No progress for the Kurds this year, only pain

With or without central government-appointed administrators, the will of Kurds is ignored. It does not matter which country they live in.
Sunday 18/11/2018
A century-old denial. Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army members pull down the Kurdish statue of Kawa the blacksmith  in Afrin, last March. (Reuters)
A century-old denial. Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army members pull down the Kurdish statue of Kawa the blacksmith in Afrin, last March. (Reuters)

For the Kurds, it has been another difficult year in all four parts of Kurdistan.

Developments in the region following the September 25, 2017, independence referendum called by Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), are indications of what would happen to the Kurds if they laid claim to sovereignty over their own lands.

Before the referendum, pro-government Turkish newspapers warned the region’s KRG President Masoud Barzani: “You asked for it Barzani”; “Israel cannot save Barzani”; “The referendum is invalid” and “Let Barzani think about the aftermath.”

The Turkish Islamist daily Akit published a cartoon of Barzani beheaded.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was furious, declaring the overwhelming vote for independence illegitimate. He warned he would shut off a major pipeline carrying oil from Iraqi Kurdish-controlled areas to the Turkish coast.

“We have the control over the pipeline, let’s see to who they will sell the petrol to,” Erdogan roared. “We may come one night unexpectedly,” he said, threatening military operations. Erdogan’s called Barzani a “dog.”

The racist, nationalist and chauvinist rhetoric of Turkey’s leftist main opposition Republican People’s Party came as no surprise to Kurds.

After the referendum, threats from Turkey, Iran and Iraq, the deployment of Iraqi government troops on the border crossing with Turkey, the Kurds’ loss of control over the city of Kirkuk and its oilfields reversed decades of gains. They were, in some sense, the results of the divisions between Kurds.

In January, Turkish forces and their Syrian Islamist rebel allies initiated “Operation Olive Branch,” an offensive to seize the Kurdish-controlled northern Syrian district of Afrin. The Turkish media were on duty again: “The Turkish nation backs you,” “Blessed be our holy war” and “We hit the traitors” screamed the headlines.

Afrin, a city of 1 million inhabitants and refugees from elsewhere in Syria was captured and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to leave their homes. Many people, including myself, who opposed the Afrin operation were taken into custody and openly targeted by the media.

Nearly every day Turkish warplanes took off from Diyarbakir to support the country’s forces in Syria. Dozens of Kurdish settlements were declared military zones and off limits. Forest fires broke out in areas where the Turkish military fought the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Neither the death toll of soldiers nor of PKK fighters is known. Thus, we are left to count the funerals in the region, though several bodies may not have been recovered. A report by the Diyarbakir Chamber of Human Rights Association stated that in the first half of 2018, 51 soldiers or police officers and 132 armed militants died in the region.

On the eve of celebrations of the Kurdish new year (Newroz), the destruction of the statue of Kurdish resistance symbol, Kawa the blacksmith, in the centre of Afrin by the Turkey-backed Syrian groups fuelled the anger of Kurds.

Despite the pressures, tens of thousands turned out for Newroz celebrations in cities across Turkey but the enthusiasm of the crowds was not like previous years. In the Newroz speeches, speakers emphasised unity and solidarity but hopes for an alliance of Kurdish parties in Turkey June’s general elections in Turkey failed.

The Supreme Electoral Council relocated many polling stations in Kurdish cities, forcing approximately 170,000 voters to cast ballots away from their own neighbourhoods or hometowns.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party passed the 10% election threshold and entered parliament but Erdogan’s presidential election victory deepened the desperation felt by Kurds. The imprisonment of experienced Kurdish politicians weakened the influence of Kurdish parties and Kurdish people’s trust in politics has declined dramatically.

In the last year, the demolition has almost ended of buildings damaged in fighting between security forces and Kurdish militants in the winter of 2015-16. Turkey’s Public Housing Development Agency has built dozens of high-rise blocks in the south-eastern cities of Cizre, Nusaybin, Diyarbakir, Yuksekova and Sirnak.

Bodies continue to be found during construction. Some are sent to forensics to be identified but others join the ranks of graves of the nameless.

Some Kurds call this fighting the “city wars” and others call it “the great war.” The question why it happened is waiting to be answered. The Kurds are angry. Their hearts are broken. The heartbreak will be passed to following generations and will lessen the possibility of living together in peace.

November 1 was the second anniversary of the government’s appointment of administrators to take control of Kurdish cities, most notably Diyarbakir, from their elected mayors. Kurds are living in the shadows of Turkish flags, tanks and police.

It is a life in which Kurdish civil society organisations have been closed, women’s organisations shut down, Kurdish representatives imprisoned and cultural centres abolished. Kurdish street names are changed to Turkish ones. Parts of cities are blocked by barricades and even children’s tombstones are destroyed.

With or without central government-appointed administrators, the will of Kurds is ignored. It does not matter which country they live in.

The story of the Kurds has not changed for a century. This is a story moulded by blood, cruelty, agony and struggle. A century-old denial continues but we do not disappear just because they say we do not exist.

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