As published in Birikim magazine, number 254, 2010
On the 1st of February, the story of Asliye and Zeynep who died on the road to buy books, appeared in the daily papers as a small ‘fait divers’. Asliye and Zeynep drowned while walking in Capakcur Stream because they did not have 1 TL to pay for the bus travel. This incident is not an exception in East Anatolia. The news about children from Agri trying to cross a river with temperatures of – 10 degrees was in the papers a few months ago. Because of the lack of schools in rural areas, in many parts of East Anatolia children are separated from their families and study at Regional Boarding Schools or cross rivers in order to reach their schools.
Living conditions in rural areas on the east side of Euphrates are very difficult. Sometimes it is even sometimes impossible to cover the very basic needs. Education is one of them. In some of the villages there are no schools and most of the schools do not have enough classrooms. First graders and fifth graders are lectured in the same classroom. The teacher has to divide his time for all pupils of different age groups within one class hour. The physical conditions of schools are very bad. Although most of those villages are under snow 6 months a year, there are no efficient systems for heating. Children lack the basic educational materials for their schooling. Last summer in the villages of Tatvan and Egil we organized painting workshops for children and I noticed that children saw crayons for the first time in their lives.
Most of these children from rural regions of East Anatolia have to go to Regional Boarding Schools (RBS). I witnessed many times that even children at the age of 6-7 had to attend RBS’s in Bitlis and Mus. I don’t think that in other parts of the East the situation is different. It is not a coincidence that RBS’s that proceeded to the agenda after the last incident in Siirt Pervari, where the discovery of severe sexual abuse and violence amongst school children in a Regional Boarding School shocked the country , are mostly located in cities highly populated by Kurdish people . RBS’s were first founded in 1939, increased in number after 1962 in East and Southeast Anatolia . An acquaintance of mine who was a graduate of a RBS recalled his first memory of his time in the RBS. “The teacher said: ‘Forget everything you learned till today, from now on you will only speak Turkish’;” Seyhmus Diken, a writer from Diyarbakir, said: “RBS’s are a kind of torture for Kurdish children. They are like machines that feed on Kurdish children’s identities, reshaping them and assigning them new identities (Turkish identities). Education is only the public face of RBS’s. By careful state planning, educational policies such as the widespread use of RBS’s, the state is using these schools as an instrument for assimilation. Plan for the Betterment of the East (Sark Islahat Planı) dated back to 1925 and various reports by National Security Board (MGK-Milli Güvenlik Kurulu) are the evidence for this”.
There is an expression in the East called “RBS child”. RBS child means a child from poverty, a child from the village, away from his mother, under military discipline, within the process of assimilation, miserable, lousy. Most of these children are so poor that they do not have the money to go to their homes even during the holidays. The state gives these children a monthly pocket money, approximately 6TL. There are RBS’s in which 90-100 children sleep in the same dormitory. Most of them lack water; children can shower only once a week, misery and hunger prevail. Going through the long and cold winters in Agri, Dogubeyazit, Ardahan, Hakkari, Siirt is so difficult. For some reason the state who distributes coal to everyone forgets the RBS’s. School counselors are rarely appointed to these schools and those appointed cannot endure the situation. Last year, we had to struggle a whole year to get a female school counselor appointed to an RBS to deal with the private problems of female students. Again last year, in another district in the East, the head of the district office scolded me because I suggested that 6-7 year-old students whose homes are just 15 minutes away from the RBS should be transported daily to their homes and should not stay in the dormitories at least till they get a bit older. He asked me if their houses are more comfortable than the school facilities. No matter how much I insisted we could not achieve to organize a transportation system which would serve 300 hundred children in that region. That region was evacuated in 1990’s because of security problems and families have just started to return back to their houses. However, families are so poor that they cannot afford a school bus that will take their children to their schools in the morning and bring them back in the evening. Unfortunately, living conditions in the East are left in the hands of district office administrators whose decisions are arbitrary.
Also in cities on the east side of Euphrates poverty among children prevails. In the whole region the numbers of children working on the streets, children with criminal records and children addicted to various drugs are increasing rapidly. In January, I attended a meeting of ÇAÇA – Çocuklar Aynı Çatı Altında Derneği (Children Under The Same Roof Association) . The focus of discussion was the hardship of being a child in East and Southeast Anatolia cities. Participants from different cities reported that approximately 1000 children from Yuksekova and 1500 children from Van are drug addicts, chronic illnesses and handicaps are very common among children from Batman and that they observed have a great tendency toward violence with the children of Diyarbakir.
We also should not forget the situation of “children throwing stones”. Children of the region have suffered so much and they are so filled of hatred that they do not know how to manage their anger. They damage cars, remove pavement stones, throw stones and they feel rage against everything and everyone that lives better than them. One of my friends from Umut Işığı Kadın Kooperatifi (Light of Hope Women’s Cooperative) reported from one of her interviews with one of these children: “According to us, anyone with a necktie and a jacket is on the other side”.
While I was writing this article, I thought about the past. I thought about Diyarbakir, my own childhood and what it meant to be “a Kurdish child” 25 years ago, when I asked my mother for the first time “Are we Kurdish?” I used to refuse to wear the rubber shoes my father bought us with many efforts and joy. I associated those rubber shoes with being Kurdish. I struggled so much to speak Turkish fluently. I wished I could be happy and proud like the Turk in “Thankfully, I am Turk”. It was a real torture for a child to be Kurdish at a time when being Turkish was highly appreciated. Today, after 25 years, Kurdish children are not miserable like us. They grew up listening to stories about their murdered fathers, uncles, aunts, mothers, their burnt down and evacuated villages. We lived and they took over the stories and they are carrying the heavy burden of the past. Kurdish children today claim their ethnicity and their language. And they are angry for what has been taken from them, their mothers, sisters. They are furious, they want back what they have lost, their villages, homes, fathers, brothers. They question the power and violence that has been exercised against them, their mothers and fathers or exercise the same kind of violence. They claim their “children’s rights” which they have never benefited from. They know about the 12th of September, Diyarbakir Prison numbered 5, and chemical weapons. They go out and invade the streets because of this; they play the guerilla in their neighborhood. They know why they are in Adana or Mersin, or why they are picking up rubbish in Izmir or why they are sold to criminal organizations in Istanbul. They know why they are in poverty. They work in the streets to bring home some money. They show their bodies for 1 TL and let others touch their breasts. They are very different from the Kurdish children of the past who were shy and timid, trying to speak Turkish. Whether in RBS’s or in the streets, whether they sell handkerchiefs or do their time in the prison, whether they try to cross River Murat or endure sexual abuse for 1 TL, they know what it means to be Kurdish and they are not ashamed of it.