What's in a name? For a [Kurdish] Youth, Maybe Jail

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Apr 11 17:18:07 UTC 2003

>>From the New York Times, April 11, 2003

What's in a Name? For a Turkish Youth, Maybe Jail


    BISMIL, Turkey, April 7 It was not drugs, brawls or the usual teenage
recklessness that landed Bayram A.  in trouble, confronting him with the
prospect of as many as five years in prison. It was a word. But by
uttering it, when and where he did, Bayram tapped directly into some of
Turkey's darkest anxieties.

On a school day last November, his teachers in this remote, poor, densely
Kurdish area of southeastern Turkey asked him to lead his classmates in
the customary Turkish pledge of allegiance, which includes the line,
"Happy is the one who calls himself a Turk." Bayram, then 15, balked. "I
have a stomachache," he recalls telling the teachers. "I don't feel good."

They insisted that he press ahead. So he did, and what they heard him say
was this: "Happy is the one who calls himself a Kurd." The teachers not
only sent him home from school for the day, but also summoned the police.
Bayram now stands accused of "inciting hatred and enmity on the basis of
religion, race, language or regional differences," according to the
indictment filed against him in State Security Court in Diyarbakir, about
30 miles west of here.

Human rights advocates are not really surprised. "This case is just one
example of violations that have gone on for 15 years," said Muharrem
Erbey, an executive with the Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir. Mr.
Erbey, who is also Bayram's lawyer, requested that Bayram's last name be
withheld. It has not been published in Turkey, where the law protects
minors from such exposure.

Bayram's case provides a glimpse into the extreme vigilance of Turkish
government officials against any possible flicker of Kurdish separatism, a
watchfulness that continues to shape the country's response to the war in
Iraq in potentially crucial ways. Whether Turkish troops defy American and
European wishes and enter northern Iraq will be determined in part by the
Turkish assessment of what Iraqi Kurds are doing and how it might affect
the Kurds next door in Turkey. If Turkish government officials sense, for
example, that the arrival of Iraqi Kurds in the Kirkuk, an Iraqi oil
center, has begun to pave a path toward an independent Kurdish state in
the region, the Turkish troops would likely take action.

Already, in their own country, Turkish officials see ominous signs of
separatism where human rights advocates see only harmless expressions of
ethnic pride. The Turkish tendency to interpret tribal preening as
treasonous plotting has put the country at odds with the European Union
and helped to prevent it from gaining membership. The Turkish authorities
put Bayram, a bashful, lanky teenager who spends much of his spare time
tilling the family's grain fields, on trial because of a single
unsanctioned word.

Mr. Erbey said that Bayram merely slurred his words, due to illness, and
was misheard. Bayram was evasive on that point. "I've been repeating that
oath every day since I began going to school,"  he said in an interview
here. "But even when my mouth is saying that I'm happy to be a Turk, my
heart is saying that I'm happy to be a Kurd," Bayram added.

For decades, Turkey's laws and its enforcers sought to stamp out
expressions of Kurdish identity, outlawing Kurdish names, Kurdish
language, Kurdish holidays. That effort, coupled with torture, reached its
zenith during the 1990s, as Turkish troops fought violent Kurdish
separatists. Tens of thousands of people died. Those battles are over, and
Turkey, eager to improve its human rights record and enhance its bid for
the European Union, recently passed laws permitting a greater range of
Kurdish expression.

But human rights advocates say that reality has lagged behind that
legislation, and cite Bayram's case as proof. "If a kid takes another
kid's eraser, the teacher doesn't hand him over to the police and courts
as a thief," said Selahattin Demirtas, director of the Human Rights
Association in Diyarbakir. "But when it comes to the Kurdish issue, the
teacher accuses the kid of separatist propaganda.  That's how adamant the
state is." Prosecutors and officials for the Justice Ministry declined to
be interviewed for this article.

Bayram said that he had long ago come to see being Kurdish as different
from being Turkish, because non-Kurdish Turks sent that message. When he
was growing up, he said, he spoke Kurdish with his parents in the privacy
of their home, but he never read from one of the Kurdish-language books
that could be purchased on the black market. "We were afraid to buy them,"
he said.

When he was 10 and 11 and 12, he said, he sometimes watched military
police round up the parents of young men who were believed to be
separatist guerrillas and beat them in public. "I've seen a 50-year-old
man punched, fall on the ground and then be lifted back up by the police
so he could be punched some more," Bayram said. His voice was flat and he
shrugged his shoulders. This was not an exceptional memory around Bismil.

Before last November, he said, he had never been picked from the roughly
300 students at his school, most of them Kurdish, to walk to the top of
the main outdoor staircase and lead the daily pledge. But the words had
always felt wrong and phony to him, and he said he realized on that day
that he did not want to be the one proclaiming them from center stage.
"It was a moment," he said, not elaborating on the thought.

Classmates gaped at what came out of his mouth, then giggled. A teacher
loudly berated him, he recalled, saying that he was a disgraceful ingrate,
like so many Kurdish children in Turkey. Word spread fast through the
village. His father rushed to the school to ask the principal to be
lenient. His mother wept. Bayram, whose next court date is next month,
said he did not think he would end up in prison, and that he was not
scared. In fact, the lingering emotion that he said he felt seemed in line
with his age. He turned 16 last month.

"Mostly," he said, "I'm embarrassed."

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