December 19, 2014

A Voyage through Turkish Kurdistan

The visit of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey, to Estonia on 24 October passed by with relatively modest media coverage. At the moment, both countries have probably other issues on their minds, but there is nevertheless some overlapping: for example, Russian destroyers are minding their own business on both the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, and it is a known fact that the militants fighting under the black flag for an expanding “Islamic State” have come from Europe, a hundred or so even from Denmark where, according to latest news, some sort of rehabilitation project is underway to help aspiring Islamic soldiers return to normal life.

I paid more attention to this visit than I normally would more or less out of inertia; to this day I am searching for news in the English-language Turkish media about what is happening in border areas because I attended a comparative literary research conference in Turkey in the middle of October.
The conference took place in Mersin, a city of less than a million situated on the north-eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The nearest airport is an hour’s drive away in Adana, a city of two million people; between the two is Tarsus, the birthplace of Paul the Apostle, where one can find numerous ancient Roman ruins and other sights. The whole region is ancient and biblical, the climate Mediterranean, and the milieu oriental and exotic, if one wanders further away from the big-city modern shopping malls and new residential areas.
But at the same time this is a country that has been persistently knocking on the door of the EU for years. This time it’s not with guns blazing like back in the 17th century against Vienna, but peacefully, seemingly meticulously following European values and rules—just like the honoured Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, had taught and behaved as an example. So we can even today confirm the words of Jaan Lintrop, a writer and head of the Estonian Telegraph Agency (ETA) who travelled in Istanbul in 1929:
The reborn Turkey acknowledges itself as the prime advocate of European culture in the Middle East. We claim for ourselves the same kind of position here in the north. So we have a similar mission and a similar position. The only thing we need now is to create a bond between the two outposts.1
Turkey is also a land where even nowadays the present becomes history, not in a particularly bloodless manner, as the rioting in October in many a Turkish city illustrated. Not to mention what is going on beyond the border in Syria. A city we had barely ever heard of—Kobanî—has become famous worldwide because of the fighting between Kurds and Islamic State militants that has been going on for several months. By the way, I have come across two different explanations describing the ambiguity of the city’s name. Its older Arabic name, Ayn al-Arab, supposedly means “Spring of the Arabs”. Kobanî is quite a recent name and derives from the word “company”: about a hundred years ago, the small railway settlement was the location of an office of some German company, while the railway was supposed to unite Baghdad and Berlin under the grandiose project of the Ottoman empire.
Kobanî, situated in Syrian Kurdistan or Rojava, became a home for many Armenian and, later on, Kurdish refugees from Turkey, growing and developing to be an increasingly important administrative centre for the Syrian Kurds.
I had a definite desire to multitask once I knew I was going to Turkey, and wanted to locate a small village near the border of Armenia in the north-east part of the country called Karacaören, which was once known as New Estonia or Novoestonka. Were we not both once part of the same Russian Empire as that region, which is also considered to be a part of the erstwhile Greater Armenian territory?
In his book Jumalaga, Kars ja Erzurum (Farewell Kars and Erzurum, 1975), Aarand Roos writes in detail about the village established by Estonians near Kars on 19 May 1886. Not the most direct route but, on the other hand, the most interesting one seemed to be due east from Adana towards Mardin, about which I had heard only pleasant things; from there north towards Diyarbakir, and east along the highway that runs next to Lake Van to the foot of Ararat, where Noah and his sons supposedly built a town—approximately on the exact spot of contemporary Kars. That was supposed to be the so-called bonus of the trip: to see, among other things, the area inhabited by one of the largest nations without a state, where one would otherwise be very unlikely to end up as a tourist. Besides—who knows what the future will bring and how states, nations, non-governmental armed forces and terrorist groups will act from now on in these areas with rather arbitrarily drawn borders. Unfortunately, it was on the eve of our trip on 8 October that alarming news started to come in from that region about riots and curfews in cities. The alternative idea, therefore, was to first go north almost up to the Black Sea and then head east.
However, as we picked up our rental car in Adana without any problems, we turned due east. The highways in Turkey are excellent, the traffic quite sparse, and there was no sense of danger, but there was an awareness that twenty-something kilometres away over the Syrian border a battle was taking place, as well as knowledge of the so-called Kurdish question that has troubled Turkey ever since its establishment as a state.
There are about 35 million Kurds in the world and their settlements are divided between the territories of four countries—Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq; the largest number live in Turkey. The data about the total number of Kurds in Turkey suggest that there are between 14 and 20 million of them depending on the source, which in any case makes up about a fifth of the whole Turkish population and almost half of Kurds everywhere. Kurds have met hard times in every country and under every regime, and their rights are still poor in every country they inhabit. Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the latter has not acknowledged Kurds as the biggest Indo-Iranian-speaking ethnic minority and they have been often called simply “mountain Turks”. Their attempts to gain independence led to the establishment of the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the late 1970s as well as armed conflicts and terror in the north-east of Turkey that went on for decades; calling this a civil war would be no exaggeration. Lately, however, a hesitant silence has prevailed and somehow the situation has reached the negotiation phase. Nobody needs war, neither the Kurdish nationalists nor Turkey, which is striving to become an EU member and whose one impediment to this is the persecution and imprisonment of independence advocates and nonconformists. On the other hand, the PKK has not denied its use of violent methods in pursuit of its noble causes, the organisation’s founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan has been in prison since 1999 and the PKK is on the same list of international terrorist organisations as ISIS and al-Qaeda … So who is negotiating with whom?
We made a quick stop in Gaziantep, which is allegedly one of the oldest permanently-settled cities in the world. But this is said about many of the settlements in this area. I tried to control the situation and talk with a police officer who was sitting in his car next to a mosque. The language barrier made it almost impossible. Atatürk’s language reform gutted the language from all universal loan words that sound familiar to Europeans and replaced them with words taken from Turkic dialects. We still managed to make some sort of adequate contact by using hands and a roadmap. Concerning the route that leads from Mardin towards Iraq, the officer made a warning gesture and said “tuk-tuk” while the index finger on his right hand pulled an imaginary trigger. The route to Diyarbakır, which to me seemed just as dodgy, was very much “okay” in his opinion. He was not at all interested in me as an individual.
We crossed the River Euphrates unnoticed and felt as if we were almost in Mesopotamia—the land between the rivers, as they used to say. The landscape was arid, with rows of olive trees on hillsides here and there. On the right, the road was lined with long stretches of barbed wire, but that was probably for agricultural reasons. There should be at least twenty more kilometres of safe Turkish territory. My travel companion read from a large placard: “Entering war zone at your own risk”. It was only later that I found out that this was a good-humoured bluff, because neither of us spoke the local language. Black humour or just a very well-developed instinct for self-preservation?
Then the road headed southwards to Suruç, a neighbour of Kobanî immediately on the Turkish side of the border. Ten days later I read in the news that Serena Shim, an American journalist who had aired news about a probably ISIS-led illegal border crossing and contraband trafficking, had died in Suruç in a car accident, with the exact circumstances remaining suspicious—despite the fact that the television shows Turkish tanks guarding the border. At the crossing point, Syrian refugees were sometimes allowed to pass; they were mostly Kurdish civilians but the weapons on the Turkish side remained silent, and the military didn’t intervene. That aggravated the Kurds because their kinsmen, who had Kalashnikov rifles and tractors armed in any way available, were being slaughtered on the other side of the border fighting ISIS, a well-armed and very well-financed terrorist organisation. The Turkish Kurds looked at the fighting, saw the explosions and heard the uproar coming from the other side of the border and their inability to do anything about it made them angry and violent. Violence and anger are often born from helplessness and the inability to change a situation peacefully. That, in turn, leads to terror. At the same time, it was strange to think that, not far from here, in a bend in the Euphrates surrounded by Syrian territory, was the burial place of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, the grandfather of Osman I. That piece of land belongs to Turkey, is guarded by Turkish soldiers, and the Turks have sworn to protect it at any cost. Tombs and relics are more important than human lives. A couple of hours’ drive away from there is Ar-Raqqah, which now serves as the capital of a self-proclaimed caliphate.
The massive flight and killing of Kurds in the border town of Kobanî does not seem to bother the Turks at first glance. Besides, some members of the PKK fled to Syria among the fighters in Kobanî—they are the arch-enemies of the Turks. It is more convenient to let the Kurds and caliphate fighters kill each other off. Moreover, the official regime in Syria would still interpret Turkish military actions as intervention in their internal affairs, and if the caliphate were successful, Turkey should probably also be afraid of retaliation from its hostile new neighbour. (Is there anyone to whom ISIS is not hostile?)
It is because of the unwillingness to intervene that Turkey has acquired new problems: the relationship between Kurds and the official powers (as well as the military behind them), which seemed to progress quite peacefully in the meantime, has become tense; Turkish officials and soldiers have been killed, and dozens of protesters have died in the riots. The Kurds have already blamed the Turks for supporting ISIS. In this context, I could even relate to one of the Kurdish extremist websites, which showed a map of Kurdistan bordering Greece; there was no sign of Turkey and the enemies and occupants of this independent Kurdish state were listed as Arabs, Persians and Turks—as well as NATO as a whole, because Turkey has openly amicable relations with the latter. In this country, the relationships are out of balance in every way and the opposing sides themselves have often been internally conflicted and stubborn.
Naturally, there were no signs of military action or riots on the highway. And just in case, we were not even looking for them. We took a decisive turn north from Şanliurfa, just as the policeman had suggested. Thinking about the south-east corner of Turkey bordering Iraq from which we were moving further away, I cannot help but mention that at least on one occasion an Estonian played an important role in developing the modern-day political map of the Middle East. The commission established by the League of Nations in connection with the Mosul question drew a line between the Turkish and Iraqi territories inhabited by Kurds in 1925 under the guidance of our own General Johannes Laidoner. This probably did not result in any exceptional, long-lasting protests—at least not the kind that could be compared with the former territorial claims proposed to Turkey by Stalin or the Armenians—although, due to the line drawn by Laidoner, Turkey did lose a part of northern Iraq that it originally hoped to get and where oil is now found.
Perhaps that is why the Kurds in that area live relatively well and are better organised than their kinsmen in neighbouring countries. While Saddam Hussein had Kurdish villages destroyed and killed thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons, Iraqi Kurdistan is now a separate autonomous region with its capital in Erbil (Hewlêr in Kurdish). About seven million Kurds live in Iraqi Kurdistan; they have their own government, president and military—the Peshmerga, which means “those who face death”. The Peshmerga, which includes numerous female fighters in its ranks, is probably the only considerable and well-motivated military power that continued to resist ISIS after other Iraqi military units were fleeing and leaving their weapons behind. The Americans have helped the Peshmerga by providing them with arms and supporting the defence of their territory by conducting air raids against ISIS. An important source of wealth in this region is, of course, oil. Incidentally, the Iraqi Kurds have about 20 satellite-TV channels at their disposal, while there are only two in Turkey and four in Iran.
Kurdistan has been divided between different states and is therefore either a job left undone or a missed opportunity, like Palestine—one of the failed remnants of World War II and international diplomacy, the effects of which are felt even today and far beyond this region. For the sake of historical accuracy it should be mentioned that during 1945–6 a short-lived state called the Republic of Mahabad did exist on a strip of land along the eastern border of Turkey and north-eastern Iraq. This unique buffer was created thanks to the support of the Soviet Union, but soon ceased to be, due to an agreement between Stalin and the Shah of Iran, under which the latter inherited the territory. A memorial to the leader of Mahabad, Qazi Muhammad, who was hanged, should still be standing in the city of Sulaymaniyah (Silêmanî in Kurdish) in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Because we had avoided entering larger cities we had also not exchanged any currency. But the fruit stands here and there beside the road were immensely tempting! In Hilvan, a town of about 20,000, we decided to stop to visit a bank. The Turks have a very nice custom of marking down the population of the city and its height above sea level on the sign introducing the place. A helpful local guided us through maze-like streets to a small bank and a security guard led us to a back room—one might think that he was leading us to the manager’s office—where two other men were sitting and sipping tea from small cups. We shook hands with everyone. The manager looked very much like the picture of Atatürk on the wall. The other two were, however, Kurds, as we soon found out. We are friends, the manager insists, but our country has problems. The other two nod. The atmosphere was serious. In the meantime, tea glasses appeared in front of us as well. Our money was carefully counted and the exchange rates were something to be happy about. As in all later instances, I was astonished by the pleasant helpfulness that was offered proudly rather than humbly, and the order in financial matters: no tip was required and all liras were returned precisely. But as later experience would show, it was also possible to haggle to a decent degree, even in a modern boutique.
The men gave us numerous recommendations as to nearby sights, including the best spots for enjoying sunset or sunrise. But they did not advise going to Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan that inevitably was on our route. There were no roundabouts in the outskirts of cities in this region; a highway went straight through a city. We thanked them and took the route towards Diyarbakır, with Siverek as our next stop, where we decided to stay for the night. We found a place without much trouble. The area seemed rather poor; people mostly seemed to be engaged in agriculture, cattle were driven through the city, and we saw chicken coops from cellar doors that opened onto the street. Local children threw melon peel at us while we were having a little walk around the town to get to know the place better, but I did not take this as a serious manifestation of hostility. After all, we were just strangers and, of course, the women should have their hair covered. In the hotel we were the subject of special attention and at least three men tried to figure out from my companion what a person eats if he does not eat meat. The dishes that were prepared were modest, like the dining room itself, but they were perfectly spicy and extremely cheap. Turkey is not an abstinent country—indeed Atatürk himself, who died of cirrhosis of the liver, set an example—but this countryside excelled in its conservatism. Cold, unflavoured yoghurt standing on the table in a jug that was refilled from time to time was splendid to drink.
Everything was fine, except what we saw on the TV in the restaurant. It showed clearly what was going on in the cities and it was precisely in Diyarbakır that about twenty people had died in riots. A film crew for some channel was staying at the hotel, but they were shooting one of the most important Turkish exports—TV series or soap operas—rather than news. One of the crew members spoke good Russian and advised us to drive straight through Diyarbakır in the early morning without stopping. We followed his advice, and the only things we saw in the city centre that gave any hint of events the previous evening were an armoured car and gun barrels on an overpass above the highway. We noticed guard towers and fighting holes secured with sandbags, even in rural areas. These were not mere souvenirs from the decades-long civil war—there were still armoured vehicles moving around, and soldiers with automatic weapons. There were large commercial vehicles on the highways, but few cars.
We had moved from a Mediterranean climate to the continental zone, and the sunny plains almost 1,000 metres above sea level had been replaced with a stone desert that had been widely cultivated and was surprisingly fertile. We stopped at a cotton field. The fields were more or less divided into squares by long rows of stones dug out of the soil and went on into the distance up to the next hill on the horizon. The land fed people but also seemed to grow new stones. The landscape was rather sombre, but grand. One could only imagine how much effort went into cultivating this sort of field. It was only next to the sloping plain fields in Kurdistan that I realised how hard these people actually worked, not like the ones that played dominoes and cards at city teahouses and created an image of their country for tourists.
Mountaintops and blue skies again offered a more joyful sight near the largest lake in Turkey: Lake Van, 1,640 metres above sea level. The lake has no outflow and looked rather lifeless because of the high concentration of salt; the water tasted downright disgusting, but the landscape was picturesque. The ferry traffic that used to function some time ago was an important link on the Ankara–Teheran railway; in fact, it constituted a connection between Europe and Asia. Long ago, this was the centre of the Urartu state, and a thousand years ago this land belonged to the Kingdom of Armenia.
I recalled a line from Viivi Luik: Ühest paigast teise tuulehoog viib riigid (“From one place to another does a gust of wind carry countries”). But some countries are blown into oblivion by the wind of history, leaving behind only monuments and ruins; new ones will rise from them. The “caliphate” that ISIS is trying to establish reminded me of a torn black shirt that has been laid over a large portion of Syrian and Iraqi territory; it is one of the most violent prospects and biggest challenges for a peace-loving world in modern times, whether we are dealing with Muslims, Christians or secularists. In the worst-case scenario, a new caliphate will be established, with Ar-Raqqah as its capital. But it is possible that the natives of the region, the Kurds, will overcome their differences and create a state of Kurdistan, the capital of which will be Hewlêr (Arbīl). A referendum on independence is already being prepared there.
There are more prerequisites for the creation of an independent Kurdish state than ever before. The battle over Kobanî has noticeably brought Kurds living in different countries closer together. We saw the solidarity with the Kobanî Kurds on graffiti in a campus in Mersin, as well as in some godforsaken place on a hillside where the name had been laid with stones and could be clearly seen far over the plain: “Kobanî”. Turkey allowed a couple of hundred Peshmerga fighters carrying military technology and armaments from Iraq through their territory to Syria at the end of October—probably very reluctantly, but still. One could see on the news the triumphant crowds coming to see them on the roadsides. But what happens if the Kurds are not satisfied with the Kurdistan territory they have in Iraq? Is Turkey ready to acknowledge Kurds as a nation that deserves an independent state—to the point that Turkey loses a part of its territory in the process of creating a new state, and the line drawn by General Laidoner vanishes into history?
We had driven roughly 1,000 kilometres in two days, which was not that much on good highways, often with a speed limit of 120 km/h. By the second evening we reached Doğubayazıt, close to the Iranian border, just as we had planned. Iranian petrol tankers prevailed in the traffic, but gas was more expensive here than in the south. Using the website when looking for a hotel, the closest I could find was in Yerevan, but reality provided a choice of two even in this city. We instinctively chose the one that was better lit. The Golden Hill was a rather large hotel that was not worth its high prices, but was definitely worthy of its name. The room was quite messy: cigarette butts had not been cleared from the ashtray and everything was covered in yellow dust, especially the balcony on the fifth floor. But the view was straight to Ararat! Down below, next to the street, there seemed to be some sort of waste management plant; the whole area seemed to consist of unfinished buildings and workshops. It was getting dark and we were told not to go walking around because restaurants and businesses were closed due to the curfew. Even the hotel restaurant was closed. But despite that, the boys prepared food and brought a bottle of local wine with it; opening it took so long that two people managed to read their e-mails from the previous 24 hours. The Wi-Fi was working!—at least until the power went off. But it came back before long.
A modest breakfast consisting of white bread, olives and cheese was served on an enclosed roof terrace. There were only a few men enjoying this besides us; I imagined that at least one of them was secret police, as I had recently read the novel Snow set in Kars, by Orhan Pamuk.
And so evening came, and then morning—the third day. We were in Kars, and managed to see the ruins of Ani, the erstwhile capital of the Kingdom of Armenia, and found the village of Karacaören.
But that, as they say, is an entirely different story.
1 Jaan Lintrop. Türgi enne ja nüüd (Turkey Before and Now). Noor-Eesti kirjastus, Tartu, 1930, p. 74.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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