Baltimore City Paper - April 19, 2000
by Lee Gardner
Documentary Explores a U.S. Policy's Split Personality
" Good Kurds, Bad Kurds"
Directed by Kevin McKiernan,
At the Charles Theatre, April 29, 2000 at 4 P.M.
Kevin McKiernan thought he could relax. It was 1991, and
the veteran freelance photojournalist, returning from
covering Saddam Hussein's post-Gulf War repression of Kurds in northern
Iraq, had just crossed the border into southeastern Turkey.
Back on NATO-controlled soil, he fell asleep in the back
of his taxi.
Suddenly there was a gun muzzle in my face," he recalls.
The rude awakening came courtesy of Turkish soldiers at a
roadblock. After a tense encounter, McKiernan was sent on
his way. He pushed on to the Turkish city of Diyarbakir,
where "there were cops all over the street and Kurds
up against the wall. And I said, 'What's going on here?'"
McKiernan had stumbled onto Turkey's ongoing repression
of its own Kurdish minority, which makes up about 20
of the country's population of approximately 63 million.
A half million of Iraq's Kurdish refugees had fled to
a country where, unlike in Iraq, Kurdish dress and language
and Kurds are not allowed to run their own schools or
media. While Saddam Hussein had used poison gas on a
in 1988, killing thousands, the Turkish military has
evacuated and leveled hundreds of Kurdish villages, leaving
people homeless. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has
been fighting a guerrilla war against the Turkish army
southeastern mountains, but even in cosmopolitan Istanbul
at the opposite end of the country, Kurds and supporters
of their cause live with the threat of censure, arrest,
McKiernan says he was struck by "the irony of the disproportionate
coverage [of the Kurdish struggle]. The same things were
happening to people on both sides on the border, but only
one side was getting any coverage." Back in the States,
he contacted television network news outlets that he had
sold stories to in past, such as ABC's Nightline, and tried
to interest them in the Turkish Kurds. "They took me
to lunch, patted me on the back, and told me it just wasn't
on the radar," he says. Still, he couldn't let it
Almost a decade later, McKiernan has turned his obsession
with the story into Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends
but the Mountains, a documentary he wrote, produced,
that details one of the most underreported stories of
the '90s. McKiernan spent a good deal of the decade hiking
the mountains with PKK guerrillas, collecting eyewitness
accounts of torture and helicopter attacks, and getting
the Turkish side from government spokespersons in Istanbul
Ankara, the country's capital. The film even features
an interview with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader convicted
by the Turks of treason in 1999 and currently awaiting
But "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds" also brings the story
back to America and down to the personal level through the
struggles of a family of Kurdish immigrants based in the
filmmaker's hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif. One of the
most compelling threads of McKiernan's story involves Kani
Xu lam, a member of that family who travels to Washington
to lobby Congress while he fights off U.S. government attempts
to deport him back to Turkey. (Xulam's case remains unresolved;
if he is eventually refused political asylum and deported,
McKiernan contends, "he wouldn't survive -- there'd
be no question of that at all.")
As the film makes plain, the U.S. response to pleas from
Turkish Kurds has depended largely on U.S. political
and economic interests. In the film, Bill Hartung of
D.C.-based think tank the World Policy Institute opines
that in the eyes of the Clinton administration, the Iraqi
who make Saddam Hussein seem like even more of a villain
are "good Kurds"; the Kurds who resist U.S. ally
Turkey and its policies are "bad Kurds." Iraqi
Kurds get U.S. aid; their Turkish cousins are attacked
by the U.S.-supplied Turkish army.
In a way, McKiernan says, it's not surprising that the
mainstream American media is only now beginning to pick
up on the story.
The major area of Turkish/Kurdish conflict is geographically
remote, and access is limited by the Turkish government.
And even as the world becomes more and more of a global
village, U.S. news agencies focus less and less on international
When the Berlin Wall came down [in 1990], there was something
like seven and a half minutes of foreign news" a night
on network news shows, McKiernan says. "Now you
get this scan of world capitals. In fact, NBC has eliminated
the category of foreign news [during its nightly broadcast],
saying if something is justified [for coverage] they'll
go into it in depth. And all this happened during the
Lewinsky era, when there was a tabloidization of news."
The Ocalan case has focused more world attention on the
issue, but McKiernan is not optimistic about chances
for a peaceful
resolution in the near future. The Turkish government
is sticking to a hard line, even though its Kurdish policy
endanger the country's proposed acceptance into the European
Union. If Turkey keeps rejecting moderate solutions and
keeps the pressure on its Kurdish population, McKiernan
things could get even uglier.
This has been called terrorism, but it's pretty traditional
guerrilla war -- a country war," he says. But if the
army continues to displace rural Kurds and force them into
cities, "the Kurds will become more sophisticated
as urban people, so there will be real terrorism some
the next generation or two."
Americans are not the only ones who are relatively unaware
of the plight of Turkish Kurds. After a recent screening
at a film festival, McKiernan found himself debating
a Turkish woman who insisted his film was "exaggerated." When
he asked if she had been to the area in question, she said
she had not. In addition to the war against the Kurds, the
filmmaker says, in Turkey "there is also a war on
information. It is illegal for Turkish press to show
the funeral of a
Turkish soldier, because that would confirm that there
was a war going on."
As a young correspondent McKiernan covered the 1973 Native
American standoff with federal authorities at Wounded
Knee, S.D., and he sees parallels between the Turkish
and America's Indian wars. Given firsthand accounts of
19th century atrocities against the Sioux and other tribes,
says, "people back East in the 1850s wouldn't have
believed it either, and they wouldn't have traveled there
any reason to. Yet people had a very strong opinion about
what was going on out there.
" I just don't believe that the Turkish people themselves would
go along with the atrocities that take place if they
had any personal experience. But it's way beyond their experience
and their belief. They just don't know about it."