The battle for Turkey: Can Selahattin Demirtas pull the country back from the brink of civil war?

Christopher de Bellaigue writes: In the autumn of 1990, 16 years into the Kurdistan Workers party’s (PKK) insurgency against the Turkish state, a political activist named Vedat Aydin rose to his feet to address a human rights conference in the capital, Ankara. When Aydin began to speak, it was not in Turkish, the official language of the state, but Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect that had for decades been effectively banned in public places. The result of this gesture was pandemonium. The moderator of the conference demanded that Aydin switch to Turkish; a fellow Kurd came mischievously onto the platform to translate. Around half those present walked out, and Aydin was detained by police and briefly jailed.

Eight months later Aydin was arrested again, back home in the city of Diyarbakir, in what is effectively the capital of Turkish Kurdistan. Two days after that, his mutilated body was discovered in the countryside outside the city.

Turkish security forces perpetrated thousands of extra-judicial executions of Kurdish activists in the 1990s – along with village clearances and torture on a massive scale – but few provoked the anger of ordinary Kurds more than the killing of the man who had achieved notoriety by standing up to the linguistic proscriptions of the state. On 5 July, 1991, the day of Aydin’s funeral, they came out in their tens of thousands in Diyarbakir.

Among the mourners that day was an 18-year-old local boy called Selahattin Demirtaş, the second son of a plumber and his wife who had given their seven children as stable an upbringing as they could manage in the dirt-poor regional capital.

To Tahir and Sadiye Demirtaş this had meant acquiescing to the official claim that all citizens of the country, bar a few tiny minorities, were Turks. It was only from school friends that Selahattin had learned of the existence of the Kurds, a people that had been living on the mountainous intersection of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor long before the first incursions by Turkish nomads in the 11th century. State propaganda and the collusion of his parents had left Demirtaş unsure as to whether he was a Turk or a Kurd. On 5 July all ambiguity was removed.

The first that Demirtaş saw of the violence that day was when he was swept up in a wave of youngsters being chased by plainclothes policemen wielding planks of wood. Later on, as he recalled in an interview last year with a Turkish newspaper, “they opened fire on the crowd from all sides … the wounded couldn’t be treated because if they went to hospital they would be arrested. And despite all this the newspapers depicted the people of Diyarbakir as responsible for what happened!”

According to the government, eight people were killed that day. Kurdish sources put the figure at more than 20. For Demirtaş, the Diyarbakir killings were an epiphany of the kind that hundreds of thousands of Kurds have experienced over the past 40 years – generally in response to a government atrocity. Such incidents have secured continuous support for the PKK’s war against the Turkish state. “That day,” Demirtaş has said, “I became a different person. My life’s course changed … although I didn’t fully understand the reason behind the events, now I knew: we were Kurds, and since this wasn’t an identity I would toss away, this was also my problem.”

A quarter of a century later, Demirtaş is the embodiment of the Kurds’ political aspirations in Turkey. He is also the exponent of an inclusive politics that is startlingly new, and that owes much to the liberal traditions of the west – so much, in fact, that an admiring ambassador in Ankara recently described him to me as “the only Turkish politician that would not be out of place in a European capital”. But Demirtaş is also the civilian adjunct of a brutal armed movement, caught between bomb and ballot box – a man in the middle. [Continue reading…]

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