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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

The War Against the Kurds: 1991-1999, A Particular Decade

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 24 Novembre 2020, 15:25pm

Catégories : #Sous la Turquie, l'Anatolie, #The War Against the Kurds

Dozens of dead during the Newroz celebrations, destruction by state forces of the city of Sırnak and of several small towns, assassination of the Kurdish intellectual Musa Anter and of several journalists... These events of the year 1992 was a huge blow for the Kurds of Turkey, and for the Turkish democrats as well, and were denounced abroad. A dark period that began, apparently ending with the capture of Abdullah Öcalan (“Apo”) in 1999.

[This article was initially published in French on susam-sokak.fr, on May 8, 2013: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/article-esquisse-n-38-la-guerre-une-decennie-particuliere-1991-1999-117656449.html]

In August 2009, the population of Sırnak commemorates the events of 1992 (photo yuksekovahaber.com)

In August 2009, the population of Sırnak commemorates the events of 1992 (photo yuksekovahaber.com)

When Abdullah Öcalan ("Apo") was arrested in Rome in November 1998 and shortly detained and, even more, when he was abducted in Kenya in February 1999, it was commonly thought that the war in Kurdistan would end. But since the PKK leader was imprisoned on the island of Imralı (Sea of Marmara), the war has lasted much longer than before his capture.

Supposing, by the way, that the war started in 1984! Admittedly, that year is the beginning of the armed insurrection of the PKK, but it would be more accurate to consider the date of 1925 as the beginning of hostilities between the Turkish state and the Kurds. In fact, the Kurdish problem was implicitly contained in point twelve of Wilson's fourteen points (January 1918): "The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under the Ottoman rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development (...)". These "other nationalities" are the non-Muslims and Kurds of the Empire. The Treaty of Sèvres (1920) took Wilson's ideas into account and aimed to dismember the Empire, providing, among other things, for the existence of a Kurdistan in southeastern Anatolia, under French and British protection. Though the Treaty of Sèvres was then declared null and void by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the memory of this dismemberment project remains, to this day, a deep wound in the national memory: "The memory of the dismemberment [...] is decisive in the evaluation of what is at stake in the Kurdish question” (Bozarslan 1997, 52).

Among the intangible principles of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal, are unity and indivisibility. But, according to the Turkish vision of nationalism, the nation cannot be conceived as a union of several peoples or cultures in a single country, but as the union of Muslim people who accept considering themselves as being “Turk”. The implementation of this vision was the Armenian genocide and a long series of mass expulsions of the Orthodox between 1914 and 1974.

According to Kendal Nezan, president of the Kurdish Institute in Paris, general Cemal Gürsel, who became later President of the Republic (1960-1966), would have once declared: “If the mountain Turks do not keep quiet, our army will not hesitate to bombard and destroy their towns and villages. There will be such a bloodbath that they and their lands will be swallowed up” (quoted by Chaliand 1980, 127). As for Nihal Atsız (1905-1975), theoretician and activist of Turkish ultranationalism, he would have said: “If the Kurds dream of a state, their destiny will be to be wiped off the face of the earth. The Turks have shown how they can treat those who covet the homeland they have obtained by their blood and labor. This is why they erased the Armenians from this land in 1915 and the Greeks in 1923” (quoted by Bozarslan 1994, n.2, 204). Such clear-cut warnings were uttered even by the highest state authorities after the Kurdish uprising on Mount Ararat. For Prime Minister Ismet Inönü, “In this country, only the Turkish nation holds ethnic and racial rights” (Milliyet, August 31, 1930). And Mahmut Esat Bozkurt declared in September 1930: “The Turk is the master and the owner of this country. Those who are not of pure Turkish race have only one right: to serve the Turks, to be their slaves. May our friends and enemies, let our mountains themselves know it!” (quoted by Kieser, 2012: : 139-150).

The first uprisings of the Kurds between 1925 and 1938 were followed by merciless repression. The huge number of victims (between 10,000 and 40,000 deaths), the wide extent of the deportations, and the destruction of towns and villages are better and better known, as the collective memory of these massacres has come to the surface in recent years. Because of the savagery of the repression, which not only terrorized but caused a hemorrhage in the population and the ranks of the Kurdish insurgents, the rebellion later weakened down. Let us remember that after the repression of the 1848 revolution in France, a long time was necessary for the revolutionary forces to rebuild themselves, until the Commune de Paris (1871). This is what happened in Kurdistan from the 1950s to 1974.

Accepting that the problem dates back to the 1920s induces to reject a good part of Kemalism, and to consider Atatürk himself at least partly responsible for the Kurdish issue, which therefore seems to be linked to the history of the Republic itself, and to be as consubstantial with the regime as the taboo on the Armenian genocide.

The link between the uprisings of the past and those of the present, and the continuity of repression, are established by the sociologist Ismail Besikçi in his book Hayali Kürdistan'ın dirilisi (The Renaissance of 'Imaginary Kurdistan') published in 1998. The cover of the book reproduces a caricature published in the newspaper Milliyet on September 19, 1930, representing a tombstone on which is engraved the inscription: "Muhayyel Kürdistan burada metfundur - Here lies the dreamed Kurdistan”. So in 1930, the Kemalist press was convinced that the Kurdish problem had been resolved, once and for all, by repression. Ismail Besikçi reinterpreted the coups d'état of 1971 and 1980 as episodes of the Turkish management of the Kurdish question, as attempts to break the reassertion of the Kurdish movement. And from the very first page of the book, he evokes the psychological tortures, the unforgivable humiliations which were imposed on the population: particularly, men have been walked around their own village, naked, with a cord attached to their sex (a psychological torture which was also practiced by French soldiers during the war in Algeria). Those who took up arms from 1984 onwards, writes Besikçi, are those who saw their parents or grandparents suffer these humiliations, perhaps even more severely than the physical violence.

At the beginning of the last decade of the twentieth century, the Turkish state took again a step towards extreme violence in the conduct of the war. Two years in a row, in 1991 and 1992, the repression of the Newroz festival – the traditional Kurdish new year celebration on March 21 - resulted in the death of dozens of people. Then the state recovered the methods used in the 1930s, waging war not only against the PKK, but against the Kurdish people. Towns or urban districts were attacked and even destroyed by the army, like Sırnak (18-21 August 1992). By the thousands, all along the decade, villages were evacuated by force or destroyed, the state expecting by this way to suppress any possibility of backing for the PKK, and to remove people from the influence of the rebels. At last, the state covertly organized assassinations of personalities promoting peaceful solutions for the conflict, like Vedat Aydın, one of the leaders of the People's Labour Party (HEP, the then legal pro-Kurdish party) and president of the Human Rights League of Diyarbakır (killed on July 5, 1991), or writer Musa Anter (September 20, 1992), and several local leaders of the HEP, or journalists (eight assassinations between February and August 1992).

Writer Yasar Kemal shares with Ismail Besikçi this long-term analysis of the conflict. In an article written after the assassination of Musa Anter and the destruction of the city of Sırnak, published in Cumhuriyet-Hafta on October 2, 1992, he denounces "the archaic oppression of the Kurds for 70 years". Several times in his text, he does repeat this figure of "70 years": "If Kurdish culture had not been oppressed for 70 years...”; or: "The scourge that is coming down on us is the fruit of bad policies carried out over the past 70 years". Yasar Kemal's diagnosis is clear even if implicit: we must reconsider Kemalism's record, from the beginning.

The attack on a Turkish city by the Turkish army, and the assassination of Musa Anter in Diyarbakır, caused a shock. In November 1992, the Kurdish Institute in Paris prepared a thick dossier on the event at Sırnak, under the title The Situation in Kurdish Kurdistan (online). Based, in particular, upon the report of a delegation of deputies and journalists who visited the city of Sırnak a few days after the attack, it includes essential documents and testimonies about this summer of 1992, among them the above-mentioned article of Yasar Kemal (pp. 52-53).

Sırnak, south of Lake Van, is a martyr city that had already suffered dozens of deaths during the repression of the celebration of Newroz on March 21, 1992. Five months later, in August, the city was besieged and attacked by 500 to 600 soldiers and militiamen. The attack had begun on the evening of August 18; electricity and telephone webs had been cut off beforehand. On the morning of August 19, a curfew was enforced with a ban on going out in the streets for the whole population. After three days, the city presented a strange sight, which could not result from a fight between two forces. While there were thousands of bullet impacts on the house of Mesut Uysal, the local leader of the People's Labour Party, many workshops, stores, private houses had been devastated, as well as the mayor's house, apparently by heavy weapons. Neither the prefecture, nor the security directorate, nor the military conscription office, nor any public building had been hit, contrary to the allegations of the mainstream media on August 20 and 21. In short, everything representing the state's power or administration was miraculously spared from the bullets. Stranger still, these hundreds of combatants, who had completely surrounded the city, neither captured nor killed any PKK militant; no weapons or material supposedly taken from the PKK were presented to the press, as is the rule in this kind of event. The three days of 'fighting' resulted in the deaths of several dozen civilians, and most of the population had to flee the city. Henceforth, Sırnak was a "forbidden city" with strictly regulated access and controlled by the army and the gendarmerie.

Commemoration of the events of 1992 at Sırnak, in August 2009 (photo yuksekovahaber.com)

Commemoration of the events of 1992 at Sırnak, in August 2009 (photo yuksekovahaber.com)

The report of the Turkish parliamentarians was confirmed by the extremely severe report of a mission carried out very early on, from 3 to 8 September 1992, by Lord Avebury, President of the Parliamentary Commission for Human Rights in the Kurdish region. This report, published under the title Desolated and Profaned, is available on the Net (link), and also appears in the document of the Kurdish Institute in Paris (69-80). It is followed by the report of the mission of three jurists sent by the International Federation of Human Rights from 17 to 24 September 1992 (81-98, in French), and, at last, by a report by Amnesty International (99-111). In addition, this record publishes the list of some 300 villages evacuated by force, presents the cases of eight journalists killed between February and August 1992, and the list of 93 civilians murdered since the beginning of 1992. All these scathing reports, drawn up by serious and independent organizations, are concurring. In France, the event was covered by Le Monde and Libération. There is therefore no shortage of sources to know how the Turkish army and its auxiliaries were waging a war of destruction against a part of the country's population.

Later on, in October of the same year, this episode was followed by an exactly similar one, the destruction of the small town of Kulp (located about 60 miles northeast of Diyarbakır) (Libération, October 13, 1992). As in the case of Sırnak, despite much destruction, state buildings were not affected.

As shown in my article about the attack on Varto in 1996, in every case, the inhabitants had to flee; livestock was slaughtered, and all available accounts establish that each time, the event was staged. The places attacked were never sheltering PKK forces at the moment of the attack. The “security forces” (the army, but perhaps above all the paramilitary militias) simulated fighting to provide a pretext for destruction and intimidation, to force the inhabitants to leave, and to deprive the rebellion of refuge and support.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Turkish state, as in 1925, 1930, and 1938, went to war against a part of its own population. Since 1983, Turkey was ruled by Turgut Özal, first as Prime Minister, then (1989) as President, until his unexpected death in 1993 (a poisoning is alleged). Paradoxically, Özal was sometimes considered to be one of those who could have resolved the Kurdish question. He had certainly allowed small advances, such as the abolition of the law banning the public use of the Kurdish language. But the anti-terrorist law at the same time destroyed the "advances" because any manifestation of Kurdish culture could be considered as a terrorist act or as proof of belonging to a "movement". This amalgam still works.

As a matter of fact, the rule of the Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi, ANAP, founded in 1983, presided by Özal himself), was no more tolerant towards the Kurdish movement than other right-wing parties. The 1980 military coup d'état had already hit the Kurdish movement very heavily, and the repression was carried on when Turgut Özal came to power as Prime Minister, and then throughout the 80s and beyond. The above-mentioned document of the Kurdish Institute in Paris quotes an article by Cumhuriyet, dated December 12, 1989, which summarizes the five years of ANAP's rule as follows: 2,000 years of prison sentences required against 2,700 writers, translators, and journalists, more than 200,000 books destroyed, more than 23,000 associations banned. Paying a visit to the region of Sırnak shortly after the destruction of the town, Turgut Özal pronounced a speech in Uludere (30 miles east of Sırnak), stating that the inhabitants should leave the region: he envisaged, therefore, neither more nor less than a displacement of 500,000 people (cf. Le Monde, September 10, 1992, published in the document of the Kurdish Institute, p. 21).

Thus, since the resumption of armed rebellion in 1984, various powers have succeeded one another, without any significant change in the management of the “Kurdish problem”: successively, the military government after the coup d'état, the governments of the ANAP with Turgut Özal (1983-1993), of the True Path Party (DYP, rightist) with Tansu Çiller, of the Islamist Refah (1996-1997), again with the ANAP under Mesut Yılmaz, then the Democratic Left Party (DSP) of Bülent Ecevit (1999-2002), and, at last, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002 (Copeaux, 2010). The management of the “Kurdish question” by violence is of a desperate continuity, apart from two rounds of peace talks, known as the "process of Imralı" (autumn 2012), then the “process of Dolmabahçe” (February 2015). But these talks were abruptly broken in July 2015).

Militiamen in Sırnak. Milliyet, August 20, 1992

Militiamen in Sırnak. Milliyet, August 20, 1992

A repressive apparatus with a broad spectrum”


What makes continuity, despite power alternation, are several elements of what is called the "deep state", which have remained immutable: 1) the army; 2) a heavy administrative apparatus of control on the Kurdish region; 3) the subcontracting of the conflict to a paramilitary machine which includes militias, 'village guards', armed and scattered everywhere; 4) “a re-tribalization of the Kurdish scene”, that is, the instrumentalization by both the state and the PKK of the tribal system and its control over society (Bozarslan 1994, 246). And above all, the overseeing of the whole population by the way of the 'anti-terrorist law', i.e., “a repressive apparatus with a broad spectrum”: this formulation, due to the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, is taken up by Ayse Berktay, a translator, journalist, and peace activist, detained from 2011 to 2013, to qualify the Turkish repressive system, in her letter to the jury which awarded her the 'Freedom to Write' Prize in May 2013 (link).

From 1982 to 2002, the Kurdish regions of Turkey were governed within the framework of a state of exception (Olaganüstü Hal, OHAL), the enforcement of which is provided for in the 1982 constitution (art. 121, 122). The 1983 'State of Exception Law' specified the conditions of its implementation, gave a legal basis for military operations, and instituted a 'Special Command of the Gendarmerie for Public Order' (Jandarma Asayis Komutanlıgı). At the same time was created an unofficial and dreaded repressive body, the Gendarmerie Intelligence Organization (Jandarma İstihbarat ve Terörle Mücadele, JITEM). In theory, the 1983 law was intended to manage natural disasters, epidemics, and serious economic crises. In fact, it was also applicable "when widespread violent movements aim to destroy the democratic constitutional order, fundamental rights, and freedoms; or when public order is seriously threatened by violent events".

The decision to place one or several departments under a state of exception was taken for a period of six months, renewable indefinitely, by the Council of Ministers, after the advice of the National Security Council (MGK), i.e., the army. The OHAL was initially applied to eight departments (Bingöl, Diyarbakır, Elazıg, Hakkari, Mardin, Siirt, Tunceli and Van); then, Adıyaman, Bitlis, and Mus were added (the number of departments later increased to thirteen, as a result of the creation of the Batman and Sırnak departments in 1990). The narrowing of the zone began in 1996, and the law has finally only affected the departments of Diyarbakır, Hakkari, and Tunceli, which thus experienced 19 years of an exception regime. Actually much more, because before the establishment of the state of exception the regime in these regions was not 'ordinary', because martial law (sıkıyönetim) had been applied there since 1978 - long before the armed insurrection of the PKK began (Rezzal 1997).

From 1987 to 2002, the regions under a state of exception were altogether put under the responsibility of a unique super-prefect (Olaganüstü Hal Bölge Valisi), in office at Diyarbakır. This high-ranking official had extensive powers of censorship and control over radio and television programs, even the state-broadcast ones; he could prohibit any strike, social movement or trade union activity; he could authoritatively move or transfer civil servants, refer cases to the State Security Court, and have police raids carried out in private homes and workplaces; he was also responsible for organizing the displacement of persons "put in a difficult situation by circumstances, or who were under pressure”, in other words, the deportation of whole villages. More generally, he had the right to double the penalties provided for by articles of the penal code.

1998: Life under a state of exception


By this time, rare are the articles in the newspapers describing the life in the departments under a state of exception. For Cumhuriyet, Leyla Tavsanoglu visited Van and its region in August 1998. It is the time of the year when the Istanbul newspapers "rediscover" the problem of the war, due to the massive arrival of Kurdish seasonal workers, in inhuman conditions, for the harvest of hazelnut in the Black Sea regions, extending to the gates of Istanbul. That summer, the prefect of Ordu (on the Black Sea, 500 miles East of Istanbul) had made talk about him by having banned these Kurdish seasonal workers from his department. Tavsanoglu's report was published in this rather tense context.

As Orhan Pamuk does about Kars in his novel Snow, Tavsanoglu reminds us that these eastern cities were not always miserable: Van, she writes, was once a "very advanced" city, hosting five foreign consulates, and as early as 1906 a Chamber of Commerce; Turks, Kurds, and Armenians lived mixed there. But, at the end of the XXth century, the city was suffocating under its new inhabitants: in a single year, the population had grown from 150,000 to 280,000 people. The newcomers are villagers who had fled "terror" - that's the name of the war - because livestock farming had become impossible. Yet the authorities flatter themselves that they "struck terror in the stomach"; does this mean that in order to eliminate "terror", the economy of the region had to be destroyed?

No one is investing, no one accepts a self-commitment in the economic life of the region. The reason is not only insecurity but above all the straitjacket imposed by the OHAL, particularly the curfew, which kills economic activity. Road traffic is forbidden in the whole region from 4 pm to 7 am: how could one do business there? As Tavsanoglu writes, in Hosap, a small town south of Dersim (Tunceli), there is simply no more commercial activity.

In a special regime region, by the way, a journalist can't work as he or she wants; to visit Bahçesaray (south of the lake of Van), whose mayor, Neci Orhan (ANAP) had been arrested, Leyla Tavsanoglu has a residence permit limited to two hours. As the village is cut off from the world, no activity is possible there. People die of boredom or play chess all along the day. All the opposition leaders, when interviewed, are adamant: "If elections were held today, the [pro-Kurdish party HADEP] would win”. The authorities know this and this is why the HADEP headquarters in Van and its offices in all the sub-prefectures of the department have been closed. And Leyla Tavsanoglu concludes with a shrug: "That's it, that's how it is!”.

Indeed, this is the context in which the 'special operations' teams, commonly referred to as the 'special teams' (özel tim), can operate quietly.

Tavsanoglu's article was published on 19 August 1998: the same day, precisely, sociologist Pınar Selek was accused of complicity in the imaginary 'terrorist attack' on the Egyptian Market in Istanbul – in fact, an accidental explosion. In various forms, the repression against the Kurdish emancipation movement strikes everywhere (cf. my article "1998, un été ordinaire").


Avebury (Lord), and Feeney, Michael (1992). Desolated and Profaned. A Report by Lord Avebury, Chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, and Mr Michael Feeney, Refugee Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Westminster, on their mission to the Kurdish region of Turkey, 3 to 8 September 1992. London, Kurdistan Information Center. Online: https://www.slideshare.net/JohnLubbock/desolated-and-profaned-a-report-on-phrgs-mission-to-the-kurdish-region-of-turkey-1992 (accessed November 19, 2020).

Besikçi, Ismail (1998). Hayali Kürdistan’ın dirilisi. Istanbul: Aram.

Bozarslan, Hamit (1994). "Etats et modes de gestion du problème kurde". Peuples Méditerranéens 68-69.

Bozarslan, Hamit (1997). La Question kurde : Etats et minorités au Moyen-Orient. Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.

Chaliand, Gérard (1980). Les Kurdes et le Kurdistan. Paris: Maspero.

Copeaux, Etienne (2010). “L'armée ou la charia ? Clivages et fractures à l'époque du gouvernement Refahyol, 1996-1997”. In Kaya, Ugur (ed.), Dynamiques contemporaines en Turquie. Ruptures, continuités ? Paris: L'Harmattan. Online: https://www.academia.edu/11423175/Larm%C3%A9e_ou_la_charia_Clivages_et_fractures_%C3%A0_l%C3%A9poque_du_gouvernement_Refahyol_1996_1997_2010_ (accessed November 21, 2020)

Information and Liaison Bulletin of the Institut Kurde de Paris, The Situation in Turkish Kurdistan, special issue, November 1992. Online : https://www.institutkurde.org/en/publications/bulletins/pdf/specials/spno_turkish_kurdistan.pdf. (Accessed November 20, 2020).

Kieser, Hans-Lukas (2012). "Kemalizmin Etno-Milliyetçi Devrimcisi ve Kuramcısı: Dr. Mahmut Esat Bozkurt (1892-1943)". Dipnot 9 (Nisan-Mayıs-Haziran 2012).

Rezzal, Oral (1997). “Güneydogu’da sonbahar”, Milliyet, September 18, 1997.

Tavsanoglu, Leyla (1998). “Nüfusu göçle 750 bine çıkan Van’da sefalet diz boyu”, Cumhuriyet, August 19, 1998.

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