A people without a country, Kurds face uncertain future

by Elizabeth Dunbar

Bayram Yenikaya and Burhan Biner’s village is five hours from the Iraqi border in the Kurdish region of Turkey.

Though the University math doctoral students said a war in Iraq probably would not threaten their village, other Kurds in Iraq and Turkey face an uncertain future.

The George W. Bush administration’s sympathy appears to be with the Kurds and not Saddam Hussein, but many are skeptical that a U.S.-led war in Iraq would help the Kurds gain autonomy.

“I don’t think (the Americans) really care about the Kurdish people,” Biner said. “If you look at history, they didn’t.”

“Too many people are going to die,” Yenikaya said of a war in Iraq, which – if the Turkish parliament allows thousands of U.S. troops to base themselves in southeastern Turkey – could take place in the Kurds’ homeland. Residing in the mountains of northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey and parts of Syria and Iran, Kurds are non-Arab, Muslim and have their own language and culture.

After the Persian Gulf War, the Kurds enjoyed some autonomy in northern Iraq in the no-fly zone the United States and Britain established.

Since 1991, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party have ruled the area of northern Iraq.

In Turkey, where Kurds are the largest minority, a series of government policies limit Kurds’ rights.

History professor Caesar Farah, who specializes in Middle Eastern history, said Turkey and Iran appose any kind of Kurdish state and have suppressed Kurds’ rights within their borders; in the past, Kurdish languages were outlawed in Turkey.

“Now the Turks are beginning to give in,” Farah said. “But the Turks will still not accept that the Kurds are a separate people.”

Biner and Yenikaya both learned Turkish in school, but now only Yenikaya can speak Kurdish, because unlike Biner, he grew up in a village where Kurdish was more widely spoken.

“My parents still speak Kurdish,” Biner said, “but in the city there weren’t many opportunities to speak Kurdish.”

Meltem Deniz, a dentistry postdoctoral researcher from Turkey, said her country will not give independence to the Kurds because of the similarities between Kurdish and Turkish cultures.

“We do accept their identity, but because of their culture, we perceive them as one of us and not something different,” Deniz said.

Biner said the Turkish government is beginning to change some of the discriminatory laws because it wants to join the European Union.

“You can still go places where people treat you badly, but it’s not very common,” Biner said.

In the case of a war, Yenikaya said, there’s a chance the Kurds in northern Iraq could have an independent state.

“The Kurdish people in northern Iraq are almost independent,” he said, because Saddam Hussein no longer has control of the area.

About half the Kurdish population in Turkey wants an independent Kurdistan, Yenikaya said, but they probably will not get it.

“The Turkish government is worried that if the Kurdish people in Iraq have a state, the Kurdish people in Turkey will want one also,” he said.

Farah said the Kurds do not have anything to gain from a war in Iraq.

“They aren’t going to get more autonomy than they have now,” he said.

Deniz said although the United States appears to want to protect the Kurds in Iraq, the consequences of war would not improve the chances for an independent Kurdistan.

“It’s easy to bomb Saddam Hussein, but what’s going to happen later?” Deniz asked, adding that the United States and Britain will likely use the region for oil.

“The reason some people want an independent Kurdistan is so they can manipulate the region more easily,” she said, adding that the Kurdish people wouldn’t enjoy true independence if the region was occupied by the United States.

“What kind of independence are we talking about?” she asked.

Biner said he doesn’t think the Kurds will be able to gain full independence.

“It really depends on how (the war) ends and how they want to finish it,” he said. “If people can live peacefully, then that’s good.”

Kani Xulam, founder of the American Kurdish Information Network, said a war in Iraq would cause more instability for the Kurds.

“This war is not a war of liberation or freedom for the Kurds,” Xulam said in a January speech at the University, because there are opposing viewpoints among the Kurds about the potential war.

“Some Kurds welcome it because in a place called Iraq, thousands of Kurds have been killed on Saddam Hussein’s watch,” Xulam said.

But Farah said that position comes from within the United States and not from Kurds in the Middle East.

“If there’s a war, then we will see all these regimes topple. Then we’ll really be unstable,” he said, adding that instability in the Middle East could help Osama bin Laden’s cause.

Farah said bin Laden’s movement could be appealing to some of the strong Kurdish Islamic factions.

“If (bin Laden) has a base, like (Secretary of State Colin) Powell says he has in Iraq, then he’s going to use it,” Farah said.

Biner said although Kurds are divided over their future, a war would cause many problems.

“A lot of people will have to move if it goes badly,” Biner said. “It’s already hard to feed people, but with a war it will be even worse.”

Elizabeth Dunbar covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]