The Kurds in Movement: Migrations, mobilisations, communications and the globalisation of the Kurdish question


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The Kurds in Movement: Migrations, mobilisations, communications and the globalisation of the Kurdish question
    Martin van Bruinessen, ‘The Kurds in Movement: Migrations, mobilisations, communications and the globalisation of the Kurdish question’, Working Paper no. 14, Islamic Area Studies Project, Tokyo, Japan, 1999.    The Kurds in Movement: Migrations, mobilisations, communications and the globalisation of the Kurdish question Martin van Bruinessen, Utrecht University The Kurdish question today is a very different matter from what it was twenty-five years ago. Today's Kurdish movement is a very different movement from that of the 1970s — or rather, it consists of a number of movements each of which is very different from its predecessors. Kurdish society itself is perhaps even more drastically transformed than the terms in which we see the movement. In large areas of the region known as Kurdistan, especially in the Iraqi and Turkish  parts, traditional Kurdish society has been destroyed in the course of war, rebellion and counter-insurgency. In 1979, a Kurdish friend of mine published a new edition of a 19th-century text on Kurdish custom and tradition, and on the cover he placed a photograph of a peasant working on a stony plot of land with a buffalo-drawn plough. 1  This was a recognisable icon for living tradition; the man's baggy pants and the shape of his cap also made immediately clear that he was from the Turkish part of Kurdistan. Such traditional peasants could then only be found on marginal lands that were unfit for machine cultivation; the more accessible parts of Kurdistan had experienced mechanisation in the 1950s through 1970s. It will be hard today to photograph a similar scene. The man in the picture, if still alive, is more likely to live in a place like Van, Istanbul or Berlin than in his old mountain village. Quite possibly, his village, like thousands of others, has been burnt by security forces or by guerrillas of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). Millions of Kurds have been on the move, from one part of Kurdistan to another, from Kurdistan to other parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria or Turkey, and from the Middle East to Western Europe, North America, Australia and other parts of the globe. Voluntary population movement of various sorts, notably labour migration, is not a recent phenomenon only. In the early 20th century there were already numerous Kurds living in Istanbul; most of them were of peasant srcin and worked as porters ( hammal ), but there were also Kurdish students and other members of Kurdish 1  M. Mahmut Beyazîdî,  Adetên Kurdîstan , edited by D. Îzolî. The Hague, 1979.   Bruinessen, The Kurds in Movement 1    elite families living in the capital. 2  The mechanisation of agriculture and the spread of general education resulted in a steadily increasing migration from the Kurdish countryside to Istanbul, Ankara, Baghdad, Tabriz, Tehran and the other large cities of the region, and this in turn gave rise to the emergence of informal Kurdish associations and organisations in those cities. In the 1980s and 1990s, the migration process was not only further speeded up but changed in nature; much of it no longer was voluntary. Villagers fled from warfare or were expelled from their villages by security forces in the context of counter-insurgency operations. Thousands of villages were destroyed, and the resources that had made traditional life possible along with them. Three major political upheavals in the wider region, all taking place in or around 1980, have contributed to the dramatic transformation of Kurdish society and of the Kurdish question.  None of them is causally related with the end of the Cold War, but in all three cases the course of the events was no longer shaped by the polarisation that had been typical of the Cold War period. Alliances and oppositions no longer corresponded with a simple bipolar model. These upheavals were:  — the Iranian revolution (culminating in the fall of the ancien régime  in February 1979 and followed by a prolonged civil war, fought out largely in Kurdistan)  — the military coup in Turkey of September 12, 1980 (followed by draconic law-and-order measures that virtually annihilated the left and Kurdish movements and led to the militarisation of the Kurdish problem)  — the Iraq-Iran war, which broke out in September 1980 and dragged on for almost 8 years (and which was partially fought out in Kurdistan and by using Kurdish proxies). The first major post-Cold War international conflict, the second Gulf War that followed Saddam Hussein's occupation of Kuwait, initially did not appear to have anything to do with the Kurdish question. One of its unforeseen consequences was, however, a large Kurdish uprising in the wake of Iraq's defeat, followed by mass flight towards the Turkish and Iranian borders when Iraqi elite troops turned to the north in an extremely violent offensive. Well over a million, perhaps almost as many as two million Kurds fled from their home towns and villages in those weeks in April 1991. These events placed the Iraqi Kurds on the international agenda (leading to an international relief effort and the creation of a "safe haven" under international protection) but they also had an impact on the Kurdish question in Turkey. 2  See the recent study by Rohat Alakom,  Eski İstanbul Kürtleri (1453 -1925)  [The Kurds of old Istanbul] (Istanbul: Avesta, 1998).   Bruinessen, The Kurds in Movement 2    The destruction of the traditional Kurdish economy and the mass migration of Kurds from their traditional habitat has resulted in the internationalisation  and the deterritorialisation  of the Kurdish question. There is now a large Kurdish diaspora — in western Turkey, throughout Europe and the Middle East, in North America and Australia — and it is increasingly well-organised. On the one hand, the Kurdish communities of western Turkey have so far stayed aloof from radical  politics, and many Turkish officials appear to believe that the dispersal of the Kurds over all of Turkey will by itself bring an end to Kurdish separatism. On the other hand, however, the Kurdish diaspora abroad has begun to play an increasingly significant role in internationalising the Kurdish question and in placing it on European and American government agendas. The problem will not  be solved more easily, but the very terms of the problem are different now — and they are of greater direct concern for the rest of the world. Three events that occurred in September 1998, in the weeks immediately preceding this lecture, illustrate the increased international relevance of the Kurdish question. The leaders of the two major rival Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, Jalal Talabani and Mas`ud Barzani, were invited to Washington to negotiate a peace agreement to end their four-year old conflict under American auspices. Secretary of state Albright personally met both leaders, thereby giving the Iraqi Kurdish leaders an unprecedented degree of recognition. A week later, Turkey threatened to go to war with Syria because of that neighbour's continued support for the PKK. It demanded, among other things, the extradition of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan (who had been leading his movement from Damascus and the Bekaa valley in Lebanon for the better part of the past two decades). Around the same time, the Kurdish Parliament in Exile, a diaspora organisation sympathetic to the PKK, convened for a three-day session in Italy's parliament buildings and was addressed there by representatives of most Italian political parties, who expressed their solidarity. Although Turkey exerted much pressure on Italy to ban this convention, the Italian government did not yield. 3  It will  be increasingly difficult for Europa and North America to stay aloof from the Kurdish question in the years to come, if only because the Kurdish diaspora will succeed in forcing them to get involved. 3  The last two of these events had a sequel: Öcalan left Syria and unexpectedly turned up in Italy on November 12, drawing much media attention and provoking a major row between Turkey and Italy when the latter country refused to extradite him. These later events are briefly discussed below.   Bruinessen, The Kurds in Movement 3    The destruction of traditional village life  As said above, it was the destruction of traditional village life that greatly speeded up both the deterritorialisation and the internationalisation of the Kurdish question. This process began well  before the 1980s but it acquired massive dimensions during and immediately after the Iraq-Iran war. In 1970 the Iraqi regime had reached a peace agreement with the Kurdish movement, which included autonomy for the region region where the majority of the population was Kurdish. Not wishing to lose control of strategic area, it quickly set upon a policy of "arabising" the oil-rich districts of Kirkuk and Khaniqin as well as the Sinjar district along the Syrian border, by expelling Kurdish residents and replacing them with Arabs. This, incidentally, was one of a number of reasons that made the Kurds go to war against the central government again in 1974 — aided by Iran, the USA and Israel. This war lasted a year and was ended when the shah withdrew his support from the Kurds. Fifty thousand Iraqi Kurds, including most of the Kurdish leadership, took refuge in Iran. In this context, Iraq initiated a new policy to prevent a re-emergence of a Kurdish guerrilla movement: a scorched earth policy . In order to seal off Iraqi Kurdistan from the Turkish and Iranian parts of Kurdistan and thus prevent the infiltration of guerrilla fighters and supplies, a wide zone along the borders was declared forbidden territory; all villages in this zone were destroyed, and their inhabitants deported to other parts of the country, ending up in resettlement camps. Initially this forbidden zone was 10 to 15 kilometres wide; during the Iraq-Iran war, it was gradually extended, and as more villages were destroyed the resettlement camps became more and more dreary. The deportees were not compensated for their loss of land and animals, and because there was no employment in or near the resettlement camps, they became dependent on government handouts. The Kurdish parties that recommenced the guerrilla struggle in the late 1970s operated  precisely from these forbidden zones. Until the Iraq-Iran war, their operations were very limited in scope, but once the Iraqi army was tied up in large frontal confrontations with the Iranians, the Kurdish parties brought people back to the once destroyed villages and extended their control over some regions where the villages had not yet been destroyed. In 1987 and 1988, Iraqi troops carried out a series of large operations code-named  Anfal  against the areas that had come under the control of the Kurdish parties. Against many villages  poison gas was used; then they were raided and the inhabitants put in army trucks. The villages were destroyed, fruit trees burnt, wells poisoned or filled with concrete to prevent peopple from returning. The inhabitants were sent to collection points, where they were screened. The men were separated from the women, and more than a hundred thousand of them disappeared. The women Bruinessen, The Kurds in Movement 4
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