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In Turkey, you could be arrested for serving the vegetable chips that were available at a June 22 Rayburn House Office Building reception. That’s because they were green, red, and yellow, the colors of the Kurdish flag. The culture and language of the Kurds—a stateless ethnic group whose members live in contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria—are illegal in Turkey.
“The traffic lights in southeastern Turkey have changed,” reports Kurdish activist Kani Xulam with a broad grin. “Green has become blue.”
Xulam, who runs the American Kurdish Information Network from a small office in Woodley Park, doesn’t seem a bitter man. Yet he has every reason to be. The United States has betrayed the Kurds on numerous occasions, and for the past four years, the Clinton administration has been trying to deport Xulam to Turkey. If that were to happen, Xulam reports simply, “I would be tortured. I would be killed.”
Xulam’s plight is one of the narrative threads in Kevin McKiernan’s Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends but the Mountains, the documentary whose screening is the occasion for the Rayburn reception. The California journalist’s film has been shown as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, recently at New York’s Lincoln Center. That documentary fest, however, has been unable to find a regular home in Washington; it was hosted last year by Georgetown University Law Center but found no local venue this year. Thus Good Kurds, Bad Kurds’ local premiere is the invitation-only screening, sponsored by Illinois Republican John Edward Porter, a member of the House Human Rights Caucus.
The official U.S. position is that the Kurdish faction that’s at war with Turkey, known by its Kurdish abbreviation, PKK, is a terrorist organization. Yet the U.S. has encouraged similar groups to defy the government in Iraq, which, unlike Turkey, is not a U.S. ally or a member of NATO. As McKiernan’s film explains, the Iraqi Kurds are the “good” ones and the Turkish Kurds are “bad.” So bad, in fact, that the Immigration and Naturalization Service overruled its own case officers’ original decision that Xulam should be granted political asylum—even though it’s never been alleged that Xulam is connected to the PKK or any other “terrorist” group.
McKiernan made his film in part because he couldn’t get any major news organization interested in his reports from Turkish Kurdistan. He traveled to Iraq in 1991, after the Gulf War, when the Bush administration encouraged Kurds to rebel against Saddam Hussein but then abandoned them to be slaughtered by Iraq’s Republican Guard. That was a story for a week or two, but the fate of Turkey’s Kurds was still ignored by American journalists.
Turkey’s anti-Kurd campaign is fought mostly with U.S.-made weapons, notes McKiernan. “It’s the greatest use of our weaponry anywhere in the world,” he says, yet thanks to the media blackout it’s “kind of a stealth war.”
The blackout continues with Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, the filmmaker adds: “Public TV has passed on it. It’s extremely hard to get any film on a foreign subject or a political subject on public TV.”
Ironically, Turkey may have to moderate its treatment of the Kurds not because of the United States but because of Europe. The country hopes to join the European Union; to meet that organization’s requirements, it will have to ban the death penalty and cease persecution of ethnic minorities.
“They will have to loosen up,” says Xulam of Turkey’s possible admission to the European Union. But, he adds, “I believe this country can help, too.”—Mark Jenkins