In her interview with Gazete Duvar’s Vecdi Erbay on Sunday, distinguished Kurdish politician and former Democracy Party (DEP) MP Leyla Zana shared her thoughts on a number of pressing issues such as the termination of the peace process, potential avenues for new dialogues, as well as her insights on the political landscape and her personal experiences since 2015.
Zana highlighted the ongoing struggle of Kurdish political prisoners, highlighting their hunger strikes as a form of resistance against the lack of attention and resolution to the Kurdish issue.
She criticised the continuous cycle of elections in Turkey, which she feels overshadows the progress and development of the democratic struggle that began with prison resistance.
MedyaNews presents an English translation of the interview, edited for brevity and clarity:
People who have been carrying the process in prison for this cause for 20-30 years are again on a hunger strike. And I don’t think their voices are heard enough. Elections never end. Every few months, elections come onto Turkey’s agenda again. And everyone is focused on the election. But what about this democratic struggle? How far has it come? How has it developed so much? Can we ignore that?
This is one of the reasons I’m speaking. When we look from the perspective of the Kurds, the democratic struggle started with prison resistance. How can we forget our roots then? How can we overlook such a vital issue? This is a criticism of myself first, then of everyone else… A person fighting in prison has nothing else to do but lay their body to hunger. They lay their body to hunger to resist and start to waste away day by day. Why did the people in prison go on a hunger strike? When we look at it in connection with the Kurdish issue, in this darkness where the lack of solution is imposed, where security policies surround us all, these people are trying to break the isolation by laying their bodies to hunger again. This is their only agenda. They’re not saying we want this for ourselves. They say the problem got stuck with the start of isolation. Then let’s start this opening ourselves. And they laid themselves to hunger strikes again.
Zana pointed out the dilemma faced by the Kurdish people in Turkish politics, where they are often forced to choose between parties that have historically oppressed them. She stressed that Kurds should not be seen as mere tools for political gain by major parties.
No political party will take its base and make them vote for another party without expecting any return. This is against the nature of politics. Certain collaborations can take place. You form a power alliance within the framework of principles, I’m not saying anything about that. But you can’t transfer your base to another party. The system is playing a big game here. I don’t know how aware we are of this. It’s forcing us to make a choice between two sectors. On one hand, there’s the [main opposition] Republican People’s Party (CHP) that has made us suffer the pain of the world for a century, that denied us and positioned itself on our denial. On the other hand, there’s a party imposing the concept of the ummah (worldwide Muslim community). Kurds are intended to be forced to choose one of these. No, we don’t have to choose. One has applied great oppression for 80 years, the other is positioned as the successor of that oppression.
Why should we have to choose between the two? We’re not a crutch for the CHP, nor for the [ruling] Justice and Development Party (AKP). We’re neither; we’re ourselves. A political party; its colour, identity, discourse, organising style and base are different… Isn’t it because of the attitude of the current CHP leader that all our party leaders are in prison now? Thousands of our people are in prison, in exile, but they can’t even become a topic of discussion. There’s a game here too. The people have naturally questioned this. I’m observing the new management of the CHP, and I hope they will show a responsible and brave approach that takes into account these warnings of the masses on the democratic and peaceful resolution of the Kurdish issue.
Zana also addressed the need for legal protection and recognition of the Kurdish identity, criticising the state and political parties for their ongoing denial and neglect of the Kurdish people. She urged a clear stance from the state and political parties regarding their willingness to coexist with the Kurdish population.
The demands; the first is to exist with legal protection. Not to suffer because of your language, not to have to carry your dead in plastic bags or cardboard boxes. If the state subjects its citizens to such discrimination, to such neglect, then the state should ask itself: “Do I or do I not want to live together with this people?” And it should make this clear. Likewise, political parties should clarify their positions. “Yes, I want you but without your will. You give me your vote, the rest is in God’s hands.” Can such a thing be?
Is it possible for a mindset that defines my language as an ‘unknown language’ to be equitable? At the root of all this is a process of denial. I’ll come to you before you ask; I said this to a state official in 2023. I said, “It’s a very difficult process. Because we are the denial of denial. More correctly, we are the rejection of rejection. This system has rejected us. We have positioned ourselves by rejecting it too. Our measures of acceptance and rejection have not yet become clear. Because our measures of acceptance and rejection have not become clear, a chaotic environment has ensued.”
Vecdi Erbay: The 90s were undoubtedly very difficult, but for example, TÜSİAD (Turkish Association of Industry and Business) could prepare reports on the Kurdish issue. Based on this example, what do you think has changed in Turkey from the past to today?
The Republic was founded on the denial of the Kurd. Kurds have two identities that make them exist: one is their belief in terms of cultural dimension, the other is their existence, language and status in terms of political dimension. The state took away both identities. The state dragged the Kurds into conflict by setting traps, and continues to do so. Right now, civilian settlements are being bombed in Rojava, cross-border operations are follow incessantly one upon another, South Kurdistan is being hit by missiles, women, youths, civilians are being assassinated… No human should fall to the ground for reasons of “national security” or “survival”. No one understands the people on whose homes fire has fallen in this land better than we. I also feel the pain of poor soldier families in my heart. There are conscientious people in this country among the Turkish intellectuals and democrats. I listened to one the other day, he says, “For God’s sake, can there be so many attacks?” The Kurds value their origin wherever it is, accepts it as such, and fights for it.
To return to your question, one of the things that has not been understood and overcome since the 90s is this. Reports prepared by TÜSİAD and some other organisations showed that they really don’t know the Kurds. I stated this in court: “Yours is a pathological case beyond objective data. You always see Kurds as shoeshine boys or sellers of street food in your street, or servants in your house, so you can’t change your habits. You experience a dilemma, the pain of how it is possible accept Kurds as equals.” They are very aware and actually, they can see, that nothing can stop the Kurds now.
Society is changing, it has changed, it’s the system’s perspective that hasn’t changed. That’s where the trouble is. If posters of Sheikh Said are hung on the walls by the youth, it means that even if you execute all of us, someone will rise one day and continue this cause. This cause does not end. Because this cause goes far beyond individuals. This cause is beyond any kind of institutional influence. The state says, I don’t love you, I don’t recognise you, but neither will I let you be free. Yet, these lands are rich and deep enough to embrace and feed everyone. You’ve reduced the peoples to the position of beggars. What right do you have to do that?
In 2013, a solution [peace] process was initiated. Then it failed, the negotiating table was overturned, and the issue evolved into a more difficult place. You were a politician involved in the process. What happened at that time? Why did was the table overturned?
In 2006, I was invited to Norway as part of diplomatic efforts. They asked, “How can we contribute to the resolution of the Kurdish issue?” After long discussions, I emphasised two points in particular. The first was the need for the conflicting parties to come together around a table, and the second was the necessity for the Kurds to unite. When Kurds are fragmented, they can neither significantly contribute to Turkey’s democratisation nor effectively address their own concerns. Each Kurdish group has its unique characteristics. It is essential for them to unite on common ground to withstand the challenges while acknowledging these. By 2009 these objectives were achieved to some degree. However, a problem arose regarding the issue of guaranteeing the process, as Turkey declared its intention to handle the matter “solely with the Kurds”, which unfortunately derailed the dialogue process.
In 2012, I met with then Prime Minister Mr Erdoğan, with [then Deputy Prime Minister] Mr Beşir Atalay also present. I expressed my thoughts: “The black holes of this system cannot be patched up temporarily. While you are prime minister, this constitution must be changed in some way. It’s a disgrace to forcibly impose this straitjacket, put in place by the fascist regime of 12 September, on our society.” We also discussed the matter of engaging with the Kurds. I said, “Who else but you can bring strength to the AKP just now? So you must sit down with whoever has created this conflict resolution process. Mr [Abdullah] Öcalan is there… You should sit and talk with him. There are representatives of the Kurds. We can only get through this process by considering them integrally, without segregating them, and without putting them in opposition to each other.
You need to involve every sector in this problem. It’s not a problem that can be solved only by the ruling party or just by our people, because it’s everyone’s problem. If democratisation is not achieved, it’s because of this problem. If fascism has taken such deep root, it’s nourished by this problem. You cannot overcome fascism as long as the Kurdish issue remains unresolved. If corruption is so high on the agenda, it’s because this problem is at its root. This is why human rights violations are not ending.” I even said, “Eight police officers cannot beat up a citizen, Prime Minister.” He replied, “It wasn’t eight police officers Ms Zana.” I said, “OK, five then…”
I explained in the meeting how the problem should be approached: “Don’t come at this issue tactically, come at it strategically. If you approach it strategically, Turkey’s path will open. The world needs Turkey, and Turkey needs the world., and we need each other. We are one of the owners of this land. You have to open up to the world.” I said much more to him and clearly stated who the interlocutor should be. The interlocutor obvious. It is Mr Öcalan, who has thought the most about the Middle East.
What did he say?
Let’s not open that up for now. The 2013 process was a historical opportunity in many respects. Not only for the Kurds but also for the peoples of the Middle East.
There must have been conditions.
“He said, ‘They need to lay down arms.’ I said, ‘It’s not realistic. On what basis will they lay them down? Do you have a project? Where are we going to bring these people to? Where will we put them?’ I spoke that clearly.
Was Erdoğan becoming prime minister a tactic of the system?
They wanted to try the pan-Islamist approach. The Kurds are already part of the Islamic community. The system was calculaing whether it could bind them here, stripped of their distinctive features and characteristics, based only on faith. ‘Even your sitting here is the result of this calculation,’ I said. Because everything except pan-Islamism had been tried. Then they tried that too. And this is the result of the policies they have implemented since 2014-2015. Can we intimidate the Kurds again by terrorising, annihilating, and imprisoning them? Can we push them back another 100 years? Small calculations. Think bigger!
The 2013 peace process actually proceeded somewhat as you requested. Because they formed a Committee of Wise Persons. They went to every part of Turkey and held talks. They held talks with everyone – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), political parties, the prisons, the diaspora. Now we come to the frequently asked question. Why did the process break down?
There were those who wanted to solve this problem without Öcalan and Erdoğan, who said we can solve this within ourselves. You’re going to take enormous risks, and some will want to proceed by leaving you out of this business. Would you accept that? Difficult. That’s clear. You’re hearing this for the first time, aren’t you? I say this comfortably because I’ve thrown this in some people’s faces. I won’t name names. People within the AKP told me, ‘Do you know your people sabotaged this process to exclude Öcalan?’ I turned around and said, ‘I know something else. You wanted to carry on this process without Erdoğan, and that’s why the process broke down.’ I didn’t get a single response. The person across from me fell silent.
But how could Erdoğan, who was strong at the time and is still very strong, allow this?
Remember, Erdoğan lost the majority in the parliament for the first time in the elections of 7 June 2015. Despite the difficulties, the solution [peace] process went on. I assert that if a formula could have been created to prevent going back to the elections, if Turkey’s conscientious, sensitive public, its democratic forces, some of the Kurd and Erdoğan could have stood against the security mindset, the process could have developed differently. National Security Council decisions must have had an impact on the breakdown of the process, but those decisions cannot be the sole answer. Power was important to solve this problem. I said at the time, ‘If we go to a second election (1 November 2015), I’m afraid we will start to yearn for the ’90s.’ There was a quiet attempt at making contact at the time, and there was a meeting with Erdoğan. But it was too late.
How did they attempt to make contact?
I don’t know. Let the researchers figure that out. I too would like this process to be illuminated.
We hear mutual accusations from both AKP and Democracy and Equality (DEM) Party members regarding the breakdown of the process. But we hardly learn anything concrete about the reasons for the breakdown. It seems like there’s an effort to hide something from the public, right?
Honestly, I don’t know what was discussed between the two parties. I was limited to a diplomatic effort focused on the South Kurdistan Region. I don’t know what was being discussed. I wasn’t involved in routine delegation meetings. But in our last meeting, there were criticisms by Mr Öcalan regarding the text of the Dolmabahçe Consensus document.
Was that document bad? Did Öcalan find it inadequate?
The Dolmabahçe meeting was significant and important for the public. I’m not privy to the details of the content and the preparation phase of the document.
Could Öcalan have solved the issue? Did he have that power?
Of course he did. He still does. He’s one of the best-informed people on the issue. After all, his foresights have been keeping this massive movement alive for at least 40 years. It’s his ideology. When the Kurdish movement is mentioned in Turkey nowadays, only conflict comes to mind. But it has cultural and philosophical dimensions. It has an organisational level. It has a contemporary way of life. In other words, a renaissance has occurred among the Kurds. In one meeting, he said, “I haven’t been able to bring about a revolution.” “No, you have been successful,” I said. “A revolution was brought about in the Soviet Union. A dictatorship of the proletariat was established. But it only lasted 70 years. But you have caused a mental revolution. The most concrete and striking example of this is the Kurdish woman,” I said. He smiled when I said that. “Do you think so?” he asked, “Yes, I think so,” I replied.
You debated some issues, didn’t you? You weren’t just going to İmralı to receive instructions, were you?
Of course. We witnessed his very respectful approach to this matter. “I don’t say do this in my name. But you are free to do whatever you want to do on behalf of your own people. Do it on behalf of the people,” he said.
You’re saying Öcalan could have solved this, he was determined, and that was his intention. Did you feel the same determination in Erdoğan? Was he really willing to solve the issue? Because there’s a lot of skepticism among the Kurds about this.
Öcalan said, “Even the most magnificent war is not more valuable than peace. Because war corrupts. The peace process, however, enriches.” He said, “We will go step by step.” But did the all the powers that be approach it strategically? As I mentioned earlier, there was the same confusion there as we have. They positioned everything around the election and deemed such a picture appropriate for the people of Turkey.
Did the solution [peace] process end outwith Erdoğan’s initiative?
The President says, “I put the process in the deep freeze.” Well, its shelf life is about to expire, so I think we need to take it out of the deep freeze and deal with it fundamentally. Without wasting time… But they do not seem to be making any such effort. There’s no more tolerance for postponing and delaying, do you understand?
When we look at the Middle East as a whole, the conditions impose this on everyone. They impose it on the Kurds and on the Turkish state. Life imposes it, it’s where the expectations of society come from. Kurds are not in love with death. Kurds don’t have an intention to demolish the state, they have a struggle for rights because they are ignored and thus have to resist in some way. From the perspective of the state, debts are already far in excess of billions of dollars. How are you going to pay this debt? If peace were to prevail, who wouldn’t these lands feed? You don’t need to import wheat or lentils from Ukraine. If you were to develop a dialogue and go for a healthy collaboration, we have resources that could warm Europe… Energy, time, and resources need to be spent on this by both the government and the opposition. This problem has started to burn everyone.
Why didn’t this happen in 2013?
Let’s say we didn’t work hard enough. We didn’t explain enough. I’m speaking for both sides. The government didn’t develop enough measures or establish a clear stance. Diplomatically, politically and in terms of the masses, we were also very scattered. Structurally, we were disorganised. No one was sharing anything with anyone else. There was that problem as well.
Was information not shared?
Even if you are at the very top, you can’t do anything without sharing information, because you constantly bear the worry: what if I do something that causes harm? I don’t want to be in a position to cause harm. On the contrary; considering my own reality, I take a position to contribute. If information is shared, clarity is achieved. If clarity is achieved, it is reflected in practice. During that period, there were conflicts in city centres, and news of deaths was coming from everywhere. We, our fellow MPs and our party organisation, were trying to get to Cizre, because horrific news was coming from Cizre, and we wanted to break the siege and reach our people. Of course, the security forces tried to prevent our passage at every point with all their strength. We decided to walk. Finally, when we were stopped in İdil, we stayed here to assess the situation with friends.
At the assessment, it was decided that a group of friends would try to cross the barricades set up there to get to Cizre, while the rest would make a statement to inform the public. I was asked to make the statement. There, I addressed both conflicting parties, emphasising that we would do everything we could to reach Cizre and to stop the deaths and that I would start a fast to the death if the killings did not stop. A few hours after this statement, contact was made, and the conflicts stopped for a while.
The next day, we were able to enter Cizre. My goal was to prevent the deaths of these young people, these civilians. As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have knowledge of a process, you bear the worry of whether you might harm the process. “If you go on a fast to the death, know that thousands will die with you,” I was told. “My goal is to stop these deaths. If even one person goes to death with me and I survive, I will never forgive myself; I can’t bear it.” I couldn’t do it. If the goal is to stop deaths, and my actions deviate from that goal; I had to stop there and swallow my words to avoid causing the death of even a single person. For the first time, I swallowed my words. Otherwise, politically speaking, I have always acted and lived according to what I believed until today. Our history is like this; this is how we learned.
What do you think about the South (Iraqi Kurdistan)? Let’s start with the peace process… You also had contacts there.
We are grateful to everyone who has worked for peace. In such a time, it is necessary to remember and acknowledge Mam Jalal (Talabani). He struggled throughout his life for a democratic and peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey. Of course, Mesut Barzani and Nechirvan Barzani also made significant contributions to the solution [peace] process. The dominant powers also benefitted from the Kurds being scattered and fragmented, unfortunately. Unnatural political borders have already torn a nation apart. However, Kurds are not rivals of each other. Kurds, wherever they are, are undergoing a process of recognising and understanding each other while struggling for their existence. How to develop a network of relationships, how can this be made a permanent, durable and productive?
All of this requires talking, establishing dialogue. Kurds must achieve their unity. Turkey should respond to Rojava’s calls for peace and dialogue not by bombing, but by establishing diplomatic relations and contacts, developing neighbourliness, like the relationship they have developed with South Kurdistan…
I understand you are hopeful. Have you received offer of the form: “Ms Zana, there’s a possibility of a new [peace] process, would you join us?”
Let’s not open that up. From time to time, people consult me for my opinions. I share with them what I’ve shared with you, expressing my thoughts to all parties without any censorship. Daily politics and the cause are both separate and complementary things. If you separate one from the other, you will be lacking. Therefore, daily politics must certainly be worked on. But one must act with the consciousness of having a cause. This cause is bigger than Leyla, bigger than Ali, bigger than Ayşe or Fatma. This cause has been built on solid foundations, whether we are there or not. Our people are solid. I have endless trust in our people. I am tremendously hopeful about the youth. If I have been even a pinprick of inspiration to anyone or made any contribution, I can only feel happy.