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Story Publication logo November 30, 2012

Turkey: After the Hunger Strike


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Iraq's Kurds are in business while Turkey and its own Kurdish population are at war. Will success in...

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Osman Baydemir, second from left, during a hunger strike in March. Image by Dilan Batgi. Turkey, 2012.

When winter hits Turkey, the fighting between the Army and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (P.K.K.), which has been going on for nearly thirty years now, tends to slow. The P.K.K. is based in a mountainous region on the border with Iraq, and snow isolates its fighters—and creates new dangers for government forces. Earlier this month, seventeen Turkish soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed in the mountains because of bad weather.

This year may be different. Fighting was particularly intense this fall, and as a result, Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University, says, "the P.K.K. thinks it has some sort of momentum behind it, and [it] may not want to lose that." The P.K.K. changed its tactics during the fighting season—briefly occupying a town in the southeast—and may surprise this winter as well. There are gains to be made with nonviolence, perhaps.

On September 12th, around sixty Kurds being held in Turkish prisons began a hunger strike. Over the ensuing months, the ranks of the hunger-strikers grew to a total of almost seven hundred inmates, plus countless ordinary citizens, and a handful of high-ranking Kurdish politicians. Their protest provoked mass demonstrations in Turkey and abroad, dominated Kurdish media, and inspired hope that there might finally be some break in the impasse in negotiations between Kurds and the Turkish government. Still, for the weeks that the strike lasted, it seemed that resolution was dependent on catastrophe: for it to end, someone would have to die.

But then, suddenly, on the sixty-eighth day of the hunger strike, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the P.K.K., called for it to end, and it was over. Ocalan is in prison himself, on an island in the Marmara Sea—originally sentenced to death, he is now serving a life term after the death penalty was abolished, in 2002—and the strike was in part about him: the top demand was an end to his solitary confinement. Even from prison he exercises a stunning authority over the Kurdish community, something that has made him a key element of any possible negotiation, even while Turkish officials are more than reluctant to involve him.

It was a suspenseful and worrisome two months, not only for supporters of the P.K.K. and relatives of the prisoners but for Turkish and Kurdish officials as well. Even if they had led to negotiations and a larger settlement, deaths would still have been another blight on a region that has seen three decades of war. The end to the hunger strike is a victory for both sides, especially as both come out looking more humane: the government because it negotiated before people began to die, and the P.K.K. because it engaged in a successful nonviolent protest. Concrete victories for the Kurdish side—they secured the right to speak Kurdish in court, and there are rumors, but no official confirmation, of an end to Ocalan's solitary confinement—are also wins for the government. Fighting intensifies the stand-off, making negotiations more difficult, even if officials on both sides want them; the hunger strike may have eased these tensions.

And Turkey needs negotiations. Forty thousand people have died in the war, and the public is fearful and exasperated. Furthermore, Turkey has to concentrate on what's going on across its borders in Syria and Iraq, both of which have their own Kurdish populations.

Throughout, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the ruling Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.), took a hard line on the strike. Even as President Abdullah Gul showed sympathy, Erdogan dismissed the protest as "just a show" and started talking about reinstating the death penalty, an unsubtle message aimed at Ocalan himself. Erdogan originally campaigned for his job on the promise of a peaceful resolution with the Kurds and the P.K.K., but negotiations have over the past decade become a perpetual stand-off. His rigidity on the strike could have been a political maneuver; next year Turkey will elect a president for the first time, and there is speculation that Erdogan can get the job by appealing to conservative nationalists who are very tough on Kurdish rights. "Erdogan has tacked to the right as he builds a coalition," Barkey said. "This is what is driving him now."

In some ways, Erdogan could afford to be callous: hunger strikes are not an uncommon form of protest in Turkey. In March I wrote about another strike, undertaken by eighty Kurdish mayors, which was more of a symbolic fast; the mayors lived for a few days on tea and water, and then went back to work. This latest demonstration was much more worrying. Prison-based hunger strikes are reminiscent of the nineteen-nineties, a decade of mass arrests and systematic torture that Kurds still fret about as if it is waiting just offstage for the moment to be right for its return. "The recent discourse of Erdogan sounds very similar to the nineteen-nineties," Murat Somer, a professor of international relations at Bilgi University, said. "It is very difficult now for the government to look good and maintain this image as a pro-democracy government which wants to dissolve the Kurdish problem peacefully and enter the E.U. and strengthen democracy."

Erdogan might also be emboldened by a decline in the traditional solidarity between Kurds across national borders. Iraqi Kurds look forward to a bright future underwritten by untapped oil reserves and a friendship with the Turkish government. It's a relationship that benefits both Ankara and the Kurdish Regional Government, but might come at the expense of Turkey's Kurds (a subject I have been researching for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting). "It shows the modus operandi of the Turkish government toward the K.R.G.," Somer said. "The K.R.G. is not supposed to interfere with Turkey's domestic politics." The change happened quickly. Last winter, when an earthquake destroyed the majority-Kurdish city Van, the K.R.G. was faster to react than the Turkish government, and Iraqi Kurds used the opportunity to criticize Turkey's approach to its Kurdish population. But it took K.R.G. officials two months to issue a statement about the hunger strike.

Erdogan also has the law on his side. Turkey has an extremely severe anti-terror law and, since 2009, a court case referred to as K.C.K. (Kurdistan Communities Union) has landed thousands of Kurds in prison on terrorism charges. The government considers the K.C.K. the urban arm of the P.K.K., though those arrested are not guerillas but N.G.O. workers, politicians, lawyers, and activists. If the case is, as critics say, an effort to dismantle the Kurdish political community, it is working; the proof is that the hunger strike spread from prison to parliament before it ended. For prisoners, a hunger strike is a sort of nonviolent violence: an announcement of coming death. For politicians, it is a rejection of a democratic process that they presumably once believed in.

Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, is a hugely popular Kurdish politician. He and his wife, Reyhan, a human-rights lawyer, are tireless campaigners on Kurdish issues, which has made them celebrities and heroes throughout the community. Toward the end of the strike, Baydemir stopped eating. On his fourth day without food, Baydemir replied to my questions through Baris Alen, one of his staffers.

"There have been times in the last eight years that I felt helpless in my position as mayor," Baydemir wrote. "However concerning the hunger strikes, I have never felt as helpless … For me the result of this hunger strike will shape my future. I am at a crossroads; I have always been against armed opposition…. I have chosen civil disobedience. But I will apologize to my people if there are funerals coming out of prisons. I will criticize myself and I won't be the mayor of Diyarbakir."

The strike itself was evidence of the limitations of Baydemir's power—and the power of almost all other Kurdish politicians, no matter their popularity—and, too, that those limitations are there not only because of the Turkish government but also because of Ocalan and the P.K.K. Baydemir was capable of joining the hunger strike, but not of calling it off; only one man has that kind of power, and he's in solitary confinement in a prison on the Marmara Sea.


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