‘The Freedom Fight Has Returned to Turkey’

As Kurds head to the front lines to fight the Islamic State, they face a Turkish government attacking them from the rear.

Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Homer’s Odyssey, Ray-Ban aviators, polished shoes, teeth-whitening gel — these are the things Seyfullah left behind in his room in southeast Turkey when he traveled to Iraq and Syria last month to fight against the Islamic State.

Seyfullah, a 33-year-old Kurd, had a successful construction company with branches in the Turkish cities of Antalya and Istanbul. His family beams that he was the most eligible and sought-after bachelor in Turkey’s southeast. But his father says Seyfullah couldn’t sit around any longer watching his fellow Kurds "being slaughtered just hours away."

"He realized the Kurdish fight in Syria is really our Kurdish fight for freedom in Turkey," says his father, sitting on a half-paved patio that Seyfullah had promised to finish building upon his return.

He’ll never get the chance. Last week, the family received a call from a neighbor: Seyfullah had died in an Islamic State-led attack on the besieged city of Kobani.

"I cried, but I’m proud," his father says, smiling through tears. "The freedom fight has returned to Turkey."

The struggle for Kobani, a small Syrian Kurdish city along the border with Turkey, has reignited tensions between Kurds, a disenfranchised minority that makes up a fifth of Turkey’s population, and the state. Many Kurds blame the Turkish government for not doing enough to save their Syrian counterparts and for blocking Kurdish efforts to send fighters across the border to Kobani. As the Islamic State jihadists entered the embattled town last week, the "Kurdish street" erupted in rage across Turkey: The military deployed tanks in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of the country’s Kurdish region, and enforced a curfew after more than a dozen people died in protests that turned violent.

For many Turkish Kurds, the episode felt like déjà vu.

"This reminds us of the dark period back in the ’90s, when the military watched our moves and would arbitrarily beat and arrest Kurds," says Abdullah Demirbas, a former municipal mayor in Diyarbakir. "Are we going backwards?"

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been reluctant to aid Syrian Kurds, as many of them are linked to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a group that has fought bitterly against the Turkish state for political rights and Kurdish self-rule since 1984 in a conflict that has claimed more than 30,000 lives. While still designated a terrorist group by much of the world, PKK fighters have become an effective force on the ground in the battle against the Islamic State.

Over the past decade, relations between Kurds and the Turkish government have improved dramatically, as both sides have invested in a peace process that aims to bring the decades-long conflict to an end. The battle for Kobani, however, threatens to destroy all that progress: The Kurdish leadership has threatened to pull out of the talks if the Kurdish city falls to the Islamic State.

In Syria, Kurds have established an autonomous region in the midst of the country’s protracted civil war. The achievement is partially due to the PKK’s fighting prowess — and Ankara is nervous that the model in Syria could rekindle the Turkish organization’s own secessionist dreams. So far, however, that has not come to pass: Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has renounced violence and has abandoned his goal of an independent Kurdish state. For his part, Erdogan has advanced peace efforts more than his predecessors did, promising long-withheld cultural and language rights for Kurds.

"The Turkish attitude toward Kurds has changed gradually but drastically," says Verda Ozer, a scholar at the Istanbul Policy Center. "There’s much less societal hatred and less nationalism.… There’s more trust and tolerance for a multicultural society."

Still, racism remains endemic in Turkey, and many top officials in Ankara have publicly said that they view the PKK as a bigger threat than the Islamic State, also called ISIL. After protests broke out in the southeast last week, a prominent member of the ruling Justice and Development Party tweeted: "ISIL kills, but at least they don’t torture."

Perhaps no one knows this struggle better than Demirbas, the former municipal mayor in Diyarbakir. He’s something of a celebrity in the city (he likes to remind people that the New York Times Magazine ran a profile on him six years ago) and can’t walk a block without entering a parade of handshakes and compliments ("You’re our hero!"; "Thank you for everything!").

Demirbas was the head of the Diyarbakir teachers’ union for 18 years, during which time he pressed for a more inclusive national school curriculum. He was elected municipal mayor in 2004, but in 2007 he was removed by the Turkish government for criticizing an educational curriculum that denies Kurdish-language public education and for proposing that his district print public service information in Kurdish. Demirbas was re-elected as mayor in 2009, but soon after spent five months behind bars for his ambiguous affiliation with the PKK and use of the Kurdish language.

Like many Kurds who have integrated into the Turkish state, allegiances are an existential juggling act for Demirbas. While one of his sons is serving compulsory duty in the Turkish military, another son is a commander with the PKK, currently fighting in Syria.

Demirbas hadn’t seen his 23-year-old son for six years until just last month, when Demirbas and his wife arranged to meet him on the Syrian side of the border. Demirbas had to cross into Syria from northern Iraq because the Turkish authorities wouldn’t allow him to enter across the Turkey-Syria border. They met for two hours, a short visit filled mostly with tears.

"Humans die once," he says. "But for Kurds … we die every day. I don’t see things getting better."

For him, years of zigzagging progress in Turkey now hinge on one embattled fulcrum: Kobani.

"If Kobani falls, Turkey will enter a dark period," he said. "And we will be forced, once again, to turn to resistance."

Back in Seyfullah’s village, the resistance has already started. Members of his extended family sit huddled together in the house that Seyfullah built, waiting for his body to return from Syria. His younger brother, a promising engineering student, has recently "left for the mountains" along with several neighbors — euphemistic shorthand for fighting alongside the PKK.

"They say we [Kurds] are mountain Turks … that we fight because we’re poor and dumb anyway, with nothing to lose," says Seyfullah’s older brother, brushing his fingers against his brother’s perfectly tailored suits. "But it wasn’t like he had nothing to do. He had everything to do and everything to lose."

"So you have to ask yourself," he says, "what makes someone leave it all?"

(Note: Seyfullah is a nickname given by his family, who wishes to maintain anonymity for fear of retribution from Turkish security forces.)

 Twitter: @LaurenBohn

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