NATO's Ethnic Cleansing: The Kurdish Question in Turkey

By Esim, Sinan | Monthly Review, June 1999 | Go to article overview

NATO's Ethnic Cleansing: The Kurdish Question in Turkey


Esim, Sinan, Monthly Review


Of all the arguments put forward in defense of the NATO war against Yugoslavia, that which invokes the plight of Kosovar Albanians is certainly the most powerful. The claim that NATO is an appropriate instrument to pursue the aim of defending the lives and rights of the Kosovars is logically the fundamental premise of the pro-intervention left. Leaving aside all of the other problems concerning this kind of approach to imperialism and war, we need only look to one of the member countries of the alliance to see the utter hypocrisy of the NATO claim of humanitarian intentions in response to ethnic cleansing and oppression. That country is Turkey, whose planes are participating in the air operations in Yugoslavia and which has prepared special forces to be used for eventual ground combat. This is the same country which, for decades (practically since the foundation of the republic in 1923), has subjected its Kurds to the most ignominious oppression and that recently carried out one of the dirtiest wars ever waged against a national liberation movement. Turkey also resorted to one of the most massive operations of ethnic cleansing since the Second World War.

Attention to the Kurdish struggle would have been timely even if it did not provide such striking evidence of imperialist hypocrisy. For, after fifteen years of guerilla war and mass struggle, the Kurdish movement has of late been dealt a heavy blow with the capture and pending trial of Abdullah Ocalan (popularly known as Apo), the leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is the leading force in the Kurdish revolt in Turkey. Apo has become a symbol of Kurdish national pride, and his death at the hands of the Turkish state would have deep repercussions for the morale of the movement, possibly even resulting in its defeat. This would, in turn, have serious implications for the anti-imperialist and socialist struggle in the Middle East.

Kosovars and Kurds

Milosevic (the latest of a series of "Hitlers" unearthed by the Western media), however odious his present methods in dealing with the Kosovar insurgency, had at least agreed to sit down at the same table and negotiate with the Albanian forces of Kosovo (Rugova and the UCK) at Rambouillet. The Turkish state, on the other hand, has adamantly rejected even indirect negotiations with the Kurdish movement for a peaceful political settlement, despite insistent calls for peace on the part of the PKK. It has, on the contrary, even gone so far as to deny the existence of the Kurdish question and resorted to militaristic methods in its attempt to crush what it has preferred to call "separatist terrorism." The first half of the 1990s, in particular, witnessed the adoption of a strategy based on counterinsurgency methods of the kind notoriously used by Central American governments. Between 1989 and 1996, more than 1,500 civilians affiliated with the Kurdish opposition perished in street assassinations; the killers have never been identified. Reports that were later published by a parliamentary committee, and another committee appointed by the Prime Minister, attributed a majority of these to the joint activities of counterinsurgency agents and fascist militants under their direction. Another eight hundred civilians, mostly Kurds, were extrajudicially executed by the security forces between 1991 and 1995. Close to five hundred people were classified as missing between 1991 and 1997. Between 1983 and 1994, 230 people died under police torture, and eighty-three cases of children being tortured were documented in 1996 alone. (All figures are from reports published by the Istanbul chapter of the Human Rights Association of Turkey.)

Damning as these figures are, they pale next to those relating to the scorched earth policy and the concomitant ethnic cleansing systematically carried out by the Turkish state in order to deprive the PKK guerillas of mass support. Since 1992, over four thousand villages and hamlets have been evacuated, and many of them torched, by the armed forces. …

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