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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europe's Kurds: 'Every One of Us Is Angry'

BERLIN -- For a decade, Kurds have been coming to Germany seeking political asylum, and on Thursday one of them, Amin Aram, walked into the Kurdish Community Center in Berlin, took a tea from a friend and declared, "Every one of us, without exception, is angry."

A window cleaner, Aram, 31, is one of 210,000 Kurds who have come here since 1989, fleeing various forms of violence. Unlike Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader arrested by Turkish agents Monday, he is from Iraq, not Turkey. He says that he is no supporter of Ocalan's Kurdish Workers Party.

Such political divisions have long undermined the scattered Kurds in their battle for a homeland. But for the majority of the estimated 850,000 Kurds now living in Europe, Ocalan's arrest constitutes a moment when differences are swept away, however fleetingly, by a shared sense of outrage.

"The American government says Ocalan is a terrorist," Aram said. "But my family was called 'terrorists' by Saddam Hussein just because we are Kurds. Then he killed my mother, three brothers and two sisters in a chemical-weapons attack on the town of Halabja. Whatever group we are from, we cannot accept Ocalan's arrest."

Long focused on the problems arising from the fight for new nation-states in the Balkans, European governments have abruptly awakened this week to another conflict in their midst, one quietly fed over many years by a fast-growing Kurdish diaspora in Europe, which this week revealed an ability to organize, communicate and act.

Conversations with Kurds in several European countries suggest that the broad show of defiance this week reflected developments likely to weigh on the continent for some time: the growing sophistication of Ocalan's movement, which has waged a separatist war in southeastern Turkey that has left 30,000 dead; anger stronger than any internal Kurdish differences, and the helter-skelter growth of a Kurdish population in Europe that had come to represent a large pool of restive national sentiment.

Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs at St. Andrew University in Scotland, said, "The arrest of Ocalan has united the Kurdish nation."

He added: "What European governments do not see is that in many ways the Kurdish struggle reflects the early days of the Palestinian struggle: putting an issue on the international agenda through terrorism. The situation could become more and more inflamed."

Ocalan's arrest followed several months of detention and flight in Italy, Russia, Greece and elsewhere - a fugitive existence for Ocalan that, it now seems, provided a kind of slow-motion prologue to the current drama, fueling the Kurds' anger and sense of abandonment.

"I tried to warn Western governments this would happen," said Kendal Nezan, the chairman of the moderate Kurdish Institute of Paris, which opposes the guerrilla tactics of Ocalan's followers. "I said, 'Give Ocalan asylum in exchange for a formal renunciation of violence.' But the Italian government told me there was too much diplomatic pressure from America and too much economic pressure from Turkey."

The United States has defined the Kurdish Workers Party as a terrorist organization and in recent months has persistently expressed quiet support for Ocalan's arrest and his handover to Turkey, which is a critical NATO ally and an important base for U.S. air patrols over Iraq.

Nezan suggested that an effect of U.S. policy and European governments' acquiescence to it had been to drive moderate Kurds toward sympathy for Ocalan's violent movement. Kurds, he added, had become convinced that the strategic importance of Turkey to the United States was such that no Kurdish claims would ever be recognized, let alone backed, in Washington.

"Of the 850,000 Kurds in the European Union, probably 10 percent are in Ocalan's movement, and some are very militant," he said. "But a lot of people don't like his methods at all. Still, in the end they are led to feel sympathy because they are so revolted by Western policies."

More than 20 million Kurds live in an area that sprawls across southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Of these, perhaps 10 million live in Turkey, where they had been promised a homeland in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. But plans for a Kurdish homeland were dashed when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk fought to regain the land.

In Turkey, Kurds are not recognized as a minority, a status that would allow them to educate their children in their own language. A ban imposed by Turkey's last military government on the use of the Kurdish language in unofficial settings was lifted in 1991, but Kurdish remains illegal in broadcasts or in educational or political settings, and there is a campaign under way to ban Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party.

Turks and Kurds have exchanged atrocities in recent years as Turkey tries to eradicate any Kurdish drive for autonomy or independence.

Faced by the explosive complexity of recognizing any Kurdish claims, the frequent ruthlessness of Ocalan's methods and the importance of Turkey as a NATO ally, Western governments have generally preferred to look the other way, accepting Kurdish refugees as a bearable price.

Nowhere has that stream of refugees been more intense than in Germany, which has Europe's most liberal asylum laws. Indeed, with more than 2 million Turks and about 500,000 Kurds now in the country, the potential for further violence here is evident.

Ciwan Bahoz, a member of the Kurdish Association for Culture and Mutual Support, said that, like most Kurds in Germany, he rejected Ocalan's violent methods. But at the same time he felt enraged by the way Ocalan was treated.

"Although I reject force, I somehow understand what the protesters feel," he said. "Ocalan has been humiliated. Europe now has to understand that if it does not want Kurdish problems settled on its streets, it must see that its NATO partner, Turkey, complies with rules that govern any democratic country."

Faruk Sarhat, a Paris-based member of Ocalan's movement, said the party's central committee had the means to quickly contact party cells and Kurdish cultural organizations throughout the continent.

The resources of Kurdish groups in Europe are clearly considerable, including a Kurdish-language satellite television channel based in London that appears to have played an important role in spreading the word of Ocalan's arrest.

"The party is very active in the diaspora extracting money from Kurds, and the evidence of drug trafficking is also persuasive," said Ranstorp, the expert on Middle Eastern affairs. "It is a sophisticated, organized guerrilla organization."

Evidence of Ocalan's personal influence was clear this week in the attempts at self-immolation by several protesters. Like Ho Chi Minh, of whom he is a great admirer, Ocalan likes to be called "Uncle'' ("Apo" in Kurdish), and he frequently called his followers' attention to the Vietnamese use of immolation as a method of protest, Nezan said.

But at the time of his arrest, several Kurdish officials said, he appeared to have been casting around for some kind of political or diplomatic way out of the cycle of violence. Any possibility of this now appears to have been dashed, especially if Ocalan's trial in Turkey should end in a death sentence - an explosive possibility for a Europe full of disgruntled Kurds.

"I do not support the methods of the Kurdish Workers Party," said Kader Al-Yousef, a Kurdish technician in Berlin who came to Germany as a student 24 years ago from Syria. "But I cannot condemn its objective when all it does is fight for our right to a homeland."