This week, a Kurdish delegation is visiting South Africa after being invited by the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group of South Africa (KHRAG). On Wednesday, the activist organization hosted a conference to begin a dialogue with the South African government and civil society organizations on the struggle for human rights by the Kurdish people. The conference also created awareness and understanding of the current situation in the Middle East.
The speakers included the chairperson of the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group South Africa, Judge Essa Moosa; the co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and member of the Turkish Parliament, Selahattin Demirtas; and the commander of the Women Protection Units (YPG) Shaha Ali Abduh.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds, a stateless nation of approximately 50 million individuals, were split into the four territories after Britain and France divided their land with the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The Kurdish people constitute individuals from varied faith groups, including, Islam, Yarsan Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Yazidism.
As one of the oldest civilizations, dating back approximately 500 years, the Kurdish people have for years battled to be acknowledged internationally.
Today, the Kurdish people play active roles in protecting the region against the infiltration of IS in Syria, while battling to secure access to their human rights in their respective territories.
The political will of Kurds in turkey
Most notably, the delegation spoke of the plight of the approximately 20 million Kurds who currently reside within Turkey’s Bakur region.
Having lived side by side with Turks for decades, Kurds continue to fight against the erosion of their culture and language, where they are not allowed to speak their native tongue following the military coup of 1980.
Following continued oppression at the hands of Turkish Authorities, the Partiya karkeren Kurdistan (PKK), a Kurdish militant group, waged war against the Turkish state for the right to self-determination.
The PKK is today considered a terrorist organizations by Turkish allies, the; United States, European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The state of turkey has been noted to have violated the human rights of Kurds by forcibly conscripting Kurds into the army, destroying Kurdish villages, illegal arrests of journalists and others, and the torture of Kurdish prisoners of war.
For Kurds living in modern day Turkey, their cause has garnered much support with the imprisonment of the Kurdish nationalistic leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.
As the leader of Kurdistan Workers’ Party, Ocalan is a figure who in many circles is described as the ‘Kurdish Nelson Mandela’, and continues to strive for inclusivity within Turkish society.
On December 10, 2010, KHRAG launched the campaign for the release of Ocalan, with 10.4 million people signing a petition in support of his release.
Today, Ocalan has not had contact with his family nor his legal team for close to two years, with his last meeting with his legal team dated in February, 2015.
In keeping with Ocalan’s teachings of inclusion, Demirtas said that the Kurdish People are not calling for the establishment of a Kurdish nation state, but are instead seeking a means to secure the human rights of Kurds who have been split between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
“For the last 100 years, the land has altered both socially and politically, so in reality today people should be in charge of the model of their lives. We are calling for a new way of living; side by side with other nations,” Dermirtas stated.
He said that since many nations in the world have experienced a similar oppression, the Kurdish people have shown a willingness to show solidarity with other causes.
As the third biggest party in the Turkish Parliament, Dermirtas says that the HDP has survived in a parliament in which eight other Kurdish parties appeared to have failed.
He asserts that the failure of other Kurdish parties is testament to Turkish suppression of the Kurdish people.
“Turkey sees our proposals and describes it as terror. Before, as MP’s we could not be arrested, but now 12 000 people have been arrested and any talk of Kurdish rights is considered terrorist propaganda.”
Given the political history of South Africa, Dermirtas asserts that the assistance of South Africa is vital to bringing attention to the plight of the Kurdish people, giving them access to maximum human rights.
“It is difficult to convince people about what is happening. We require South Africa’s support as South Africa has no agenda and have fought against racism,” Dermirtas added.
The role of women in the war against ISIS
Commander Abduh explained that the YPJ, after liberating Syria’s Rojava from Al-Nusra and the Syrian Regime, has maintained control of the area against the infiltration of ISIS forces.
“This is the first time that we have faced such an enemy. So, if we would not fight, we would not be able to protect our people. We are now very well equipped and want to protect all of Syria,” she asserted.
Established in 2012, the YPJ is an all-female brigade of the People’s Protection Units militia (YPG). The YPJ and YPG form part of the armed wing of a Kurdish coalition that has taken de facto control over much of Rojava.
The organization grew out of the Kurdish resistance movement and as of 2014 had enlisted more than 7,000 volunteer fighters between the ages of 18 and 40.
“We have lost hundreds of martyrs and while we do not have law, we have a system. So, we have fought for our rights as women and did not receive support from other nations.”
The group played an active role in fighting against the siege of Aleppo’s Kobani and has provided sanctuary to minority groups with the infiltration of ISIS, such as Yazidis who were trapped in Mount Sinjar.
Given the fact that the YPJ has lost many lives at the hands of ISIS, Abduh urged the international community to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces to fight ISIS and called on the international community to acknowledge the role of women within the Fight against ISIS.
In addition, through their numerous accomplishments, the YPJ has been praised by many for their role in actively challenging gender stereotypes within the Kurdish culture.
“We are fighting to have all nations living in peace. We [the females] exist in this war – tell the world that we exist,” Abduh urged.
Regarded as one of the most progressive groups within the Middle East, Kurdish people are today seeking ways to bring democracy not only to their own, but to the entire region.
“The Kurdish loom will turn until it paves the entire Middle East with democratic textile,” said the co-chairman of the Democratic Union Party, Saleh Mohamed Maslem.