“Either in Parliament or under arrest, I will go on with our struggle”

Feleknas Uca

Yazidi MP in Turkey

Felekas Uca.
Felekas Uca. Author: David Forniès
The first Yazidi to be elected to the Turkish Assembly, Germany-born Feleknas Uca is one of the most prominent members of mainly Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). After the July 2016 coup, the party is undergoing a massive crackdown by the Turkish state over alleged links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Even if HDP officials recall time and again that their party is legal and strives for peace and coexistence among all Turkish citizens, tens of its MPs and mayors have been detained over the last months. In a recent protest after the arrest of the co-mayors of Diyarbakir (Turkey's main Kurdish city), Uca was beaten by the police and got her arm injured. She says she nevertheless was happy because she saved another woman from being beaten instead.

Nationalia: How is your arm right now?

Feleknas Uca: It is recovering, even if I still don't have my full arm movement yet. I also have some injuries in my back. 12 of our MPs have been arrested, including both party co-chairs and our speaker. Maybe I will be arrested too when I go back to Turkey. Since the 7 June 2015 election, some 7,000 workers and members of our party have been arrested. The same goes for more than 80 mayors. In order to replace them at the head of the municipalities, the Turkish government is sending there the kayyum (government-appointed administrators). Those are unelected leaders, even if thousands of voters had elected their mayors democratically.

When you visit any town hall now in Kurdistan, you realize that Turkey is a police state. Water cannons are placed outside the buildings, which are fenced, the place is full of police officials... The town hall of Diyarbakir now resembles a police station, not anymore a municipality!

N: Municipal agencies and civil society organizations working for the rights of women have also been closed down accordingly.

F. U.: Cultural, cinema, women's associations... Everything is being closed down. Many municipal workers have also lost their jobs, their posts replaced by AKP members. The kayyum are against women's rights, thus obviously one of the first things they do is to eliminate our system of co-chairs.

N: That is, that all municipalities must be co-led by a man and a woman.

F. U.: Right. That system is very important to us. They are cancelling it. Besides, the government has closed down 370 associations, most of them Kurdish. This includes the Congress of Free Women (KJA), which has thousands of members, but also women's associations against gender violence, or even associations that provided food to 35,000 people in need. This is Erdogan's political dictatorship. He wants to put a presidential system in place in which either you accept all he wants or you face arrest.

This is a very dangerous path, as it leads Turkey into a war between Kurds and Turks. We at the HDP have always said that we want peace and democracy, we demanded our language and cultural rights, our identity. But the AKP does not allow any of that. After the 2016 military coup, in the name of security, everything is being forbidden in Turkey. You cannot even walk one street without meeting the police or being blocked by them. After the Kayseri bombing, many HDP headquarters are being destroyed just in front of the police, but officially nobody has seen anything, even if the footage is on the TV. Many Kurdish cities have also been destroyed by the Turkish forces, which has forced hundreds of thousands out of their homes and has displaced them. Erdogan is seeking to replace them by Arab refugees whom he wants to give citizenship, as he thinks they will then vote for him, thus allowing the AKP to have the most votes in Kurdistan.

N: What is the way out of this situation, according to you?

F. U.: Turkey only has one way out: to solve the Kurdish question in a peaceful manner. The Turkish government and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan met many times before 2014, and they even agreed on a 10-point roadmap for peace. But the Turkish government decided to shelve it. That decision has led us to the current situation.

N: Erdogan may be on a dangerous, authoritarian drift, but in order to implement some actions such as the torching of HDP headquarters, he builds on ultranationalist sentiments that are indeed deeply rooted within a part of the Turkish population.

F. U.: Well, what you see on the streets, those people rallying to attack the HDP, that is the stance of the MHP Turkish nationalist party. They are not attracting many people. Not all Turks are racist, or nationalist. But the MHP and the AKP are now working together to draft a new Constitution. So Erdogan seems to be acting in order to please the MHP.

N: Still, the main party in opposition is neither Turkish right-wing, nationalist MHP, nor the HDP, but kemalist CHP. How do you assess their current stance?

F. U.: The CHP normally places itself somewhere between the centre and the left. The CHP says it is in opposition to the AKP government, but still they have accepted many AKP policies. This makes it obvious that the AKP treats the CHP and the HDP in a very different way. The HDP was the first party to speak up against the coup. But the AKP government only invited the MHP and the CHP to the anti-coup demonstration. They are excluding us. In this context, the CHP has a problem: they have accepted Erdogan's policies, and they are not really acting as an opposition party. That's dangerous, because in the future one may not see real differences between the AKP, the CHP and the MHP. This would signal the imposition of a view on Turkish society according to which Turkey is a homogeneous country, not only in political terms but also in its society's makeup. Not everyone in Turkey is a Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslim: you also have Roma, Alevis, Armenians, Christians, Arabs, Assyrians and Yazidis living there. It a multicultural country.

N: You have begun this conversation by saying that your arrest when you go back to Turkey is a likely scenario. Why then go back? HDP MPs, mayors and members are already detained or imprisoned. Does the party really need yet another prominent member in jail?

F. U.: More than 6 million people voted for my party. I cannot stay in Europe in security while party members and workers of the municipality are being detained or losing their jobs.

N: But couldn't it be the case that you were more useful for your party and the Kurdish movement speaking up in the international arena, rather than serving a sentence in prison?

F. U.: We have contacts with political parties in many countries. Whenever an HDP member is detained, they speak up. Off course it is important for me to be here in Europe, and help put pressure on the Turkish government. But my message for my people must be: "I am here with you, in Kurdistan". Either in Parliament or under arrest, I will go on with our struggle.

N: You have been one of the youngest members of the European Parliament, after taking office at 23. Does this relate to an early political experience at home?

F. U.: Kurds have always faced massacres, discrimination, mass arrests... When I went to school I already was interested in politics, I read or listened to the news, and enjoyed discussing about German politics with my teacher. In 1991 I started my work in the Kurdish Cultural Centre, in my hometown Celle. Two years later I started working with the Yazidi community, in issues related to music, folklore, children... I was its youngest member. This lasted till 1998. One year later I was elected a MEP, and I kept the job until 2009. In 2014 I left Germany for Diyarbakir.

N: You were elected to the European Parliament as a PDS (currently Die Linke) member. Why did you choose that party?

F. U.: It was because of the Kosovo war. I was against war and violence. I then read all the party manifestos and I realized that my ideas best fitted in the PDS.

N: You said that you became engaged with Germany's Yazidi community since you were very young. Most of Turkey's Yazidis (80.000 people at least) found themselves compelled to leave the country over the 1980s and 1990s, many of them heading for Germany, France, Belgium and other Western countries. Out of the original Yazidi population in Turkey, by some accounts just a mere 1,000 are now left there. What can the community do in order to avoid dilution in diaspora?

F. U.: It depends on whether the Yazidis are together or not. The Yazidis have always faced massacres. Our accounts list 74 of them throughout history. The last one occurred in August 2014 in Sinjar at the hands of Daesh. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee, and 33,000 of them ended up in refugee camps in Turkey that are being managed by our municipalities. The Turkish government does not even recognize them as refugees, so it does nothing for them. We know that, if the Yazidis do not hold together, it is easier that they be assimilated. But in Europe, the different communities are in dialogue and in contact, they are together.

This is why it is very important for us that Sinjar be completely rebuilt after it is fully freed from Daesh. Europe must help in that, to allow the Yazidi refugees to be able to settle in Sinjar again. Maybe in that way they will be able to reconstitute themselves as a community.

N: But you know that many of them are too scared for that. Under no circumstances will they agree to go back to a place where they feel extremely vulnerable. Many of them blame the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government of abandoning them to their own fate as ISIS fighters approached the area in August 2014.

F. U.: What we say is that everybody must be allowed to decide by himself or herself. If one Yazidi wants to go back to Sinjar, he or she must be given the choice. The same goes if he or she wants to leave for Europe.