Suna Erdem in London -
Leyla Zana has been a constant in my reporting on Turkey over the years. A tough Kurdish activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, she was thrown out of parliament, imprisoned for a decade and repeatedly put on trial.
Giving a speech earlier in September, though, she looked closer to despair than I have ever seen her. As civilians, soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas perished in their dozens in a resumption of the bloody 30-year war between the Turkish military and separatist Kurds – with a half-finished peace plan seemingly ripped to shreds – Zana spoke out, her voice trembling: “For years we have been fighting and dying… By killing and being killed, we are going to rot our community, our consciences and our futures. Enough! I am calling out to all parties currently bearing arms: If we don’t put an end to these deaths, then believe me, I will go on a hunger strike – to the death.”
To the sound of stunned silence, then clapping, Zana followed with an urgent call for a return to the negotiation table, and was joined in this by Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP): “The guns must stop, fingers must be removed from triggers, there must be a ceasefire,” said Demirtas, urging the government and the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leadership to offer the Kurdish people a viable future, rather than rushing along a bleak path to civil war.
The situation in Turkey is indeed dire. Bombs and mines are exploding across the country, people are being shot. Much of the Kurdish town of Cizre – in lockdown for over a week as the military allegedly flushed out rebels and seized munitions they claimed had been hiding there – is a desolate scene of rubble and despair. During the siege, food supplies went undelivered, the old and infirm died for lack of medical help, and inconsolable parents had to store the bodies of dead children in freezers, as they couldn’t arrange a burial.
The economy of the southeast, resurgent in the past few years of relative calm and boosted by trade ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, has taken a big hit. Demirtas has pointed out that the PKK’s return to blocking roads has meant that Kurdish businesses cannot even trade across provincial borders, raising the prospect of some towns failing to get hold of flour to make bread for their hungry population.
As a sizeable proportion of the Kurdish population has migrated from the rural southeast to western cities since the height of the war in the 1990s, there is a greater opportunity now for civilian standoffs, such as the ransacking of the HDP’s Ankara offices by a bunch of nationalists – led by a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) – angered at the PKK’s renewed aggression.
At this juncture, the comportment of Demirtas and the HDP is more crucial than ever. Having gained 80 MPs in elections in June and given Turkey’s Kurds a hope that they could finally solve their problems of discrimination and alienation by peaceful means, Demirtas started his parliamentary career on a wrong note – by declaring President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the main enemy, and refusing to even contemplate working with a chastened AK party as it tried to fashion a coalition. It took him a while to call outright for a PKK ceasefire, instead of simply blaming the government.
For all its faults – and they are many – it was after all the AK party that broke taboos to talk to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and start an official peace process. Yes, Erdogan tactically turned his back on the talks before the polls, but the PKK restarted the fighting with an unprovoked attack.
The other two political parties in parliament, the social democrats and the nationalists, have been much less cooperative, so it is AK that must be persuaded to re-engage, and HDP must keep trying to make that happen.
A major difficulty for the HDP is the fact that it does not hold great sway over the PKK. Unlike Sinn Fein, which grew out of the IRA, the PKK is a separate entity that predated the Kurdish political parties, and many of its present commanders are still firmly committed to armed struggle. It doesn’t help the peacemakers that PKK egos have been buoyed by Turkish Kurds’ involvement in the Kurdish YPG’s success fighting IS in Syria and Iraq.
So Demirtas can call for a ceasefire, but he can’t impose it. Ocalan, who might have had better luck, has not been allowed to make pronouncements from his island prison for some time. This suggests that either he and the government no longer see eye to eye on the path to peace, or that AK, in its quest to win nationalist votes, is not interested in a PKK ceasefire ahead of a re-run of parliamentary elections due on November 1.
One thing that the HDP has in its favour is the change in public mood. Whereas in the past, the mothers of Turkish army ‘martyrs’ would vow to hand over all their other children to the military cause, they are now rebelling at a government that prefers to send young conscripts to a pointless death rather than pursue peace. Kurdish parents, too, are expressing anger at the PKK for killing their own with their attacks.
This is happening because people have glimpsed the prospect of a peaceful end to the Kurdish problem, and do not want to give it up. This hope can be kept alive only if Demirtas plays a steady hand, continues to oppose violence, keeps hold of the HDP’s non-Kurdish, left-liberal supporters, wins enough votes to get back into parliament and forces a return to the negotiating table.
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