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Nameless Kurds of Turkey

The government's fears of a separatist rebellion start with the young. Even baby names in the ethnic group's native tongue are taboo.

January 30, 2003|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

ERGANI, Turkey -- Berdan Acun remembers the icy tone of the birth registrar's question a year ago. "Hejar Pola? What kind of name is that?"

"It's Kurdish," said Acun, cradling his newborn. Hejar means "innocent," he explained proudly, and Pola means "steel." "My son, like me, shall have a Kurdish name."

"We cannot register such a name," said the clerk, a Turkish woman Acun had known for years. "We have new instructions."

Acun was stunned. The war was supposed to be over.

"Let me see the instructions," he said, struggling to control his anger.

"I cannot. They're confidential."

Four years after crushing a Kurdish separatist guerrilla movement, Turkey has found no peace with its largest and unruliest ethnic minority.

The 15-year war that cost more than 30,000 lives in the nation's southeast has moved into courtrooms and civil registry offices. Refusing to assimilate, the Kurds who dominate the region in numbers insist on the right to hear broadcasts and study in their own language and to give their children such names as Arjin, Baran, Berfin, Berivan and Mizgin, which mean "spark of life," "rain," "white as snow," "milkmaid" and "good news."

Turkey's rulers resist these demands as subversive. Over the past year, they have voiced growing alarm that separatist violence could erupt anew if war in Iraq leads to formal autonomy for an Iraqi Kurdish homeland across the border. That scenario is one reason this nation, though part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is reluctant to back a U.S. assault on Iraq.

As the Pentagon takes aim at Baghdad, Turkey's security forces are zeroing in on babies. Kurdish names -- long common in Turkey, though most Kurdish families do not use them -- suddenly became taboo here in December 2001. The defeated but still-armed Kurdistan Workers Party called that month for wider use of the Kurdish language as an assertion of ethnic pride, prompting a government warning that any Kurdish name given to a child would be interpreted as terrorist propaganda.

Military police have swept through Kurdish towns and villages, checking birth certificates of infants and toddlers. Citing a constitutional clause that children must be named "in a manner appropriate to our national culture, moral principles and customs," the Interior Ministry has quietly instructed prosecutors to annul hundreds of children's Kurdish names and replace them with Turkish equivalents.

At least 39 families resisting the orders have been taken to court, according to the bar association in Diyarbakir, the region's largest city. Some of them have been threatened with prosecution for "separatist propaganda," which carries a three-year prison term. Others, including Acun, have sued the Turkish state for rejecting names they chose for their offspring.

No official has stepped forward to explain or justify the name ban, and the Turkish deputy governor of Diyarbakir province this month denied any knowledge of it. Yet Kurdish lawyers and human rights advocates say they've seen the Interior Ministry instructions for the ban, which remains in force.

"The Turkish political system is in denial about cultural diversity, out of a fear that the country could be partitioned," said Dogu Ergil, a political sociologist at Ankara University. "This objection to Kurdish names is a declaration of ineptitude, a lack of confidence that we Turks can manage our population in a democratic way."

Turkey's 12 million Kurds, who, like most of the nation's citizens, are Muslim, make up nearly one-fifth of the population. They are free to speak their distinctive language only in private conversation. The constitution drafted at the creation of modern Turkey in 1923 recognizes only non-Muslims as minorities, reflecting founding father Kemal Ataturk's ideal of uniting all Muslims under a single Turkish culture.

The Kurds have rebelled periodically against this ideology. In 1991, at the height of the most recent separatist war, an elected Kurdish member of parliament named Leyla Zana took her public oath in Turkish, as required, but afterward announced in Kurdish: "I have completed this formality under duress." She was later banished from office and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Since the 1999 capture of Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan, the bulk of his estimated 4,000 armed followers have retreated to northern Iraq and kept a cease-fire.

Kurdish politicians demand amnesty for the fighters and the thousands of Kurds who, like Zana, were imprisoned for nonviolent disobedience. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Kurds driven from their villages during the war are seeking to reclaim property seized by Turkish-controlled militias.

But it is the Kurds' postwar demands for linguistic rights that most troubles the government, because they are backed by the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join.

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