In the Land of 'Empty People'

Diyarbakir, Turkey."I was 7 when I was first punched by a Turkish policeman. Why? Because I was playing soccer in the street and I was making a bit of noise. Later I collected many explanations for that blow. Especially in the 10 years I spent in prison."

Four years ago, at age 30, Nurallah was released from prison, but he is still suspicious, as if expecting another punch to the face. He thoroughly quizzes the interpreter, Ilmaz: Who is this journalist? Is he really a journalist? He asks for a business card and apologizes that he cannot give his last name.

We meet in the Kurdish regional center of Diyarbakir, in southeast Turkey. "Southeast" Turkey is ostensibly just a geographical description. Ostensibly, because "southeast Turkey" is more than a geographical description just as Israel's "Wadi Ara" is more than a geographical description. Yes, of course, it is an integral part of Turkey and anybody who says otherwise can be indicted under the clause of "harming national unity."

But for most Turks, the most accurate depiction of southeast Turkey is that of a friend I meet in Istanbul after my visit in Diyarbakir: "You went to the Kurds?" she asks, horrified. "To Diyarbakir? That hole? What's there? People with baggy pants, women wrapped up, and men just hanging around. You went there for that? They're all terrorists over there you could have been killed."

Nurallah describes it differently. "It's a sense of occupation," he declares. We meet in the Tigris and Euphrates Center for Art and Culture. At the entrance to its courtyard are a number of sculptures of faceless people, an exhibition by the Kurdish artist Ganjo that describes the situation of the Kurds in Turkey. The exhibition is called "The Empty People." "But we are not at all empty here," says Nurallah; "we're full of hope."

That is apparently the reason why he and his friends established this center about two years ago, so that young Kurds would have somewhere to create. At the entrance to the courtyard sits the folk-poet Sayit Khan, reciting Kurdish poems about other times, while a small audience of elderly men seated on low cane chairs drink in every word.

The building contains a small coffee house, which attracts high-schoolers, and is a venue for music and art workshops. "This is our way of filling the empty people with content," explains Nurallah. The content is the Kurdish language, Kurdish songs, Kurdish art. True, the authorities have allowed them to appear more in public of late, but only a little more. For example, there is a Kurdish radio station that is now allowed to play Kurdish songs, but not all Kurdish songs, and the presenter's chat and the commercials are not allowed to be in Kurdish, only Turkish, the official language.

Kurdish has the status of a "guest" language, which can be denounced or banned at any moment. There are no Kurdish newspapers, and the language is not taught in school. About two years ago, the Turkish government allowed the opening of private institutes for the study of Kurdish, but the Kurds themselves shut them down. "It is unthinkable that we should have to pay about [USD] 75 dollars per child per month for him to learn his own mother-tongue," Ilmaz explains.

The Art Center also had difficulties getting started. "In the meantime, we're trying to maintain a low profile and keep all the activities going," says Nurallah. He relates that even during his 10 years in prison, he never stopped dealing with "Kurdish matters."

He and his friends would get Turkish books in prison, but all their discussions were in Kurdish. "What could they do to us for speaking Kurdish? Put us in prison?" As he puts it: "Gradually even the warders all Turkish, of course began to recognize that we were human beings too, just like them."

Nurallah was tried for the serious crime of membership in the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, which is defined by the Turkish authorities as a terrorist organization. Nurallah's father was also hounded by the authorities. For a year he was on the "Wanted" list, until his name was removed and he could return home. Where did he hide and who helped him? Nurallah will not talk about it, even today. You never know, maybe he himself will need the same hiding places some day.

Diyarbakir is a big city, though no one knows the exact number of residents. Officially, it is half a million; but the locals talk of one million, and if you include the large periphery, it may reach 2.5 million. Ilmaz believes that about half the breadwinners are unemployed.

A very senior government official I meet in Ankara admits that "there are thousands of Kurdish families that don't have even a single source of income." Among others, he blames the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for not doing enough for the Kurds. But previous governments did almost nothing as well, he claims.

But throwing political blame at Ankara does not interest Hilmi Aydogdu, head of the Diyarbakir branch, and the power-base, of Ahmet Turk's DTP party. This is the third incarnation of the same Kurdish party, which has repeatedly disbanded and revived under a different name, but with the same activists. Because of Turkey's high electoral threshold (10%), the party has never made it into parliament.

The magic words on Aydogdu's lips are "the European Union." That is apparently the only body that has achieved something for the Kurds, because of the lure being part of Europe has for Turkey. Not that the EU is saintly: It uses the issue of Kurdish rights as a rod against Turkey. The EU is somewhat appalled at the possibility that a Muslim country, whose workers are among the lowest paid in the world, will one day become an organic part of Europe. Meanwhile, at least the Kurds can depend on the EU.

Activists and supporters keep coming into Aydogdu's small office, and not just to shake his hand and express support. He speaks of "our ambition to achieve equality in this state, with its anti-democratic system." But you will not hear expressions like "cultural autonomy," "political separatism" or, heaven forbid, "an independent Kurdish state on Turkish soil," not even once.

As someone who has spent 14 years in prison, and now heads his party's most important branch, Aydogdu weighs his words very carefully. Instead of demanding autonomy, he explains what he is fighting against, the opposite of autonomy: "the greatest danger facing us assimilation." This is a misleading concept in the Kurdish context, he says, because there is forced assimilation by the government, which "does not allow the expression of Kurdish culture, teaching the language, or writing in or speaking Kurdish in the official media." There is also voluntary assimilation of "people who have lost their identity and see themselves as Turks. They are the same Kurds who voted for other parties instead of their own real party. They are the Kurds who are interested in politics, not in their rights." Aydogdu seems to be angrier with them than with the Turkish government.

And what if an independent Kurdish state were to be established in northern Iraq, in the area of Kurdistan? What influence would it have on the Kurds in Turkey? "Of course it would be a moral boost," says Aydogdu. "We see how the Kurds in Iraq are achieving independence, how they have cultural rights. They have their own parliament and a presidency. They have political power in Iraq. It gives us hope that we too will win such rights. Cultural rights," he hastens to add, "not an independent state."

His party, although he will not admit it, is helped by the PKK, according to several party ctivists. "There is no reason we should not be helped by anyone who is willing to help. The PKK doesn't want an independent state, either. Just cultural rights," he explains. Let him try and convince the leaders in Ankara of that. "It's a mistake to see the PKK as only a terrorist organization," says one of the party members. "They help people. They even finance some of the politicians. They help widows and orphans and prisoners' families. They are our flesh and blood."

'The government was for the Palestinians, but still against us'As we sit on the terrace of the Kurdish Ozlar[?] Restaurant in Diyarbakir, I wonder aloud whether anyone would report it to the authorities if an armed PKK man were to come by now. "Of course," answers one of my Kurdish acquaintances. "This town is full of people who have assimilated and lost their identity. These are people who don't care about marrying Turkish women or giving their daughters to Turks."

Sami (who also prefers not to give his last name) apparently thinks otherwise. In March, the windows of his cell-phone store were smashed by PKK supporters. The organization had demanded that all businesses close for a day of mourning for six activists killed by the Turkish army. In some towns and villages in the area, there was almost total compliance.

In Diyarbakir, the response was weak, and angry activists sought to teach the recalcitrants a lesson through their shop-windows. No one complained to the police, of course.

Sami feels that the whole business of the PKK hurts business and compromises the prosperity of the area. "Since the riots, my earnings have gone down 25%. Who does that help?" he asks. "The workers I was forced to fire? The staff of hotels that will get fewer tourists this year, and the workers will lose their jobs?" Sami reveals, almost secretively, that when he was a Marxist he was pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. "I felt that they were like us," he explains, "that they had no representation in Turkey, and that the Turkish government worked against them exactly as it worked against us. But when they were allowed to open a delegation in Ankara, I understood that something had changed. The Turkish government was for the Palestinians, but still against us. That's when I stopped supporting them and began supporting Israel." That, too, is something in a city with a downtown store collecting supplies and clothing for the needy in Palestine and Lebanon.

Some distance away from Sami's store is a large park where poor families come on hot nights to get a breath of fresh air. On the sidewalk, next to the wall that surrounds it, are two pink carnations and a photograph of a small boy, a memorial of an incident that occurred here a month ago, on September 9. Around 9 PM, "something" exploded on this sidewalk, when the area was full of people. Ten were killed, among them seven children.

The PKK was immediately blamed, but citizens are skeptical. "Why would the PKK murder Kurdish passersby for no reason," one questions. Many believe that it was the work of a murder squad operated by the Turkish security forces, or a private initiative of what are called "avengers." Or perhaps provocateurs like those exposed in the village of Semdinli in 2005, where an intelligence operative connected to the Turkish army was apparently the one who threw a hand-grenade into a book store. The intention was to implicate the PKK, and thus clear the way for a new campaign to "cleanse" them.

"There have been worse times," says Ilmaz, when I ask him if people are afraid now to go out in the streets. "There were evenings that began and ended with shooting, in which only the following morning did we find out how many had been killed. What's happening now is nothing." And if a Kurdish state is established in Iraq, with rights, the language, jobs would you move there? "Are you crazy?" he answers. "Here we have movies, trips, girls. We have modern clothes and fashion and Europe. And what do they have there? One tribal leader and another tribal leader?"