Kurds were seen as the most significant group that resisted the assimilation efforts of Kemalists. Believing that it could assimilate Kurds, the Kemalist republic continued to pursue repressive policies to achieve this for many years. It even resorted to very violent methods such as the massacres in Dersim between 1937 and 1938. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized to Kurdish and Alevi citizens for these massacres two years ago, this not only represented a big disruption in traditional state policies, but also meant that the state had been officially denying these massacres. Today, the Dersim incidents have been freed from the official discourse and are given the place they deserve in the country’s past. While no compensation has been provided to the families of the victims it is the first time in the history of Turkey that a prime minister has acknowledged a massacre. Regardless of how this apology has been backed with ensuing redemptive mechanisms, the uniqueness makes this apology very precious. Indeed, in Turkey, there is serious resistance to any confrontation with the past.
The disasters that befell Kurds are not restricted to the Dersim massacres. After the demise of late President Turgut Özal, and between 1993 and 1997, the state and the deep-state networks such as the JİTEM -- a clandestine gendarmerie intelligence unit established in the late 1980s to counter ethnic separatism in the southeast -- engaged in at least 50,000 cases of unresolved murders and raids in Kurdish-dominated areas. These murders would be committed under the pretext of the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terror, and when they were committed under the coordination of the army, which was beyond any political supervision, they would never be questioned. This state-sponsored terrorism created such a huge hatred in Kurdish citizens for the state that the PKK grew like a cancerous tissue. The PKK sought legitimacy by referring to the violence against Kurds and human rights violations such as the treatment of the Kurdish language and “Kurdishness” as a crime. Until very recently, it was a crime to utter even the word “Kurd/Kurdish” in this country. Many racist theses such as the one arguing, “Kurds are actually the Turks living in mountainous areas and they are not a separate people and also that the idea that Kurds are a distinct nation is a fabrication,” were very popular. Speaking Kurdish had already been banned.
Despite all this, the Kurdish people always viewed the PKK with a pragmatic functionality. They saw it as a balance of power against the tyrannical state. But the PKK had commenced its acts first by killing Kurdish dissidents and burning down Kurdish villages that it blamed for collaborating with the state. True, many people were willingly joining the organization because of the state’s oppression and murders as well as the poverty prevailing throughout the region, but everyone actually wanted peace. Despite so many tragic events, the PKK has never been able to convince its supporters to cede from Turkey, and this is a main benchmark. On the other hand, the state’s perception of Kurds has started to change after the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, and a significant portion of Kurds lent electoral support to this change and the ensuing Kurdish initiative.
Failures in Şemdinli
For this reason, the PKK’s rehearsal for an uprising in Şemdinli for the last two weeks could hardly be successful. When the clashes started, Kurds did not take to the streets, but instead they withdrew to their homes. People no longer want to die for nothing. Previously, the PKK had tried to trigger numerous uprisings in Diyarbakır, and like its previous failures, it could not attract the backing of its so-called supporters. This is because Kurds, as a smart people, know well that the PKK will introduce nothing but a new Kemalist fascism. Indeed, what they want is not Kurdistan, but to be able live as human beings, learn and teach their mother tongue and maintain their culture and be equal to a western Turk. They know that this is not a goal that is impossible or different from where Turkey is currently heading. The AK Party might be acting slowly or erroneously, but Kurds are aware that their rights will no longer be denied and they can attain new rights through peaceful struggle.
More importantly, they know the boys and girls joining the terrorist organization are dying in vain. But since the AK Party does not act quickly to strip the PKK of the cards it is holding and Erdoğan occasionally engages in a serious form of nationalism, they cannot still trust the state. They cannot understand why the Kurdish language is still not a medium of instruction and why local administrations are not reinforced by implementing the European Union’s local autonomy stipulation. Still nurturing doubts about the state and having many bad memories, Kurds believe that the PKK may still have some functionality in the face of the zigzags of the AK Party. Moreover, so many Kurds had died in the process that the ensuing rage and the continuing possibility of Turkey’s returning to the ideology of the 1990s enable the PKK to still have some support. Consider this: the state has not yet offered an official apology for the 34 Kurdish citizens who were killed in the accidental shelling from Turkish F-16 jets in Uludere in December last year. Although the investigation into this scandal could be concluded simply and quickly, it is in abeyance. Not a single person has been identified as culpable for the incident. Meanwhile, numerous remarks were made and acts were committed to hurt the pride of the Uludere villagers.
But why does the PKK continue to use these violent methods which will not be of any use? Why did it choose to confront the army directly in Şemdinli, instead of employing its usual guerrilla techniques, despite the fact that it would obviously suffer from great casualties and losses? Suppose that the state’s intelligence units had failed to learn about the planned attack beforehand, as is the case in many events in the past, and the PKK had raised its flags in the state buildings in Şemdinli even for a few hours, what would have the PKK achieved with this? It was obvious that the state would steamroll the district.
A change in the political mentality
First of all, the PKK does not know that these methods are no longer effective. They are aware neither that Turkey has greatly changes nor that the current Kurdish sociology is completely different from the one in the 1990s. They are still after their romantic and imaginary goals that might have applied in the circumstances of 1970s. They believe they can import the Arab Spring to Diyarbakır, Şemdinli, Şırnak and Hakkari.
Second, the PKK is not a political organization. It is a terrorist organization which kills Kurds and civilian as well, and the best thing they can do is to fight. They have been doing this for the last 30 years and they believe that they have been able to survive thanks to their own armed struggle, not because of the errors the Turkish state has made. In other words, violence is still a valid method in their eyes. They know nothing else, and they assume they earn power thanks to violence, they continue to employ violent methods. If the PKK has been a capable organization, it would take the advantage of the AK Party’s efforts to jettison the old state’s traditional Kurdish policies and of the Kurdish initiative and it would be politicized. And it had an opportunity use the BDP to this end. But the PKK’s CEOs in the Kandil mountains did the opposite. They discredited the BDP at every opportunity. They underlined the importance of the organization and violence instead of politics. They lacked the capacity to understand that this was a historic opportunity.
Another factor is that the PKK leaders egoistically stick to the big power they have earned over time. These leaders, most of whom are at the age of 60 or above, are not looking forward to prospects of being retired and playing backgammon in an immigrant cafe in a northern European city in case there is peace. These leaders control a budget of millions of dollars and command thousands of armed men, and they don’t have any incentive for ending the war except if they are given an area to rule over. In other words, personal expectations, capacities and demands play a significant role in guiding the PKK’s acts.
Thus, they can easily attempt at staging such suicidal acts as the one in Şemdinli. In the end, poor and young Kurdish boys and girls die and they are saved. The more people die, the more hatred is formed and they believe this is beneficial to them.
Of course, what really lets the PKK live and be effective is the government’s dragging foot on the Kurdish initiative. The reforms that will make the organization meaningless are being implemented at a snail’s pace. And this gives the impression to Kurds that they are being continually deceived by the state. And with the funerals of our young boys we pay the price and continue to pay it with every day that passes without anything being done. This is unfortunately the bitter fact.