ISTANBUL (Reuters) - During the 1990s it was dangerous in Turkey to sing or own recordings of the melancholic songs of Kurdish poet and singer Sivan Perwer.
His army of fans in southeastern Kurdistan risked prosecution listening to bootleg tapes of his melodies about Kurdish identity, love and loss, often accompanied by a lute.
Now aged 57, he has been back to Turkey for a brief visit after some four decades in self-imposed exile in Germany, hoping to convince Western powers that the cause of Kurdish nationalism is like the struggle in South Africa against apartheid.
“This issue needs to be taken very seriously, and, like the many other political and human right issues in the world, it should be discussed in the same way as Palestine, the Basques, Quebec, South Africa apartheid or any other political issue,” Perwer told Reuters in an emailed response sent from Arbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mandela, who died this month aged 95 and was imprisoned for 27 years by South Africa’s apartheid rule, was a source of inspiration for Turkish Kurds.
The Kurds’ leader Abdullah Ocalan has been jailed since 1999 and is widely reviled by Turks who hold him responsible for the deaths of more than 40,000 people since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms in 1984 to try to carve out a seperate state in the southeast.
For decades, Turkish Kurds were denied their cultural identity - their language and traditions made illegal.
Perwer, a cultural role model for Kurds, said he would not be alive had he not fled to Germany in 1976.
After Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in the late 1980s against Iraqi Kurds, often described as the world’s largest stateless ethnicity, they achieved partial autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan. But nationalist movements have long been suppressed in Turkey, Syria and Iran.
In September the Turkish government unveiled a set of reforms partly designed to get a peace process with the Kurds back on track, including broadening of language rights and permission for villages to use their original Kurdish names.
But with talks between Ankara and the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union, stalling since a ceasefire in March, Perwer is anxious to see more Western pressure brought to bear.
“The Western world must make efforts so that the Kurdish tragedy ends and that the Kurds can attain their cultural and political rights like all people in the world,” he said.
Perwer, who is slight with black hair and a dark moustache, normally wearing the traditional head dress of Kurdish fighters, could only be in Turkey for two days. At a news conference after a concert in Diyarbakir, fighting back tears, he said he regretted not having enough time to visit his mother’s grave.
He plans to come back next year but this time to stage a concert, saying he will invite musicians such as Bono and Sting to join him on stage.
“Despite everything I believe that this problem, which is the biggest obstacle in the way of Turkey’s democratization, will reach a solution and that the Turkish people and state will hold to account the cruelty and repression inflicted on the Kurds for years,” he said.
Additional reporting by Gulsen Solaker; Editing by Michael Roddy and Alison Williams