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Kurdish lives also matter

An attack on Kurdish seasonal workers in the northwestern Sakarya province has occupied Turkey’s agenda this weekend.

The incident arrives as the latest in a string of racist attacks targeting the country’s largest ethnic minority in the Black Sea province in recent years.

On Friday, pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency reported, with video footage, an attack on 16 seasonal workers from southeastern Mardin province, who were in the town of Kocaali in Sakarya to collect hazelnuts.

“Our employer came to us and insulted us, calling us ‘a pack of dogs’,’’ seasonal worker Barış Demir later told the agency. “As we were then leaving the field, our employer threatened us. Then all the eight people there attacked us with sticks.”

The attackers said, “Did you think this is your hometown? This (town) belongs to us,” the attackers reportedly yelled. The workers have since left to return to Mardin.

Every year there are several attacks against Kurdish seasonal agricultural workers who travel from the underdeveloped Kurdish majority eastern and southeastern provinces, where unemployment is high with few job opportunities, to other parts of Turkey, where they live and work under difficult conditions to make money to support their families.

Last year around the same time, another Kurdish seasonal worker, 19-year-old Şirin Tosun, was killed in Sakarya after being attacked by a group of people for merely speaking Kurdish. And months before that, in Dec. 2018, Sakarya witnessed the killing of another Kurdish man, Kadır Şakçı, in another hate crime. Şakçı was also killed for speaking his mother tongue.

The latest attack on a sizable number of such workers highlights the problem of rampant racism toward Turkey’s Kurds, who make up some 15 percent of the country’s population.

The gendarmerie did not respond to calls for help by the seasonal workers, the victims told Mezopotamya.

“If you wait here, you will die,’’ one victim, Şilan Demir, quoted an attacker as saying.

“This place belongs to us. The gendarmerie is by our side, the soldiers are ours. Nobody will allow you to stay here,’’ the 19-year-old woman carrying a baby, who was seen being slapped by a man in video footage of the incident, told the agency.

There is so much to unpack in this sentence alone. The racist attackers are absolutely sure that the security forces and judicial system of Turkey will protect them. And they will even get a pat on the pack for their acts.

The attackers also threatened to burn her home and one woman confronted the Kurdish workers with an axe, Demir said.

The Governor’s Office of Sakarya initially said the alleged video of the attack that is circulating on social media is not from Friday’s incident and there was no record of a call or complaint to the local gendarmerie, as claimed to have been made by the workers.

But the Governor of Sakarya, Çetin Oktay Kaldırım, on Sunday called one of the families targeted in the attack to express his regret for the incident, BBC Turkish reported, telling them that two people had been detained in connection to the attack.

While the details of the incident are not entirely clear, racism in Turkey towards Kurds is very much a clear reality.

I was looking at Turkish social media accounts over the weekend to see whether there were reactions to an attack on a young Kurdish woman carrying a baby. And sure enough, there was nothing.

Soccer clubs, celebrities, intellectuals in the country who were quick to support the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a police officer in the United States in May, should do the same thing for the attacks against the country’s Kurds.

I look particularly at the accounts of women’s rights defenders and rights organisations. It is likely that if another woman had been physically attacked by a man, they would have raised hell, issuing condemnations. But when the person at hand is a Kurdish woman named Şilan, there was a deafening silence.

The Turkish state and the 40-year war between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan workers Party (PKK) has wreaked havoc on the country’s Kurdish majority east and southeast, destroying our villages, natural and human resources and much more.

Maybe that racist attacker is right – maybe that cannot be our land, Şilan.

I don’t know how much longer this can go on for, how many more punches Kurds can take, how many attacks they can die in.

After every attack we will mourn our dead and say that the victims do not walk alone. Political parties will continue to say they are following the cases. But I know that you are alone Şilan. Actually, we are all alone.

In closing, I want to say this to the people of Turkey: Kurdish lives also matter.