Small worlds: the Kurds: All fired up for freedom

Kurdish New Year celebrations in Hackney this week gave refugees a chance to fan the flames of resistance
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"Kurdistan will be the grave for fascism!" bellows Evin, a demure- looking girl walking beside me. A black man cruising down Stoke Newington Road honks his car horn in approval.

She and hundreds of other refugee Kurds are marching to Hackney Downs Park to celebrate the New Year, or "Newroz", which falls on 21 March

"Kurdistan looks just like Wales," Evin says between chants. "It is very agricultural, so everybody celebrates spring."

Newroz has come to symbolise not just freedom from hunger but freedom from oppression. "A long time ago, many Kurds believed in Zoroastrianism; they worshipped fire as truth," Evin explains as we pass a row of old Kurdish men, calling out "Newroz!". They are setting up firelighters on garden walls to ignite marchers' torches. "Then on the 21st March AD612 the Kurds resisted against the Syrian empire. Since then, on this day, there has always been fire. Many activists have burnt themselves on this day in protest against persecution." Evin pauses. "There have been many martyrs."

When we get to the park it is like stumbling on an oriental bazaar in the middle of municipal Hackney. Out of 20,000 Kurds living in England, more than 90 per cent live in London, most of them in or around this area. Figures stream towards the bonfire from all directions, led by the drum beat, joining huge squashed crowds of faces theatrically uplit by the flames, clamouring in Turkish.

They are presided over by a scowling portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, commonly known as Apo, leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party. The portrait has been lovingly carried here from a shrine on the wall of the Halkevi, the Kurdish centre in Stoke Newington. "Biji serox Apo!" yells a boy sitting on top of a basketball hoop, torch in hand. "Long live Apo!" returns the crowd.

Abdullah/Apo bobs in approval as the dancing starts, a cross between the conga and the hokey cokey. "We dance like this at weddings back home," says Halit, looking forlorn in his Malcolm X baseball cap.

Halit was a medical student in Istanbul, but police harassment forced him to leave six years ago. "Coming here stops us feeling so homesick. London is so cold." He introduces me to his cousin Fero, who was sentenced to 29 years in prison for being the editor of a Kurdish socialist magazine before he escaped to England.

It is cold, with a biting wind. We are driven from the main fire by smoke from burning tyres, so we look for warmth at one of the smaller fires for the children.

Here a wizened old man is looking after the kids, pushing them back from the fire with his black umbrella. Fero translates, telling me the man's name is Ali Gun and he is 70 years old. Five years ago, his sons fled to England. When they had gone, he and his wife were brought to the police station every day for torture, so Mr Gun paid 30 million Turkish lira to follow his children. His grandson, Ozlean, standing nearby, was born here.

Does Ozlean want to go to Kurdistan? "No," he says shyly.

Halit shushes us. A speaker has requested a minute's silence in respect of the dead in the "dirty war". The crowd make victory "V" signs. You can hear children chattering in English and the faint hum of traffic.

"When I first came to London as a refugee I was frightened. I didn't know the language, or anything about this place," says Halit, back at the main fire. "But there are so many Turkish and Kurdish here, you just look around, find a kebab shop, and someone there will help you in Turkish. We get on fine with the Turkish here."

Where can the Kurds find work? "It is difficult. In factories. Or, er, in kebab shops."

We spot Ali Gun in the middle of a ring of dancers at the edge of the fire, thumping out the beat with his black umbrella. Three men in uniform emerge from the gloom behind us, looking bemused. "We're from the Hackney Parks Patrol. Like Baywatch - just not so glamorous," says one. "I don't know what this is all about, but it's a good laugh, innit?"

The fireworks begin. The rockets explode red, yellow and green in the darkness, the colours of the Kurdish flag.

"There are not fireworks in Kurdistan, we are modernising Newroz for England!" shouts one man as he rushes towards the bangs. The occasion begins to resemble the most English of customs, Guy Fawkes night. There is a resemblance: as Guy Fawkes was, the Kurds are campaigning against an unwanted government. Each new bang brings another burst of even louder whistles from hopeful, upraised heads, silhouetted against the burning London sky.

Helen Rumbelow