Saturday is a big day for Turkey because Kemal Burkay, Kurdish politician, activist and poet, returns home today after 31 years of exile in Sweden for the sole reason that he never lost hope of a democratic future for Turkey. Burkay says he decided to return after the government launched an initiative to expand the cultural rights extended to Kurds in Turkey.
An important Kurdish socialist figure, Kemal Burkay, is coming back home today after 31 years in exile. He says an initiative launched by the government to solve the Kurdish question played a major role in his decision. PM Erdoğan has extended many invitations to Burkay and other Kurdish figures in exile to return home
It was time to leave the country for Burkay, who was being legally prosecuted for his political views and activities, on an April day in 1980, shortly before the approaching coup d'état of Sept. 12. He crossed the Syrian border and stepped on Syrian soil and looked back at the other side toward Nusaybin, a district of Mardin. He remembered with teary eyes, “I was seeing small bald hills. These weren't any great mountains like Ağrı or Süphan. You know, even those small hills looked beautiful to me in a way that I'd never seen them.” This would the last view of his homeland for the next three decades.
Burkay said the idea of returning to Turkey started when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government announced a “Kurdish initiative” plan two years ago to expand the cultural rights enjoyed by the country's Kurds. He said: “Of course, I thought of it before, but I didn't think the conditions were there. You know the government launched the initiative process in 2009. My views were being published by newspapers, journalists and television stations extensively without any censorship at all,” pointing to the extent of democratic change in Turkey. “Mr. Prime Minister later said there were no obstacles for some [Kurdish] people, also naming me, to return to Turkey. Interior Minister Beşir Atalay called me personally,” he added.
He said he had wanted to return earlier, but decided to wait until the end of the elections for fear that his return before the elections might lead to needless speculation.
Courageous steps in the Kurdish question
But where does the Kurdish question stand today? According to Burkay, “The Kurdish movement was developing in a democratic and peaceful way, starting in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. But later, the state, unfortunately, was as harsh to the Kurdish movement as it was on the left. If it hadn't been that harsh, if the peaceful organization continued, most probably this spiral of violence wouldn't have taken place. We would not have lived through this process that has ruined the country for the past three decades and that has consumed the country's resources and cost thousands of lives.”
Burkay, a founder of the Kurdistan Socialist Party, which was set up in the 1960s, said he and the members of the movement never adopted violence as a method: “I believe in peacefully organizing both in terms of left wing associations and Kurdish associations. Now, it emerges that our attitude was the correct one. Maybe if the state hadn't been that oppressive, that willing to deny the Kurdish identity and that suppressive, the Kurdish movement wouldn't have leaned toward violent methods, and we might have not lived that process.”
The socialist poet also offered an evaluation of today's political scene in Turkey: “At the stage where we stand today, there are segments that want the pro-freedom camp to expand, there are oppressed Kurds, Kurds who still haven't earned some of their rights, and the Alevis who want freedom of religion in the true sense of the word, the Islamic segment, which has had to face many obstacles in certain situations; all of these segments make up a big part of society, and everyone should support this process of change. We should rid ourselves of our past prejudices.”
The left in Turkey
He also offered a criticism of today's left-wing movements in Turkey: “The left wing simplifies the left to anti-Americanism. This is very wrong. You can't put the policy of the left on automatic pilot like that. You should look to see if something being done is on the side of the worker, of the people. If it is, then it should be supported.”
He said some Kurds felt that anything that might come from the state and the government would harm the Kurds: “Of course, I am referring to the more politicized Kurds: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and those affiliated with them. I think this is very wrong; they even failed to support the Ergenekon trial process.”
Ergenekon is the name of a clandestine network whose suspected members are currently charged with attempting to overthrow the government. “This trial is a chance for Turkey -- an opportunity to purge the gangs [within the state]. For example, the Alevi segments did not support the process saying the AK Party comes from an Islamist tradition. They approached them with their prejudices thinking, ‘These are Sunni; they are Islamists. Then they must be very dangerous for us.' We can't continue with prejudices like this. Some liberal intellectuals were able to have a more open-minded attitude,” he explained.
He said everyone on the side of change should act in solidarity: “This could be the left, laborers, the workers, Kurds and Alevis, people whose Muslim beliefs are strong.”
Burkay said the government's steps, such as launching the Kurdish language TRT 6 and encouraging free debate on the Kurdish question, are important and courageous. “There are programs on television that illuminate the public,” he said, referring to documentaries about the background of pogroms such as the Maraş massacre of 1978, the Gazi incidents or the Sivas massacre of the ‘90s, when mostly Alevi citizens were killed as a result of erupting ethnic violence. “The state channels only used to brainwash people before. This means that the government has a positive attitude. They are well meaning.”
Integration of Europe
Burkay, who describes himself as a socialist, said European integration had made him rethink his comrades' many points in their ideology. “We dropped many of our prejudices. We are supporting a more democratic and pluralist socialism. We are against dictatorships, and we are for democracy. Even if there is going to be socialism, it should come from the people, it shouldn't come in spite of the people,” he said.
As one of the most important figures in the Kurdish movement of Turkey, Burkay believes that nationalist and left-wing circles in Turkey have failed to understand the transformation the world has undergone.
As someone who witnessed the process of the transition from the EEC to the EU, Burkay offers this analysis: “Europe is not only about capitalism and imperialism. It is an integral whole with its science, art, democracy, laborers and worker. It has managed to create a peaceful state within its borders.”
As the world integrates, Turkey still struggles with separatist ideas, we remind Burkay. He says, with a smile, “Sometimes socialists call this separating in order to unite. This means, you can't keep a people if they want to separate.” He recalls how Sweden and Norway separated peacefully, shaking hands. “But, now between Norway, Sweden and Denmark, as in the rest of Europe, there are no borders. No guards stand watch at border points.”
Life in Sweden
Thankfully, Burkay's longing for his homeland ends today. He is finally leaving Stockholm, which welcomed him with open arms and hosted him and his family for many years. He wrote a touching letter of farewell to Sweden, which has been like a second home to him. His years “abroad” didn't feel like “being away from home” or “being in exile.” “I found myself in a very active political work life. I ran from one meeting to another, from one country to another. I held thousands of conventions. I didn't even have time to be bored. For people who don't get busy, missing home can turn into a sickness. There were times I missed it greatly, and those times are reflected in my poems, but it never transformed into homesickness.”
Thousands of kilometers away, Burkay was able to contribute to the fight for democracy at home in Turkey. He often remembered others who had to flee Turkey in the '20s and '30s, such as the legendary poet Nazım Hikmet. He says those people didn't have communities they could live together with when they left. According to Burkay, “Here, wherever you go, whether you are a Kurd or a Turk, there are expansive communities. We can pass our culture on. For example, Kurdish folklore here [in Sweden] is very much alive both in adults and children. We have demonstrations, newroz celebrations and political activities.”
Most certainly, communication technology has been helpful. He pointed out: “We can watch everything going on in the country as if we are in İstanbul or Diyarbakır. Television and the Internet bring the political and social life in the country here. There is the telephone, there are people who come and go. I never felt away from home or that I am exiled.” Although he says this, he endured the pain of being away from home and being in exile. He would have to wait for 15 years to see his twin daughters again after leaving Turkey. He said, “Many people over there think we live the life of kings here, but we did struggle with the challenges of daily life.” He indicated they had to move to a smaller apartment shortly after they moved to Sweden because they were unable to pay the rent. “We couldn't even fully learn the language of our host country. We couldn't enter work life here. It was all politics,” he added.
They survived on social welfare support when they first moved to Sweden. Life was made a little bit easier with royalties from his books and financial support from the Kurdish association Komkar, which he headed. His wife, a nurse by profession, found employment as a teacher. Some of his children, whom he brought to Sweden much later, entered into work life. His daughter Helin is a doctor, and his older son is also a health worker. The youngest, Dilan, is still attending university. His twin daughters, who he longed for for years, stayed in Turkey where they have started their own families.
He remembered: “It was the time of the Cold War. There was the Eastern block and Western Europe. The most significant change was when the walls came down. The wall in Berlin, the checks as you traveled from East to West were very scary.”