This Kurdish Outpost Is A Town Without A Country

Business Week

March 24, 1991

Letter From Cizre


The dusty plaza outside the mayor’s office evokes high noon in Dodge City. Donkeys bellow, shops are shuttered, and only a few old men and children are out and about. Hasim Hasimi, mayor of Cizre (jiz-RAY), a Kurdish town in Turkey near the Iraqi border, looks cut out for a part in a spaghetti Western. The 35-year-old mayor was once a roving hunter, shooting for both food and fur. Now, he complements his trim mustache and longish hair with a tailored suit. Two years ago, he squeaked into power between the candidates of two feuding families that, until then, had taken turns supplying Cizre with one corrupt mayor after another.

As the electricity flickers, we sit drinking tea on beat-up couches in the mayor’s office, the room reeking of the lemon cologne traditionally rubbed on each visitor’s hands. Before Hasimi, the large office sat vacant for 30 years. Having bankrupted the city budget, the previous mayors worked from their homes for fear of shoot-outs and other direct feedback from their frontier constituency.

Cizre is in the heart of what the Kurds hope some day will be their homeland: Kurdistan. Before the Ottomans, before Genghis Khan, Kurds were here. Unlike the Turks, their language is Indo-European, not Asiatic. Unlike the Iraqis, they are not Arabs. Unlike the Iranians, most Kurds are Sunni Moslems, not Shia. In short, they are a distinct people.

STICKY WICKET. Creating Kurdistan would be no easy feat, involving parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and perhaps slivers of Syria and the southern Soviet Union. In Iraq, there have been Kurdish rebellions since the end of World War I, when Kurdistan was dropped from the Allied plans that carved new countries out of the defeated Ottoman Empire. In southeastern Turkey, Kurds began guerrilla operations in 1984, and the region has been under oppressive emergency rule ever since.

Off to one side of Cizre’s main plaza, the E-24 highway–the legendary Silk Road–links Turkey and Europe with Iraq and the gulf. Before the war, some 5,000 vehicles passed through each day, loaded with cheap products and tourists as well as contraband smuggled over the mountains of Iraq. “But after Aug. 2,” says Hasimi, “all that stopped.”

Before the crisis, Cizre’s population was 52,000. After Turkey complied with the U. N. embargo and closed the border, it fell to 20,000. In the past three weeks, though, it has swung up to 31,000, the mayor says. Some people came back as fears eased over the use of chemical weapons. Memories went back to 1988 when refugees brought tales of horror from Halabjah, a Kurdish town gassed by Saddam.

In late January, as U. S. jets began forays from Turkish bases and Iraqi retaliation was feared, the Turkish Fifth Army evacuated rural areas and established military zones. The villagers had to sell their household goods and sheep and move in with friends and relatives in Cizre. Mayor Hasimi has been giving away his salary to the needy. He lives by selling off land he inherited from his father, a local chieftain.

TONGUE-TIED. A few weeks ago, it was hard to find any children in Cizre. Now, around the main plaza, urchins are selling Marlboros and shining shoes. Women are still scarce, kept indoors because of the great number of soldiers. Only the section of E-24 to Nusaybin has been asphalted, so every tank or horse cart that rolls by kicks up a cloud of dust. Displaced village men bargain over sheep and goats, but no one buys. Stray cows and donkeys, thin and bony, nuzzle garbage and orange peels in the streets.

Because of the gulf turmoil and anti-Saddam activity by Iraq’s four million Kurds, Turkish President Turgut Ozal seems to be paying more attention to his nation’s 12 million Kurds, says Nurettin Yilmaz, a local member of Parliament. But the Kurds doubt they will gain anything significant. Although Ozal recently proposed changing the law to allow them to speak their own language, the townsfolk have been speaking Kurdish all along–albeit with caution, and usually in their homes. But many of the uneducated villagers can’t even speak Turkish, a gap that can put them in jail when they must communicate with officials, to say nothing of limiting their job prospects. “Their only chance for work is as garbage men or fruit sellers in the plaza,” says Mehmet Zeki Demir in his tape-cassette shop on the main street. Demir isn’t faring so well himself: “My brothers ran a foreign-exchange shop on the Nusaybin highway, and I made enough money here. Now we are all working in this small shop. It is not enough.” Keeping his three children fed is a struggle, Demir says.

“My mouth is tied shut, I can’t use my language,” he laments. “Is there somewhere else in the world like this where you can not speak your native tongue?”

ARMED ESCORT. Inside the Kadooglu Hotel, the only building higher than two stories in Cizre, plainclothes police watch reporters. So I talk to Botan Ozalp, a wealthy businessman, in his house. He takes a gun from his wife before he escorts me home after dinner. The streets are deserted except for the odd army vehicle. As he drives, Ozalp talks about the power that PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) separatists wield in his town. “This is their fortress,” he says. “If they came to me asking for help, they would kill me if I didn’t give them money. They are living in the mountains, suffering for us, for Kurdistan.”

And the people are suffering for them. There is widespread harassment and torture of Kurds by the authorities. Bounties are offered for dead PKK, real or suspected. Meanwhile, the PKK picks off collaborators, real or suspected.

As Mar. 21, an important Kurdish religious holiday, approaches, the police are everywhere, questioning everybody. A year ago, four people were killed and many wounded in clashes in Cizre. Recently in Sirnak, two villagers and 200 donkeys were killed by gendarmes cracking down on coal being spirited away from a government mine. In Mus, six gendarmes were killed the same day.

Even if the border opens and the trucks come again, “unemployment will still be high,” says Ozalp. “The young will be without jobs, without food, and so they will be tempted to join the PKK.”

Later, driving me to his country house near the Iraqi border, Ozalp is stopped at a roadblock and brought in for questioning. Before the gendarmes, his head is bowed. It is embarrassing for me to watch him play the part of a humble, deferential chauffeur.

Kurds from all walks of life are circumspect. Shopkeeper Demir will say nothing to me as we walk together in the street. Only in his tape store does the anger come out:

“We think of Kurdistan like Kuwait. Our people will not stop wanting a free Kurdistan.” But Kuwait, of course, had big friends.

Juliette Rossant

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