The Kurds in Turkey

The Kurds are a large and distinct ethnic minority in the Middle East, numbering some 25-30 million people. The area that they have inhabited--referred to on maps for centuries as "Kurdistan"--spans modern day Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Half of the Kurds reside in Turkey, where they comprise over 20 percent of the Turkish population.

Modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatürk--"father of the Turks"), enacted a constitution 70 years ago which denied the existence of distinct cultural sub-groups in Turkey. As a result, any expression by the Kurds (as well as other minorities in Turkey) of unique ethnic identity has been harshly repressed. For example, until 1991, the use of the Kurdish language--although widespread--was illegal. To this day, any talk that hints of Kurdish nationalism is deemed separatism, and grounds for imprisonment.

The Turkish government has consistently thwarted attempts by the Kurds to organize politically. Kurdish political parties are shut down one after another, and party members are harassed and imprisoned for "crimes of opinion." Most famously, in 1994 Leyla Zana--who, three years prior, had been the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament--was sentenced to 15 years for "separatist speech." Her party was banned. More recently, in June the leaders of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HADEP) were sentenced to several-year prison terms for allegedly having ties with the outlawed PKK guerillas. The state prosecutors' evidence consisted largely of press releases found in the HADEP offices from a news agency close to the PKK.

Adding to the grievances of Turkey's Kurds is the economic underdevelopment of the southeast. The Ankara government has systematically withheld resources from the Kurdish region. As a result, there are two distinct Turkeys: the northern and western regions are highly developed and cosmopolitan, part of the "first world," while the south and east are truly of the "third world."

The disparity and repression led to the formation of an armed separatist movement, the PKK, in 1984. While the majority of Turkey's Kurds do not openly support separatism from the Turkish state, many do support the PKK, as the only force fighting for broader Kurdish cultural, economic and political rights.

The state immediately responded to this threat with increased force, deploying some 300,000 troops in the southeast at an annual cost of $8 billion. In addition, the Turkish armed forces instituted a system of "village guards," paying and arming Kurds to keep the PKK guerillas out of their villages. Villages that refuse to participate in the guard system face demolition by the Turkish military, while those that go along suffer under harsh reprisals by the PKK.

The war escalated dramatically in the early 1990s. Between 1984-91, an estimated 2,500 people had been killed. Over the next four years, that figure shot up to 20,000. Some 3,000 villages have been destroyed by the military in an effort to rout out PKK sympathizers, creating more than 2 million refugees.

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