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The Kurds’ loneliness, the Kurds’ olives

During a recent week-long visit to New York, everybody was talking about U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria.

The topic pervaded the cocktail parties and dinners hosted by the United Nations and various embassies I attended in the evenings. Though everyone was aware of the sacrifices Kurds have made in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), success on the battlefield clearly had not translated into the realm of diplomacy.

I realized Kurds had no real political representation in these discussions, and felt the deep loneliness of the Kurd abroad.

As I returned home, news of racist attacks in Sakarya in northwest Turkey began appearing on my phone.

A father and son leaving a barbershop were asked, “Are you Kurdish?” They responded, “Yes,” and were gunned down. The father, 43-year-old Kadir Sakçı, lost his life, while his 16-year-old son Burhan had been critically wounded.

I arrived in Diyarbakır, and the putative Kurdish capital in Turkey’s southeast was silent as always. The few non-profit organisations that have managed to remain open after a raft of government-mandated closures might organise occasional events, but participation is very low.

It seems Kurds feel lonely even within their own communities now. “The issue is not just the fear and repression from the state,” a friend told me. “Now I have no idea how things I say will be spun by different sides, so I choose not to say anything at all.”

Another friend described to me feelings of loneliness following the destruction of the city’s Sur district, and for the first time considered leaving the city.

Competition between Kurds and attempts to take advantage of each other only feed this loneliness. Everyone draws attention to the negatives sides of others. Increasingly, we lose the common ground that prompted feelings of universal happiness or sadness among us.

Contributing factors include the cruelty we have witnessed over the past three years, as well as the fact that the strongest forces within the Kurdish movement have either been imprisoned or forced to flee abroad.

The need for leadership is strongly felt. Tolerance for difference is declining steadily. Gossip has taken over the city. In this environment, people are careful to stay in their homes to avoid being seen or heard, and hesitate to write anything.

I went to the market the other day to buy olives. In Diyarbakır, a kilo of olives usually costs 15 Turkish lira ($2.80). When I saw olives available for 5 lira, I was surprised.

“These olives are from Afrin, that’s why they are so cheap,” the seller explained.  I baulked at his response, and wondered if I had misheard him. But no, I heard correctly, the olives are from the city of Afrin in northern Syria, captured by the Turkish military from Syrian Kurdish forces in March last year.

I first saw suggestions of “processing Afrin olives in Turkey” in October, in publications close to the Turkish government. In November, pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak declared, “Afrin’s olives are being made available to the world”. The article continued:

“In order to develop the regions that were cleared of terrorism in Operation Olive Branch, Turkey has begun applying new economic policies. Steps have been taken in various fields, ranging from agriculture to textiles, in order to give the people a respite from their economic hardships. Roads that have been damaged in the war, and which are important for economic activity, are being repaired. The Olive Branch Customs Gate, created to serve Afrin, began operations in the past few days.

“Facilities have been built to process olives from Afrin, which is famous for its olive trees. Olives, soap, and olive oil are being produced. Afrin has over 200 million olive trees. When Afrin was under occupation from the PKK-PYD-YPG terror group, the olive market was also in their hands.”

[The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is active in Turkey, and labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union, whereas the PYD (Democratic Union Party) is the governing political party in Kurdish-held northern Syria, with the YPG (People’s Protection Units) as its military branch.]

“The terror organisation was demanding ransom from the city’s inhabitants. Afrin’s olives account for nearly $200 million of the global market. This $200 million olive market will be opened once more to the people of Syria.”

Shortly afterwards, on Nov. 12, Fatma Kurtulan, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), submitted a question to parliament asking for information on allegations that the Turkish-allied Free Syrian Army were looting olives in Afrin and selling them in Turkey.

The olives I saw at the market were probably those same olives. Afrin’s stolen olives have come all the way here, and are now finding their way into the kitchens of Kurds from Amed [the Kurdish name for Diyarbakır].

Seeing the expression of horror on my face, the seller told me, “We don’t buy them directly, they come to us from cities in southern Turkey such as Antakya, Adana, and Mersin … My house was demolished in Sur, this is how I put bread on the table.”

Realising my anger, he tried to convince both himself and me. “We’ve been left all alone, no one has shown us a way out, my kids and I have been left out in the cold for months. There’s no food, there are no jobs, everyone is obsessing over politics. No one is asking us about our condition. We are all alone.”

I return home but struggle to collect my thoughts. On the one hand, I think, “I hope they choke on those olives,” but on the other, I keep thinking back to the seller and his battle to earn a living. I guess one Kurd’s looted trees can become another Kurd’s means of earning a living.

Of course, neither the Kurds forced to sell the olives, nor those who have to buy them are responsible. The culprits are the ones who perform the looting. But for some reason, I still cannot help but say, “shame on us! How have we left each other so alone, with no choice but to buy the looted goods of another Kurd?”

The Kurds are alone! Not only in America, Europe, and Turkey, but also within ourselves. A deep loneliness engulfs us all. To break this cycle, we need skilled leadership, and politics that unify instead of divide.

Before it is too late, the Kurdish movement must devise new strategies and establish coherent policies, and it must do this with common sense and consistency. It must find new and innovative ways to make its voice heard in international politics.

Time is running out. Kurds are becoming alienated not just from the rest of the world, but from their own movement and communities, retreating into their own shell, becoming convinced that they are alone, that no one is there to hear them. Even if someone does hear, no one cares.

The loneliness is spreading every day. Ending this mood requires creating good strategies and policies, acting in solidarity, listening to one another, and sharing in each other’s pain and happiness.

It should also ensure that no one is forced to eat the looted olives of our brothers and sisters, from across the border or anywhere else.