In 1984, a Kurdish group known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party,
or the PKK, launched a guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey.
The nationalist PKK, led by Abdullah Oçalan, claimed
to be fighting not just for independence but to reclaim the
quickly fading Kurdish culture. Under Turkish law, Kurds were
forbidden to speak or write in their language, Kurdish folk
songs were required to be sung in Turkish, and children with
Kurdish names were renamed. "The Turks make us live lower than
animals," Oçalan told an American reporter. "To say I
was a Kurd was to prepare myself for the worst difficulties
in the world."
Developed as a revolutionary socialist
organization in 1974, the PKK began to use violence against
Turkish security forces 10 years later. (photo: Department of
The PKK became notorious for its ruthlessness, which included
targeting Kurdish landlords and tribal leaders who didn't support
the party. The Turkish government responded in kind, using search-and-destroy
tactics to flush out the "terrorists" and their supporters.
When this didn't stem the insurgency, Turkey attempted to remove
the PKK's base of support by removing civilians from their homes.
By the early 1990s, an estimated 2,000 Kurdish villages had
been destroyed, leaving 750,000 refugees.
The conflict's most infamous atrocity occurred in March 1992
in the town of Cizre, where Turkish soldiers killed 100 civilians
during a Kurdish New Year celebration. After 15 years of fighting, as
many as 30,000 people had been killed, mostly Kurds.
Chemical Ali and Anfal
The most enduring images of atrocities against the Kurds took
place in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein planned a genocidal campaign
against them. Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's first cousin, headed
the campaign. He became known as "Chemical Ali" after the Kurdish
town of Halabja was attacked with nerve gas and other chemical
weapons in March 1988, killing 5,000 civilians. But Halabja was
just one of 60 civilian targets that were attacked with poison
gas during the 18-month campaign known as anfal, or "spoils."
Any survivors of this deadly campaign were evicted under a policy
of "Arabization," which resettled Iraqi Arabs in northern Iraq,
often in homes once owned by Kurds.
Images of victims such as this young Kurdish
boy shocked the world in the late 1980s when Saddam Hussein
unleashed 18 months of chemical weapon attacks on villages
in Northern Iraq. (photo: Department of Defense)
Images of Halabja shocked the world, but few governments moved
to condemn or stop Saddam's war against the Kurds. The United
States government, which had backed Iraq in its recent war against
Iran, did not take any steps to punish Saddam. A bill that would
have put more than $1 billion in economic sanctions on Iraq died
in Congress. Masoud Barzani, the son and political successor of
Mustafa Barzani, lamented, "If this goes on, there will be no
Kurds left in Kurdistan. Saddam's plan is to destroy us as a people.
It's him or us. There's no other choice."
A Safe Haven
An estimated 5,000 civilians died in
the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988. (photo: Department
Only after Iraq was defeated in the 1991 Gulf War did the Iraqi
Kurds receive a reprieve. Peshmerga took over parts of
northern Iraq, then were repelled by the Iraqi army. Hundreds
of thousands of refugees fled to the mountains, where Kurdish
civilians have traditionally hidden during times of trouble. The
United States and Britain provided humanitarian aid to the refugees
and established a "no-fly zone" that prevented further Iraqi military
incursions. Under this shelter, in 1992, Iraqi Kurds held elections,
making the area they controlled into an unofficial Kurdistan. The vote was
split almost evenly between the KDP and the rival Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani.
Yet for most Kurds, true independence remained distant. Years
of repression across Kurdistan had created a huge population
of Kurdish refugees. Many left the region altogether. By the
early 1990s, 700,000 Kurds lived in Western Europe, with 400,000
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