Nevruz, a traditional holiday for many nations that heralds the arrival of spring, has become associated with tension for Turkey in recent years as it is often marked by acts of violence, clashes between police and civilians and even deaths. The leading reason behind the violence during Nevruz celebrations is the efforts of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to turn the festivity into a show of power, according to analysts.
Nevruz is the Persian, or Farsi, word for “new year” and is celebrated in the last half of March by the peoples of Central Asia, the Caucasus, South Asia, northwestern China, the Crimea and some groups in the Balkans. In Turkey, however, the celebrations are strongly associated with Kurdish identity. While celebrating Nevruz, Kurds usually light a bonfire in the streets and jump over it while making a wish. For Kurds, Nevruz has a highly symbolic meaning.
Turks, on the other hand, have different and less passionate forms of celebrations, such as playing games and having picnics with family members.
For the past couple of years, Kurdish groups in Turkey have used Nevruz as an opportunity to raise their voices for the restoration of their rights, which include greater representation in politics, schooling in the Kurdish language and the re-definition of citizenship in the Turkish Constitution. The Constitution defines all residents of Turkey as Turks and does not mention other ethnic groups in the country.
The PKK, however, sees the festivity as an opportunity to show Turkish authorities “its strength.” The areas where celebrations are held -- mostly in eastern and southeastern Turkey -- are filled with posters of the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the flags of the terrorist group. Öcalan is serving a life sentence in a prison on the Marmara island of İmralı. During this year’s celebrations, held last week, bands performed for Öcalan and prominent Kurdish figures praised the PKK and its jailed leader for their “efforts for a free Kurdistan.” Despite some clashes between security forces and participants of the celebrations, no major incident was reported.
Last week Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay complained that there is a misconception in Turkey that Nevruz is celebrated solely by Kurds. He said the festivity does not belong to a single nation, and rather, it is celebrated by all of humanity. He also recalled that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed Nevruz on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
“As we [state officials] celebrate Nevruz in Ankara, other celebrations are held in other Turkish provinces. This festivity does not belong to a single nation. It is the festivity of the nature and soil. It is the festivity of those who work on the soil. Nevruz marks the rebirth of the soil and nature and life. It is the festivity of all of humanity and the entire world,” the minister stated.
Nevruz events in the Southeast are officially being organized by the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), a civil society organization led by the former co-chairs of the Democratic Society Party (DTP), which was shut down by a Constitutional Court ruling two years ago, and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The events attract thousands of people, who are usually dressed in regional ethnic clothes and carry pieces of cloths in red, green and yellow -- in the forms of flags symbolizing the PKK.
According to Kurdish writer Ümit Fırat, Nevruz turned into a political show for Kurds in Turkey in the 1980s after authorities geared up to ban Nevruz celebrations. “After attempts for a ban, the PKK was spurred into action and started to use Nevruz as a means for manipulation. If the state bans something to deny the existence of an ethnic group, then that group engages in a struggle to fight the ban,” he stated.
Fırat also recalled that dozens of people were killed during incidents sparked during Nevruz celebrations in 1992. “What happened then was horrifying, but people treated it as an ordinary incident. Had policies pursued by the state in that region [eastern Turkey] been different at the time, then reactions to the killings could have been different. [The party] responsible for the incidents is the state,” he noted.
On April 21, 1992 security forces opened fire from a vehicle on people participating in Nevruz celebrations in the Cizre district of Şırnak. A total of 57 civilians, including a journalist, were killed in the attack. Following the incident, an official ban was imposed on massive celebrations of Nevruz that remained in place until 2000.
Hüseyin Yayman, a lecturer at Gazi University in Ankara, stated that Nevruz gained a different meaning and people started to celebrate the holiday in a different manner after the 1990s. According to Yayman, Öcalan used the festivity as a pretext to urge Kurds to take to the streets since the first day he established the terrorist PKK. The PKK was set up in 1978 but started its bloody campaign against security forces and civilians in the 1980s. “He was successful, though. And in time Nevruz turned in a national festivity [for Kurds], celebrated by thousands of people. In the past, people in southeastern Turkey used to light bonfires to mark Nevruz in rural areas and watch the bonfire grow bigger. After the 1990s, the celebrations were carried to urban areas thanks to efforts of the PKK to enable large populations to mark the festivity,” Yayman noted.
After the ban on Nevruz celebrations was lifted in 2000, thousands of Kurds started once again to take to the streets on Nevruz day to hold celebrations in open squares and in the streets. Nevruz has been mostly eventless and peaceful over the past two years, after the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government launched efforts to thaw the ice between the Kurdish population and the state, also dubbed the “Kurdish initiative.” Since then, the state’s security forces have avoided engaging in bloody clashes with civilians on Nevruz day, and people have been allowed to hold massive celebrations.
Nevruz for Kurds
Prominent Kurdish historian Professor Mehrdad Izady writes in his book “The Kurds: A Concise Handbook” that Nevruz came about from a set of myths befitting a people who felt oppressed and robbed by history. The roots of the Kurdish Nevruz can be found in the legend of Kawa, a courageous blacksmith who lived 2,500 years ago under the tyranny of King Zuhak, a monster with two serpents growing from his shoulder who fed on the brains of small children. He was so evil that spring no longer came to the Kurdish homeland.
Kawa, asked to send his seventh and last child to Zuhak, hid his son in the mountains with other fleeing children. Over time, Kawa turned the children into an army and, on March 20, marched on the castle and smote the king dead with his hammer. Fires were lit on the hillsides to celebrate the victory, so the story goes, and spring at last returned the next day. The Kurdish Nevruz bonfires are considered to represent the fire that Kawa lit.
In an attempt to block a possible Turkification of Nevruz, Kurdish nationalists have been emphasizing its spelling as “Newroz.”
* Rahime Sezgin from İstanbul also contributed to this report.