Cizre in ruins following Turkish state onslaught © Sputnik/ Ömer Faruk Baran
28 March 2016
by Bert Schouwenburg*
Approaching the outskirts of Diyarbakir from the gleaming local airport, the unwary visitor could be forgiven for thinking that the dozens of freshly built blocks of flats were evidence of a successful city striving to accommodate its 1.6 million inhabitants.
There are, however, more sinister reasons why so many people have left the surrounding countryside to live in what is effectively the capital of Turkish Kurdistan.
In the last decade of the 20th century, Turkish forces destroyed some 3,000 villages and towns as part of a scorched-earth policy designed to rid the area of guerillas from the PKK, the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, fighting for a Kurdish homeland.
After a period of relative calm during which time there were tentative peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish state, violence has flared again following President Recep Erdogan’s unsuccessful attempt to land a so-called super majority in elections that took place in June 2015, thus denying him the possibility of establishing an executive presidency with increased powers.
Brutal incursions by Turkish forces into Kurdish territory have raised the spectre of the 1990s and in the last six months an estimated 768 civilians have been killed, 98 of them children and 87 women.
In the Cizre district of Sirnak alone, 290 people were slaughtered, many of them trapped and burnt in basements as they tried to shelter from artillery barrages.
In February, I was in Diyarbakir as part of a small delegation from Britain which included Natalie McGarry MP, Unite’s international director Simon Dubbins and Ibrahim Dogus of the Centre for Kurdish Progress.
Sur, the historic walled area in the middle of the city, and a Unesco world heritage site, had been locked down by Turkish special forces, ostensibly as part of an operation to dislodge 25 young PKK guerillas.
Several neighbourhoods had been sealed off and most of its inhabitants evacuated, resulting in thousands of people being displaced and hundreds of shops and businesses closed.
Not everybody had managed to get out and an estimated 200 people, including young children, were trapped in what had become a free-fire zone since the barriers were erected 90 days earlier.
Day and night the sound of explosions and gunfire could be heard as the armed forces systematically demolished buildings and streets.
Our requests to meet the provincial governor with a view to at least allowing the non-combatants to leave were rebuffed and they were left to an uncertain fate.
During a series of discussions in Ankara and Diyarbakir with politicians, independent trade unions and other civil society members, we received vivid testimony of the repression being endured not only by Kurds but by anyone who challenged the authority of the president’s office.
Public-sector workers who were trade union members found themselves sacked, demoted or transferred to remote parts of the country; opposition media was closed down while journalists and lawyers were imprisoned by a regime that is operating well outside the margins of the Turkish constitution.
In south-east Turkey alone, 200,000 children are not able to attend school as resources are denied to Kurdish areas where 58 curfews are enforced in 21 districts. Nearly everyone we spoke to had, at some time, been imprisoned by the state.
A recurring theme of our meetings was a sense of frustration at the European Union’s failure to denounce the genocidal assault on the Kurdish population and the failure of the Western corporate media to comment on Turkey’s slide into totalitarianism.
The reason for Brussels’s deafening silence and the willingness to turn a blind eye to Turkish atrocities is part of the Faustian pact made with Erdogan to prevent refugees from the Syrian conflict crossing the border into Greece.
Not only is this utterly cynical, it is also dangerous and risks tipping Turkey over the edge into a civil war.
TAK, a breakaway fringe group of the PKK, has claimed responsibility for the latest bombing in Ankara on March 13 where 37 people were killed and says it is not prepared to stand idly by while Kurds are under attack in the south-east.
Nowhere is Western hypocrisy over Turkey more evident than in Britain. After playing a prominent role in the destabilisation of Syria and the arming of Islamist terrorist groups, the British government refuses to countenance admitting a significant proportion of the millions of refugees fleeing the ensuing bloodbath.
Instead, parliamentarians indulge in overblown rhetoric about the supposedly fascist tendencies of the same groups, which they indirectly created by the disastrous intervention in Iraq, while ignoring the burgeoning authoritarian nationalism of their Turkish Nato ally which is directly supporting them.
And we should not forget that, in 1916, it was the British who, with the French, agreed to carve up the remnants of the Ottoman empire by dint of the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement that left the nation of Kurdistan divided into four pieces within the borders of the countries we now recognise as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
One-hundred years on, the struggle for Kurdish freedom and autonomy continues, but as Centre for Turkey Studies director Ibrahim Dogus says: “There can be no solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey though military means or violence.”
Clearly, there must be a negotiated settlement but that cannot happen without the most famous of Turkey’s 6,000 political prisoners being released.
PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan was kidnapped and imprisoned 17 years ago and is being held in solitary confinement on Imrali Island.
Almost universally recognised as the national leader of the Kurdish people, Ocalan has written extensively on the imperative for a settlement that would allow the peaceful coexistence of Kurds and Turks.
Therefore, in April, GMB together with other trade unions like Unite will be launching a campaign for his release and we fully expect widespread support.
In his freedom lies the key to a solution of the Kurdish question and perhaps to the seemingly intractable problems of the wider Middle East.
*Bert Schouwenburg is the international officer of the GMB workers union.
This op-ed was originally published on the Morning Star website