POPULATION TRANSFER: A Scattered People Seeks Its Nationhood

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The rich and distinctive culture and tragic fate of the Kurds make up a striking part of the history of the nations of the former Soviet Union. In some ways the situation of the Kurds is worse today than it was between 1937 and 1944, the years of forced relocation under Stalin.

The story of the Kurds is an ancient one, dating as far back as the second century B.C. in Turkey, Iran, Syria, Egypt, and other Arabic countries. After the first Russo-Persian War (1804-1813), part of the Kurdish homeland ended up in Russia. The Kurds kept their loyalty to these lands on which they had lived since the end of the sixteenth century, coexisting as Russian citizens alongside Armenians, Azerbaidzhanis, and Georgians.

Based on Soviet promises to respect self-determination, Russian Kurds greeted the October Revolution as their own national cause and took part in the establishment of Soviet power. But even in their homeland, other national groups oppressed the Kurds. Aware of this problem, in 1923 the Soviet Union combined six regions of Azerbaidzhan that were densely populated with Kurds to form the Kurdish National District. This in effect was the first time a state had granted Kurds autonomy over their land.

During the early years of Soviet rule, the state allowed the Kurdish people to experience a social, cultural, and national revival. At Lachin, the first capital of the district, the Kurdish newspaper Soviet Kurdistan appeared. In Shusha, the second capital, the district government opened a technical school, regular radio programs appeared, and children studied in their native language. Kurdish textbooks and political and artistic literature flourished as well.

Under Stalin, this progress came to a halt. In an official about-face, the very word "Kurd" was banned, a distinct Kurdish territory vanished, and the organized assimilation of Kurds, accelerated. The census now listed Kurds under the category "other nationalities" as the Soviet government ceased to officially recognize this people. Many Kurds registered themselves as a different nationality to avoid prejudicial treatment, get permission to pursue higher education wherever they chose, or even to enlist to fight against Germany in World War II. For example, I had to appeal to Moscow many times before receiving permission to attend college in the city closest to my home.

A particularly strong assault on Kurdish self-identity was forced deportation, in 1937 from Azerbaidzhan to Armenia, and in 1944 from Georgia to Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Relocation scattered Kurds across nine Soviet republics, and the very procedure of deportation was inhumane. Elder Kurds can remember how misfortune fell upon their villages. All the adult males in a town would be gathered at night and sent off by train. No one knows where they went, and none of them returned. After the men, the women and children were packed into freight cars and also sent to unknown destinations. I myself was deported to Kazakhstan when I was five years old. We had to leave behind our homes and all our belongings. No one knew why this was done, and it took years for the women and children who survived the harsh relocation to find their relatives.

As a result of the deportations and other repressive acts, the Kurdish population dwindled. More than 60,000 Kurds lived in the Kurdish National District alone during its formative years, but only 6,000 were left in 1939 and 1,500 in 1959. The Kurdsremained second-class citizens until the end of the 1950s, living under what was almost martial law. They were not allowed to travel outside their settlement; violators faced up to 25 years in prison. No statistics exist on the number of Kurds executed or whose deaths the repression hastened until Khrushchew denounced Stalinism in 1957, but tragedy touched every family.

KURDS TODAY

Even after 1957, Kurdish self-identity declined as the scattering of the Kurds hastened the loss of their history, culture, language, traditions, and ethnic identity. While more than 500,000 Kurds lived in the entire Soviet Union in the 1970s, the 1989 census counted only 153,000. Kurdish people have been rapidly assimilated into Russian society, losing their sense of themselves as a nation.

Only at the end of 1989 did the Soviet government officially recognize the injustice of deportation. At that time, the Supreme Soviet denounced the forced relocation and demanded measures to unconditionally restore rights to all the peoples that had suffered from the repression that began under Stalin. Along with glasnost in general, this declaration created the opportunity to establish a system of Kurdish education, while also stimulating the impulse to develop a national culture, harmonize relations among nationalities, and revitalize Kurdish traditions, language, and handicrafts.

As a result, existing centers of Kurdish culture are stronger and new ones have been started. A Moscow Center of Kurdish Culture has been founded, and in Georgia, along with a national theater and a radio show staff, Kurds have created centers for reviving and developing culture. In Baku, Azerbaidzhan, the Kurdish Cultural Center is publishing a newspaper, The Voice of the Kurds.

Armenia is major center of what has been preserved of Kurdish culture, and newspapers like Riia Taza (The New Path) are published here in Kurdish. Now the Armenian media broadcast Kurdish programs, and Kurdish writers form a section of the Council of Writers. In addition, a group of Kurdish scholars are working in the Armenian Academy of Sciences, and a Kurdish cultural society, Po (The Sun), has been formed.

Within the few years of perestroika, Kurds made more progress than in the previous 60 years combined, asserting their national rights and speaking out about their fate. This is the path of democracy, humanism, mutual understanding, and the revival of national identities, but it is not an easy path. To revive a culture, language, and history, a people needs its own intelligentsia. But the Kudish intelligentsia is practically non-existent. For example, Kurds value music, but there is no one with a higher education in music among the deported Kurds. Likewise, there are few writers, journalists, artists, or architects.

Moreover, although Kurdish culture progressed for centuries outside Kurdistan - in Istanbul, Cairo, Geneva, Paris, London, Stockholm, and elsewhere - Soviet Kurds lack access to these sources of knowledge. In each case, Kurdish culture is based on either Arabic or Latin alphabets, but since 1945 the writing system for Soviet Kurds has been based on Cyrillic. Thus, the 25 million Kurds abroad are unable to unite with Soviet Kurds even on the basis of a common alphabet.

One of the most important aspects of a culture is its native language, the soul of a people. But how many Soviet Kurds know their literary language? An overwhelming majority of Kurdish youths have never held in their hands any literature written in Kurdish. Even in Armenia, the center of Kurdish literature, many young people know only spoken Kurdish.

And even more serious threat to Kurdish self-identity, culture, and literature has come from the actions of extremists. In fact, despite the human-rights violations of the 1930s, at least work and settlement, even if in an assigned place, were guaranteed then, and Kurdish communities stayed partially intact. Now conflicts among ethnic groups in Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Azerbaidzhan, and Armenia have forced Kurds to resettle once again in search of work, housing, and living permits. In particular, the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaidzhanis has turned tens of thousands of Kurds into refugees.

Kurds appealed to the Soviet authorities, but the situation has yet to be resolved. While some progress had been made, existing measures are insufficient to guarantee Kurdish rights.

THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATION

Every day we realize more and more that we live on a planet with a linked fate. It is impossible to remedy the Kurdish situation in the former Soviet Union without the help of Kurds abroad and the world community. Kurds here must communicate and cooperate with progressive Kurdish parties, cultural centers, and institutes in other countries.

In fact, Soviet Kurds have expressed a great interest in the tragic fate of their people abroad. Elsewhere, Kurdish villages and cities are being destroyed, and mosques from the Middle Ages and ancient monasteries and churches are being demolished. St. Mokhe monastery in Shelki, established in 685 A.D., and sixth-century St. Kayuma's monastery and seventh-century St. George's church in Duri, have been destroyed. The Karavnsar Mausoleums, a priceless architectural heritage of the Kurds, have been used against the Kurds of Khalabja, Iraq, who were deported to "new living areas."

Repressions and other inhumane acts have been committed against Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and other countries. Punitive measures have increased, especially against the intelligentsia in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan. In the latter case, under a state of emergency an inhumane regime has suppressed all battles for human rights for several years. The situation of the Kurds destablizes not only the Near and Middle East but also Western Europe, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have ended up, escalating tensions among various governments.

In response, Kurdish nationalists have formed centers, federations, and institutes in Sweden, Germany, and other Western countries. These groups are devoted to guaranteeing the rights of the Kurds and saving their distinct culture. Kurdish organizations have also sponsored events of global significance. Thus, scholars, politicians, and members of the parliaments of 26 countries took part in a conference held in Paris in 1989 called "Kurds: Human Rights and Cultural Distinctiveness." Similar conferences have taken place in Washington, Moscow, Stockholm, and Athens. The resolutions emerging from these meetings have emphasized the need for a body to represent all Kurds in the UN General Assembly, a special session of the UN General Assembly devoted to the Kurdish plight, and a guarantee of Kurdish human rights.

A logical step would be to consider reestablishing Kurdish autonomy. It is time to find a niche for a people, numbering 25 to 30 million, that has known its own nationhood only rarely for over a thousand years.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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