Kurdish militants promise Erdogan ‘payback in blood’
At the entrances of residential neighbourhoods here, roads are cut with sandbagged barricades and trenches filled with dirty, stagnant water. Sheets, blankets and tarps are strung up overhead to protect against Turkish government snipers.
On quiet days, children play on the barricades with simple toy guns fashioned out of plastic pipes. But at night, these barriers become the domain of the young fighters of the YDG-H, a local militia affiliated with Turkey’s main Kurdish nationalist guerrilla group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Towns like Cizre, Silopi and Sirnak in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority south-east are in open revolt today, with militants fighting against a government they say has oppressed the country’s Kurds for too long.
“As long as they kill and arrest Kurdish people here, there is no place for the Turkish government in Kurdistan,” said Firat, a 22-year-old YDG-H fighter in Cizre elected by his unit to speak to The National, referring to the south-east.
On September 4 – more than a week after Firat made these comments – the Turkish government declared a 24-hour curfew on Cizre and security forces moved in to attack the town’s PKK affiliates.
This curfew was lifted on Saturday, with the regional governor’s office describing the operation as a success. But while residents were being allowed to move in and out of the town, army checks at roadblocks continued and telephone and internet communications remained severely limited.
According to Turkish interior minister Selami Altinok, 32 PKK militants and one civilian had been killed as of September 10. But Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) said that 21 civilians, including children, had been killed. With ambulances unable to reach the town during the curfew to haul away the dead, residents said they had stored bodies in freezers and under ice until they could be buried.
The HDP described the curfew as a “death sentence” for Kurds living in Cizre and has warned that Turkey is on the path to civil war.
“HE WANTS BLOOD”
The escalation in violence that followed the collapse of a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between the government and PKK was quick. On July 20, a suicide bomber believed to be tied to ISIL struck a cultural centre in the Kurdish-majority city of Suruc, killing 33. The PKK quickly blamed the Turkish government and initiated a campaign of assassinations targeting members of the security forces.
As police officers became fair game for militants, the government retaliated and announced a two-pronged antiterrorism operation against the PKK and ISIL on July 24. Since then, the two groups have been increasingly painted with the same brush by Ankara.
As the government began arresting Kurds suspected of militant links and pounding PKK hideouts in Iraq’s remote Qandil Mountains from the air, the PKK and allied groups stepped up attacks inside Turkey against the country’s security forces. As the crisis worsened, towns in the south-east began pushing for autonomy and militants deployed to the streets of towns.
The Turkish government claims to have killed more than 2,000 PKK militants since hostilities broke out. About 100 Turkish soldiers and police have also been killed, according to Reuters, which based this figure on information from government officials and security sources.
With Turkish attacks on ISIL limited by comparison, Kurds in the country quickly began to believe that the government’s antiterrorism campaign was exclusively targeting them. There is a feeling in the south-east that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved aggressively against Kurdish areas in an attempt to build Turkish nationalist fervour ahead of a snap election slated for November 1.
Mr Erdogan’s AK Party lost its parliamentary majority in June elections, after which Turkey’s parliament failed to form a coalition government. Many in Cirze believe that the president – who called the snap election – is hoping that such nationalist fervour will help the right-wing AK Party win back its majority.
Firat – like many of the men in his unit – is new to fighting and first picked up a rifle at the start of the year as protests over Ankara’s unwillingness to aid Kurdish fighters in Syria turned into clashes. It was an event that foreshadowed the bigger conflict taking place in Turkey’s south-east today. Firat says Mr Erdogan’s crackdown on Kurdish areas in a push for political hegemony is what brought him to militancy.
“As long as Erdogan does not respect us and see us as humans, we will prove our humanity” with arms, he said. “Erdogan is the only one responsible for this war. He is the only one who sends soldiers and police here.”
“Because he wants blood, he will get his payback in blood.”
In the south-east, many people say they have spent time in jail or are close to somebody who has been incarcerated at some point in the past few decades. Reasons given for incarceration can make it seem arbitrary: teaching Kurdish in schools, attending a political rally or just being in the wrong place when police launch a raid. Collectively, the arrests have stoked dissent.
Zuhal Tekiner, currently the highest-ranking official at the municipality of Silvan, was first jailed in 1999 – not long after she turned 18 – for attending a rally protesting the arrest of PKK leader Abdallah Ocalan. On that occasion she was in prison for six months but later spent another year and a half behind bars as a result of her work as a journalist critical of the government.
Last month, when Silvan’s two co-mayors called for autonomy, the authorities came looking for them. One was arrested and one went on the run. Now Ms Tekiner, their deputy, presides over the mostly empty government building that has seen most of its employees and visitors stay home since hostilities began in July.
“When I wake up in the morning, I’m not thinking about what will happen today,” she said. “Maybe they will kill me, maybe they will arrest me. This is normal.”
With a deep-rooted sense among Kurds that their culture is under constant assault, anti-government sentiment strengthened by Ankara’s attacks on the PKK, and nationalist spirits fuelled by Syrian Kurdish gains across the border, joining a militia has become an attractive option for young men and women here.
“[The young] have no place to go because they have no options, so they are going to fight,” said Omer Yilmez, 65, as he attended the funeral of a 16-year-old PKK fighter in the southeastern town of Silvan – where he lives – in late August. Mr Yilmez’s son was killed fighting for the PKK in 2012 when he took part in an assault on a police station.
“I don’t want to see the youth dying anymore,” said Mr Yilmez.
Fifty-three-year-old Vedat Binen, another Silvan resident, spent five years in prison after being accused of belonging to the PKK. He said heavy-handed government oppression in the Kurdish-majority town shocked his son Serhat when the 21-year-old moved to Silvan from Istanbul two years ago. Serhat, who had not previously lived in Silvan – the Binen family’s hometown – as an adult, would complain about security forces harassing him and other young Kurds in the streets and was afraid of being arbitrarily detained.
As time went on, he became more radical in his views and lashed out against his family, asking why they were not doing anything to counter the oppression.
“He started to hate us because our answers were not satisfying him,” said Vedat.
Serhat joined the YDG-H earlier this year and after fighting began in July, ignored his parents’ calls for him to come home when they ventured to militant-controlled neighbourhoods to find him.
On August 18, he was killed in a firefight with Turkish security forces.
“He always hated guns,” said Mr Binen.
It is hard to avoid the conflict in this part of the country.
Kurdish militias left the streets of Silvan in the last week of August after weeks of running battles with security forces, but residents say that a return to violence is likely as government forces play whack-a-mole with militants in the countryside. Residents said fighters had retreated to “the hills” that surround Silvan, though many likely remain in the town.
Even in the city of Diyarbakir, which has remained under government control, there are signs of war and revolt. On some days, fighter jets scream low overhead en route to bomb PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains and attack helicopters crawl across the sky.
On August 26, as much of the city followed a general strike opposing the government’s actions in Kurdish towns, shops were shuttered and main drags were blocked off with burning rubbish bins and stones. At one intersection, masked, unarmed Kurdish children – who looked to be in their early teenagers at the most – nervously tried to enforce a checkpoint before fleeing as riot vehicles moved in.
Here, in what is the largest town in the south-east, known to Kurdish nationalists as “Amed”, the faces of Turkish security forces are rarely seen. Gargantuan riot vans and armoured police trucks with swivelling, remote-controlled turrets lumber through the city past pro-PKK graffiti. With tinted, small windows covered with wire, it’s difficult to tell if the vehicles are occupied when parked. Some are scuffed up from battles with protesters and militants.
At some point nearly every day in Diyarbakir and other major towns controlled by the government, the staccato of gunfire sounds in the distance and the riot vans and police trucks change course, rushing off to see what has happened.
A COUNTRY DIVIDED
In Turkey’s south-east, government employees and police officers live in large complexes of cookie-cutter apartment blocks, shielded from the outside Kurdish world by razor wire-topped walls, bunkers lining the perimeter and entrances marked with “no entry” signs and anti-vehicle barriers. Residents say they rarely encounter Turks on the street.
Even on the main arteries criss-crossing the south-east between towns, few government checkpoints are manned, perhaps in a bid to avoid attacks.
For Kurds, memories of the 1990s – when tens of thousands died in fighting between the PKK and the state – remain alive here. And as the body count grows in the current round of violence and some civilians begin to flee their homes, parallels with the past conflict are beginning to emerge.
But as government forces retreat behind the high walls of their urban barracks and Kurdish militants show their ability to retain territory in Turkey’s south-east, there are glimpses of a future where Kurds no longer need to censor their thoughts on the government and instead handle their own affairs.
“We see that people are dying, people are being arrested and people are being tortured. Of course we are sorry,” said Ms Tekiner about the Kurdish region’s rush into conflict. “But we think while these things are happening, we have improved our situation.”
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse
Updated: September 12, 2015 04:00 AM