Friday Book: Will the Kurds ever be a nation?

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WE HAVE lived to see another springtime of nations - like 1848, like 1918. From Azerbaijan to the Baltic, nations long buried under the rubble of empire have risen to claim a place in the sun. But not the Kurds. As with the Tibetans and East Timorese, the powers holding down this great nation of 25 million people show no sign of relaxing their grip. The dream of statehood is as far away as ever.

Partitioned after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire between Turkey, Iran and the British creation of Iraq, the Kurds have rebelled repeatedly and fruitlessly - in Iraq in 1945, in Iran in 1946, and in Iraq again in 1961, in 1965, in 1974, and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. They rose again at the express urging of President George Bush during the Gulf War. This decade has seen a protracted, dirty war in eastern Turkey.

So much fighting for so little gain. One Kurdish leader told Jonathan Randal that they fought so desperately because they dreaded ending up like the Armenians - a dispersed nation, living in exile. But another reason seems to be a simple addiction to a good scrap. "Better live like a hawk for a day than like a hen for the whole of your life," is one of those telling phrases Randal overhears as he bounces on the dusty roads of Kurdistan.

The results of this devotion to the spirit of the hawk have been awful. In the mid-1980s, Saddam Hussein took revenge on his Kurds for siding with his enemies in Iran by demolishing and gassing their villages. Saddam's henchman in Kurdistan, Ali Majid, gloated about the attempted genocide: Of the poison gas, "Who is going to say anything?" he asked his comrades in Iraq's Baath party. "The international community? Fuck them!" Of the Kurds, he boasted, "I shall bury them with bulldozers".

A by-product of the frantic fight for independence has been a revolving door of alliances with outside powers, who pick up and then drop the Kurds as it suits them. The Kurds are "the blind beggar standing outside the main mosque", the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani tells Randal; they are incapable of seeing who is pressing a gold coin into their palms.

Randal, a seasoned war reporter, recounts those manoeuvres and betrayals in detail, concentrating on the shoddy dealings of the Shah of Iran, who stirred up a revolt among the Kurds in Iraq in the 1970s only to drop them into Saddam's vice in 1975.

George Bush was no better. After egging the Kurds on to revolt during the Gulf War, he professed indifference when they did so, leaving them to be defeated and sent fleeing in their hundreds of thousands into Turkey.

The Kurds, Randal says, are given to ruminating on the gap between the efforts they have invested in securing freedom and the meagre result. "Those Kurds who have gained glory by their swords," one 17th-century poet wrote, "How is it they are denied the empire of the world and are subject to others?" Randal - for all his compassion - is too honest to deny that much of the answer to that riddle lies in the Kurds' own fissiparous tendencies.

A classic example came in 1991 when, shamed by the condemnation of his wimpish behaviour, President Bush set up Operation Provide Comfort, with a "no-fly" zone over Iraqi Kurdistan. When a Kurdish parliament was elected the following year, it seemed de facto statehood was almost within their grasp.

But after only a few years, those gains were in ruins. Saddam's earlier triumphs in herding the Kurds from their rural fastnesses into the cities had created a gulf between traditionalists and the urban masses. Instead of uniting against Saddam, the Kurds dissipated their energies fighting each other. Much to the disgust of friends in the West, Barzani even called on the murderous Saddam to help him defeat his rival, Jala Talabani.

In an age when peace of a kind seems within reach in Ireland, East Timor, maybe even Kosovo, the Kurds seem to defy the slenderest hopes of a solution. The West can do nothing for Kurds in Turkey for fear of angering their key Nato ally. And the Kurds must never be seen to approaching the trappings of statehood in Iraq, in case this, too, undermines the status quo in eastern Turkey. If Saddam stays in power, the threat of chemical warfare hangs over them. If he goes, his successor will surely demand the restoration of full Iraqi rule over Kurdistan.

No wonder Randal's account of disasters followed by revivals ends on a sombre note. "Somehow," he writes, "I doubt that the prediction of eternal resurrection will come true in what remains of my working lifetime."