The Kurdish calendar includes many commemorations of atrocities committed against the Kurdish people, often of massacres of large groups of people. On 15 February, Kurds mark the attempted assassination of hope: an international attack on the Kurdish people in the person of one man, the undisputed leader of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, Abdullah Öcalan.
15 February is known as Roja Reş, the Dark Day. It was on this day, 24 years ago, that an international conspiracy, led by the CIA, abducted Öcalan from the Greek embassy in Nairobi, where he had taken refuge in his search for asylum, and handed him over to Turkey. Within five months, he had been condemned to death. When Turkey stopped capital punishment, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and to what has become a living death. It is almost two years since Öcalan was allowed to speak with anyone outside the prison. His last contact was a phone call with his brother that was cut short after a few minutes.
In other years, 15 February has been marked with a major demonstration in Strasbourg, as the home of European institutions for human rights. In the preceding week, long marches set out from different places to highlight the call for Öcalan’s freedom, and many of these converge on Strasbourg. But this year, the Strasbourg demonstration was cancelled as Kurds everywhere responded to the horrors unfolding in Turkey and Syria in the wake of the earthquake on 6 February. Hardly a Kurdish family has been left untouched. It is a very dark time: a time of grieving, but also a time of organising – of doing everything possible to help the survivors and to make sure that aid gets to those who need it and is not appropriated by the Turkish government.
The capture of Öcalan, and the Turkish government’s failure to build on any of his many attempts to negotiate a peaceful and dignified future for Kurds in Turkey, are symptomatic of a centralised, increasingly autocratic, and ethnic nationalist state: a state whose brutal deficiencies have been exposed to the world in the catastrophic failures of their earthquake preparation and response. In the Turkish government’s reaction to the earthquake, we see the same focus on the aggrandisement of state power, the same intolerance of other forms of organisation, the same prejudice against minority groups, as have always underlain Turkey’s approach to the Kurds and to Öcalan – and that have only grown in recent years.
Despite everything, hope was not destroyed 24 years ago. Öcalan’s importance and the spread of his ideas have only strengthened. The philosophy that he expanded during long isolated years in prison has inspired people throughout the world. It has inspired the Rojava revolution, and given strength to Kurdish politics in Turkey. This morning I was contacted by a comrade in Kenya, the country from where Öcalan was abducted. Comrade B is part of the Grassroots Liberation Movement which is inspired by Öcalan’s ideas. He used a famous quote from the Mau Mau who led Kenya’s independence struggle: ‘we are everywhere’.
In the earthquakes zone, in contrast to the controlling hand of a government that has shown itself to be more interested in its own image than in helping earthquake survivors, Turkey has seen a huge flowering of mutual aid. This is what happens after disasters. Despite media scaremongering, the great majority of people are ready to help each other, and the most effective organisation comes from the people themselves. In Turkey the effectiveness of this self-organisation has been greatly enhanced by the well-rooted networks of organisations, activists, and politicians built up by the Kurdish Freedom Movement in line with ideas of bottom-up democracy inspired by Öcalan. These networks were able to move quickly into action and reach people and areas untouched by the official authorities. The government has tried to stop them. Rather than focus on saving lives themselves, the state wants to ensure that no other organisation can be seen to help those in need. And years of oppression and detentions, including the removal of almost all elected mayors, have prevented Kurdish structures from reaching anything like their full potential. But the ongoing mobilisation demonstrates the lived reality of Öcalan’s grassroots organising and its power to respond to real human needs.