DESPITE Kurds making up 20 per cent of the population, the Turkish state denied their existence until 1991. They were referred to instead as “Mountain Turks.”
Kurdish people have suffered discrimination, persecution and massacres by Turkish governments who see Kurdish identity as a threat. The constitution in 1923 banned Kurdish people from speaking, writing and learning their own language while the words “Kurd” and “Kurdistan” were forbidden.
The attempt to destroy Kurdish identity is not new but it is entering a critical and dangerous phase.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing a long tradition and history as he wages an all-out racist war on the Kurdish people with mass arrests, cities placed under round-the-clock curfew and the flattening of whole districts with the mass displacement of communities.
In 1930 the Zilan massacre saw around 15,000 people — men, women and babies — killed. Many were machine-gunned to death and bodies piled up in the river.
Kurds describe how dead bodies were piled up on top of one another with a flow of blood that lasted weeks. A woman who “played dead” told how she witnessed soldiers slice open the stomach of a pregnant woman and shoot her foetus.
When two journalists published an interview in 2007 with a 94-year-old eyewitness to the massacres they were arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison for “inciting hatred and hostility.”
The Dersim massacre in 1938 saw as many as 70,000 killed in eastern Turkey under the Turkification programme.
Thousands of Alevi Zazas were killed as around 25,000 Turkish troops were deployed to the area and planes dropped bombs and poisonous gas on the province.
But it is the notorious Diyarbakir prison that is ingrained in the memory of most Kurdish people. It is described as the Auschwitz of the 1980 military coup which saw the banning of trade unions and other organisations and the arrest of tens of thousands in the crackdown that followed.
The prison — a military martial law jail — was been described as “hell” and many were tortured and killed behind its walls. The inmates were subjected to humiliating and degrading conditions.
Beatings with wooden planks, electrocutions and Palestinian hangings — by the arms — were a daily occurence.
Prisoners were killed or committed suicide. In desperation four inmates burned themselves alive in protest. Rape and sexual abuse was rife in what was a systematic attempt to dehumanise the Kurdish people.
A sign in the visitors area read: “Speak Turkish, speak more” as the Kurdish language was banned. Many relatives of the prisoners did not speak Turkish and parents could not communicate with their children for fear of serious repurcussions.
They sat in silence and became known as the “tongueless mothers.”
Esat Oktay Yildiran was the infamous commander of the prison and he would degrade visitors by making them defer to his dog Joe. They were made to refer to him as “commander.” Inside the prison Joe was set on naked and blindfolded prisoners as Yildiran ordered the dog to bite their testicles as part of his brutal torture regime.
Years later a parliamentary committee heard testimony from many of those who had suffered in the prison. Abdurrahim Semavu was tortured during his seven years inside Diyarbakir and explained that he was not able to take a bath for three years. But the most humiliating part of his experience was being forced to eat rats.
“I saw the carcass of a rat on one of the dishes they handed to the prisoners. It was stinking and I refused to eat, but the guards forced me to eat it,” he told the committee.
And speaking at an event in the US at International Day in Support of Torture Victims and Survivors, former mayor of Diyarbakir Mehdi Zana said: “What did we ask for? The right to speak our own language, to learn it in school and to have newspapers, radio and television broadcasts in Kurdish. We want to live as complete human beings, with respect to our dignity, our personality and our identity. This is why we are imprisoned, why we are tortured and why we are killed.”
He described being beaten and tortured until he passed out. Electrical wires were attached to his genitals and anus and his hold body convulsed as he was electrocuted.
In words that carry a resonance today he said: “Torturers and the governments that sponsor or tolerate them are counting on you, just as they counted on my judge, to remain silent.
“They depend upon democratic decent governments around the world to acquiesce and accept their rationalisations. To agree with their excuses. To justify documented torture and repression as ‘an internal affair.’
“Don’t let this happen. Do not be silent. It is your affair. Speak up for those whose lives have been damaged or stolen. Do not allow your humanity to be diluted by you or your government’s silence.”
The persecution of the Kurdish people continues. In November the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democractic Party) Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag were arrested and are currently in prison after the government lifted MPs’ immunity from prosecution.
To put this into perspective, this would be the equivalent of Theresa May arresting Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, throwing them in Belmarsh Prison while issuing arrest warrants for the whole of Labour’s front bench and all other MPs.
At time of writing, there have been 12 HDP MPs arrested, along with 64 pro-Kurdish mayors and 3,051 officials. Some 46 municipalities have been taken over by Turkish authorities.
Twenty-two Kurdish towns and cities are subject to round-the-clock curfew with entire districts such as Sur in Diyarbakir and cities such as Sirnak being flattened as the government attempts to destroy the Kurdish culture and identity.
We must press our government to hold Erdogan to account and stop selling arms and giving military aid to a country that continues to persecute its own people. We stand in solidarity with the Kurds and with the people of Turkey. We cannot stay silent any longer.