The Kurds of Lebanon
By Joseph Hitti and Abdul Karim Meho
Jamil Meho In Kurdistan Iraq 1971
PART I of II: Shelter and Conflict in the Land of the Cedars
The attention given to the plight of the Kurdish people under Saddam Hussein in Iraq has eclipsed the fact that the Kurdish people are scattered and suffer elsewhere in the Middle East. The following two-part series tells the story of the Kurdish community of Lebanon. Part I relates the escape from Ottoman and Turkish brutality early in the 20th century and the shelter found in the pluralistic environment of Lebanon. However, the Kurds of Lebanon found themselves later in the throes of the Lebanese-Palestinian war of 1975. Part II will focus on the Syrian regime?s invasion and occupation of Lebanon and their impact on the Kurdish community. Like many other communities in Lebanon, the Lebanese Kurds today are again in a state of exile, both physical and existential. As the wounds of the past slowly heal, and with the impending fall of dictatorial regimes in the region, the Lebanese Kurds of the KDP work hard to fulfill the dream of returning Lebanon to its promise as a land of liberty, tolerance, diversity, and shared-living.
In the aftermath of World War I, which saw the disintegration of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk laid the foundations for a young Turkish Republic from the remnants of the empire. In his drive to homogenize the disparate constituents of that empire, he used an iron-fist approach that included massacres and crimes against the various non-Turkish ethnic groups, among whom the Kurdish people were in the lead.
The racist and criminal methods used against the Kurds resulted in the genocide of no less than 1 million Kurds who died from forced starvation and outright massacres and killings carried out by the Turkish army. The Ataturk policy that underpinned this building of a new Turkish republic was one of hatred and hostility to such notions as plurality and diversity. Anyone living on Turkish soil is by definition a Turk. Anyone having a specific and distinct identity alongside that identity was considered an enemy and was therefore destined to death, ethnic cleansing, or forced displacement.
Lebanon was the only country in the area where diversity, plurality, and a constitutionally-protected power-sharing formula were a way of life and were instilled in every facet of public life of the independent Lebanon that emerged in 1918 at the end of WWI. Between 1860 and the onset of WWI in 1914, Lebanon had been a self-ruling semi-independent autonomous province outside the control of Istanbul. Lebanon had managed to extract a special status with the help of the Great Powers (then Russia, England, Prussia, France and Austria) to shield the independent-minded Lebanese from Ottoman brutality. However, in 1914 when WWI broke out, the Ottomans broke the agreement and re-occupied Lebanon. In a spirit of revenge against the free and independent Lebanese, the Ottoman army requisitioned all the food to starve the people, and practiced a scorched earth policy. It is estimated that close to a third of the Lebanese population died of starvation between 1914-1918. Waves of sovereignist Lebanese leaders, Moslems and Christians alike, were sent by the Turkish military governor at the time, Jamal Pasha ?the Bucther?, to hang at the gallows in downtown Beirut. A statue commemorating them still stands today on the huge square, aptly called the ?Plaza of the Martyrs?.
And so it was natural for many of the persecuted minorities in the region to seek shelter in Lebanon. Among many of the Kurds who at the time chose exile to certain death or loss of identity under Kemalist Turkey, Jamil Meho?s mother took her three children (Jamil was 3 years old) and sought refuge in Lebanon. Settling in Beirut, this destitute Kurdish family was welcomed by both Moslem and Christian Lebanese who offered assistance whenever they could, having themselves likewise suffered from Ottoman repression and brutality.
On reaching the age of 10 in 1944, Jamil Meho was training in painting and internal design under Paul Dahdah who was then famous in his field. Jamil continued his apprenticeship until he became himself one of its great masters. At 22, Jamil took a job in Kuwait, which was then still a British protectorate. He worked there for many years supporting himself and his family until 1960 when the revolution led by Mustafa Barazani in Iraqi Kurdistan against the Iraqi regime of Abdel Karim Qasem awakened in him his sense of national identity. Jamil Meho returned to Lebanon with the idea of founding a Kurdish organization there to lobby for the rights of the Kurdish community in Lebanon. The community had become victim of the racist and chauvinistic ideologies that followed the emergence of radical Arab nationalism in the Arab world.
On July 1, 1960, Jamil Meho and a number of Kurdish activists established a clandestine party in Lebanon, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Lebanon. Slowly emerging from secrecy, this group of activists began lobbying publicly and clandestinely for the rights of Lebanese Kurds who were at the time suffering from poverty, deprivation, and ignorance. The Lebanese authorities at the time did not pay attention to the plight of the Kurdish refugees, and in fact tried to suppress them leading to the imprisonment of the KDP activists. Jamil Meho was arrested and jailed several times, and was subjected to all manner of beatings and torture at the same time that the influence of President Nasser of Egypt was spreading across the Arab world.
In 1970, then Interior Minister Kamal Jumblatt sent a message to Jamil Meho asking him to submit a license application to legalize the Kurdish Democratic Party in Lebanon. The Ministry issued its decision (Decree No. 868, dated 24 September 1970) announcing its licensing of the KDP and authorizing it to freely operate on the Lebanese political scene.
That same year, Mullah Mustafa Barazani, leader of the Kurdish people, invited Jamil Meho to Iraq to attend the 8th Conference for the Kurdistan Democratic Party. While In Iraq, Jamil Meho was detained and placed under house arrest, then imprisoned in the Khallan Jail on the Iran-Iraq border, because of disagreements with the politburo of the Kurdistan Democratic Party who wanted to control the Lebanese KDP, something Mr. Meho rejected because it violated Lebanese law. After years of torture and harassment, Mr. Meho was released in 1975 in the aftermath of the collapse of the Kurdish revolution, and he returned to Lebanon via Iran with the assistance of the Lebanese Embassy in Tehran.
The April 1975 events of Ain-Remmaneh in Beirut between the Lebanese militias and the Palestinian Liberation Organization were the official trigger of the bloody war from which Lebanon has yet to recover. While tensions rose between the Christian and Moslem communities in the country, it was the direct intervention of the Syrians, Palestinians, and Israelis, and the indirect backing of other Arab states (Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc.) and of Cold War antagonists the US and the Soviet Union, that convulsed Lebanon into the war. The reasons that led the Lebanese KDP to take sides in the war are too painful to discuss here in any detail, and only history will be the judge once Lebanon is free from occupation and the Lebanese people begin the necessary soul-searching to re-examine that terrible period of their history.
The Kurds of Lebanon
PART II of II: Occupation and Liberation in the Land of the Cedars
The attention given to the plight of the Kurdish people of Iraq under Saddam Hussein has eclipsed the fact that the Kurdish people are scattered and suffer elsewhere in the Middle East. This two-part series tells the story of the Kurdish community of Lebanon. Part I related the escape from Ottoman and Turkish brutality early in the 20th century and the shelter found in the pluralistic environment of Lebanon. However, the Kurds of Lebanon found themselves later in the throes of the Lebanese-Palestinian war of 1975. Part II now focuses on the Syrian regime?s invasion and occupation of Lebanon and their impact on the Kurdish community as represented by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Lebanon. Like other communities in Lebanon, the Lebanese Kurds today are in a state of exile, both physical and existential. As the wounds of the past slowly heal, and with the impending fall of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East, the Lebanese Kurds of the KDP work hard to fulfill the dream of returning Lebanon to its promise as a land of liberty, tolerance, diversity, and shared-living.
In 1976, the Arab League endorsed the Syrian invasion of Lebanon under the guise of an Arab Deterrence Force supposedly sent in to halt the war between the Palestinian organizations and their Syrian and Lebanese proxies on one hand, and the Lebanese army and allied grassroots organizations on the other. The bulk of the Arab Deterrence Force was made up of the invading Syrian troops to which tiny contingents from the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Oman, and others were cosmetically added. Lebanese leader Kamal Jumblatt opposed the official ?entry? of the Syrians in the country for he knew that this would have disastrous consequences on Lebanon?s sovereignty, independence, and free decision-making. In a famous call to the invading Syrian forces, Jumblatt said ?You are invaders. You are a party to the conflict and cannot be neutral?. In the end, Jumblatt paid dearly for his opposition to Syria when he was later assassinated on March 16, 1977 in a roadside bomb planted 200 yards past a Syrian checkpoint that his car had just cleared. The KDP had strong ties to Mr. Jumblatt and supported his rejection of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
Under direct orders from Syrian president Hafez Assad, the Chief of Syrian Intelligence Services (Mukhabarat) operating in Beirut, Col. Ali Khaddour, kidnapped the late Jamil Meho in West Beirut in an ambush. Mr. Meho?s own driver was a forced conspirator in the ambush as he and his family received daily threats if he did not cooperate. Mr. Meho was incarcerated in the infamous Mazze Prison on the outskirts of Damascus where he stayed 2 years. During those two years, Syrian officials led by then Chief of Syrian Mukhabarat Services Ali Duba tried in vain to get Mr. Meho to collaborate with the Syrian occupation, but he rejected these attempts and remained attached to the sovereignty, freedom, and independence of Lebanon. He was eventually released in 1979 after a campaign in both the domestic and international media.
The Syrian regime did not cease its harassment against the KDP. Through its alliance with Ayatollah Khomeini and his newly emerged Islamic revolution in Iran, whose objectives now spread to the Shiite community of Lebanon, the Syrian regime exploited the ongoing war between the Kurds and the Khomeini regime. The Assad regime incited sectarian conflict between the Lebanese Kurds, who are Sunnis, and the Lebanese Shiites who had completely fallen under the influence of the regime in Tehran. The KDP was one of the staunchest defenders of the rights of the Kurdish people in Iranian Kurdistan, and it fought a media campaign against the crimes and atrocities committed by the Khomeini regime against the Iranian Kurds. After assassinating KDP leader Jamil Meho?s son Mohammed along with a number of his aides, the Syrian regime managed to drag the KDP into a bloody military conflict with the Shiite Amal movement headed by Nabih Berri. A vicious military campaign was launched against the KDP with the objective of eliminating it from the Lebanese political scene. The KDP managed to resist this assault as well as all other attempts by the Syrian regime and its proxies among the Shiites in Lebanon.
Between 1983 and 1986, the invading Israeli forces gradually withdrew from Beirut to the Southern security zone. With the attack against the US Marines and French Paratroopers barracks (October 1983) in the first suicide terrorist bombing on record, the Multi-National Force (MNF) withdrew from the country. The MNF was composed of American, British, French, and Italian contingents, and had come in 1982 to escort the PLO out of Beirut and help the Lebanese government restore its legitimate rule over the country. This withdrawal ended the last direct Western involvement in the crisis and opened the door for the Syrian army, which had been evicted from West Beirut by the Israeli army, to return en force to the city and in turn evict the Lebanese army. The Lebanese troops managed, however, to stave off the Syrian assault against the seat of the Lebanese government in Baabda in fierce battles that raged for months in Souk-al-Gharb, southeast of Beirut. By 1986, the Syrian Mukhabarat Services now fully operational in occupied Lebanon carried out a series of repressive actions and assassinations against the rank and file of the KDP. Many of the party?s political cadres were forced to go undercover or into exile. Under Syrian sponsorship, elements of the Amal movement burned and destroyed the party?s headquarters and property, and killed a number of KDP members who had stayed in Lebanon. Other supporters and partisans were subjected to harassment and humiliation.
In 1992, and in the aftermath of the Taef Agreement, the Lebanese government headed by Rashid Solh and under pressure from the Syrians issued an official decree banning the KDP in Lebanon. In 1994, the leadership of the party residing in Europe gathered and decided to resume action, and Abdul Karim Meho was assigned the mission to return to Lebanon and investigate conditions for a resumption of political action there. Within two weeks of his arrival to Lebanon, Abdul Karim was arrested by the Lebanese authorities, incarcerated for 2 months, and deported. That same year, the 8th conference of the KDP was held in London (UK) and Abdul Karim Meho was elected Secretary General of the party. The party resumed its political and media activities under the banners of rejecting the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and calling for the freedom, sovereignty, and independence of the country. Since 1994, supporters of the KDP have been subjected to continuous persecution, culminating in May 2002 in the largest wave of arrests by Syrian Intelligence Mukhabarat Services, headed by Rustum Ghazaleh, in occupied Lebanon. KDP members and supporters were subjected to all manner of torture and harassment. However, their patriotic spirit could not be broken and the KDP became increasingly popular among the Kurdish Lebanese community. The hope is that one day, like many other patriotic leaders who have been exiled, the leadership of the KDP will be able to return to Beirut to continue the political struggle for a free and democratic Lebanon. The Lebanese KDP?s persecution and oppression by the Syrian occupation are a badge of honor as they for all Lebanese patriots alike.
With the US-led initiative against the Iraqi Baathist dictator, the war on terrorism targeting both the manifestations of terrorism as well as its political and social roots, and the roadmap for a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, the Middle East has entered a period fraught with potential upheavals but also full of tremendous hope for positive change. The KDP remains committed to the mission of its late leader Jamil Meho, a mission that harbors the ideals of love of country and a continuous search for peace and justice. As Lebanon emerges from decades of suffering under tyranny, the KDP will contribute its share in the search by the Lebanese people for a renewed political system that protects the rights of all people without alienating them from their specific values, principles, or religious beliefs. The KDP?s many struggles will continue to be driven by the party?s core attachment to Lebanon until the day that true liberty shines again on the country.
Joseph Hitti is President of New England Americans for Lebanon (Boston, Massachusetts, USA). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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