When Turkish ground troops and jihadist mercenaries invaded the center of Afrin, Northern Syria, one year ago, the statue of the Kurdish blacksmith Kawa was among their first targets. The statue — the symbol of the Kurdish New Year, Newroz — was demonstratively shot at by the Turkish-backed jihadists and then demolished with bulldozers. According to a millennium-old legend, it was Kawa who led the resistance against King Dehak’s tyranny and freed the people from oppression. To proclaim his victory, he lit a fire on a mountain. For the Kurds lighting similar fires for Newroz today, colonialism is the modern version of Dehak’s rule, and the Kurdish resistance a continuation of the popular uprising the blacksmith led.
Last year, Newroz took place weeks into a foreign invasion, as the Turkish and jihadist occupiers of Afrin posed victoriously in front of the destroyed statue of Kawa. But this year, with the defeat of the last remnants of the so-called Islamic State, we can instead celebrate the success of the popular resistance in the region of Northern Syria commonly known as Rojava. As they light fires for Newroz 2019, at the end of almost five years of horror spread by jihadists and their sponsors, Kurds can applaud the women and men who put a stop to the darkness.
Newroz in Turkey: A Chronology of Oppression
Many people across the world celebrate the beginning of spring and the New Year on March 21. But for Kurds, this day has long been associated with resistance and a struggle for freedom and identity. The politicization of the Newroz festival in Turkey dates back to the 1970s and thus to the foundation of the Kurdish freedom movement. The more politicized the Kurdish question was, the more the state criminalized and fought everything around Newroz. Indeed, this oppression has intensified over the last four decades.
In the Turkey of the 1980s the very use of the word “Newroz,” which literally means “new day” in Kurdish, was made a criminal offence, in line with Turkey’s long-established policy of denying Kurdish identity. Just as the official narrative didn’t recognize the existence of “Kurds,” there could be no New Year called “Newroz.” All those who opposed this logic were imprisoned or killed. Under its 1980s military dictatorship Turkey was infamous for its torture prisons, which served mainly as “re-education” and Turkification centers. The history of Newroz begins in one of these torture prisons — the “No. 5 Prison” in Diyarbakır, the de facto Kurdish capital in Turkey’s southeast. Especially the first years after the 1980 military coup are renowned as the “period of barbarism.”
Only a few of those who went into the torture prisons survived, including the Kurdish politician and former mayor of Diyarbakır Gültan Kışanak — jailed again in 2016 — and Sakine Cansız, who was murdered along with two other Kurdish women activists in Paris in 2013. Others either died in torture or killed themselves in protest.
Mazlum Doğan did the latter. He was part of the student movement, which is considered the forerunner of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and was arrested in 1979. On March 21, 1982, he set fire to his cell to protest the conditions in prison; he declared in a note that the fire he lit with three matches was the Newroz fire of the Kurdish resistance.
With the military coup of 1980, martial law was imposed across the country and only gradually replaced by a state of emergency in the 1982 military constitution. The state of emergency was then lifted in 1987 in the west of the country, but at the same time a so-called “state of emergency area” was established in the provinces of the predominantly Kurdish southeast. Turkey has since then ruled the Kurdish areas in an almost unbroken state of emergency. This has turned the celebration of the Newroz festival into an act of civil disobedience, by definition.
Especially in the 1990s, when the politics of permanent curfews, mass-burnings of villages, and public executions hit a new high — also known as the “Dark Years of the Republic” — March 21 was increasingly identified as a day of rebellion, commonly referred to as Serhildan in Kurdish.
It was in 1990 that Newroz saw the first organized protests, with the death of the guerrilla fighter Kamuran Dündar in the Kurdish town of Nusaybin. His funeral coincided with March 21 and all shops and schools remained closed that day. The entire urban population of Nusaybin participated in the funeral procession, where two people died as a result of Turkish police intervention. The subsequent protests lasted another four days and were spread throughout the region. In solidarity with the protests in Nusaybin, for example, numerous smaller Newroz fires were lit on the mountain peaks around Cizre in the style of the Kawa legend.
From rallies to demonstrations or celebrations with music and dance in traditional attire, it was certain that all Newroz events would be violently broken up by the police and the military, leaving many dead. In 1991 alone, thirty-one people were killed for attending the Newroz events in Diyarbakır, Ağrı, or Istanbul.
The Cizre Bloodbath of 1992
To prevent further violence and civilian casualties, a delegation of MPs visited the then prime minister Süleyman Demirel to persuade him to allow Newroz festivities across the country. Demirel, who came to power with promises of democratization, agreed and announced that Newroz celebrations would be tolerated.
Despite this, March 21, 1992 went down in history thanks to video footage of the massacre in the Kurdish town of Cizre. Women, children, young and old had gathered in colorful traditional clothing in a public square to celebrate Newroz, only for the Turkish security forces to start shooting into the crowd without warning. That day at least fifty people died, including twelve children.
The subsequent outbreak of protests in Cizre and Şırnak led to another one hundred deaths. Among them journalists like the Sabah editor Izzet Kezer, killed by a police bullet to the head in Cizre on March 23 1992.
In light of the increasingly brutal repression of Kurdish identity and tradition, Newroz protests grew widely throughout the region and self-immolations began to become a new form of protest marking this day. Thus, on Newroz 1992 Rahşan Demirel set fire to herself in Izmir, as did Ronahî Bedriye Taş and Berîvan Bilgün Yıldırım in Germany two years later.
After the bloody events of 1992, Demirel held his famous “We acknowledge the Kurdish reality” speech and the PKK declared a ceasefire on March 21, 1993. Abdullah Öcalan, founder and ideological father of the PKK, appeared in front of the cameras in civilian clothing for the first time on Newroz 1993 and announced in a press statement that this ceasefire would become a turning point in history. Öcalan stressed that the Kurds were ready to participate in the construction of a democratic republic and that in the long term the armed movement would be willing to lay down its weapons. This was the first expression of a paradigm shift within the PKK, shared before the entire international public on Newroz.
Despite the Turkish state’s provocative efforts to break this ceasefire, including the ongoing criminalization of Newroz, as well as attempts by the state to claim it as an ethnically Turkish rooted festival, the unilateral ceasefire declaration of 1993 marked a turning point in the politicization of Newroz. It now began to be celebrated explicitly in light of the Kurds’ political demands.
With the arrest of Abdullah Öcalan and his extradition to Turkey on February 15, 1999, all Newroz celebrations were again subject to a strict ban. Barely a month later a total of 8,174 people were arrested on the Kurdish New Year, 4,000 of them in Istanbul and 2,459 in Diyarbakir.
Despite the Turkish state’s effort to ban it, the Kurdish people took part in the Newroz celebrations in ever-greater numbers over subsequent years. In 2000, for example, two hundred thousand people took part in the central Newroz celebration in Diyarbakır, and the following year the figure was half a million.
Since then, every central Newroz festivity has been celebrated under a political slogan. Slogans like “Neither denial nor secession: Democratic Republic” or “Either peace or peace: Democratic autonomy” were highlighted at the central Newroz rallies. These festivities became a leading means of expressing political demands, as more conventional political participation by Kurdish parties was rendered impossible either by their banning or the jailing of key political figures.
For this reason, the grassroots-organized Newroz rallies became a political arena in which demands could be communicated to the people and the Turkish state. For instance, the anarcho-communalist program for democratic confederalism, as a solution to the problem of democracy in Turkey and the Middle East, was presented for the first time during the Newroz celebrations in 2005.
The role of Öcalan
The lack of democracy and the political neglect of the Kurdish issue led to Newroz becoming not only a cultural tradition or celebration of identity, but moreover a manifestation of systematically marginalized groups’ political will. At the same time, these celebrations expressed the grassroots’ own unambiguous insistence that Öcalan must be a key figure in eventual peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish state. Newroz 2010 saw rallies in 108 cities with a total of four million participants, held under the slogan “Freedom for Öcalan means free identity.”
Even during subsequent peace negotiations, Newroz celebrations continued to be forbidden by the Turkish state, though this did not mean that the bans were successful. With hundreds of thousands participating every year, the police were unable to prevent people from gathering to celebrate. After the termination of peace talks by the Turkish president Erdoğan in the summer of 2015 and the resulting spike in repression against all the government’s opponents, Newroz too was subject to intensified “securitization” policies.
Those who continued to attend the central Newroz festival in Diyarbakır did so out of strong political conviction, indeed fearing for their lives. One example was the music student Kemal Kurkut, who died in the early hours of Newroz 2017. Upon entering the square in Diyarbakir where the rally was to be held, he was first stripped naked by the Turkish police, let through the security barricade, and then shot from behind with a bullet to the chest.
Arrival of Spring
This year’s Newroz is no exception to the Turkish state’s long tradition of banning celebrations on March 21. Not only have almost all municipal politicians been arrested prior to Newroz, but international delegations of politicians have also been detained upon arrival in Diyarbakır, as well as local civil society offices raided and destroyed. Indeed, resistance is at the heart of this year’s Newroz.
Organized amid an atmosphere of political harassment, this year’s rallies are especially marked by the on-going hunger strikes in Turkish prisons, sparked by elected HDP MP Leyla Güven. For more than 134 days, she has been protesting the severe isolation of Abdullah Öcalan, who is not only imprisoned on a single-man island but also has not been allowed to see his lawyers for more than a decade.
But this Kurdish New Year has also seen a flame of hope which stands out against this wider backdrop of repression. This was best illustrated by the Newroz fire that rose across the border in Deir-e-Zor, where the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have declared their soon-to-be-finalized triumph over the last remnants of the so-called Islamic State — just like the fire that was lit by Kawa to announce the end of oppression under King Dehak.
Every year Kurds and other peoples light the Newroz fire to welcome spring. They dance in their traditional clothes around the fire and jump over the flames, expressing wishes that must triumph against all odds. Be it in the prisons of Turkey or on liberated lands in Northern Syria, Newroz is when spring arrives, and resistance can be celebrated as a new form of existence.