Biji Kurdistan, Biji Newroz, Biji Apo. -- Newroz celebrants 1997
... even with your British Passports we do not feel you will return alive ... -- HADEP representative, Newroz 1997
I am writing this on the plane on my way back to England with an enormous sense of relief. At least I am on my way to relative freedom. -- Newroz 1997 delegate
There was a heavy police and army presence. I saw four armoured cars and one helicopter, plus large groups of police with vehicles, and also roof-top observers. -- Lord Hylton, leader of Newroz 1998 delegation
No substantial progress has been achieved as regards human rights and democratic reform. -- European Commission, March 1998
The security forces are determined to provide for the peace of the people. We will not let anyone break the peace and threaten security ... may friends trust, and enemies fear. -- Aydin Arslan, head of emergency rule, Turkish occupied Kurdistan, March 1998
It has been good for us to see the daily situation of human rights in Turkey ... I think this would not be possible in a democratic state. -- Albert Geubler, Swiss trade unionist detained during police raid on cultural centre, March 1998
For many decades Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, has been an illegal festival. Only recently has the Turkish state rediscovered it as a long lost Turkish festival and declared the day (21 March, the Spring Equinox) a Public Holiday. For the Kurds, Newroz is the feast of Kawa the Blacksmith who killed an evil tyrant who murdered thousands of young Kurds and drank their blood in the belief that he would live forever - the symbolism is not lost on either the Turks or the Kurds.
International observers visited Newroz celebrations in Spring 1997 and again in Spring 1998. The 1997 celebrations were the first to be held since Turkish forces massacred 102 Kurds at the 1992 Newroz celebrations. The Kurdish celebrations were held in defiance of the 'official' celebrations. The international observers were shocked at the level of human rights abuse they encountered.
An international human rights delegation attended the Newroz celebration in Turkish occupied Kurdistan, 17-27 March 1997. The delegation included: Andy Keefe, Ruth Walters, Helen O'Hara, Nick Ryan and Onnik Krikorian. In addition to observing the human rights situation they were able to speak to representatives of HADEP (People's Democracy Party), IHD (Turkish Human Rights Association), the State of Emergency Governor, journalists, families of the 'disappeared', victims of human rights abuses, journalists and many ordinary Kurds.
Everywhere the delegation went they were followed by special security forces - members of MIT (Turkish equivalent of MI5) were everywhere. Offices of IHD were filmed.
Kurds who spoke with the delegation were dragged away by security forces and savagely beaten. Several are known to have since 'disappeared'. An estimated third of those who attended the celebrations were expected to be arrested. The Kurds openly spoke in Kurdish, in defiance of the surrounding security forces.
The delegation heard harrowing tales of torture, executions, rape, murder, imprisonment, disappearances, shelling of villages and homes.
Electricity to villages was regularly disconnected and satellite dishes smashed to prevent villagers from watching Med-TV (Kurdish satellite TV channel).
The Kurds were restricted to starvation food rations to prevent 'surplus' food finding its way into the hands of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). As one villager pointed out 'If the military cannot stop the PKK, how can we?' Curfews which prevented farmers from grazing their animals in the summer, deforestation which denied villagers fuel and fodder.
Eventually the delegation were advised to leave within the hour, as their hosts feared for everyone's safety, that an over-reaction by the security forces was inevitable and that even a British Passport would offer no protection.
Ruth Walters described the sense of relief to be finally on a plane flying home to freedom, how the constant 24 hour state of fear was beginning to effect everyone in the delegation.
The delegation were invited as guests of the Democracy Platform, a broad coalition of political parties, trade unions, human rights groups, cultural groups, who are calling for democratic reform and implementation within Turkey of international agreements on human rights.
Evidence presented to the delegates included
One woman described how the Turks had attacked her village several times. On the last occasion they picked up her one year old child and threw him onto a charcoal grill causing severe burning and the loss of one eye. They then destroyed all 300 houses in the village, displacing 300 families. The villagers were self-sufficient, the women now survive on the streets of Istanbul illegally selling mussels. They are regularly stopped and beaten by the police. Kurdish street vendors are branded by the authorities as 'terrorists'.
Those who attempt to help the displaced find themselves in turn targeted. Goc-Der, the Migrant's Social Assistance and Cultural Association was established in 1997 to help displaced Kurds now living in Istanbul. In February 1998, the police twice smashed up its office and seized documents. The President, Mahmut Ozgur, was one of those arrested in the pre-Newroz raids in Istanbul and detained for four days. The displaced are in all but name 'refugees', but to recognise them would be to admit to a problem in Kurdistan which officially does not exist.
The level of torture is under reported. Those who suffer often dare not speak out for fear of repetition. Doctors, when asked, fail to correctly record torture for fear of reprisals.
The Turkish state is engaged in systematic destruction of the Kurdish language and culture. Public manifestations of Kurdish culture are treated as acts of terrorism. Poets, writers, playwrights, actors, musicians, artists, intellectuals are seen as a threat. Kurdish cultural centres are regularly attacked. Kurdish children are punished in school for speaking their native tongue. Kurds are arrested for watching the wrong TV channels, reading the wrong newspapers, possessing the wrong books.
In addition to describing the atrocities and human rights abuses, the Kurds pleaded that their plight be brought to the attention of the wider world, that the world stop supplying Turkey with arms, that tourism to Turkey be stopped, economic sanctions be applied, Turkey's application for EU membership be blocked and that further pressure be applied to Turkey for democratic reform.
Andy Keefe who had been part of the Peace Convoy that had been prevented from entering Diyarbakir by a military blockade (September 1997) was surprised that on this occasion not only were they allowed in but were met by a guard of honour. The surprise was short lived, the guard of honour was for the visiting Turkish Minister of Culture, the delegation were stopped at a roadblock on their way to the Kurdish celebrations and verbally insulted for attending an 'illegal demonstration', within three days the delegation was forcibly expelled from Diyarbakir.
The security forces were an ever present threat, following, filming. The delegation was followed and harassed, notes were taken of everyone they spoke to.
Such is the stranglehold the security forces have in the region that permission was not given for the hosts to hold an evening dinner in honour of their visiting guests.
On the eve of the celebrations in Istanbul the security forces carried out two days of raids (18/19 March 1998) on HADEP branches, two newspapers and a Kurdish cultural centre. More than 50 people were detained. The raid on the cultural centre was witnessed by an unscheduled visit of Swiss trade unionists who were able to witness at first hand the denial of human rights.
The Kurds met to celebrate. The reaction of the State was a naked display of force. All over Kurdistan celebrations were brutally broken up, people arrested, offices and meeting places smashed. In Diyarbakir the celebrations were broken up by security forces driving motorcycles into the crowd and deliberately running people down, old men, women and children, journalists and foreigners were beaten. At two rallies elsewhere tanks were used to break up the celebrations.
German delegate (and doctor), Knut Rauchfuss, described what happened in Diyarbakir:
Towards the end of the celebrations the participants tried to hold a demonstration. The demonstration was broken into groups by the police, who encircled the people and finally arrested them in small groups. At the same time the demonstration was attacked from behind by a massive force of police. Motorcycle commandos drove into the crowds and people were run over. I personally examined one woman who was unconscious. They had to take her to a hospital. I came across many injured. In the demonstration was also Ulla Jelpke, a member of the German Parliament and her colleague Gulten Sahin. She too was badly beaten by the police. They were forced to run the gauntlet, while the security forces kept beating them. Many demonstrators were arrested and were taken away in busloads.
The view of those organising the Newroz festivities was that the police had been less violent than usual!
One positive outcome of the trip is that it is hoped (funding and visas permitting) that a Kurdish theatre group may be invited to tour the UK. It is also hoped (funding and visas permitting) to invite a Kurdish trade union delegation to address the British TUC Annual Conference.
We were shocked at the level of repression, Kurdistan Report, No 25 July-August 1997
Turkish police raid Kurdish centres again, Reuters, 19 March 1998
Jon Hemming, Turkey's conflict with Kurd guerrillas grinds on, Reuters, 19 March 1998
Newroz 1998 - report by the British Human Rights delegation (March 1998), KIC, 1998