As they talk and sip their tea, a door opens, and a slim, blonde woman in her thirties slips into the canteen. She is clearly not a Kurd but seems to belong here. Instead of staring at her, the men merely glance. As she heads for the stairs, one of them stops her. She sits down, listens, nods, sighs, makes notes. Moving on, she pauses at other tables, chatting in Turkish and Kurdish, before finally disappearing upstairs.
The scene - in a cul-de-sac in the London borough of Haringey - is the Kurdistan Workers' Association, which represents the interests of 3,500 or so Kurdish refugees and their dependants in London. The woman is Sheri Laizer, a New Zealander in her late thirties who has become an honorary Kurd.
Sheri's office, above the canteen, is neat and light. She is slightly built, mild-mannered and speaks with a slight Antipodean twang. From first impressions there is nothing unusual about her. On the wall, however, there are pictures of Kurdish guerrillas; on her desk lie some photographs of Turkish soldiers holding up the severed heads of Kurdish victims; and, as she talks, it becomes clear that her familiarity with such scenes is not just second-hand.
Over the past dozen years, she explains, she has been to Turkish Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan more times than she can remember: initially as a film and documentary-maker, more recently in her capacity as coordinator of the KWA (where she has worked since 1989). It is, she says, "a kind of hell" there. Since her first visit to south-eastern Turkey, the part Kurds call Kurdistan, 3,000 villages have been razed there and 3 million people dispossessed. Laizer herself has been harassed, followed and threatened. "People have been asked by police and secret service men at road blocks if they'd seen 'that British woman journalist with the blonde hair'. The secret police - the Mukhabarat in Iraq and the MIT in Turkey - keep tabs on you."
Two years ago, Lissie Schmidt, a German woman involved in similar work to Sheri, was killed by gunmen as she drove along a road in the "safe haven" created by the Allies after the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq. "The same thing could happen to any foreigner," says Laizer, who knew Schmidt well and has often travelled that road. "It could happen to me." She shrugs. Ten years of exposing human rights abuses in Kurdistan seem to have made her largely indifferent to danger. In any case, she has no intention of staying away; for, after spending half a lifetime and travelling halfway round the world in search of belonging and fulfilment, it is only here, in one of the most miserable corners of the Earth, that she has finally found them.
Sheri Laizer has always had a slightly unconventional approach to life. She was born "in the late Fifties" in the Banks Peninsula, New Zealand, and educated at "a stifling private girls' school - Panama hats, hymns, gloves..." The surrounding countryside was wild and mountainous, and "We were very physically free." But watching ocean liners on the horizon from her bedroom window soon produced stirrings of wanderlust.
Her father had once travelled the world as a jazz drummer but had since settled down to run a hi-fi shop. "I think he was disappointed," remembers Laizer, "because he had been happy playing in Sydney and touring in Europe." She determined never to make the same mistake.
In her teens, she loved music and surfing - "lots of nice tanned limbs and all that goes with that". Her father, who still played in some of the blues and jazz clubs where she hung out, disapproved - sometimes violently. When she was 18, Sheri left home. Living with a boyfriend, she worked for a year at Sunnyside, the psychiatric hospital made famous by Janet Frame, author of An Angel at My Table, who had been a patient there. "We had huge iron keys in our pockets, and I was amazed to see people from all walks of life - teachers, farmers, housewives... I remember the wife of a public notable reduced to a thing in a nightie with her bony legs in the air, scratching the staff and screaming." It was a crash course in compassion.
After a year, Laizer enrolled at Auckland University, where she studied English, French, and Middle Eastern and Ancient History - and plunged enthusiastically into Seventies student life. Already fascinated by altered states of mind, she experimented briefly with hallucinogenic drugs and, more seriously, began to think about the deeper purpose of her life. New Zealand made her restless. "There was a kind of psychic emptiness there. I felt I didn't really belong. The daughters of the wealthier people went to Europe for the summer and always had the feeling they were going back to their roots. I thought I might feel this, too."
Her course completed, she headed for England, but stopped off en route in Los Angeles, where she got a job catering on film sets and stayed for a year and a half. She ventured with some success into poetry and photography; was briefly married ("to an extremely good-looking and spoilt man" is all she will say now); and, following a concert in New York, formed an intense (but platonic) friendship with Peter Gabriel.
Finally, in 1981, she arrived in London; but the hoped-for sense of belonging failed to materialise. Unable to make a living from poetry and photography, she took a job as an advertising copywriter but quit after 18 months: "It was so empty."
Still searching for meaning and belonging, but also prompted by a crisis in her friendship with Gabriel, she resumed her travels. This time, she headed for Iraq, hoping to study Sumerian literature. "It's the alternative to the Graeco-Roman tradition - another explanation for where it all began. But it was the time of the Iran/Iraq war and I couldn't get to Sumer [now southern Iraq], so I stayed in Egypt for a while, somewhere near the Valley of the Kings." She remained in the area for three years, writing an obscure - and still unpublished - book called Ziggurats ("an evocation of life in 2300 BC"). Her quest for the sublime was teetering towards the ridiculous. But it was here that she made the most important discovery of her life.
One day in 1983, "I heard some music. It was very close to the emotion I was feeling, engendered by the environment and the research I was doing. I discovered it was Kurdish music. It was plaintive and haunting." She knew neither what it meant to be Kurdish, nor where Kurdistan was; but already she was beginning to suspect that she belonged there.
Returning to London, where she found work as a television researcher, she set herself to discovering more. She saw the films of Yilmaz Guney, the banned Kurdish filmmaker: harrowing accounts of the world's 30 million dispossessed Kurds. Shortly afterwards, a job came up researching a TV series on Middle Eastern culture. This took her to Turkey, where she met Kurdish people for the first time. She was shocked to discover that under Turkish law all forms of expression that are deemed "separatist", whether cultural or political, are illegal. Simply speaking publicly in favour of Kurdish independence can result in torture and imprisonment.
Before leaving Turkey, Laizer travelled to Turkish Kurdistan, which borders on Iraq, Syria and Iran. "It wasn't as bad then as it is now because there was hardly any resistance. The PKK [the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party] didn't really get going until 1990. But you picked up on the fear, on how downtrodden Kurdish people were. You could even see it in the way they walked. Now the PKK have enormous support amongst Kurds, despite the danger for sympathisers, who can expect to be treated with the same brutality as members."
Kurdish liberation is not a popular cause in the West. The intractability of the problem wearies people. But for Sheri it was as if she had reached the end of a quest. "Whatever it was I was looking for, what had been revealed to me here, in the struggle between the Turks and the Kurds, was the darkest region of man's primeval barbarity - and the greatest nobility." Kurdistan and its struggles would be her life's work.
The decade that followed has been the most satisfying of Sheri's life. Yet there are scenes that she would rather forget. She was in Iraq in Dohuk, an hour from the border, in April 1991, just after the Gulf War. The Iraqis were moving in to crush the Western-inspired Kurdish uprising against Saddam. For four days and nights the sound of shelling boomed in the distance, a little closer each day. As the shelling began to hit the town, Sheri joined the inhabitants as they fled for their lives. "The noise of the shelling was terrifying. You hear it overhead and have no idea where it will land. Then they came in with helicopter gunships, strafing people as they ran. Bombs were dropping around us."
After the uprising the Allies set up Operation Provide Comfort and the Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq. Laizer denounces the former as "a cynical exercise in realpolitik"; as for the latter, "briefly both safe and a haven, it soon became neither."
The Iraqi Kurds had no choice but to head for Turkey. In her recent book, Martyrs, Traitors and Patriots (Zed Books, pounds 12.95), Laizer describes their tortuous journey: "It was like passing through some apocalyptic valley of death... shuffling along a narrow sheep track in the dark, I caught up with a young Kurd bearing a crippled man on his back... Other people had fashioned crude stretchers of twisted branches to carry the old and the sick. We came upon a dead body... covered by a blanket and abandoned." They walked on through the night, through villages ruined by Saddam's helicopter gunships; these were the same people who had fled his chemical attacks in 1988 and 1989. They knew they had reached the border when they walked into a phalanx of Turkish soldiers. "A Turkish commando shouted at me, 'Animals, animals, how many more are coming?' 'Thousands,' I answered pleasantly. 'We'll send them all back, we'll send you back too,' he shouted. After several days, there were some 800,000 Kurds in appalling makeshift camps and another million trapped in Iraq." Allied helicopters dropped boxes of food into the camps, crushing those who failed to get out of the way. "People were so desperate for food that they fought over bread, children died of exposure and malnutrition, people trudged barefoot through snow and ice."
Three years later, Laizer found herself fleeing the other way, this time with Turkish Kurds into the "safe haven" in Iraq. By then - April 1994 - this area had become a deadly vortex of political factions and lawlessness. "Not only were there death squads, secret security forces and smugglers, but also bounty-hunters. Saddam had offered $10,000 for the murder of foreign aid workers, journalists or even UN personnel, anyone thought to be an enemy of the state. Also, the two Western-backed Iraqi Kurdish groups, the PUK and KDP, were at war with each other and themselves killing fellow Kurds."
Sheri's plans to cross the border in her own time from Turkey were speeded up when she found herself swept along in a tide of Turkish Kurds fleeing from villages which Turkish planes were bombing in order to destroy the PKK and any support for them. The journey took six days. "We were followed by Turkish secret agents and local Kurdish parties that were working with the Turks."
Finally, the refugees settled in a valley and tried to construct some shelter for themselves. "About a month after I left, they were bombed and shelled, this time by Turkish helicopter gunships. There was no safety even 5km into the 'safe haven'. Turkey has a hot pursuit agreement with Iraq, so that either side can chase the other's Kurds across the borders, and Operation Provide Comfort's agreement was only to stop Saddam's planes - not Turkey's or Iran's. Such attacks happen regularly. Nobody knows how many people have been killed. Last year Turkey sent 50,000 troops into the safe haven under the guise of eradicating the PKK guerrillas. Many refugees have not been seen since. Quite a few people I knew have disappeared. It's really sick."
In 1993 Laizer worked with Michael Ignatieff filming the BBC2 documentary Blood and Belonging. They were on the Iranian border and crossed into Iran secretly through a stream between some mountains. They could have been picked off at any moment by pasdars, the armed guards who patrol the border, or bombed by Turkish planes flying nearby, but her luck held, as it always has. Others have not been so fortunate: not just Lissie Schmidt, but the three Britons - Rosanna della Casa, her husband Nicholas and his brother-in-law Charles Maxwell - who were killed en route to Iraqi Kurdistan while making a documentary for the BBC in 1991. Kurdish activism is a risky business. But Laizer seems unconcerned about her own safety.
"When you have seen what is going on, how can you sit back in comfort? When you have met people who were bombed with chemicals by the Iraqis, and you meet people all the time whose mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and children have been murdered, then it's not just some hobby, it's not just a news item you're getting on camera. It's people being murdered and dispossessed every day. One Israeli soldier gets killed and it's headline news, but 20 Kurdish people a day are being killed. You don't get scared, you get angry. The attempts by the Turkish, the Iranians and the Iraqis to crush the Kurds are so extreme, so barbaric, so inhumane, it makes you angry. You can't let these guys win, otherwise everything becomes meaningless."
It was perhaps inevitable that Sheri Laizer should fall in love with a Kurd. He is a former peshmerga (rebel fighter - literally, "one who faces death") whom she met in London soon after the Gulf War.
It has not been easy. A whole chapter of Martyrs, Traitors and Patriots is devoted to the awesomely backward and often brutal conditions in which Kurdish women live, and Laizer and her partner have had a hard time dealing with the enormous differences in their cultures. A Kurdish woman is expected to be demure, compliant, servile; Laizer is independent even by Western standards. A Kurdish woman must be ready at all times to provide food for friends and family, and is allowed no privacy; Laizer likes to be alone sometimes. Kurdish women are expected to bear children; Laizer wouldn't mind having a child, but is by no means yearning for one.
None the less, the relationship works, and Laizer seems happy. Indeed, the more she is accepted by the Kurds, the happier she becomes. "My partner is Kurdish. Most, if not all, of my friends are Kurds. It's how my life is now - I'm part of what's going on. I have a power, I can speak the languages, I can embarrass the Turks and Iraqis, I can take the story outside. When you have a language, you inhabit that world. Even in London I'm in that world."
Talking to Laizer in her light, tidy office - and, later, in her sensible north London flat - it is difficult to reconcile this mild, sensitive woman with her unblinking devotion to a single cause. The flat is orderly, comfortable, the garden well-tended. Cats wind themselves around her legs as she speaks; there isn't a propaganda poster in sight. This could be any middle-class Londoner. But it isn't. Sheri Laizer is driven in a way most of us can scarcely even imagine.
She sometimes finds her work at the KWA thankless - "The refugee world is hopeless. There's so little you can do. I'd rather be back in Kurdistan writing and filming." But the truth is that without her cause her life might still be empty. And although she is driven by a passionate rage against injustice, she cannot deny that there are other motives at work. "Yes, this life gives me something. It gives me a sense that in the most difficult conditions I can feel the extent of my abilities. And that's a good feeling."
In January this year, Laizer went back to film the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the most wanted man in Turkey, who has very rarely been interviewed. His whereabouts are a closely guarded secret; not even the country he resides in is known. The journey to find him must go largely undescribed; afterwards, she crossed into the safe haven by one of the more dangerous routes. "They've virtually sealed it off. They don't want anyone going in and reporting on this hidden war by Turks, Iraqis and Iranians against Kurds. But I have seen it with my own eyes and it is ordinary people who bear the brunt of the brutality. People in this area designated as the Kurdish homeland under international protection are being either starved to death, by embargoes exercised by the Turkish and Iraqi regimes, or bombed."
None the less, she enjoyed the trip. She found Ocalan articulate, engaging and warm-hearted. "He joked with the guerrillas: 'Eat this chilli pepper even if you explode - how can you be brave enough to fight the enemy if you won't eat a chilli pepper?' " The interview will, she hopes, be shown on British television soon.
As an afterthought, Sheri produces a photograph of herself with Ocalan looking as relaxed as if she were taking tea with her uncle. "Any Kurd caught travelling with that would be arrested and almost certainly tortured." So what would have happened to her if she had been caught with it? "I don't know," she smiles. She seems happy. !Reuse content