Turkey's Kurds Flee to Cities to Escape Poverty, Fighting

By Patterson, Margot | National Catholic Reporter, July 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

Turkey's Kurds Flee to Cities to Escape Poverty, Fighting


Patterson, Margot, National Catholic Reporter


ISTANBUL, Turkey-Imam Irmak sells carpets in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar sprawling complex of shops whose origins date back to the 1400s At the age of 7, Irmak ran away from home in south eastern Turkey to come to Istanbul on the country's far-western border.

"I came alone to find a good life," he says simply.

Irmak's family were Kurds living in one of Turkey's poorest and most neglected regions, an area that is home to approximately 6 million Kurds.

He found work selling water in a bazaar. Later, he worked in a restaurant and then as a singer. He learned Turkish and began attending school. When he was 11, he telephoned home to his village to let his family know he was all right. They had given up hope that he was still alive. Since then, Irmak has been able to bring his parents and his eight brothers and sisters to Istanbul with the money he has earned. Now 28, he works in a friend's carpet shop.

On a warm summer day, Irmak spoke matter-of-factly about his present and past. He still sings. and says that in a few weeks he is going to be making a recording of traditional Turkish music. All his family now live in Istanbul except for an uncle who remains in the southeast, a region now torn by war between government forces and the outlawed PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, seeking to establish an independent Kurdistan state in southeastern Turkey. Even for his uncle, Irmak thinks life is better.

A child travelling hundreds of miles by himself to look for work and a decent life is almost unimaginable in the United States. But for Kurds, poverty and migration are common experiences. As the conflict between government forces and Kurdish separatists-has intensified in recent years, more Kurds have been fleeing the region, contributing to the largest wave of migration in Turkey's history. According to The Turkish Daily News, since 1985 the southeast has lost 66.9 percent of it population, with most of those moving from the countryside to the cities.

Kurds living in many areas of the southeast are caught between government security forces and the PKK. Considered one of the largest and most violent insurgency movements in the world, the PKK receives much of its money from drug-trafficking operations as well as from foreign sources in Syria, Iraq and Iran. The PKK's violence is directed against both Turkish security forces and civilians, almost all of whom are Kurds the PKK accuse of cooperating with the state.

The media, human rights organizations and the Turkish government say the PKK routinely kidnaps young men and threatens their family as part of their recruitment. The PKK has assassinated soldiers, doctors, teachers, village leaders and young men who have resisted recruitment, and has destroyed clinics and schools.

Early this month, the Turkish Parliament narrowly approved Necmetin Erbakan, the leader of a pro-Islamic party, as prime minister. Erbakan will head a new coalition government between his party end the canter-right party led by Tansu Ciller. Since its founding in 1923, following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey has been zealously secular. The coming to power of a religious party has created concern both inside and outside of Turkey and has generated a wave of articles in the Western press. The odd alliance formed between Erbakan's Welfare Party and the pro-Western True Path Party follows-months of inconclusive wrangling between Ciller and Mesut Yilmaz, the leader of the Motherland Party and her partner in a previous coalition government.

The relationship between Turkey and its Kurdish minority has been called the dialogue of the deaf. Little mention was made of the Kurdish issue in the negotiations leading up to the approval of Erbakan as prime minister, though the Kardish issue is one of the most pressing problems confronting the new government. Similarly, many reports in the Western media failed to even mention the Kurds. …

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