supported by the city councils through their own resources. Those taken care of by the state are the Turkmen and Arabs. There are currently 230,000 refugees in the state-run camps, which raises the question that if we are talking about two million people, where are the rest of them and how do these people survive? The money from the EU won't arrive there, so it would be bettter, to afford practical, humanitarian help with tents, etc.
What have you experienced during the conversations with representatives of NGOs, political parties and the government in Germany?
M.E.: Although in our regions we are dealing with a situation of open war, throughout the conversations we have held here with the representatives of different groups and parties, the question is always put to us as to why the PKK kills soldiers. It is a question of perspective. If you consider it from the point of view of the Turkish government, which since June 7th has disregarded the lives of 160 murdered civilians, then the question appears quite justified. They pretend that only PKK, soldiers and the police are being killed, as if the state is not killing civilians, nor practicing repression and oppression. This is why the question of perspective is important. If you look out of the government window you get one image; if you look out the Kurdish one, another. From our perspective we make no difference among the dead: neither soldiers nor policemen should die, nor guerillas and civilians. All deaths hurt us. But the German government and the institutions here insist on asking why the PKK kills Turkish soldiers and policeman. But there are so many people, from babies to old people, who have been killed, who also shouldn't have died, but nobody asks about that. Only a democratic solution can put an end to this. We are not the enemy of the state nor the AKP, but this, what they are doing now, is totally illegal. Nobody was able to resolve the Kurdish question with such disastrous, brutal politics and they never will. There are no democratic methods being applied.
Mr Erbey, could you describe again your party, the DBP, and the connection wih the HDP?
M.E.: The DBP was founded in 2008 and has been engaged in political work since then. We stand in the tradition of the HEP (the People's Labour Party), founded in 1991, though all these parties were banned. HDP and DBP are Öcalan's projects. The HDP is an umbrella party, comprising six others: democrats, leftists, feminists, ecofeminists and ecologists are all a part of it. The DBP has 120 city councils in Kurdistan and is attempting to build a new society through democratic autonomy, a model of social self-adminsitration through society itself. Whether you like it or not, the fact is that this model does not include violence. It is about self-defence. If you attack a society permanently, arrest their politicians, their mayors and practically anyone who speaks at a press conference is thrown in jail, the youth or the people of that place will organize in general defence. This is what happens the world over.
When even the smallest group is attacked by an army, they will defend themselves, just like when a kitten is pushed into a corner and is getting attacked, she will jump at you. It's a natural, human reflex. Wether it is correct or not is another question, but in Kurdistan we can say that we need to trace the violence back to its roots, for the state doesn't show any compassion, it doesn't try to understand, it doesn't try to embrace the people, but instead tries to make a politics based on trenches and soldiers and policemen killed by the PKK. We say "every death is wrong", no one should die, neither policeman, soldier, civilian nor guerilla. Because of this, we insist on a solution which ends the killings. In the media it has been alleged that the PKK has intensified the violence, that the PKK killed Tahir Elçi, that the PKK has done this and that. But the PKK isn't the problem, for behind it is the Kurds' demand for freedom. In the last 200 years there have been 24 Kurdish uprisings. Was the PKK there all this time? The PKK is just a name. They call the PKK a terrorist organizion and thus try and halt every peace process. But the real question isn't that of the PKK, but Kurds' demand for freedom. This is suppressed and reduced to the PKK and thus to the question of the murdered soldiers and police. Because of this, our attempt as a party is to find a solution for the roots of the problem. That means finding a democratic and just solution. Currently the situation is that if the Kurdish people want to find their own path, the response is: "No, stop, don't do that, I'll do the thinking. I'll set up a system for you. Don't do anything, just consume it."
"Capitalist modernity and the state are taking care of you now, maybe you also can earn something. Just don't do any politics. You have your representatives in Ankara, just don't do anything in the region itself." In the whole world there are regional self-administrations and the Kurdish people also want to govern themselves. Is there in a "governor" Germany? No, but while in Amed there are elected co-mayors, above them there is an appointed governor. All the power is in his hands. All power is handed out by the AKP-state to their followers. All public services, road construction and so on is given over to clients of the AKP or, where the CHP is in power, organized and distributed by the CHP. But the gouvernor is superfluous. Elected co-mayors are entirely sufficient. The governor is from Tekirdağ, he doesnt know Amed at all. Around him there are two or three officers, and he does what they tell him. All people should live freely, and construction should deal with more than just mosques. If in Dersim (Tunceli) a Cemevi (an Alevi meeting hall) is necessary, it ought to built, or if a church is necessary, it ought to be built so that the people feel free to practice their own religion.
But it's not like that here. They build mosques in Alevi villages through force and violence. There is a violent forced homogenization of society, a Turkification, an Islamification and as the DBP, we say this has to stop. We supported the Dolmabahçe dialogues, and the arms were layed down. But who overturned the negotiating table? Who canceled the peace negotiations? When Erdoğan noticed that his votes were waning, he immediately changed his rhetoric, he didnt keep his word – because of this one could say that the focus of the goverment is no longer directed at a solution, but only the continuation of its own power. Erdoğan has turned to the Islamists, facists, nationalists and militarists and received a lot of votes from the conservative middle class. Outside of the Kurdish forces, those who want democracy diminished, and as after the Dolmabahçe dialogues there were more nationalists, it is to them that he has turned. The law of the domestic security bill was passed, the governors' power was extended, and new heavy fortified military bases were set up everywhere. Forests were cleared, dams were built and after that political suppression was ratcheted up against the population. The special units were formed, mercenaries were hired. The state shared everything with its own cadres and tool over the judiciary, contradicting both law and morality.
We want democracy, and the more humane system of democratic autonomy in which all humans govern themselves. The administration should also distribute all their regional resources. To concentrate everything in Ankara is dictatorial, sexist and antidemocratic. Everyone should partecipate equally in politics. We say that profit should not be in the center, that nature should not be destroyed – for example, dams are being built everywhere, which destroys both nature the history, simply for profit. Sûr is being devasted right now, but nobody says anything. We say, people must listen to their conscience and react accordingly. In Turkey politics is shared out among profiteers, the military and private foundations. While we are in favour of the money being distributed among the population groups throughout Turkey. The problem is not a Kurdish one, it isn't just something for the HDP nor the PKK, but is a problem for whoever does not wish to lose their power, for if they lose, they will be judged. They are doing everything not to lose, they are trying to control everything, even in Europe. They support IS, creating refugees, but the people who are fighting for emancipation, for women's rights, they will win. The German public should know that, either way, Erdoğan will disappear, today or tomorrow, but the Kurdish population of 40 million will stay. The European public should know that we want to work together with all groups in modern societies who stand up for human rights and democracy. We aren't on the side of religious-radicals and sectarian forces of the Middle East, whether Baath or IS.
Translated by Judith Jochum and Richard Braude.