Kurds seek freedom through peace

Leyla Zana is 'our own Nelson Mandela', say supporters

Darkness has already fallen over Turkey's southeastern mountains when Hakkari's favourite folk singer bursts into song.

'Leyla, Leyla, Leyla,' he wails, the amplified sounds of his four-string saz reverberating around the decrepit city hall.

The audience whoops, younger members leaping up to form a tight line of bobbing dancers, their elders clapping. Leyla is a common enough name in Turkey. But they all know who the singer is referring to: the 43-year-old Kurdish politician Leyla Zana.

'Our own Nelson Mandela,' said one. 'The Kurds' best hope,' said another.

Her friends extend far further than Diyarbakir, Turkey's most southeasterly city. Widely seen in Europe as a prisoner of conscience when she was sentenced to 15 years behind bars in 1994 for alleged links to the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, this former Turkish MP was awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of speech in 1995.

She collected it this October, four months after being released by a Turkish government desperate to squeeze an accession date to the European Union out of Brussels this month.

'Violence has outlived its time,' she told more than 700 European deputies present at the award ceremony. 'The Kurds are finally resolved to introduce a peaceful solution within Turkey's territories.'

When, two weeks later in Turkey, she announced she would be setting up a new political party, many in Europe and Turkey confidently predicted that her international stature would be enough to lead Turkey's Kurds out of their divided and oppressed recent past.

Among her natural constituency, the Kurdish inhabitants of Turkey's southeast, attitudes are more ambiguous.

'There's no doubt that Leyla Zana has the affection of a large number of people down here,' said Mahmut Vefa, a human rights lawyer based in Diyarbakir, the region's largest city. 'Most importantly, her support extends well beyond the party.'

He was referring to the Democratic People's Party, the Kurdish party that continues to dominate local elections in towns around the southeast, its left-leaning rhetoric a much moderated, gunless version of the Marxist-Leninism once proclaimed by the Kurdistan Workers' Party.

He believes she could just impose order on the chaos left by the Democratic People's Party's decline. Others are more pessimistic.

Turkey has shown a willingness to innovate in many areas of policy in preparation for EU accession. But when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, neither it nor the Turkish public shows any flexibility.

Embittered by years living through a conflict they believe has been ignored or misconstrued by the rest of the country, few Kurds think lasting peace is likely without significant political compromise.

'I can't see any middle ground on this issue,' said businessman Lezgin Kaya. 'If Zana finds it, it will be little short of a miracle.'