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Verslag Mesopotaams Sociaal Forum

Van 25-30 september vond in Diyarbarkir, Kurdistan, ook wel Amed genaamd, het eerste Mesopotaams Sociaal Forum plaats. Een uitgebreid engelstalig verslag daarvan volgt nu hieronder.

An impression of The First Mesopotamian Social Forum Global social issues, Kurdish questions and the Turkish State in a nutshell

“Welcome to Kurdistan”, the light bearded and broad shouldered man stood up, shook my hand firm and friendly while giving me greeting kisses on both cheeks this while grinning the whole time.
I had arrived in the city of Diyarbakir, 36 hours by train east of Istanbul. Motive, visiting the first Mesopotamian Social Forum, a three day forum and 5 day action camp on different social and environmental topics. Alter-motive, visiting the region and people creating such a fuss in the political discussions about Turkey as member of the EU.

22 min leestijd

Istanbul and the road to the MSF
Waiting in Istanbul on the night connection to Diyarbakir I was med by a show of traditional music performances and old Turkish costumes from the time of Empire with big trumpets and drums, hyming and playing. A great feast. Suddenly I was struck by the banner of the performers, three crescents in a triangle against a red background. My face grew pale. The flag was that of the Grey Wolves, a organization placed among nationalist and extreme-right organizations. Linked to attacks on minorities in Turkey and on Kurds in Europe with sometimes fatal consequences and it is even said that the assassination of Pope Paul the second in 1981 was done by a Grey Wolve. And here in Istanbul on a beautifull day they were having a public musical performance in front of one of Istanbul’s main trainstations, with a crowd of a couple of hundreds and supported by private bodyguards and security personal, with big guests standing around and giving back pads. The music went on and I went of away beyond the sound of this tribute to national amnesia.

The next 36 hours on the train were interesting. In general Turks don’t speak English so I had hardly any contact. And well not untill the conductor appeared did people know I was going to Diyarbakir, sometimes being not to obvious is the best option. And latter on I discovered it had not been a bad guess. Asking me why I was going there I explained to two Turkish students that I knew it was an old place, you know like history. Then the guys said I had to be carefull because there were some bad people living in that city and they explained that they believed it was one of the centers of the Kurdish problem and actions. Interesting detail the guys had reservations for my seat but the conductors attention for my international ticket outweight their formal rights to my seat and were ordered to find themselves a new place. Well after talking about general stuff and the guys getting of. Some 24 hours remained. Stairing out on the plains of central Turkey with its many hills with farmers putting the land ablaze, to burn of agricultural waist somebody explained latter, I was struck by the barren and broken grounds where only grass and small trees seemed to grow. Somewhere half way a ditch a one pipe structure appeared which followed the track for some hours, a attempt to a regional irregation project. With some six hours left we passed a lake, finally some natural beauty. Slowly reaching my destiny I was looking out for some markers that this region was different. And well except barbed wire around some industrial complexes and some furious looks from passengers at a cabin where kids probably were singing Kurdish songs, nothing. Well untill we struck the outskirts of Diyarbakir (Amed). Suddenly the train was struck by stones thrown by kids, on the right I then saw some broken down buildings with plastic and some litter and people and kids sitting around. On the left flat blocks closed of from surrounding areas by fences and barbed wire on top, and signs with helmeted guys and stop. Based on the amount of apartements and some laundry I guesed it were the flats of the Turkish army personal and their families in specially constructed safe zones. One of the new passengers suddenly gave the guy across me a look and suddenly pointed at me, he knew I wasn’t here for the scenario. So I ignored him acting as the tourist, we roled into the station. And there I stepped 36 hours later into the station of Amed, Kurdistan.


A small kid guided me to the Mesopotomian Social Forum. Organized in a high school like structure called the Summer Camp I arrived at the enrollment desk and found myself among a interesting mix of Europeans, Turks, Kurds and some people from the wider region. And after some initial problems for location and luggage, seeing that there was a divide between the action tent camp and the MSF, which mend some people wanted to send me to a hotel I couldn’t afford, it was organized and I finally had my first short chats with a German, Belgium and some Italian. And then having a quick look at the program already found myself running of to my first program, ‘Diyarbakir-Mexico Ecological Life-Experiences in the Alternative Energy Field-Self Suffiency’. A discussion on grass roots approaches to models for sustainability and education of the local public on environmental issues. Practically it was a collaboration presentation by people from Kurdistan and Oaxaca, Mexico. With discussions going from the practical, like local environmental problems and how teaching centers were set up to the more fundamental about organizing technique based on sustainable and local notions. Reclaiming our knowledge models for creating technology and also developing our own education structures for teaching the public basic principles of for instance physics. So going back to the drawing board and creating basic knowledge about technique linked to local culture and then creating techniques based on low level technology and sustainability. The organization of the MSF had luckily created the ability of synchronized translation so I was able to also follow the Kurdish speeches which explained how local teaching houses were giving some rudimentary classes on the topics to people and were supported by the official local councils.

My next choice ´Cultural Transformations in the Middle East and its Initiations Assembly’ was a big room filled with about 100 people of which some were local celebrities based on their suits and the load of shoulder tabbing. What followed was a short story about the death of a important Armenian cultural figure addressed by his widow and supported by the whole panel of the at least six speakers. After this there were scholarly presentations on the Kurdish history, including the importance of the songs and sayings collected in 1902 by a German researcher as source of information and the importance of researching the history of the Kurdish new year celebration (the Dengbesh) as core of the Kurdish identity. A scholarly presentation with some information followed by examples of human rights violations against the different groups of Kurds and discussions on identity with mention about the links with the Armenian rights struggle as direct reality. Ending the workshop with a announcement to start a new dialogue on sense and issues of cultural identity within the Mesopotamian region. Ending the first day of workshops one could make use of the public meals offered by the MSF, discuss with new friends or buy some Kurdish or Turkish materials and food or drinks on offer. Having made some new friends and some great discussions I joined the other activists for a night of shut eye in the Taekwando dojo.

The next morning on the 28th I had hoped to join the general discussion circle, by some already known as the morning circle. That where one goes if one has specific comments or complaints about the camp or conference and wants to discuss with whomever had the same idea. Well being exhausted from the long trip I remained crashed till the next workshop of interest at ten o’clock, ‘Alternative Municipality and Local Government Experiences’. Here again many suits but also some interesting ideas about organization of community with a special guest talking about organization forms among the Zapatista movement in Mexico. The redline in the presentations being on how to obtain social justice and equal representation for men and woman. One of the female members explained how she discovered that in Kurdistan the public projects being done didn’t attract many woman, so she claimed a equal part of the public budget and established public spaces in the form of parks and study locations for woman.

msf2There was a strong interest among those participating to find new inclusive ways to organize communities on a local level, with even a union of municipalities being set up for the exchange of ideas. A idea which the Turkish state obviously didn’t like seeing that its secretary and many of its members were still in arrest at the time of the conference. The challenge of the local municipalities on the one hand being a challenge to support and research activities to support the Kurdish identity of their inhabitants and doing general council work, while at the same time being challenged by Turkish state institutes to adhere. In effect the local attempts in representation being summed up in one of the statements: “ The goal is to obtain a local government where one person is equally represented by a other person”. One might say perfectly illustrated by the examples of the Zapatista movement where, representatives from villages to regional councils don’t have no means to vote or initiate something unless supported by the local people who they represent so in effect only having representative power. This process being furthermore supported by the fact that representatives can only hold a position for between 7 and 30 days. Which not only means there is less chance of power abuse, but also that people can still work their land and be a lot at home. All in all a interesting presentation on how to organize based on equality and grass roots structures. On the other side of the school, 1.5 hours later I found myself in a heated presentation on the ideological and structural flaws of the Turkish education model named, ‘ Struggle Against Bourgeois Education’, with the lectures covering exact this. A well filled room with about forty mainly young Turkish and Kurdish students and hardly any Westerners made it extra interesting. Panel members varied from the more socialist organizations to the National Turkish Student Union and Kurdish student representatives. One of the most important questions being who has access to education and what does it mean for the individual, society and state. Barriers to education and means of exclusion leads to a reproduction of the class relations whereby the ability to not pay for extra private classes for your child leads to a disadvantage of that child in regards to the national OSS test by which any child is marked as being of this or that level. The other barrier being tuition fees whereby those of wealthy backgrounds can pay for better schools. Also the fact that education is based on grading leads to a society in which human value is connected to symbols of function like money or grades. If you get good grades the parents of a child might reward that child and feel good because they see their child as being of a higher standing with the change of a successful future. In effect grades and money in such allocate you your position of value as human within society. Education and the state cirruculum must furthermore be seen as a state tool by which identity and a specific framework of thought is established and part of the own identity and capacity of independent thought is eroded. The direct example of the state’s interest and impact on student life was given by the fact that police sometimes visits classes and campus grounds. Whereby specifically targeting Kurdish rights activities as shown with the arrest and current detention of roughly twenty-five Kurdish students for publicly remembering the Halabja massacre. And also the inability of Kurdish students to follow classes in their mother tongue. All in all a very impressive meeting especially the amount of active and interested local young students for somewhat theoretical questions.

The session on ‘ Civil Disobedience Experiences + Militarism and Civil Space’ was possibly one of the best visited of all, with people standing and sitting on the floor besides the chairs, with the option of forty participants sixty were cramming themselves in. One of the reasons possibly being the upcoming IMF meeting in Istanbul from the 1st till 8th of Oktober, therefore discussions on theory and practice being of high interest. Discussions on the realities of war and conflict were presented such as the use of rape in war as means of tactic. Whereby examples were given where also the Turkish state had used it against Kurdish woman. In broader perspective the question was asked how the social movements could strengthen and deepen their development which saw a new strong impulse born at the Battle of Seattle in 1999. Two issues were raised namely the direct social tools, such as demonstrations at IMF, G8 and NATO meetings and the Social Forums on global, regional and national level. And the next being the theoretical such as developing integrative models and deepening the information flow among segments of the anti-globalisation movement. And also being aware of books which might be helpful such as The Shock Doctrine and No Logo from Naomi Klein. All in all a topic for local and across the board discussion. With the end of this session, day two of the MSF was coming to a close. At the dinner table I found myself in a deep conversation about the history of the Kurdish people and the written sources of 400 BC relating to the Persian war history and king Cyros, mentioning a specific group of people which are seen as aligned to current day Kurds. Later on I found myself in conversation about the rise of extreme right groups in Italy and Rome and what it means for activists and social centres namely that they are directly under attack. And how the amount of far right figures on the streets is reaching the point of daily routine. And how until now the infighting on the left and the electoral system kept the same parties in power, even though that a big part of Italy votes for the communists even Prodi couldn’t overcome this and in effect Berlusconi controls public opinion due to privately owning approximately one half of the channels and as government controlled the other publicly owned part. My next encounter led to a discussion on the Middle-East and the Palestinian state and the political wrangling by the Jordanian state and the Palestinian infighting. And how Hezbollah was making money for its activities by trading on the stock exchange, being involved in the diamante trade and selling hashies. And how all civil activism was de facto prohibited in Jordan. Hezbollah according to some was also active in Kurdistan supported by the Turkish state to fight the PKK as I heard with even being advised to stay away from one shop in town seeing that all purchases would support Hezbollah. Well night two at the MSF.

The third day started of with one of the most direct impressions of the human rights abuses against the Kurdish people by elements of the Turkish state, ‘ Prisons and Aggravative Isolation Treatment’, covered past to present of the methods used. With own speaker talking about his own experiences of 20 years in jail. During which mental and physical techniques were used like forcing him to eat his own vomit. Solitary confinement led to sensory damage and eye problems. Combined with mental torture where sometimes people were put behind the bars in front of you and were withheld water and food, so you could see them but could do nothing for them. Another strong example were the fake executions were you were taken out with the impression that you were going to be killed. For other prisoners such as children, sometimes arrested for only throwing stones, prison will also mean torture with cases reported were special guards are deployed to attack children. As a consequence children might start hurting themselves due to the experiences. Woman might face sexual abuse and rape. Prisoners who attempted a hunger strike were even murdered. In short one of the panel members summed it up that he believed that no were in the world had so many horrendous activities been perpetrated as in Diyarbakir by the Turkish state. The reaction on the question what one former prisoner thought of Erdogan’s peace proposal to solve the ‘ Kurdish Question’, clearly illustrated the position of many Kurds: “ There are still Kurds dying in the mountains, Kurds are still being tortured. I will never trust Erdogan unless I see change with my own eyes”. The most impressive of all sessions of the MSF had just finished with even representation of a member connected to the legal team surrounding Ocalan, the currently imprisoned founder of the Kurdish independence army, the PKK.

In the next meeting ‘Alternative Medicine’ the discussion focussed on how to reclaim the knowledge and means by which we can heal ourselves. Discussions focussed on the capacities of the human mind but also herbal remedies and therepeutic methods such as massage techniques and yoga. With questions moving from useability, side effects of herbal traditions, regulations and trustwurthiness to the histories and traditions of Kurdistan and Western Europe in the field of traditional healing and threats to traditional knowledge and herbs by patents of pharmacutical companies. With a mix of Kurdish and European participants we were able to start to discuss how to hold on and rediscover one of the most important parts of our heritage and that which contributes as another step to formulating our own means and aspects of identity. For the people in Amed living with constant stress from the sounds of military hardware and fear for loved one’s and their own safety combined with the desire to have own means of healthcare the practical options of creating one’s own health care and healing would be a rewarding one.

The final MSF rounds of workshop had ended and we all flocked to the great hall to hear conclussion and impression statements by all participating groups. We all agreed it was a great experience and new friendships and networks had found their birth. It was hard to believe but all cultures of Europe and the Middle-East seemed to have come together in exchange and solidarity, a short speech by a Russian activist showed how differce and united the call for respect and solidarity sounds. The next European Social Forum in Istanbul in 2010 and the announcement of an exhange camp among Kurdish and Bask youth shows the tradition which the MSF passes on. All had participated to make this a great experience for whomever was willing to claim the closing statement as a call to action for us all gathering and acting in hope indeed: “Another world is possible, another world is a necessity”. Outside performances of traditional Kurdish and South-American music followed. While chatting about the workshops and future plans the Kurdish youth suddenly showed us the power of resilience with a sudden burst of dancing and marching with the Kurdish flag and songs and signs of resistance and victory. Young people appeared and danced in a circle to the beat of a big traditional drum while the older woman chanted with their famous clicking of tongues. So on the one side a burst of proud traditional resistance while at the same time a big stage with a huge crowd listening to South-American music. With the beat of international and traditional the last night of the MSF came to pass, and what a night it was.

Slowly but shorely all woke up and made their plans for travelling home or discovering the region. Untill now I had not even seen the city so I ventured out. People seemed suprised to find a foreigner within their walls but all received me with pleasant smiles. Internet cafe’s to pick from, just as the restaurants, food stores and clothing stores. All in all it had a more Western feel to it than one might expect but then again this might be due to the links with the many Kurds living abroad or returning from sanctuary in the West. My amazement was complete when the bakkery’s assistent ran after me to give me one lira, seemingly I had overpaid. Except the one encounter with a intelligence officer who jumped to my ideology in three questions and then disappeared it was a place with people of great hospitality and a critical mind as I discovered at night. Ending up at a night shop with some new friends we found ourselves in a deep conversation with the owner. His views on politics were clear, politicians lie or are powerless. And then the big question, which I had been asked three times before which culture I liked more the Kurdish or Turkish followed by what the people in Netherland thought about Turks and what the EU thought of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Asking my new friends similar questions we found ourselves making new friends on the streets of Amed. Somehow we had forgotten the realities of Kurdish existence within the borders of Turkey untill a stranger crossed the street and started a heated debate with our Kurdish friends. We were fraternizing and making fun in the street while people all over Kurdistan were suffering. We stayed some longer and found our way back to the Sumer Park.

Istanbul and the civil movement

The morning came and I was guided to the busstation to return to Istanbul. Finally when all luggage had been loaded I gave my guide the victory sign and untill we meet again and found myself sitting besides an English speaking Turk living in Amed amongst the estimated 3% Turks. Passing two military compunds with check points, as my neighbour explained to find military draft evaders and possible illegal substances. We passed the night and being informed about the obligation for Turks to join the military and the history of the Turkish state with some movies with traditional Turkish stories and slapstick I woke up in Ankara to see a military complex stretching for kilometers and then moving out of Ankara a huge election billboard with the three crescent sign of the Grey Wolve movement. Arriving in Istanbul approximately 24 hours later. The night was reserved for meeting up with some new friends and finally arriving at the central square of Istanbul, Taksim, I already found myself at the first demonstration for a arrested socialist with a important goal: “We want her back alive”. Turkish socialists and left thinkers have an all but simple live in Turkey as I already had gathered from the MSF. But the fact that politics as topic of discussion were of limit in public transport was somewhat startling. But the fact that at all rallies there was at least one military police member with a machine gun clarified and illustrated the state of affairs. Where even a meeting of labour union members was greeted by a row of riot police with battons and shields and of course a machine gun. So one must call it irrony when a senior member of the international labour organization at the meeting called for all to not throw shoes at the members of the Worldbank and IMF delegations in Turkey. I don’t know what he ment or why but that seemed to happen more often in Turkey. As with the first anti-Worldbank and IMF demonstration I witnessed where a senior cop ran towards the junior riot cops to hold them back, one can only speculate that it might be due to guarenteeing further investment. Well the current ranks of the riot police would possibly not agree, according to some these are being selected on nationalist and islamist ideological credentials. Since the 1980 military coup many things might have changed but much seems to have remained where military and politics are connected and dissent attacked. Sometimes openly and sometimes covertly, supported by elements within the state as with the circumstances of the murder of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink murdered 19 January 2007, who wrote much about the Armenian genocide. But then again it are martyrs which are the ultimate symbol that one is challenging somebody’s status quo. As with the Kurds who see their friends dying in the mountains by military raids or by clashes between the Turkish military and the Kurdish PKK so to do socialists and left intelectuals find themselves under attack with friends fallen for their ideals.

With the Blue Mosque in the background and the riot police before you and on the back of your mind those Kurdish youth marching the image seemes complete. However not untill my return to Netherland did my recent experiences illustrate and express themselves as part of the daily routine for many living within the Turkish border. A friend mailed me that they had visited recently destroyed Kurdish villages and had seen the photo’s of victims, which had been startling in their horror. Flicking on the news about the IMF and Worldbank the specialist on the news then explained how Turkey was the biggest recipient of private funds and furthermore received a loan of 2.4 billion dollars. Some weeks later BBC international reported on the Kurdish recognition bill, recognizing the existence of the approximately 16 million Kurds and giving them more cultural rights, which the former prisoner at the MSF had commented on, and how the parliamant had been in uproar with nationalists waving photo’s of Mustafa Kemal the former military who strongly shaped modern Turkey. And which is revered as a half-god being portrayed in all major buildings and on all Turkish money. According to some commentators the fact that the bill was brought into parliament on the day remembering his death, 10th of November, could have triggered the uproar linked to the strict belief in a unitary and homogenous population based on Turkishness. The overall picture seems to find its conclussion and challenge for factuality by the announcement that the Turkish student union GENÇ-SEN (founded in 2007) will be challenged by the Turkish state on the 17th of November, based on the claim that students would not be allowed to form a union seeing that it would not be the appropriate legal form and therefore in Turkey illegal. Let me end with the statement of the MSF: “Another worls is possible, another world is a necessity”(12 november 2009).

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