The four of us huddled together in the hostel dorm room. We were lucky to have a room to ourselves. “So we’re going to use a few code words.” Gerald, our team leader implied. “We can’t use words like Kurdish, Kurd, Kurdistan, PKK, etc in public. It’s dangerous.You got that article right? Last week a group of German journalists were arrested in Southern Turkey for appearing to supporting the Kurdish national cause. It’s illegal here to be Kurdish.”
While my recollections of exact statements are simple estimations, Gerald led our small delegation through an orientation session that included examining what we said, to whom, just about everywhere. In the café downstairs a woman remarked “Did you four meet here? What are you doing together?” We looked at each other and came up with an ambiguous answer. We didn’t know who was listening, who was watching, who was waiting.
As a U.S. citizen I highly value my right to freedom of speech. Throughout the next few days of the delegation found that the right to freedom of speech was one of the many U.S. assumptions and privileges with which I view the world. During the first two days in Istanbul our group worked through a series of orientation sessions that covered topics about overcoming oppression, personal security, and group roles. While it was necessary to discuss these things before traveling into the field, the next few days brought them to life.
We flew from Istanbul to Diyarbakir.
Diyarbakir is in south eastern Turkey and is one of the largest cities in its region. It sits on the ancientriver Tigris and overlooks kilometer after kilometer of farmland. The old city is surrounded by now rundown ways which make up the alleged “Longest continuous city walls” second to the wall of China. Its airport, the very one that we flew into is also used by the Turkish army. From that airport surveillance drones and shells are dropped on the Turkish-Kurdish border region.
Diyarbakir has a turbulent history. Early in the 20th century Armenians and Assyrians were brutally massacred. Over the last century, rural-to-urban migration, governmental pressures, and refugee migration have contributed to the increase of Diyarbakir’s population. In the early part of the 20th century the population was around 30,000. Today Diyarbakir verges on 1.4 million where over 98% of the population is Kurdish.
Being Kurdish, speaking Kurdish, dressing Kurdish, writing Kurdish, advocating for Kurdish communities: all this is illegal in Turkey. According to the Turkish Constitution there are not ethnic minorities in Turkey. The only language allowed in the public sphere is Turkish. The only flag that may be flow in the Turkish flag.
Yet of the 98% of the Kurdish Diyarbakir population, 60-70% are generational refugees from the 1990’s. The first wave of migration settled in the city and today they have children (47% of the total population of Diyarbakir is between 14 and 29 years of age). Persecuted for decades for being Kurdish, the Kurdish language, cultural traditions, and flag are deeply embedded in the pride of the Turkish Kurds. Giving up the Kurdish identity to succeed in Turkey, for most, is not an option.
In Diyarbakir, we met with a young woman who is a Human Rights Activist. She was dressed more western than myself, carrying a laptop and smoking cigarettes elegantly. Her English was slightly accented and her presentation one of education and respect. In another context we might have been best friends; collaborating on projects, cooking food, laughing. Her stories revealed a very different reality… one that left me pondering the U.S. privilege I have and what responsibilities I have to use it.
In 2009 our friend was arrested for four days. She lives with her parents in Diyarbakir and one morning she woke to the touch of cold metal to her forehead. A machine gun was pointed at her forehead. Surrounded by masked armed military personnel she was escorted to prison where she stayed for four days. The government charged her for being a member of an illegal armed organization. The following evidence mounted against her:
1. She wrote grants that funded 44 social projects for Kurdish women and children in Diyarbakir.
2. She published 5 books about these social projects.
3. She signed a human rights petition online against sexism.
4. Kurdish music was found on her computer.
5. She co-authored and produced a book and film about honor killings.
6. She met with international groups (like us!) to talk and teach about the situation of the Kurdish people.
And the evidences continue as such. In December our friend faces trial for these accusations which may lead to a sentence of eighteen years. Now she considers leaving her country; something she never thought would happen: “I have decided to leave because I’m afraid that I will lose my hope. When your hopes are challenged every day, every hour, its hard to keep up hope.”
As our friend left us for the night, we were joined by a Kurdish teacher for a short time. We asked her to teach us a word in Kurdish, the most important word that she could teach us. “Freedom” she replied. “That is the most important word.”
We walked back through the darkened streets of Diyarbakir pondering the words of our new friends. I was asked to keep a radio diary of my trip and I found that night especially difficult to describe. What could I say? How could I share the stories of my friends and of their people without causing them harm? What power do relationships, do names, do conversations have in this part of the world. Why do I feel so angry that I can’t say certain words on the streets; that I can’t share with you my friends’ name; when none of this is about me- and all of it comes back to me and my country’s foreign policy.
What does freedom mean to any of us? My own questioning brings me to my faith, to the bible, in which I find some guidance and many more questions. I expect I'll be reflecting more on all of this as the days continue.
But what does freedom really mean to any of us?
It is the most important word.