Dimitri Roussopoulos, a Montreal-based political activist, writer, editor, publisher, and community organizer, was a member of an International Peace Delegation that visited Istanbul, Turkey from 14 - 17 February, 2016. The delegation, which was organized by the European Union’s Turkey Civic Commission with local Kurdish lawyers and consisted of ten influential figures in politics, public life and culture, aimed to meet with Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader and President of the PKK, who is currently detained at Imrali Prison in Turkey. The Peace Delegation’s ultimate objective was to seek to facilitate the restarting of dialogue between the Turkish Government and Öcalan in order to bring about a peace process. I interviewed Mr. Roussopoulous and learned about his involvement with the Delegation, the Kurdish freedom movement and the Rojava Revolution. The interview follows.
How did you become involved in the International Peace Delegation?
I was invited to be part of this delegation most likely because, last fall, I participated in a large international conference in Hamburg organized by Germans and Kurds about what kind of actions can lead to a society other than the one that we have, in other words, a post-capitalist society. It was quite a star-studded cast of speakers, people like David Graeber, David Harvey, John Holloway and Janet Biehl and others attended. I was a featured speaker at that conference, and the comments I made generated a considerable amount of interest. My name must have come up when the idea was launched of sending an International Peace Delegation to Turkey as an initiative to get the Turkish Government to be more reasonable and intelligent in its approach towards the Kurds.
What were the objectives and goals of the delegation?
Our objective was threefold. First, we wanted to meet with the Turkish Minister of Justice to learn about what we could do, as delegates from around eight countries and with a variety of skills, to facilitate a peace process whereby the Turkish Government and the leadership of the Kurdish community can engage in a discussion. We wanted to facilitate a discussion between the Kurdish community and the Turkish Government so as to work out a new accommodation, a new understanding, and a new relationship. Peace missions have a specific composition and specific way of working. For instance, a peace mission never enters into a situation with blame, a peace mission tries to find ways in which people can talk to each other. And in talking to each other, people may find some common ground upon which they can build a relationship.
The second reason why we wanted to meet the Minister of Justice is because we needed the Minister’s permission in order to visit Imrali prison. We had to get his clearance to visit Abdullah Öcalan, who is recognized as the main spokesperson for the Kurdish community, and an important political thinker in redefining a new relationship between the Kurdish community and the Turkish Government and in imagining what kind of society the Kurdish freedom movement should aspire towards.
The third objective was that we wanted to meet a large variety of civil society organizations in Turkey. We met with some remarkable people, extremely well-informed and extremely articulate activists, intellectuals, and public figures. One group we met with was the Democratic Society Congress (HDK), an important three-year old association of Kurdish and Turkish civil society, who cooperate in trying to promote a more just and harmonious Turkey. Another one was the Free Öcalan Committee, run by two remarkable women, who collected 10.3 million signatures in Turkey and internationally to petition the Turkish Government to free Öcalan from jail. We also met with several groups of human rights lawyers, the Asrin Law Office, the Libertarian Lawyers Association (OHD), the Foundation for Society and Legal Studies (TOHAV) and Libertarian Democratic Lawyers (ODAV), all of whom work to help establish a negotiating relationship and to free Öcalan from jail. We met with Pervin Buldan, a member of Parliament from the HDP, the important pro-Kurdish progressive political party who participated in the Imrali committee and has visited Öcalan 33 times.
What process did the Delegation follow, and to what extent did the Delegation meet its objectives?
The process was engaged as follows: the delegation was led by Judge Essa Moussa, who is a distinguished superior court judge in South Africa. Judge Moussa helped facilitate the peace process in South Africa and also helped free Mandela. He wrote to the Turkish Minister of Justice, in a letter dated 3 February, asking to see a) how we could be helpful in restarting the peace process and b) whether we could get clearance to visit Öcalan. He did not receive a response. He wrote a second later dated 9 February, and again there was no response. He then got in touch with the South African Ambassador in Ankara, and the South African Ambassador facilitated the letter to be sent to the Minister of Justice who finally acknowledged having received our letter. In the acknowledgement, the Ministry said it would reply that day to the letter. Well, the Ministry never replied. By the time we left Turkey, we hadn’t received a reply. As far as we know from Istanbul, a reply never came in.
In terms of facilitating a restart to the peace process, the mission did not obtain its objective. Nor did the mission obtain its second objective of visiting Öcalan. But, we were successful with regard to our third objective: we met at least nine different organizations in Istanbul. We were very well received, learned from and made connections with these organizations that will be important for future collaboration, and we left Turkey with a commitment to do everything we can, from abroad in our respective countries, to facilitate some kind of solution.
What does Öcalan and the PKK stand for?
The PKK was founded as a Marxist-Leninist party and went through a transformation. Not only is it no longer a Marxist-Leninist party, but now the party is no longer interested in establishing another nation state, they are not interested in this classical national liberation outcome to their struggle. What they advocate is what Öcalan terms ‘democratic confederalism’, which is grassroots direct democracy at the local level, in neighborhoods, cities and villages, connected through a confederation. This is confederation very much controlled from the bottom up. Indeed, he makes this proposal not only for Kurdish society but for Turkey as a whole, proposing the decentralization of decision making to empower local communities across Turkey. This is very new for the Left, and Öcalan writes a great deal about this, another reason the Turkish state silences him.
How would you characterize, in general historical terms, the relationship between the Turkish Government and the Kurdish population living in Turkey?
What we have to appreciate in this situation is that the ethnic groups who inhabited, and who continue to inhabit, Anatolia, the great peninsula of Asia Minor, paid a very high price for the nationalism of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk created ex nihilo a country with a singular identity (’you’re a Turk or you’re nothing’), and the intolerance towards the Kurdish population was absolutely incredible: their language was forbidden, publications, radio, television, newspapers, forms of cultural production were forbidden. None of this was allowed in the name of "Turkishness". But the opening of a dialogue around a peace process, which began around 2005, loosened this up a bit, especially after the painful years of violent civil war in the 1990s. The Kurds were allowed to use their language, they could use it in primary schools over and above learning Turkish, they could have several cultural periodicals, etc. Moreover, there was none of the military violence seen in the past. The situation had definitely improved, and Öcalan participated in facilitating that.
And then, the analysis goes as follows. Ergodan, the current Prime Minister, was determined to provoke a situation which would lead to an election where he could win an absolute majority in parliament so he could change the constitution to create a presidential system, where he could have far more power and authority than he has now. This is especially after such ambitions were temporarily thwarted when the HDP finally achieved the 10% threshold needed to enter parliament in the June 2015 elections. The military campaign starting in the fall of last year by provoking situations in Kurdish areas via the police or even the army. Erdogan’s relationship to the army was initially a very poor one: when he became Prime Minister, he arrested several dozens of generals and brought them in front of the courts, accusing them of all sorts of things and these trials went on forever. Thus the army, which is a very Kemalist army and a very powerful institution in Turkey, were not friendly at all with Ergodan. But somehow he buried the hatchet with them in order to declare war on the domestic Kurds. The elections that took place in November last year were very tense; although he still didn’t win the number of seats needed to change the constitution, Erdogan nevertheless did win the absolute majority. One of the reasons he did not win the number of seats he wanted to form a super majority and change the constitution is because the new Kurdish party, the HDP, held on to the 10% threshold. Under extreme persecution and military repression, the HDP lost votes but the party held on to what they had and effectively blocked Erdogan from winning the super majority.
So the relationship is at a real impasse, and the repression is ongoing. For example, before we arrived, Cizre, a city of 120 000, was heavily attacked by police and military forces, resulting in the vast majority of its residents fleeing. Hundreds of people who remained in the town, in order to protect themselves, hid in the basements of several houses with their children. Well, this did not hold the Turkish police back. After being stranded in these basements for twenty days, often without food and water, the Turkish military and police attacked the houses through airstrikes and then firebombed the basements with petrol, and the people burned to death in those basements. 190 people were burnt alive, some with signs of decapitation. The vast majority of the bodies are unrecognizably burnt. And the Turkish Government has tried to cover up this massacre, sending the human remains to different cities for autopsies. As a matter of fact, we had one meeting, organized by the Turkish Peace Assembly of at least 80 to 90 academics, artists, activists and a range of others, in a downtown Istanbul hotel, and we were told awful stories of what was going on, as well as the harassment and imprisonment of academics who signed a petition. It continues to be a very sad situation.
How does the relationship between the Turkish Government and the Kurds living in Turkey compare to the Turkish Government’s stance towards Kurds living outside of Turkey in the region?
One of the reasons why the current Turkish Government has a very internally aggressive campaign towards the Kurds within Turkey is because the government is very nervous regarding what is happening outside of Turkey in the northeast of Syria, in an area called Rojava. Because, there, some very extraordinary things are taking place. Given the Kurdish struggle has abandoned the goal of a nation-state, this national liberation struggle now aspires for a stateless post-capitalist society based on decentralism. The people of Rojava are staging a remarkable social revolution. It is organized from the grassroots through direct democracy with street and neighbourhood assemblies. Gender equality is also an important factor, with the women’s movement being very influential. This is a revolution that is becoming increasingly recognized internationally. There are even volunteers going to fight with the Kurds and other ethnic minorities in Rojava.
You may recall, for example, there was a Canadian ex-soldier who had travelled to Rojava to fight, John Gallagher. He wrote an extraordinary manifesto as to why he was going to Rojava to fight alongside the people there. I was very impressed with the manifesto because it was filled with the right humanistic values, and when his body was flown back to Ottawa, not only was the body unofficially received by Canadian military members, but when the body arrived in Toronto, there was a big solidarity demonstration with his coffin; the local Kurdish community came out, other people came out and greeted the body. I found this quite extraordinary that he would be received this way.
I was a student of the Spanish civil war and social revolution, and I find some very interesting comparisons to be made between what’s going on in Rojava both in terms of social experiment, but also in terms of the interest that Rojava is garnering internationally. And any society, as far as I’m concerned, that not only talks about, but actually implements, gender equality cannot be ignored. There were two international delegations that travelled to Rojava in late 2014, and again in 2015, and I know some of the people who were part of these delegations, who actually saw the various governing bodies in Rojava, be they municipal councils or local political organizations. Strict gender parity is enforced for all leadership positions and parallel women’s only committees have veto power. They described how everything was done on the basis of gender equality. The other thing that those two delegations came away with is that ideology in Rojava is extremely important. They talk about social and political theory incessantly. One of the people in the delegation went into a secondary classroom, and they were being taught about social ecology. Ideology is constantly being discussed. Nothing prevents them from having long conversations about what is equality, what is gender equality, what is ethnic harmony, how do we combat illiteracy, what leadership role women have to play in this new society, and the women’s organizations were quite remarkable according to these two organizations that went there.
The other very remarkable thing is that there is a practice, an ethnic coexistence, within Rojava amongst the diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, including: Kurds, Arabs, Yezidis, Aramaens and Assyrians. In other words, whatever people’s ethnic background is, whatever their religion is, it is part of the fabric of the new society that is trying to be built. Those two practices alone are making the Ankara government nervous, because obviously the Kurds in Turkey are thinking and talking and debating about all that too, and it’s influencing other places in the so-called Middle East. And this is an example that, as far as these interests are concerned, must not spread. And therefore, it is not surprising, in a way, that the Ankara government behaves the way it does domestically, and also that it uses its military to attack the Kurds outside of Turkey along the border. And we were sitting in a restaurant, half a dozen of us of the delegation and others, and they were showing on television a whole row of Turkish tanks just bombarding across the border. And they’re supposed to be fighting ISIS, but they’re not, they’re trying to destroy Rojava.
How do the various foreign interventions in the region respond to Rojava?
I have no doubt at all that it is in the interest of the ruling parties and individuals in most of these pockets to isolate Rojava and to undermine it. The only ’allies’ of the people in Rojava are paradoxically the Americans, because the American military has worked out a relationship of necessity with Rojava: the Kurdish fighting forces on the ground find the most efficient military force to push back ISIS and, via telecommunications, tell the American Air Force where ISIS is. This is the kind of collaboration that takes place. So the Americans have told Erdogan to downscale his violence against the Kurds, because the American military operation in the region relies on the Kurds. So even though there is this bizarre relationship with the American military, nobody wants to see this revolution spread, nobody.
Are the Kurdish communities in the region feeling the impact of Rojava?
Rojava’s ideological and political developments are spilling over, in some ways, into the Kurdish community in northern Iraq, though it is still a corporate petro-government. That’s a fact. How far east it goes, whether the Kurds in Iran are talking about Rojava, I can’t say. And of course, within Turkey from the southeast all the way to Istanbul, the Kurds are talking about it. So there is a lot for us, in the international community, to think about — the importance of the Kurdish struggle, and the originality of Rojava.