VAN, Eastern Turkey – Zeki M., a language teacher in this predominantly Kurdish city near the Iraq border, was both relieved and disappointed when he heard the news today that Turkish and Iraqi officials will collaborate to take down the PKK. "Strikes against the PKK will not bring peace" unless America promotes the rights of Kurdish Turks, he said.
Kurds here have had a tense history with the Turkish government. "I teach English, but I cannot teach Kurdish to my students," Zeki lamented. "I cannot teach them poetry or show our flag or listen to Kurdish radio."
Zeki sat alongside a local doctor, Nuri A., outside a group of concrete homes built for refugees who say they fled Hakkari in the 1990s at the hands of Turkish Security Forces. We drank Turkish tea with lemon and gazed at jagged hills in the distance. One of the hills, called Taprak Kale, is emblazoned with the huge crescent and star of the Turkish flag. Nuri smirked at it. "It's to remind us we're occupied," he said.
Both Nuri and Zeki believe America will free them. "America will help us - they must. President Bush talks about freedom, human rights, and democracy. Kurds want these things."
"We are a people without a country," Zeki continued, turning first to history and then to his Iraqi neighbors to make his case. America "stands by people like us – oppressed people....Just as the U.S. helped Israel," so they should assist the Kurds.
He added, "Our Iraqi brothers have been very successful under [American protection]; their success inspires us."
Whether or not Zeki and Nuri one day realize their dream of a "Greater Kurdistan," both men want the U.S. to use its leverage over Turkey now –- to pressure the government into dialogue with Kurdish groups, including the PKK, and to expand Kurdish civil liberties and economic possibilities.
Otherwise, they fear, things will get worse after this conflict dies down. "America protects the Kurds in Iraq, but here we are vulnerable,” Zeki said, “Nationalists and the military want to attack.” He fears that innocent Turkish Kurds could become the object of revenge. More ominously, Zeki said he worries: "If the U.S. withdraws quickly [from Iraq], and forgets about us, we will be destroyed again."
Zeki, Nuri and I hopped in a car and drove through the city, avoiding police checkpoints. "We don't want violence to escalate," Zeki said. "But we don't want Kurds to kill our Kurdish brothers either," referring to the PKK. He's not happy that Iraqi Kurds are constraining the party. His friend Nuri takes a softer line saying: "I am a Turk too, and I want this violence to stop. I want Turkey to join the European Union, and [I want] a job in the West."
Zeki shook his head, switched off his cell phone, locked the doors and said quietly, "The PKK defends our right to be Kurdish. The PKK and the Kurds are one."
Despite what Turks or Americans might think, he said, "the real problem is not over there in the mountains [with the rebels]; it is here" in Kurdish cities like Van. In the cities, "we have no rights, no jobs, no hope." Until this is fixed, Zeki warned, "there will always be a PKK or some other group. There is no hope here…without help."