Interview. Sociologist Nazan Üstündağ explains the depths of hopelessness and spirit of resilience of Turkish Kurds.

The toils of the Turkish opposition

Nazan Üstündağ is a sociologist and university professor who is participating in the Women’s Initiative for Peace. She contributes to the daily Ozgür Gün­dem and is one of 100 signatories of a protest letter from academics ahead of the recent visit of Angela Merkel to Turkey.

What is the mood on the country on the eve of the elections?

These elections do not generate enthusiasm. There have been too many electoral events this year, and the expected result is a repetition of the results of June 7. However, there are differences in the pre-electoral phase. In the past, there were disparities among the political parties, but this time it is more evident. In the previous elections, the disparities had two main sources: the Turkish election laws, and the fact that the Turkish President Tayyip Erdo­gan was not impartial about the parties. This time, we are facing a completely unfair and unjust electoral process.

The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was not able to run its primaries after the Ankara terrorist attack and was not able to complete other electoral tasks after the witch hunt it went through. It could not run any TV ad campaigns, either. Its electoral communications were removed. With all these facts, these elections remind us of the elections held in Syria and Tunisia with Assad and Ben Ali. Furthermore, there is a certain level of acceptance of the situation.

Acceptance from society?

Yes, because even though it is not widely accepted, people are not able to find another way out. It is very difficult to build an opposition movement when there is so much fear of the Islamic State. In parallel with the clear omission, probably intentional, by the government to prevent what happened. Then, there is the siege in some Kurdish areas of the country. There, people are tired of the curfews and the episodes of marksmen shooting civilians to death.

You visited Cizre with the group Women’s initiative for Peace, one of the cities affected by the siege. How are women and young people coping with this situation?

Many things really affected me. We had been told for three years about the peace process, the pressure (by the authorities) has been going down, but the number of checkpoints and arrests has not gone down. Young people have begun excavating trenches to put obstacles to the checkpoints. Then, the siege started. The police tried to enter some areas of the city, while young people attempted to stop it. At least 22 people were killed, most of them hit by marksmen while others could not be transported to hospitals.

When we got to Cizre, there was a mourning atmosphere, and at the same time, rage. I heard many people saying: “Let them come and bombard us until the Iraqi border, let them kill us and get rid of us, so we can finally be free.” Nevertheless, there is a desire for peace. Nobody wants more deaths. At the same time, there was this pride of defending the own neighborhood.

I witnessed an extremely complex situation in Cizre. It is as if the situation there cannot be figured out with our concepts and the way we normally understand the world. Mourning, desire for peace and resistance coexists. This exemplifies how the peace project, as has been deployed until now, is very difficult to continue. These people see the Turkish police and military as invaders.

Yet, the clashes between the army and the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) had stopped. What interrupted the peace process?

Our peace initiative followed really closely for three years the construction of the police command centers and barricades in the area. For two years, the population rebelled against these constructions. For the Kurdish population, the command centers were a terrible thing, especially for women. In the ‘90s, they were raped and molested in places like this. And they remember it. So, seeing these structures being built again created distrust. And the Kurdish guerrillas are their children. Women think these structures are being built against the guerrillas.

At the end, what do they expect of the peace process? They expect to embrace their children again. Thus, there is a deep distrust in the area; we observed it and reported it several times. Nevertheless, there was hope.

But when the heavy bombardment over Qandil started off, followed by the curfew to stop the reaction of the people, they were caught off guard. They had been hopeful after the People’s Democratic Party, which is the most popular party among Kurds, won 13 percent of the votes on June 7. They were so joyful; it was hard to find words to describe it. The fact that this win was annulled so quickly made people lose faith, turning their hopes off. The Kurds react differently than the people on the western side of the country: Instead of withdrawing within themselves when they lose hope and sink into despair, the Kurds start to reorganize themselves right way. They are more resilient. And even now, they have not renounced peace, but they demand a transparent peace process without any immediate implications for society as a whole.

It is often said in Turkey that first the PKK needs to put their weapons down for the state to do so. But this affirmation has produced nothing over the years, it just repeats the same vicious circle. The Kurds criticize the government because they do not believe in the promises made. Is this an accurate statement?

The Kurdish population had expected things from the state — small gestures. For example, the release of sick prisoners. Or the release or the start of the audiences of the children held in the Sahran jail for anti-terrorism laws, but it is known they were victims of sexual abuse. These are things that are close to the heart of people, situations that affect their loved ones. These are simple legal requests that have not been met in the last three years.

In this context, it is hard for the Kurdish population to understand why the PKK needs to put their weapons down. After all they have been through from the beginning of the Republic, they do not feel safe, and they do not feel they have rights as citizens. Since they do not feel certain of their rights, they try to get them in other ways. One of the other ways is the PKK, the other one is the guerrillas formed by young people.

Let me remind you that the PKK had announced, before the peace meetings were interrupted, that it would not take up arms against Turkey anymore. Then, a security commission [created to follow up on the peace process] took office on Imrali Island [the location of the Abdul­lah Oca­lan jail], and the negotiations of the Dol­ma­ba­hce agreement were officially started. But President Tayyip Erdo­gan said he does not recognize this agreement. So, this possibility went away.

Third point: Until ISIS openly targets the Kurds, and the Turkish government starts fighting ISIS seriously, it is very difficult for the PKK to put their weapons down. The peace process was skipped right when peace seemed feasible.

In your opinion, what is needed to restart the peace process?

The organizations of civil society do not believe that the process can be restarted after the elections. The president’s policies on Rojava and on the Kurdish population, the negligence toward ISIS, all these point to another direction. It indicates that this situation, that causes so many deaths, will go on. Whatever is the outcome of the elections, as long as the president remains in power or until a group from inside the AKP raises and leaves him with a minority government, I think it is very difficult to move away from this situation. I hope I am wrong, but that is what I think.

Do you think we are going back to the ‘90s?

No, we are not going back to the ‘90s. The conditions today are extremely different. The Kurdish population is much more organized. Back then, the state was able to hide its misdeeds. It is no longer so. We will see the so-called “new wars,” the unofficial ones against the population, while at the same time, there will be attempts to create conflict among the organizations. Some even fear there may be a civil war. I personally do not think this will be allowed. If it did, the number of refugees toward Europe would grow tenfold. I think we will have to face a life constantly under pressure.

And what about women? What should be their position in this context?

Women represent the most efficient group in the search for peace. Women have become activists and have create relationships with all parties involved, in Parliament, among the women in Qandil, creating a coalition of women from the most diverse sectors of society. Many associations have been created. We continue to organize street manifestations and conferences, but this is not enough. It is important for AKP women to take part in this, to find a union among women above party lines. If women can find a common social base to support their initiatives, they can achieve many things. However, it must be highlighted that women are not in a position of power. This limits their ability to influence Turkish politics.