Kurdish icon Leyla Zana broke her silence after years of not making public comments and not giving interviews. Her reason to withdraw herself was that she was in a deep mourning after the city wars in Kurdish neighbourhoods in 2015 and 2016 cost the lives of so many young Kurds, and she felt she didn’t have an answer to why this all happened. She expressed the pain of many Kurds (and friends of Kurds) for sure. Those months left the whole nation traumatised. How to heal?
The extensive interview with Leyla Zana appeared in Gazete Duvar. For followers of the Kurdish issue, Leyla Zana is very well known, but because she has been silent for so long, there’s no harm in refreshing your mind. Zana became politically active in the 1980s and arrested for the first time at the end of that decade. In 1991, she was elected to parliament for a Kurdish political party for the first time. She rose to fame inside and outside Turkey when she took the oath in parliament and added a sentence in Kurdish about the brotherhood between Kurds and Turks. She was jailed for many years, and received several prestigious human rights awards in those years. After being released in 2004, she continued her political work and was elected as a Member of Parliament several times again.
During the peace process between the state and the PKK, she played an important role because she is so incredibly well connected. Not only was she a respected member of the Kurdish political movement, but she was respected by Erdoğan as well, and by Kurdish leaders in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, who were trying to play their part in establishing peace in Turkey as well.
When I read her explanation for her years of absence and expressed her profound sadness about the violence in Kurdish cities in 2015 and 2016, right after the peace process had ended, I felt overcome with sadness myself again too. I had just been kicked out of Turkey in September 2015 so I didn’t see the city wars from up close, but I knew people who were involved. I talked to young people who fought in Cizre and Nusaybin for my book about the PKK, and I talked to friends in Diyarbakır who also had trouble coming to terms with what happened.
What made it so difficult, was that so many young Kurds were brutally killed during the wars. Not only fighters, but citizens too – a distinction that is not always relevant or useful by the way, because part of the fighters were civilians who were defending their neighbourhoods against state violence.
What made it extra difficult, was the strategy of the Kurdish movement that preceded the wars. The peace process had ended, after which several municipalities declared themselves autonomous. After all, self-determination, also on a local level, was an important part of their proposed solution for the Kurdish issue. These autonomous zones were then to be defended by armed youth, who started digging trenches to keep the state out. While the armed movement had counted on the locals to join the fight, tens of thousands of people instead fled to safety elsewhere. The state came in, applied disproportionate and horrific violence and targeted civilians and medical workers. Whole neighbourhoods were razed to the ground. Many, many people died.
I talked about it with PKK Co-leader Cemil Bayık. He said the PKK was not to blame and declaring autonomy was not a mistake either. He said that the state was going to destroy the neighbourhoods anyway, so resistance was crucial. But was it? Weren’t the people totally fed up with the violence, with the war? He said the people never get tired of fighting for freedom. I have contemplated it so much, and I wondered if in this respect, there were two realities. The revolutionary reality of a well-educated and trained avant-garde, which maybe was just a few steps too far ahead of the people they were leading. It is always said that there is no distinction between the people and the movement because they are one – but was it one during the city wars?
The traumas are deep. The trauma of the loss of many Kurds from the younger generations who were supposed to be the future. The trauma about the loss of historical cities and heritage. The trauma of all the human rights violations inflicted by the army. And the trauma of this spiralling so catastrophically out of control with the movement of the people bearing part of the responsibility.
All these traumas, and not in the least the last one, can only heal if a conversation about them can take place openly. Currently this is not possible. Why not? Because the war continues and the Kurdish issue hasn’t been solved. This is why another topic Leyla Zana spoke about is extremely important. She said that Erdoğan had placed the peace process in the deep freezer, and she urged him to take it out before it would expire. I wholeheartedly agree with her. The peace process can’t be allowed to definitively expire. And the traumas can’t be allowed to be left unattended because they might never heal again.