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The Kurds

1 December 1996

With a population of 26 million, the Kurds are the Middle East’s largest ethnic community without a state of its own. The persecution and state-sponsored violence endured by the Kurds is legion – exemplified by the razing of thousands of Kurdish villages in Türkiye and the massacres resulting from chemical weaponry in Iraqi Kurdistan. David McDowall focuses on Kurdish history, society and Kurds’ changing way of life in the heartlands of Kurdistan – in Iran, Iraq and Türkiye. A further valuable insight is given into the situation of Kurds in Europe, Lebanon, the former Soviet Union and Syria.

On the evening of 10 November 1992 members of a ‘special team’ of soldiers entered the village of Kelekci in south-east Türkiye and instructed the mayor to evacuate all the inhabitants immediately. While the mayor attempted to call the people together, the soldiers set fire to a number of houses.Nine houses and their contents were burned to the ground. As a result, most of the inhabitants moved to Diyarbakir where some moved in with relatives. Others were left homeless. On 6 April 1993 the security forces returned to the village and set fire to the rest of the houses. Kelekci, formerly a village of 500 inhabitants, has now been completely evacuated.

These events are common in south-east Türkiye, where most Kurds live. The importance of Kelekci village is that nine villagers submitted their case to the European Court of Human Rights. They alleged that the burning of their houses was not an isolated incident, but was part of a state policy of evacuating and destroying Kurdish villages.

On 16 September 1996, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its judgment. This was the first case involving the destruction of villages in south-east Türkiye ever decided by the Court. The Court found against the Turkish state. In particular the Court held that:

  • on account of the burning of the applicants’ housing by Turkish security forces, the Turkish state had violated the right of the applicants to private and family life (Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights);
  • the Turkish state had violated the applicants’ right to the peaceful enjoyment of their property (Article 1 of the First Protocol to the Convention);
  • the Court further held that on account of the pressure put on applicants to withdraw their petitions to the European Commission, Türkiye was in violation of Article 25 (1) of the European Convention, which guarantees the right to individual petition.

The phenomenon of the burning and destruction of villages in Türkiye has been officially acknowledged. The regional governor of Diyarbakir has officially acknowledged that a total of 2,785 Kurdish settlements have been evacuated and destroyed. Human rights organizations put the number of evacuated settlements at closer to 3,000, with about 3 million people displaced as a result. The government continues to deny that Turkish security forces are responsible for these acts.

The enforced displacement of 3 million people has had tragic human, economic and environmental consequences. The majority of those forced out of their homes and dispossessed move to large cities where they face acute housing problems and unemployment. Cities such as Adana, Batman, Diyarbakir, Mersin and Van are unable to cope with the huge influx of people. The population of Diyarbakir, for example, has grown in five years from 380,000 in 1991 to 1.3 million in 1996. Similarly, the population of Mersin grew from 550,000 in 1992 to 1 million in 1994. This increase in population has resulted in increased levels of crime, epidemics of bronchitis and pneumonia, the near-collapse of the schooling system, and sharp tensions with the original inhabitants of towns and cities like Adana and Diyarbakir.

Quite apart from the brutality which accompanies many cases of eviction and destruction of villages, the state policy of forced evacuation causes long-term suffering for people forced to live in cramped and insecure conditions, deprived of their livelihood, their community and their way of life.(Information from Kurdish Human Rights Project, Akduvar v. Türkiye; The Story of Kurdish Villagers Seeking Justice against Türkiye, October 1996.)

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are the descendants of Indo-European tribes who settled among the inhabitants of the Zagros mountains in various epochs, but probably mainly during the second millennium BC. The first mention of Kurds, as ‘Cyrtii’, occurred in the second century BC. At the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century AD, the term ‘Kurd’ was used to denote nomadic people.The Kurds today, numbering at least 26 million, struggle to obtain political recognition and rights as national communities within the state boundaries in which they find themselves. They form the largest ethnic community in the Middle East without a state of its own. 

Population estimates (1993)*
CountryTotal populationKurds%
Former Soviet Union 500,000 
Elsewhere 700,000 
Total 26,000,000 

 (*Estimates are in rounded figures.)

Where do the Kurds live?

Although Kurds are to be found in Syria, the Caucasian republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Khorasan (in eastern Iran), and in Lebanon, the main concentration lives today where the Kurdish people have always lived – in the mountains where Iran, Iraq and Türkiye meet. The heart of this area consists of the extremely rugged mountains of the Zagros range, running in ridges north-west to south-east. In the west these mountain folds give way to rolling hills, and to the Mesopotamian plain. To the north the mountains slowly turn to steppe-like plateau and the highlands of Anatolia. To the east the mountains fall away to lowlands onto which the Kurds have also spread.Although the population is not exclusively Kurdish in much of this area, the dominant culture is Kurdish. From the early thirteenth century onwards much of this area has been called Kurdistan, although it was not until the sixteenth century, after the Kurds had moved north and west onto the Anatolian plateau, that the term Kurdistan came into common usage to denote a system of Kurdish fiefs. Since then, although the term Kurdistan appears on few maps, it is clearly more than a geographical term since it also refers to a human culture which exists in that land.Nevertheless no map of Kurdistan can be drawn without contention, and for this reason the demographic map is not a political statement, but a statement of where large numbers of Kurds are found. Türkiye for all practical purposes denies Kurdistan’s existence, while Iran and Iraq are reluctant to acknowledge that it is as extensive as many Kurds would have them accept.

How do Kurds live?

All Kurdish communities are stock-breeders mainly of sheep, goats and some cattle. In all parts of Kurdistan the cultivation of cereals is important, accounting for roughly 15 per cent of the total crop in Türkiye, and 35 per cent and 30 per cent respectively in Iran and Iraq. The principal cash crop of the Kurdish foothills is tobacco, but it is of moderate quality and cannot compete in outside markets. Cotton is also grown, particularly in Anatolia. In the mountains, fruit and vegetables are the main crops for local consumption. No more than a third of Kurdistan’s arable land is actually cultivated, of which one third is always fallow.The major mineral in Kurdistan is oil, found in commercial quantities in Kirkuk and Khaniqin (Iraq), Batman and Silvan in Türkiye and at Rumeylan in Syria. The exploitation of these oilfields by the respective governments heightens both the Kurdish sense of injustice and also governmental determination to allow no separatism to threaten these important resources. Other minerals in significant quantities include chrome, coal, copper, iron, and lignite.

Kurdish history

From the sixteenth century, the Ottoman and Persian empires allowed the Kurdish tribes almost total autonomy in return for keeping the peace on the rugged but open border between the two empires. At the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was divided up and the Kurds found themselves segmented between Arab Iraq, Iran and Türkiye.

In each of the new post-war countries, the Kurds found they were treated with suspicion, and pressured to conform to the ways of the majority. The independence and pastoralist existence they had previously enjoyed quickly diminished. They were expected to learn the main language of the state in which they found themselves, Arabic, Turkish or Persian, to abandon their Kurdish identity and to accept Arab, Iranian or Turkish nationalism.

In Türkiye, over 13 million Kurds are forbidden to describe themselves as Kurds. Although the law banning the use of spoken Kurdish was lifted in 1991, it remains an offence to use Kurdish in publications, politics or education. When Türkiye was returned to civil government in 1983 it was widely believed that armed dissidence had been crushed and that order had been restored, particularly in the eastern part of Türkiye. However, in August 1984 a hitherto largely unknown group, Partiya Karkari Kurdistan (PKK – The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) made two dramatic attacks on army posts in the south-east, killing 24 soldiers. It was the beginning of Türkiye’s most serious Kurdish challenge ever.

Initially Kurdish society was profoundly shocked by PKK violence, particularly its massacres of whole families, but it soon discovered that the state easily outmatched PKK excesses. Military sweeps, degrading treatment, beatings, widespread and arbitrary arrest and the wholesale use of torture drove thousands of the impoverished and exploited rural population into the arms of the PKK. Indeed, the security forces proved the PKK’s most efficient recruiting sergeant. As time passed, the casualty figures accelerated. Some 20,000 had died by the end of 1995. By this stage Ankara had approximately 300,000 troops and gendarmes deployed in the region at an annual cost of $8 billion, over 20 per cent of the annual budget. These it used not only inside Türkiye, but also for assaults on suspected PKK camps inside Iraq. In October 1993 and March 1995 it launched major operations, the former in collaboration with the Iraqi Kurdish parties, the latter unilaterally but with a 35,000-strong force crossing into Iraq.

In Iran the Kurds were similarly controlled in the 1920s. In 1946 the Kurds of Mahabad succeeded in declaring an independent republic, but it only lasted a few months and its leaders were killed. During the period of the Pahlevi shahs, 1919-79, all Kurdish national expression was ruthlessly suppressed. After the Islamic revolution of 1979, Tehran refused the demand for autonomy. Both the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Komala would prefer to negotiate rather than fight. In 1989, the KDPI’s veteran leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, was assassinated by Tehran’s representatives during secret talks in Vienna.

However, the KDPI remains committed to negotiation. Despite the wide popular sympathy among Iran’s 6 million Kurds, it negotiating position remains weak.

In Iraq, there have been numerous revolts against Baghdad. From 1964 until 1975, the legendary leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani maintained an intermittent era of war and peace negotiations. But in 1974 following the failure of autonomy negotiations, Baghdad unilaterally implemented an Autonomy Law which lacked substance. The Kurds reverted to war, strongly supported by Iran. When Iraq offered to yield part of the Shatt al Arab waterway to Iran in 1975, the latter withdrew support and the revolt collapsed. Iraq destroyed hundreds of villages in the border area, removing inhabitants to ‘model villages’ outside its new cordon sanitaire. The army also laid extensive minefields. Supported by Iran and Syria during the Iran-Iraq war, the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) established control over an area the size of Wales.

However, Iran was unable to secure a victory against Iraq. The government of Iraq had already demonstrated its savagery by chemical weapons attacks, killing at least 5,000 Kurdish civilians in 1988. In August 1988, Iran accepted a ceasefire. During the following fortnight, Iraqi forces used gas and massive bombardment to drive Kurdish forces out of Iraq. Then much of rural Kurdistan was evacuated and the villages destroyed. Over 1.5 million Kurds were forcibly moved to easily controlled ‘collective towns’. Almost 200,000 ‘disappeared’ from areas under government control.

Kurdish uprising 1991

The Kurdish uprising of 1991 took place after the Coalition Forces’ recapture of Kuwait. Encouraged by US calls for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and by the rising of the Shi’i Arabs in south Iraq, a popular revolt spread rapidly across Kurdistan during March. US encouragement fell short of providing assistance to the Kurds or preventing Iraqi helicopter attacks upon them. Once government forces had suppressed the Shi’i revolt, they rapidly recaptured the main towns of Kurdistan, killing thousands.

The ‘safe haven’

In a week, over 1.5 million Kurds abandoned their homes and fled to the borders. Embarrassed by public outrage at the plight of the Kurds and their own failure to act earlier, the Coalition Forces agreed to establish ‘safe havens’ inside Iraq. Then the Coalition Forces started to hand over responsibilities to a United Nations (UN) observer force. Within the ‘safe haven’, the UN and non-governmental organizations have assisted the Kurds to rebuild their villages and resume their traditional way of life in rural areas. However, since May 1994, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the KDP have been absorbed by internal fighting culminating in September 1996 when the KDP invited Saddam Hussein to assist in their bid to gain control of the region. The Iraqi government forces withdrew almost immediately, but now both the KDP and PUK are reliant on external support in their bid for leadership of Iraqi Kurds. The KDP is supported by Iraq and the PUK by Iran. Many observers see it as a matter to time until Saddam re-asserts total control of the region. This is indeed a bleak prospect for the Kurds.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.

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