History of the Kurdish Uprising

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The text is part of a longer report called: Holding Armed Opposition Groups Accountable: A Study of Obstacles and Strategies on the Situation in Turkey, written by Helmut Oberdiek and published by the International Council on Human Rights Policy (ICHRP) in Geneva. The ICHRP provides a copy of the full report (pdf) on their homepage.

The social and political context of the current conflict in Turkey

On 15 August 1984 the illegal Kurdish Workers’ Party PKK (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan) started its armed struggle by attacks on gendarmerie ("rural police", but members of the armed forces) stations in Eruh and Semdinli in the Southeast of Turkey, where most of the population is of Kurdish origin. Ever since the PKK and its military wing the ARGK (Artese Rizgariya Gele Kurdistan - The People's Liberation Army of Kurdistan) have fought a guerilla-war against the Turkish security forces resulting in the loss of some estimated 30.000 human beings by the beginning of the year 1999.

Who are the Kurds?

The exact offspring of Kurds as a people is still under debate. In the 7th century the term "Kurd" was used for some Iranian tribes. Presumably only after islamization of the region Kurds started to define themselves as a separate people. The common language "Kurdish" is usually the basis for identification, but there are several dialects (if not separate languages) used among the "Kurds" (Kurmanci, Zaza and Gurani).

Between the 11th and 15th century the Kurdish people extended their living space during Turkish-Mongolian invasion. Nowadays the Kurds mainly live in four countries in the Middle East (Turkey, Iraq, Syria and the Iran). Lower estimates speak of some 20 to 25 million Kurds, about half of them living in the Turkish Republic. Some 20 (out of a whole of 80) provinces in Turkey (Southeast of Turkey) have a predominantly Kurdish population, but about half of the Kurdish population of Turkey is living in large towns in the West (like Istanbul and Izmir) or South (like Adana) of Turkey.

During the Ottoman Empire some of many mainly local uprisings were conducted by Kurdish tribes. The current conflict, however, may be seen as a direct result of the founding years of the Turkish Republic that developed from what was left of the Ottoman Empire, having lost most territories on the Balkan and in the Middle East during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Following defeat during World War I, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal "Atatürk", led the successful war against occupying forces such as Italy, France and Greece, that ended in a Peace Conference in November 1922 in Lausanne (Switzerland). The conference resulted in a treaty signed on 24.07.1923. The treaty included minority rights, but only for Jews, Armenians and Greeks that nowadays are almost only existent in Istanbul.

Uprisings in the early years of the Turkish Republic

The Kurds who had fought on the side of "Atatürk" had hoped for specific rights, but the Constitution of 1923 (like all constitution ever since, the latest of 1982) did not include any rights for members of separate ethnic origin. Several "Kurdish" uprisings were to follow, even though some of them had not only nationalist, but strong religious motives. Among the various uprisings those of Sheikh Sait in 1925, the one at the mountain Ararat, that was defeated in 1930 and the uprising of Dersim (called Tunceli today) in the years 1936 to 1938 take a leading position.

Each of these uprisings ended in defeat and the Turkish Republic reacted very harshly. On 4 September 1925 Sheikh Sait and some 50 of his followers were executed in Diyarbakir. Villages were devastated and further executions were carried out in other parts of the country. Each uprising was to be followed by simi-lar measures and large scale deportations affecting some 1.5 million people. Until 1965 some areas were declared "forbidden zones" for foreigners and only little information reached the world public.

Further reasons for the current conflict

The "Kurdish" area of Turkey was never fully integrated into the State. The region is highly underdeveloped and for civil servants known as a place for "deportation" (the Turkish word "sürgün" means to be ordered to other places as some kind of sanction). Members of the armed forces as well as the administration find themselves as "strangers" in their own country, most of them unwilling to learn the language of the population, thus creating the impression of an "occupying force".

Parallel to the growing number of Marxist-Leninist organizations in Turkey during the 1970s Kurdish left-wing organizations emerged. Most of them shared the view that independence should first be gained on Iraqi soil (as the "weakest part of the chain"). Many Kurdish as well as Turkish left-wing groups favoured the argument of armed "propaganda", that meant trying to gain support by killing not only representatives of the State, but also members of extremist right-wing organizations as well as competing left-wing groups. The result was some kind of civil war that presented the pretext for yet another military coup in September 1980.

Already in December 1978 the clashes had led to the announcement of martial law in 13 (of by then 67 provinces) of Turkey. Eight of these provinces had a pre-dominantly Kurdish population. Until September 1980 another 7 provinces were put under martial law, 6 of them in the "Kurdish" area. The military coup of 12 September 1980 extended martial law to all provinces of Turkey. The national assembly was disbanded, trade unions and democratic association were banned and the National Security Council composed of the five generals of the Chief of Staff replaced the government. Within three years the generals imposed a new constitution and passed some 800 laws in order to form a militarily disciplined society.

Besides some militants of the extreme right, members of left-wing Turkish and Kurdish organizations became the prime target of persecution. More than half a million people were detained on political grounds and interrogated under torture. More than 250 prisoners died during these interrogations. At the same time conditions in the military prisons of Metris (Istanbul), Mamak (Ankara) and in Diyarbakir became notorious. Diyarbakir Military Court heard most cases against "separatist" organizations. Some 5.000 members of the PKK (at the time also known as "Apocular" the followers of Abdullah Öcalan, called Apo) were tried and between 1981 and 1984 alone some 30 prisoners died in Diyarbakir Military Prison as a result of hunger-strikes, suicide, beatings and illness.

However, repression did not only exist in custody and prison. Frequent raids in villages usually took some form of torture, by for instance gathering the population in the middle of the village and forcing the male population to undress in front of the women. All this, plus a legal ban of the Kurdish language introduced by the military junta in 1983 increased the feeling of injustice among the Kurdish population.

Already in 1979 the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, had escaped to Syria where he was able to reorganize his party and train young people as guerrillas for warfare in Turkey. His theory of "the first bullet" that had to be shot at the right time seemed to prove right, because the organizations rapidly grew after the attacks in Eruh and Semdinli.

The scope of human rights abuses against the Kurdish population

The war between Kurdish guerillas and Turkish security forces has been termed quite differently. While the official language calls it "the fight against terrorism" or "a low level conflict", the Kurdish side has usually used the word "dirty war" trying to stress the inhuman methods used in combating the "29th uprising" as the current President of State, Süleyman Demirel, once called it. The various types of human rights abuses in the area have frequently been reported on by national and international NGOs.

"Kurds in Turkey have been killed, tortured and disappeared at an appalling rate since the coalition government of Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel took office in November 1991. In addition, many of their cities have been brutally attacked by security forces, hundreds of their villages have been forcibly evacuated, their ethnic identity continues to be attacked, their rights to free expression denied and their political freedom placed in jeopardy." (*)

Similarly Amnesty International wrote in October 1996:

"The conflict between security forces and the PKK in southeast Turkey, where most of the estimated 12 million Kurds live, has unquestionably contributed to the deterioration for human rights throughout the country... Some generals and police chief argue that respecting human rights will obstruct their efforts to combat armed opposition ... (page 5f.)

Repression has long been the response to security problems in Turkey, but in 1991 certain elements in the security forces went even further. They stepped outside the law and began to wage a full-scale dirty war. An unprecedented wave of political murder swept through the southeast but continued onto the streets of Ankara and Istanbul... More than 1,000 people have died in these political street killings since 1991." (**)

Besides the dramatic increase in cases of "disappearances" and extra-judicial killings in the early 1990s the most serious violation of rights was the destruction, burning and evacuation of villages, whose population was unwilling to take up arms against the PKK. (***) In an attempt "to dry the sea in order to get to the fish" (deprive the guerrilla of support among the local population) over 3.500 villages and hamlets were completely or partly destroyed and the population forced to leave. The figures on how many people were affected vary greatly between 350.000 and 3 million. (****)

(*) Helsinki Watch: "The Kurds of Turkey: Killings, Disappearances and Torture", New York - March 1993, page 1.

(**) Amnesty International: "Turkey: No security without human rights", London - October 1996, page 50f.

(***) Immediately after the first attacks of the PKK the Turkish government revived Law No. 442 of 17.03.1924. The scope of this law on “village guards“ (korucu) was extended in 1985 and 1990 introducing “temporary guards“ as well as “voluntary guards“. In May 1997 Interior Minister Meral Aksener announced that 62.654 people were paid as “tenporary guards“ (but the number of “village guards“ is usually estimated at around 100.000). The fact whether tribes and villages would accept arms for the fight against the PKK is usually seen as the decisive point of loyalty.

(****)“The exact number of persons forcibly displaced from villages in the southeast since 1984 is unknown. Most estimates agree that 2,600 to 3,000 villages and hamlets have been depopulated. A few non-governmental organizations (NGO's) put the number of persons forcibly displaced as high as 2 million. On the low end, the Government reported that through l997 the total number of evacu-ees was 336,717. A figure given by a former M.P. from the region --560,000-- appears to be the most credible estimate of those forcibly evacuated. A parliamentary committee investigated the situation in the southeast and concluded in June that, among other things, the State was partly responsible for the displacements and that it had failed to adequately compensate villagers who had lost their homes and lands in the region. The European Court of Human Rights often ruled in favor of villagers who sued over forcible evacuations, and the Government continued to pay assessed damages.“ (quoted from “U.S. Department of State Turkey Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998 Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor February 26, 1999“)