For Turkey’s Kurds, Nowruz Symbolizes Political Resistance

Kurds gather in southern Turkey to mark Nowruz and attempt to revitalize their push for independence

Kurds gathered despite threats of a terror attack and crackdowns on political dissent — REUTERS
Mar 22, 2017 at 1:51 PM ET

Holding a loft the Iraqi Kurdistan flag he smuggled past police in his underwear, Ayhan Turkmen stands out in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Kurds celebrating Nowruz in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir. “The police took one flag from me, but I had this other one hidden just in case,” Turkmen says with a grin, as people stop to ask him if they can pose for a picture.

More than 4,000 police officers are securing the festival, forming multiple perimeters around an open park with space in the center for the giant bonfire that will be lit to mark the Persian New Year and the beginning of spring. Women in colorful Kurdish Nowruz dresses press against others in olive jumpsuits styled after Kurdish separatist fighters as they queue to pass through the checkpoints. With hundreds of Kurds killed by ISIS bombers in Turkey over the last few years, Nowruz is a prime target, so police carefully check for weapons, at one point even shooting and killing a man who was found with a knife.

But the police aren’t just there for security. Flags and banners supporting the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the myriad of other Kurdish militias in the region – once a ubiquitous sight at Nowruz – have been banned this year. “Even last year, we were free to bring whatever we wanted, and you would see pictures of Ocalan all over this park,” says Turkmen, referring to the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan.

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For Kurds, Nowruz has come to symbolize political resistance. In the 1990s, at the height of the last PKK insurgency, tanks rolled into villages outside Diyarbakir, where they confronted Kurds trying to gather to celebrate Nowruz. At least 100 people were killed in 1992 by soldiers trying to enforce a ban on the festival.

By 2009, the political space had opened up, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was enlisting Kurdish politicians to negotiate with the imprisoned Ocalan. In 2013, at the Newroz festival in Diyarbakir, they read out a statement form the Middle East’s most well-known guerrilla leader calling on his followers to lay down arms.  “It was a glorious scene, that speech, of course, people were happy to hear Ocalan say that,” said Orun, a Kurdish man who came from a village outside the city for the festival.

With the threat of an ISIS attack and the crackdown on the Kudish political scene, many regular Nowruz attendees were reluctant to celebrate.

Less than three years ago, the situation was the opposite in Diyarbakir. The Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), a leftist grassroots party that became the most successful pro-Kurdish party in Turkish history, was winning district elections across the Kurdish southeast, and in 2015, became the third largest party in Parliament. HDP leaders helped secure the 2013 ceasefire, and in 81 districts in the south east they set about undoing decades of restrictions on Kurdish culture, putting up signs around Diyarbakir in Kurdish, and pouring funds into festivals like Nowruz.

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The HDP’s success also allowed activists to create regional cooperatives to implement ideas Ocalan had long advocated for, including setting up local autonomous structures and women’s rights cooperatives.

“We wanted to create an autonomous political structure, and after decades of work, we were finally able to do so, even doing it within in the law,” says Ayse Gokkan, a leftist activist who helps lead the Free Women’s Movement, an umbrella group in the region advocating for women’s rights. In neighborhoods in cities like Diyarbakir, local councils were set up to bring together hundreds of residents to streamline decision-making and prioritize how funds were spent. In a region where literacy is the lowest among women in Turkey, they set up centers where victims of domestic violence could report incidents and seek legal and social support. Local governments and political parties even agreed to quotas for women civil servants, and to appoint male and female co-chairs to senior party positions.

All of that fell apart in 2015, as Kurds in Turkey watched the success of militias in neighboring Syria taking control of a vast swathe of territory and declared the kind of autonomous state Ocalan had long called for.

When two Turkish police officers were killed in Diyarbakir, the government blamed PKK militants and declared the ceasefire officially over. One of its first targets was Diyarbakir’s ancient walled district of Sur, where militant groups in six neighborhoods had declared autonomy and erected barriers and dug trenches to keep out police. A months’ long battle followed, with soldiers shooting civilians who violated round-the-clock curfews. Some 25,000 residents were forced out of their homes and their neighborhoods were leveled by tanks and bulldozers.

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“We, the Kurdish political movement, are being systematically dismantled now,” says Gokkan. Each day in Turkey now brings news that workers from the HDP and other pro-Kurdish parties have been arrested or detained, and Gokkan has watched her colleagues disappearing one by one.

A state of emergency was imposed during last year’s botched coup attempt. Every week Ankara seemingly issues a new presidential decree, targeting individuals and organizations for alleged ties to the PKK or those suspected of involvement in the failed coup. The domestic violence support network Gorkhan helped set up is now one of thousands of non-profits that have been shuttered. Thousands of confidential case files are now in the hands of the police, who have begun investigating victims for ties to the PKK.

More than 5,000 HDP workers are under arrest, charged with supporting the PKK, and 81 district governments have been replaced by federally-appointed caretakers. Cities like Diyarbakir, where the HDP enjoys widespread support, are now tinderboxes ready to ignite.

Thirteen HDP Parliament members, including its two co-chairs, Selahettin Demirtas and Figen Yukesdag, are in prison, facing scores of terrorism cases for statements and actions deemed sympathetic towards the PKK.  Yuksekdag, for instance, faces one charge of supporting a terror group for a statement in 2016 that acknowledged her party is ideologically connected with the Kurdish militias operating in northern Syria. She is also battling a charge for attending the funeral of an alleged leftist militant.

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For many Kurds in Turkey, much of the blame for the current war lies not with the PKK, but with the government, which chose to return to conflict instead of making good on the ceasefire announced at Nowruz in 2013. Demirtas, one of Turkey’s most charismatic politicians who ran for President against Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2014, now faces more than 100 years in prison.

“Our best leaders are in prison,” says Orun, as he watches the traditional bonfire being lit at the Nowruz festival.  “We have to return to the negotiating table, of course you can’t have a war all the time. But now there is no one left to talk to.”