“I am Kurdish and Alevi; I am discriminated against because of this dual identity”, said Emre, a 23-year-old student standing in front of a blue plastic tent, his eyes glassy. He was born and raised in Pazarcik, a predominantly Kurdish and Alevi town in southeastern Turkey’s Kahramanmaras province. His family lost everything on the night of February 6 when the earthquake shook this part of Turkey.
“I saw a lot of people die because of the lack of help in the first two or three days,” Emre said. “This is a Kurdish and Alevi street. Houses were destroyed – but we didn’t get the same amount of help as other streets that were actually less damaged.”
Emre’s voice sounds numb with anger. He has no doubt that Kurds and Alevi, a minority practising a heterodox form of Islam, are discriminated against: He adds, “A century ago, White and Black Americans lived separately; they even had separate toilets. Today they’ve managed to overcome all that. But here, nothing changes.”
Emre used to want to become a carer for the elderly – but he no longer has dreams for the future. The bakery where he used to work to makes ends meet was destroyed. Now Emre’s priority is to simply survive.
But he will certainly be voting. “I’m going to vote even if I have to go to another town to do so,” he said. “The whole country is going to vote because the government has to change. We’ve been muzzled; our freedom of expression is really quite constrained. It’s because I have nothing left to lose that I’m not scared about speaking out. All I’ve got left is my family. But other people are scared of ending up handcuffed and imprisoned.”
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Ayse Varose, a 75-year-old Alevi Kurd, is also keen to break the silence, even though a stroke has partly paralysed her face. “Of course I’m going to vote,” she said, laughing. “I’m going to vote for the Kurdish people – for revolution.” She becomes increasingly distressed as she recounts the horrific events she has been through: “There are cracks all over my house – just look at them! We go to sleep in tents because we’re scared. And I haven’t received any financial help,” she adds.
Ayse will vote for Turkey’s Kurdish party the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is running in the parliamentary polls as the Green Left Party. “Even if they don’t have an Alevi candidate, I’ll vote for the HDP because they’re one of us. As far as the presidential elections are concerned, it’ll be Kilicdaroglu. He’s Alevi; he’s one of us.”
‘Afraid to speak Kurdish’
There are some 15 to 20 million Kurds in Turkey. This makes them a crucial asset for an opposition yearning to end Erdogan’s two-decade-long grip on power. Unlike last time, in 2018, the HDP has chosen not to put forward its own candidate, but to rally around the Kemalist CHP’s Kilicdaroglu, as Turkey’s six main opposition parties present a united front. Thus, the HDP is seen as a potential kingmaker.
“The Kurds expected quite a lot from Erdogan’s presidency, notably from the talks started in the early 2000s as part of the reforms Turkey had to make as part of the EU accession process,” said Cuma Cicek, an associate researcher at the French Institute for Anatolian Studies in Istanbul.
“Erdogan launched an array of reforms concerning the Kurdish language and identity between 2007 and 2012, including the creation of a study programme at the universities. That created a lot of hope among Kurds that their rights and culture would be respected. Then [Erdogan’s party] the AKP made alliances with the nationalists and that meant the Kurdish issue was now seen through the prism of security and terrorism.”
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From the Ottoman Empire to the secular republic, Kurdish history in Turkey has been punctuated by revolts and violent repression. When he created the modern Turkish nation-state in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dashed hopes for an autonomous Kurdish state as envisaged in the 1920 Treaty of Sevrès after the Ottomans’ defeat in World War I. The Kurdish language was banned and Kurdish identity was denied as they were classed as “mountain Turks”. Assimilation was demanded.
For decades, it was considered a crime to simply speak Kurdish or assert one’s Kurdish identity. This era is now over – but the feeling of mistrust remains. And it is far from easy to be openly Kurdish.
“When people ask me where I’m from and I say I’m Kurdish, they look at me differently. They kind of shut themselves off; it’s a problem for them,” said Dilber, a 37-year-old dental assistant from Mardin in southeastern Turkey. Dilber now lives in Adana, 30 km from the Mediterranean coast, and is on a short visit to Istanbul. “Of course it hurts. I don’t feel free. I want to live in a country without discrimination. I want to be a free Kurdish woman.”
Dilber dislikes Istanbul. “I prefer Adana because I’m able to speak my language there; I’m with my own people. The Kurds there are very politically engaged. But it’s not the same here, where we’re a minority – and people feel afraid to speak Kurdish and express their identity.”
‘Arrested and tortured several times’
Dilber expects “a lot from these elections”. But it was very different for Halit Cicek, a Kurd from Mardin who settled in Istanbul more than four decades ago. Sitting in a café in Istanbul’s mainly Kurdish district of Tarlabasi, Halit said he had been “arrested and tortured several times” over the years. He discussed the election without much enthusiasm.
“We’ve got our own party, the HDP, but we’ve got to give our votes to the CHP,” he said. “We’re not happy about this. But even if we had a candidate, he or she would have to define his or her identity as Turkish, because that would be the only way to gain the electorate’s acceptance,” lamented this man with deep blue eyes, twirling a remote control in his hand.
“Because we’re Kurds, nothing in life is guaranteed for us,” he said. “There are 40 million of us but we’re still not accepted. In France, do you think we’re terrorists? Well they do in Turkey,” he said in a monotone. “We want to be free. We don’t want to be discriminated against; we want our language to be taught; we don’t want to be seen as a minority. We’re an integral part of this country.”
Cicek said that if Kilicdaroglu wins, it would revive dialogue on Kurdish identity after it has been stalled for years.
“Kilicdaroglu isn’t saying anything really noteworthy on the Kurdish question – except he does propose to widen the political space [for Turkish Kurds] and bolster their rights,” Cicek put it. “If the opposition alliance wins, they’ll need the HDP to give them a parliamentary majority so they’re able to change the legal and political system – and those discussions could create the possibility of renewing the peace process and ensuring fundamental rights are protected.”
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Ferhat Encu, co-chair of the HDP’s Istanbul office, shares this analysis. “After the elections, our voters will expect more equality and an end to discrimination,” he said. “We’re working on getting Kurdish to become an official language. We want a more democratic country, with new laws. We want our prisoners released.”
But there is still a significant chance of an Erdogan victory – and that is a source of fear. “We’ve survived for centuries, in the face of oppression, assimilation. I could be arrested or killed. But my only fear is that if he [Erdogan] wins we will lose our democratic foundations,” Encu said. “We’re afraid there will be no hope for peace. Turkey’s future is at stake.”
This article was translated from the original in French.