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German Kurds march against Afrin 'massacre'

Chase Winter
March 17, 2018

Thousands of Kurds have staged peaceful protests in Hanover against Turkey's offensive in Afrin and Germany's foreign arms sales. The rallies came as violence over Afrin has spiked inside Germany in recent weeks.

Kurds demonstrate in Hanover
Image: DW/C. Winter

More than 10,000 Kurdish protesters and their leftist supporters marched through the streets of Hanover on Saturday in a politically charged demonstration against Turkey's military offensive against the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Under the banner "Newroz means resistance — the resistance is Afrin," a reference to Tuesday's marking of the Kurdish New Year, the protest was largely peaceful. Police, who reported a "strong" presence of their own, estimated that 11,000 people showed up.

Against the backdrop of nationalist music and songs praising the military feats of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), protesters shouted "Love live the Afrin resistance," "Long live YPG/YPJ resistance" and "murderer Erdogan," referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

After marching through the streets in subzero temperatures, protesters gathered in front of Hanover's opera house for music and speeches by Kurdish politicians and activists. They were joined by allies from Germany's Left party, who are also pressing Germany's government to stop its arms trade with Turkey. In the crowd, groups circled up for traditional Kurdish dancing.

Newroz has long carried heavy political undertones around the themes of resistance and oppression. According to legend, the evil despot Zahak sacrificed Kurdish children until a blacksmith named Kawa organized a rebellion, killing the king and torching his castle.

This year Newroz falls as Kurds have warned of an impending "massacre" and "ethnic cleansing" in Afrin, where Turkey's military and allied forces within Syria have surrounded the enclave and vowed to siege the town.

"Kurds are face to face against slaughter in multiple geographies," Pervin Buldan, the co-chair of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in the Turkish parliament, told the crowd.

Reiterating multiple injustices against the Kurds — from the Turkish military's flattening of towns in southeast Anatolia to the arrest of hundreds of Kurdish politicians — Buldan then counted the military feats of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the YPG/YPJ against the "Islamic State."

"They will push back and defend Afrin" against the Turkish army, she told the crowd, who shouted "Long live leader Apo," the nickname of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and "Long live YPG/YPJ."

"Hopefully the Turks will drown in blood in Afrin," said Mahir Botan, a Turkish-Kurd who came from Hamburg. "I don't want to speak like that, but this is war. I'm a Kurd, therefore I'm PKK."

Kurds demonstrate in Hanover
Protesters were praised for their nonviolence at a time of strong emotionsImage: DW/C. Winter

'Doctors and academics'

Germany is home to 3 million people of Turkish origin, about a quarter of whom are Kurds. Officials have long voiced concern about conflicts between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists in Germany. There were repeated clashes and attacks in Germany during the height of the conflict between Kurds and Turkey in the 1980s and '90s.

In recent weeks, there have been multiple clashes between Kurdish and Turkish nationalists as tensions over Afrin spill into Germany. Several Turkish mosques, institutions, and stores have also been attacked after a Kurdish youth group vowed to use violence.

Afrin has mobilized Kurds, unleashed anger and strengthened the narrative of victimhood. But it has also presented the Kurdish movement with a dilemma if violence breaks out in Germany.

Over the years, Kurdish organizations and the PKK have evolved into efficient political operators to influence the German government, the political left and the public.

"The PKK has come much more adept at lobbying in the very professional US diaspora lobbying type of way," said Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer of German and European studies at King's College London who specializes in diaspora communities in Germany. "In the 1990s, when you met PKK activists they would have the Palestinian keffiyeh and they would be quasi-revolutionary and street guys. Today they are in sharp suits and they are lawyers and doctors and academics."

One such slick politician is Nilufer Koc, the co-chair of the Brussels-based pan-Kurdish Kurdistan National Congress, which is close to the PKK.

Condemning and denying any involvement in recent violence against Turkish institutions in Germany, Koc said she and other Kurds have been focused on lobbying the government.

"We are striving in Germany through diplomatic channels to protect Afrin, especially to stop weapons sales so Germany isn't a partner in violence against Kurds," Koc told DW in a telephone interview before the demonstrations in Hanover.

The problem for the PKK is that popular mobilization is useful to engage diaspora Kurds in politics, Clarkson said, but "the flip side is that if there is too much chaos in the streets, it undermines their very effective corporate style lobbying operation."

"They need street mobilization, but if it gets too bad it undermines their state-level work, which is also significant and why they have so much support in the German mainstream," Clarkson said.

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