What Do Kurds in Turkey Really Want?

Dec 27, 2013 at 3:09 PM ET

Over the past three decades, 40,000 people have died in the violent conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK). But earlier this year, the peace process seemed to gain momentum, as the PKK announced a ceasefire, and the Turkish government said it was willing to negotiate with the banned group over the rights of the country’s roughly 15 million Kurds.

Many of the world’s Kurds—an ethnic group that’s scattered across the Middle East and Asia Minor—once dreamed of an independent Kurdish state, but over the past half decade, that dream seemed to be waning in favor of more practical hopes of autonomy. In Iraq, for instance, the Kurds now have a state within a state, complete with their own flag and army. Yet for more than a year, a Syrian affiliate of the PKK has seen its power grow in the country’s north, as the group has gained control over a number of towns, once again raising hopes that the Kurds of the world could soon unite.

In Turkey, the peace process is at least tentatively on hold, partly due to a corruption scandal that’s roiling Ankara. But I still wondered: After decades of fighting, are the country’s Kurds actually willing to give up their dreams of independence for the compromise of autonomy?

To find out, I visited Kiziltepe, a town in the southeastern Turkey, which is known for
 its strong sense of Kurdish nationalism. What I learned surprised me: Most Kurds want to remain part of Turkey, but there’s clearly a generational divide—one that illustrates the urgency of the negotiations.

“In the end, I don’t want to travel to Istanbul with a 
passport,” says Şehmus, a 63-year-old shoe seller, who, like many Kurds I met, didn’t offer his last name.

Fahrettin, a 39-year-old watch repairman, agreed. “Autonomy is better,” he says. “The Kurds will have more freedom in a system of local governance in which our kids can learn their mother tongue.”

This language issue is perhaps the most important one for Kurds. In October, the Turkish government announced it was ending its ban on the letters  “w,” “x” and “q,” which are part of the Kurdish alphabet but not the Turkish one. Yet the reforms did not give Kurds the right to use their mother tongue as their primary language in state-run schools.

“We want 
all the groups like Arabs, Assyrians or Kurds living in this region to express themselves freely,” says Ferhan Türk, the mayor of Kiziltepe. “So autonomy or local governance would be
 a good solution.”

Older Kurds find that solution much more favorable than their younger counterparts. “Everybody would want an independent state,” Azat, a 30-year-old shopkeeper, told me. “We want our language, government and country.”

Muhittin, a high school student, agreed, but in much more strident terms. “Half of the Kurdish I speak is Turkish,” he says. “We have been assimilated for a very long time.

Many Kurdish youth who no memory of the worst parts of decades-old conflict, and they’re less eager to compromise. This is a generational divide that Kurdish elders often talk about. They say the government needs to hurry up and finish the peace process before younger Kurds come to power.

As we say goodbye, Muhittin turns to me and says: “One day Kurdistan will
 be established. Then you are welcome to come and have a cup of tea
 with us.”