“When I was working in the Eastern part of Germany back when the wall still divided the country, I worked with the people; I listened to their stories and heard their grievances. I remarked once that the people in Eastern Germany were just like other people around the world and they deserved the same kinds of rights that those outside of Eastern Germany received. My friends corrected me: ‘That is not so. We are not just like you. We look at the world very differently. We’ve been told,’ they said. ‘That in order to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world, we must give up our freedom. Yet you, and those of you outside of Eastern Germany have been told that in order to be free, you must give up your solidarity with those like us.” (paraphrased recount)
The story above was told to me by a Lutheran pastor who participated in the Bible retreat that I attended this past Saturday. My new friend paired solidarity and freedom with the biblical references of righteousness and justice; making me think of the passage in Isaiah “The fruit of righteousness will be peace and the effect of justice will be quietness and confidence forever.” (Isaiah 32:17)
I sit down tonight to write next about my experiences with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Kurdistan, Iraq and the words solidarity and freedom like two little globes rest in each of my hands. I look at them in my imagination, puzzled by how to fit them together.
After a night in Diyarbakir, the six of us travel south to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border. We were scheduled to meet up with the rest of the CPT-Iraq team late that night on the Iraqi side; stopping on our way to the border to meet with the director of a cultural center in Cizre (Jeez-ra). An early morning bus ride took us along the Tigris river for a short while before veering sharply south until the Syrian border. We then rode east alongside Turkish-Syrian border for many kilometers watching the barbed wire and military outposts snake back and forth around small villages, riverbeds and agricultural fields.
Cizre is only a few kilometers from the intersection of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It is surrounded by the Tigris river on three sides which is where it gets its name Cizre, which in Arabic means ‘island.’ Like Diyarbakir, nearly all of the residents are Kurdish. However, due to its proximity to the Iraqi-Kurdish border, Cizre faces a myriad of challenges.
We arrived at the cultural center in the mid-day and the director was away visiting his mother who was ill in a nearby town. After a few phone calls, the director arranged for a friend of his to come translate for us in his absence. The director was on his way and would be with us in about an hour.
While we waited, the many youth of the cultural center entertained us with music: instrumental and singing. First a few of the older men started playing and then younger boys and girls joined in both on instruments and in voice. The music was moving; it was full of joy and pride.
The director’s friend arrived to translate for us for a while but left after a short visit. We discovered that this young man was a pharmacist nearby and on the request of his friend left his place of work to host us. However, the cultural center was a dangerous place. The promotion of Kurdish language, music, and customs was seen by the Turkish government was illegal. This young pharmacist was afraid that he would lose his job if discovered in support of the center.
With his departure, we settled back into the entertainment of the young people. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the songs that the children were singing were Kurdish nationalist songs; songs that were illegal. Once the director arrived, we learned that over the course of the last year over 200 children between the ages of 11 and 18 had been arrested for displaying Kurdish culture in public.
The display and/or support of Kurdish culture are viewed by the Turkish government as the display of support for armed Kurdish guerilla groups. The situation is complicated and circular:
Between the ages of 11-18 children are in danger of being arrested for being Kurdish. If they act and speak according to Turkish law, when they are 18, boys are subject to conscription. The Turkish government places these young Kurdish men on the border of Turkey and Iraq to fight the Kurdish guerilla groups.
If children want to avoid prison and live into their Kurdish identity, often they will run away to the mountains and join the Kurdish militant guerilla groups; which in turn fight their brothers in the Turkish military. The guerilla groups, influenced by Marxism, are more egalitarian and often a more appealing option than prison. The director of the cultural center quoted us the figure that 10-15 children a day leave Cizre for the mountains.
The role of the cultural center is to provide a space for children to learn about and live into their Kurdish culture without running away to the mountains. Yet as the Kurdish cultural is systematically oppressed, many who learn about their roots leave Cizre to live more fully into their identity. The director himself was facing charges for indirectly supporting armed guerilla groups. He wasn’t sure how long the cultural center would remain open.
On September 20, two German sociologists were arrested by the Turkish government for suspicion of spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization. The two Germans had been part of a larger international team of sociologists who were investigating a mass grave that may contain the body of German sociologist Andrea Wolf. They had written a news brief critiquing the local government and were arrested shortly after its release.
This incident lay heavy on my mind as I listened to the director of the cultural center in Cizre.In order for the Turkish-Kurds of Cizre to live in solidarity with their Kurdish people, they had to give up their freedom. In order for me to preserve my freedom, did I have to give up my solidarity with my new Turkish-Kurdish friends in Cizre?
Because of what happened only weeks before to the two German sociologists, all of us on the delegation were instructed to keep silent about our support for the Kurdish people until we crossed the border of Iraq. During those days in Turkey, we choose to preserve our freedom publically and stretched to privately convey our solidarity with our friends. Our friends, the children of the cultural center included, choose to display their solidarity publically and privately conveyed their concerns for freedom.
I pray that one day we can choose to live into both solidarity and freedom publically and in that new creation the fruit of righteousness will be peace and the effect of justice will be quietness and confidence forever.