Levels of Resistance
As a student of international relations and journalist, I spent a week in Istanbul and Ankara interviewing those I consider activists in a resistance movement in Turkey. Already biased toward the left-leaning People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and Kurdish rights, I found myself becoming a member of this resistance after the bombing in Ankara—the worst mass murder in modern Turkey—due in large part to the chilling response of the governing party and its supporters.
After the Ankara bombing, a statement by the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdag—it is an HDP rule that both a man and a woman serve together—called for the “international community who stand in solidarity, to extend their condolences directly to the peoples of Turkey—not to the state representatives who are politically and administratively responsible from the massacre.” Privy as I was to the ruling elite’s smirking complicity in the fiery extermination of innocents, when President Obama called President Erdogan to offer our American condolences, I wanted to vomit. Another nausea-inducing development was the November 1 parliamentary election that saw Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) violently regain sole custody of the government in Turkey, after five months without it. President Obama called with congratulations, but at least he waited eight days—perhaps recognizing the polarized, war-filled Turkey the AKP left in the election’s wake.
Considering the unexpectedly large margin of victory at the polls, it is unlikely that the Ankara bombing played a significant role in the AKP’s war-driven win. Though it caused the HDP to cancel big rallies and reduce campaigning to nil, the massacre did not have its major intended effect: violent Kurdish retaliation. Thus, those representatives of multicultural hope and change from all over Turkey, of various parties, young and old, didn’t need to be slaughtered for Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to secure power. But with less than a month before election day, the desperate men in charge were taking no chances. And encouraging the Islamic State’s freedom to commit mass murder in Turkey had already proven to be an effective campaign tactic.
Though the main goal of these essays is to track the undergrowth of a subtle and not so subtle resistance in Turkey, the context of the violence of the last five months—the Ankara bombing most importantly—must be summarized. In Star Wars terms, the extreme ends of the current Rebellion and Empire must be understood.
On June 7, parliamentary elections ended twelve years of AKP hegemony and handed the HDP, with its Kurdish base and secular-democratic ideals, 80 seats in its first run at the National Assembly as a united party. A spate of bombings and attacks at HDP headquarters in various southeastern cities, killing several and injuring dozens, could not keep more than 13 percent of the electorate from making history—and delaying Erdogan’s dreams of creating a presidential system. After losing sole custody of the government, the AKP strategy went as follows: Refuse to form a coalition government, ensure a new election in November, deal out murder and carnage to provoke the Kurdish armed resistance, stoke Sunni-nationalist fervor, start a war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), link the HDP to terrorism, crack down on critical media, and champion itself as Turkey’s only hope for stability.
On July 20, a suicide bomber in the mainly Kurdish town of Suruç, near the Syrian border, killed 33 people. Most of the dead and maimed, young left-wing activists associated with the Socialists Youth Associations Federation, had traveled there from Istanbul to help rebuild Kobani, the Syrian city devastated by an Islamic State siege and subsequent liberation by Kurdish and U.S. forces. The Islamic State claimed credit for the massacre, and it has since been determined that the Suruç bomber and one of the Ankara bombers were not only part of the same extremist cell in Adiyaman, Turkey, but were brothers. Both were on a Turkish Intelligence (MiT) watch list and their father had warned Turkish authorities more than once about his sons’ activities, asking police to arrest the one who would go on to kill dozens in Ankara. You read it right: Turkish authorities could have investigated or detained accomplices in the Suruç mass killing, but instead allowed those same accomplices to commit the worst terror attack in modern Turkey.
On July 22, to avenge the killings of young Kurdish activists in Suruç, the PKK murdered two policemen believed to have collaborated with the Islamic State. Concurrently, a PKK-linked group called the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) began assassinating Islamic State associates in Western cities. Even more so than the PKK, the radicalized teenagers of the YDG-H can be considered the extreme resistance against state oppression in Turkey. These youth militias show up on Vice TV documentaries carrying rocket launchers and digging trenches in the streets of Northern Kurdistan towns to keep out the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Sources I spoke to while in Turkey suggested that this “third generation” of the PKK could not be controlled by its elders—only by the imprisoned iconic leader Abdullah Öcalan. “They are in awe of heroism legends and myths of PKK fighters, and they adopt the most violent, self-sacrificing militants as role models,” wrote one journalist, who continued
After listening to the angry tirades of YDG-H youngsters … I can’t help but recall the words by Serafettin Elci, an important and respected Kurdish politician who passed away in 2012. His famous dictum was, “We are the last generation you are going to negotiate with. After us, you will confront an angry youth that has grown up in war.”
Responding to the targeted killing of several policemen throughout the country, on July 24 the Turkish military launched its war machine. Within the week, hundreds of F-16 sorties blasted PKK camps and supply lines in southeast Turkey and Iraq and armored vehicles mobilized to occupy Kurdish city centers. Raids netted thousands of detainees; the vast majority held were leftist activists and suspected PKK members. Kurdish militants set roadside bombs and ambushed soldiers on patrol, often sacrificing their lives in the process of killing state agents. Urban guerrilla warfare by the YDG-H took over several occupied cities, such as Cizre. This asymmetrical war occurred throughout the pre-election period and continues now in varying levels of intensity around Northern Kurdistan. Spun as the AKP War on Terror and splashed across newspaper and TV headlines with official tough-guy rhetoric, government sponsored media managed the public narrative to fuel a divisive hatred of anti-AKP activists.
In early October, HDP members alerted press that the PKK was preparing to issue a unilateral ceasefire—a call for peace to facilitate the upcoming election. This was motive for Erdogan’s circle to find a way to keep PKK attacks coming: Why not imitate the Suruç bombing, which had been a spectacular success? On October 10, another cadre of state enemies would be wiped out by the Islamic State with the tacit permission of Turkey’s political elite.
At this point, Erdogan sounds like something of a James Bond supervillain—we haven’t even gotten to his expensive palace and private army. Several people I spoke with in the resistance explained that their president does evil deeds because he will face the proverbial music if and when he falls from power. Though the Turkey columnists I have read at Al-Monitor’s “Turkey Pulse” and Hurriyet have not brought it up, KurdishQuestion.com, an English-language resistance hub online, recently touched on this
The results of the elections of 7 June brought Erdoğan to the brink of a precipice: having lost majority in parliament, he now faced the possibility of a probe there into his many crimes, first and foremost the notorious corruption cases based on very serious files opened up in December 2013 on the heels of the Gezi events. The reopening of those files, closed earlier by a pliant AKP majority of MPs, would have meant, given the sheer strength of the dossiers, the indictment of four of his former ministers as well as his son and, in all probability, ultimately himself. It is now known to the whole world that in order to extricate himself from this difficult situation Erdoğan reignited the war against the Kurdish movement grouped around the PKK.
Is it any wonder that the AKP took over an entire media company the week before the election? With the complicity of roughly 35 percent of the voting population—taking away 10 percent in the election for fraud and rigging—Erdogan’s AKP is following in the footsteps of the classic Middle Eastern dictators of the 20th century. One man has created a cult of personality in which he is the ultimate protection against the chaos he plans. It is in this context that government officials and media outlets proceeded to blame elements in Syria, the PKK and the targeted group, People’s Democracy Party (HDP), for the Ankara massacre so intently that “58% of self-identified AKP supporters and over 50% of the would-be MHP [nationalist party] supporters pointed to the PKK or the HDP as the most likely culprits.” That the Islamic State (I.S.) never claimed credit for the Ankara bombing, yet claimed credit for the downed Russian airliner, Beirut bombings and Paris coordinated massacres, can be understood as I.S. allowing the government media to speculate on PKK and I.S. collaboration, no matter how ridiculous the assertion.
My hopes in unfolding and remembering the story of Turkey’s worst terrorist attack are 1) to further reveal to the world the collaboration of the Turkish State and the Islamic State and 2) to accelerate Western consciousness and support of the nonviolent Kurdish and leftist resistance. Every act of violence or gross neglect by the State creates an entry point for new resisters and hardens the resolve of the subtle resisters.
For Leyla, a tall twenty-seven-year-old Kurdish language student wearing a blue, patterned head scarf and a casual, coverall dress, it is not clear how much longer she will remain subtle. “We are getting hopeless. I always support dialogue, communication between the parties. And I support peace. But after seeing this explosion in Ankara, I don’t want to support peace anymore.”
Her family is Kurdish, having moved from Mus in eastern Turkey, but they do not speak the language or identify with the ethnicity: “What good will it bring?” she hears. Protective parents understand Kurdishness can be a social liability. Her lessons must remain a secret. Astute, easygoing and prone to jovial but nervous laughter, Leyla has come to the Istanbul Kurdish Institute to reclaim her identity. Why? She knew nothing of her roots, her blood. She sees hers as a lost generation of twentysomethings transitioning to Western Turkey who are implicitly, if not explicitly, taught to ignore their culture: “The existence of the State in Northern Kurdistan [a.k.a. southeast Turkey] is just the existence of violence and suppression. But here in the western part of Turkey the suppression is based on culture and pressure coming from the neighborhood.”
To illustrate, Leyla describes her work environment at a “conservative” bank: “The customers say, ‘Oh, you’re so sweet. Where are you from?’ ‘Mus.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry. It’s okay. You’re still a human.’ ” The translator Yasin agrees, “Everything is fine until they ask where you’re from.” Leyla gives an example of cultural bias in the media, most of which is state-sponsored. The photo of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi dead on the beach, a global symbol of refugee neglect, had been a big Turkish news story, as it had been in Europe and the U.S. That is, until the Turkish press discovered he was Kurdish and from Kobani “Then everybody shut up,” she says with curt seriousness.
Leyla feels she owes a debt to the Kurdish nation. She wants to teach her future children to learn her family’s mother tongue. She is upset with herself, regretting that she waited so long to discover her cultural origins. I ask about what finally sparked her investigation. What was her entry point into a resistance mind-set? Another massacre.
On December 28, 2011, Turkish warplanes dropped precision-guided bombs on 38 males, who happened to be Kurdish, killing 34. Half were under 18. Thought to be guerrilla fighters, they were a disorganized bunch crossing the Turkey-Iraq border to get food from a stolen truck—a common occurrence in the day-to-day informal economy of Kurdistan mountain villagers.
The wounded are wrapped in blankets and each carried back to the cars by four or five men; seven of them die before getting there. … Some of the bodies have been torn apart and it isn’t easy to work out which parts belong to which body. Nor is it always simple to tell whether a particular piece of bone and scorched flesh is from a human being or from one of the pack animals.*
Leyla explains, “Previously I was working for the AKP, but after Roboski…. I saw a mother picking up the pieces of her children, I couldn’t stop crying.” She gets choked up describing the memory. “For me the fragile point at that time while watching this scene: [The mother] doesn’t ask—you have no right to ask [who did it]; you just grieve. We never see an investigation.” The lack of accountability or justice from the authorities was possibly more upsetting than the death itself. No one was punished. The state, which had sent the air force to incinerate its own citizens on its own soil and was caught by its own drone cameras, considered it an accident.
Yet there was also an uplifting turning point for Leyla. On March 21, 2013, a letter from the imprisoned, iconic PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was read aloud by HDP parliamentarians during the millions-strong annual gathering for the Newroz (Kurdish/Persian New Year) festival at a public square in Diyarbakir. This initiated a negotiated ceasefire and a “solution process” between the AKP and the PKK, an opening that saw the rebels become slightly de-vilified. Leyla’s family had always hated the PKK, but she noticed minor social shifts—kids wore Öcalan T-shirts without getting arrested—that gave her hope. “I really believed in the peace process. That it would allow us to express our Kurdish identity.” Despite the withdrawal of PKK guerrillas from Turkey to Iraq and a “wise people delegation” set up by the AKP, neither side put forth serious effort to see the “process” actually succeed. By the fall of 2014, when Kobani-inspired clashes pitting secular-leftists and the YDG-H against Islamic Kurds and Turkish security forces resulted in dozens of deaths, it had unraveled. As it turned out, during the cease-fire, the Turkish military built more outposts and fences in Kurdistan while the PKK re-armed.
Leyla thanked me for being shocked about the Ankara massacre and for thinking her stories of state oppression were unnerving. My dismay served as a reminder to her that this was not the way democratic nation-states were supposed to be; that it was not normal for bombings to occur before elections. By the time we finished the interview, afternoon classes had been canceled and most of the students at the Istanbul Kurdish Institute were preparing to go to a protest rally being organized along the major commercial thoroughfare, Istikal Street. I was excited to go and made myself believe that whoever had murdered those people in Ankara that morning couldn’t plan an attack on the response rally by that afternoon.
Later that night would I see my wife Ariana’s Whats App text from 11:03 am Turkish time: “Wtf just heard about what happened in Ankara. Do. Not. Go. To. Any. Rallies. PROMISE.”
*The excerpt above is from a book, The Boys Are Dead, about the Roboski Massacre written by a Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink. As a fan of her blog Kurdishmatters.com, I was thrilled she agreed to let me interview her during my trip. Once known as “the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir”, the de facto capital of Northern Kurdistan, she was deported two months before I got there for embedding with peace activists seen as sympathetic to the PKK.