A Kurdish Girl’s Lonely Death

Text remarks delivered on February 18, 2016 at the Woman’s Club of Roland Park, Baltimore, Maryland.

We are all gathered here today, in safety and comfort.

That is good, and we owe the privilege to a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln once memorably put it.

But let me show you an alternative view.

Let me tell you about the lack of safety and security in my country.

Turkish tanks are violently rumbling through Kurdish cities.

They are heartlessly shelling Kurdish homes and businesses.

They are pitilessly burning trapped civilians in basements.

They are repeating the vile Islamic State barbarism: Roasting prisoners alive in cages.

You may say: “I haven’t heard about this.”

And you are right.

The American media, for some mysterious reason, is covering up the story.

It has yet to broadcast it as “BREAKING NEWS” on CNN, for example.

And yet, this horrifying war is so shocking that it may soon surpass the turbulent civil war in Syria, which you have heard about.

Future historians may look back for telltale signs of what sparked the war.

I can tell you two people who have done more to trigger this war than anyone.

One is Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, who originated the insane proposition that a living language, Kurdish, should die to make room for Turkish, his mother tongue.

The other is Recep Erdogan, current president of Turkey, who has brazenly boasted: If Kurds set up a Kurdistan in the wilds of Argentina, he would fight them even there!

But the Kurds don’t want to set up a Kurdistan in Argentina.

We want our Kurdistan to be where the Kurds are, where they have been for thousands of years, and that is the Middle East.

This desire to be free puts us at odds with the fanatical Turkish president, who equates Kurdish freedom with Turkish treason, and has vowed to fight us forever.

He will, unless super powers intervene, have his fight, Kurds have no intention of going down on their knees this time, but how this war is unfolding, and what you could do about it, is the topic of my address today.

Before I get any further, let me be a good guest and acknowledge my debt to Sally—your events coordinator for international affairs, for inviting me to be with you this afternoon.

Please join me in giving my kind hostess, your friend and colleague, a hearty round of applause!

“International Affairs” are hefty words, Sally, but I’ll try to make sense of them the way you do with how the inhabitants of Roland Park—home to some of you here—interact with one another.

When neighbors act with one another, they are often moral—seldom cruel—but the same can’t be said of larger populations’ interactions with one another, as Reinhold Niebuhr warned us in his book, Moral Man and Immoral Society.

Sometimes—instead of waging war on ignorance or finding cure for cancer or investing in the exploration of outer space—neighbors, led astray by psychopaths, marshal their strength to ban languages, prohibit singing, and cultivate hatred, to add misery to our tortured world.

I know—because I suffered in such a world brutally imposed upon Kurds by the Turkish state.

I am what you might call a rehabilitated child of their corrupt culture.

I am a product of Turkish Kurdistan.

When I left home in my late teens, I struggled long and hard to find my Kurdish voice, and when I finally found it, I vowed not to speak Turkish—the language of my tormentors—for as long as I live.

My war with the Turkish language lasted eight long years.

I then realized that I may be able to keep Turkish at bay, but 20 million Kurds inside Turkey were not as lucky, and if I wanted them to be as free as I am, I needed to use the Turkish language to free them from their captors.

Relations between Kurds and Turkish leaders are so badly damaged, unfortunately, that it’s hard to find a common thread to weave the fragile, sorely needed fabric of peace.

Speaking as only one Kurd, I could cite you countless tales of hateful assaults and hideous insults, but I fear some violent details would be too painful for some of the delicate souls in my audience.

The merciless brutality of the Turkish leaders, I can assure you, would fit perfectly in a Stephen King horror movie.

The Turkish ruling circles remain stubbornly wedded to the pig-headed prejudices of their fathers.

The fathers committed violent genocide against the Armenians.

The sons are waging a combination of cultural genocide with occasional mass killings to accomplish the same end with the Kurds.

The Turkish-Kurdish conflict is in dire need of peacemakers.

Perhaps there are some in this audience who feel the urgent need to do God’s work between two badly estranged peoples, fulfilling the Biblical beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Blessed are the peacemakers: For they shall be called the children of God.”

Right now, there is nothing “blessed” about the many Middle Eastern countries.

And we certainly cannot applaud dictatorial countries such as Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran home to the world’s 40 million hapless Kurds.

They are violently stomping their despotic boot on the helpless necks of their downtrodden citizens, who ask only for freedom.

And they are doing it so brutally that I wish I had Patrick Henry’s great skills, to make you see how badly the Kurds need your help.

How can our Kurdish lands be restored to their rightful owners?

They were treated as spoils of war after World War I, and heartlessly partitioned by the British and the French, the way a cooked turkey is carved up at American thanksgiving?

The French were arbitrarily given what we Kurds fondly call Rojava, or Western Kurdistan, as a part of Syria.

When Paris ended its colonial rule, the Arab majority took over our lands, and, at one time, denied some of us, even basic citizenship rights.

The British were given what we Kurds fondly call Basur, Southern Kurdistan, as part of Arab Iraq.

And when London ended its colonial rule, the Arab majority in Iraq declared Kurdistan an inseparable part of Arab lands, and Saddam Hussein didn’t think twice to gas us.

The Russians were promised what we Kurds fondly call Bakur, Northern Kurdistan, but declined their gains because their October Revolution at home kept them busy.

That didn’t help the Kurds, though.

The Turks gladly gobbled up that land, and became our lord and master again—and with renewed vengeance.

The Persians were already in possession of what we Kurds fondly call Rojhelat, Eastern Kurdistan, and that continued through successive shahs as well as theocratic despots, such as Khomeini and Khamenei to this day.

Today, the arbitrary walls that Europeans and local despots built throughout our lands have been blown away, at least partially, and honesty compels me to give credit—

But let me be careful how I say it, lest I be misunderstood.

Strange as it may seem, in our world turned upside down, credit, for this bit of good news, for the Kurds, goes to the merciless Islamic State.

Please, don’t get me wrong, we have not sent out congratulatory messages to the Khalif of Raqqa, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

For he has also sliced our heads like watermelons, mixing our blood with yours as his bloodthirsty jihadists beheaded your beloved Americans: James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig while also enslaving thousands of our Yezidi women as concubines.

In Syria and Iraq, the Kurds and the Americans have drawn a little closer, and now fight the Islamic State together.

But, unfortunately, in Turkey, we are as far apart as the earth is from the moon.

Why is that?

The Kurds are fighting and dying for the same fond hope: simply a land where they can live freely.

You are Americans, and I am a Kurd. But when it comes to love of freedom, we should all be Americans and we should all be Kurds.

Sadly, that is not so.

It is also sad, and it pains me to say so—especially to a lovely American audience—but America has often shown the Kurds more of its Benedict Arnold side than its Thomas Jefferson side.

But I won’t dwell on that betrayal here.

Instead, let me tell you what it’s like to live as a Kurd.

I can best do that by telling you about a young Kurdish girl, who was doing nothing but what innocent young 16-year-old girls do.

Her name was Rozerin Cukur.

She was a gifted high school student and hoped to attend a university to become a psychologist.

On December 2, 2015, the Turkish authorities ordered a lockdown of several neighborhoods in Sur—home to some of her closest friends at school, with a population of 120,000 souls, mostly Kurds.

Basic services such as water, electricity and phone were cut off.

The Turkish order cited the presence of barricades in Sur and vowed to destroy them.

The communiqué failed to mention, of course, that the Kurds had tried to work with the government, and had elected 80 representatives to the Turkish parliament to be their spokespersons.

They had waited for an invitation to form a coalition government of Turks and Kurds, but were excluded from deliberations, viewed as suspects, and targeted by Islamic State militants with links to shadowy Turkish groups.

This prompted the Kurdish youth to issue a communiqué of their own: Unless they were respected and accepted as Kurds with the right of self-rule included, the armed presence of Turks would not be welcomed in their midst.

Eight days later, on December 10, the lockdown was lifted temporarily.

Thinking that it had ended permanently, Rozerin donned her school uniform—to make sure that police knew she was a student—and visited a close friend in Sur, the newly freed zone.

The next day, while Rozerin was still at her friend’s house, the lockdown began again at 4:00 pm.

The word, however, never reached Rozerin on time or perhaps she didn’t want to leave her friend in danger and alone.

A month of long and lonesome days… filled with indescribable and heart-wrenching misery… sadly passed before her family heard any news of their daughter.

The shocking revelation finally came on the evening news, of January 8, 2016:

“Rozerin Cukur was shot dead, today, with a single bullet to her head by a sniper.”

That’s all.

No details.

No nothing.

Just the cryptic: Your daughter is dead!

The family was devastated.

They went to the Turkish authorities to let them recover the body of their executed daughter, only to be told that she lay on the ground in a no-go zone, and if they entered it, they could also be shot on sight.

Not knowing what to do, Rozerin’s mom has begun a vigil, trying to end this farce—this gross and flagrant miscarriage of justice.

While the anguished mother waits, she fears that stray dogs and cats may be feasting on the carcass of her beloved daughter.

Yesterday marked the 40th day since Rozerin’s death.

There is still no closure for the Cukur family, or for that matter in the larger Kurdish society.

Without a body, there cannot even be a funeral service.

The best I can do, in my own limited way, is to try and conduct my own memorial service, here with you today.

Let me try:

Dear Friends,

We are gathered at this difficult time for the Cukur family, and all Kurds.

A young life was cut short 40 days ago yesterday, and she still remains unburied.

Perhaps it is a sign from God that so long as the Kurdish Question remains unaddressed, the Rozerins of Kurdistan will not even have a grave of their own!

Apparently we don’t have a right to a decent burial, just as we don’t have a right to a decent life on this earth!

What have we done to deserve this fate?

Are we evil for wanting to take in the fresh air of freedom?

Are we not the children of God?

Should a young Kurdish girl like Rozerin be heartlessly left unburied, to the delight of stray dogs and cats?

I realize that young Rozerin may seem cold and impersonal to you, but let me tell you a little bit about what she was like when her excited blood coursed vibrantly in her throbbing veins.

Rozerin begged to start school early, and did so a year ahead of her friends.

She excelled in her studies, winning several awards for her diligence: a wristwatch, a chess set, and a used camera, since a new one was too expensive.

She was a voracious reader, devouring a book a week and becoming a proud member of her local library.

She loved stray dogs and cats and bought them food or took them home for food.

Perhaps one or two of the stray dogs or cats that Rozerin befriended, now, sit in silent vigil beside her lonely body, mourning the loss of their gentle and affectionate friend.

If young Rozerin could speak to us, I think she might cry out to us her dreadful distress, as the Psalmist did in Psalms 25:16:

“Turn to me, and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”

Perhaps we could turn for a moment, each in our own way, in our own hearts and minds, and reverently pause for a moment of silence—so that our prayers may lift the spirits of the lonely and afflicted family of young Rozerin.

Thank you.

Those words are so fitting:  “Turn to me, and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”


They are fitting because young Rozerin was truly lonely and afflicted in her death.


But let us turn back from Rozerin’s awful death to her lovely life.

In life, Rozerin loved many things.

She loved taking photos of others, of Sur—the old walled city of Amed, the place that had provided her eyes the first sights, her ears the first sounds and her heart the first and the last beat.

She had a special fascination with things Japanese, and loved their cartoons, especially the Sasuke and Sakura series.

She loved writing stories too.

In one story, the word that almost foretold her coming death was “Sakura,” a type of cherry tree that is revered in Japan.

Rozerin revered it as well.

Their flowers bloom brightly, mesmerize their fans, and drop very quickly—denoting life and death in its most magnificent and most tragic ways.

That, sad to say, sums up Rozerin’s heart-rending life.

It is a life we will not forget.

It is a death—whose ugly face, forced upon it by Turkish brutality, is one we must never forget.

We must never forget—because Rozerin’s life, heartlessly cut down in the flower of her promising youth, is the catastrophic face of far too many Kurdish people today.

It is the face of all people, all over the world, hungering to be free.

To live free—and to die free.

Not to be shot down like a mad dog, and left to rot in the streets!

Just as Americans struggled to gain their freedom from England, so do we Kurds desire our freedom from the Turks and others who hold us in bondage.

Our undying love of freedom is stronger than the merciless hatred of some Turks towards liberating our people and our country.

When that happy day of our freedom comes, we will bury Rozerin’s blessed bones under a Sakura tree in a free Kurdistan to rest in peace till the end of times.

God bless you, Rozerin.

God bless freedom—and may it grow until it covers the entire world.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.

Kani Xulam is a political activist based in Washington D.C. He runs the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN).