And tourists are a rare breed in this conflict-ridden region too. It was in this region of Turkey that Armenians say they were massacred by Turkish forces 90 years ago.
While the best lakeside houses and flats are occupied by military and police families, the run-down streets of Van are now thronged with mostly unemployed Kurdish men and boys (women in this conservative town mostly stay at home). It is a region steeped in poverty.
Van’s population has more than doubled since the early 1990s due to displaced villagers fleeing the conflict between the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Turkish military – and not least due to the destruction by the military of thousands of Kurdish villages especially in 1993-94.
For Turkey, the EU and US the PKK is a terrorist organisation.
But local Kurds reject that label. They say few families have been untouched by the Turkish military’s retribution in the past 22 years of conflict.
Many have a son, daughter, cousin, uncle or brother either in the mountains with the PKK, in jail, or dead from the conflict.
Limits on freedoms
Cuneyit Canis, head of the Van Human Rights Association, explains that neither they, nor other human rights NGO, will use the label: “Of course, we are against violence wherever it comes from, but we never say terrorist – if we use the same language as the state or government, then how do we differ from them?”
For Turkey, the EU and US,the
Limits on freedom of speech worry Cunis: “If you say Turks and Kurds don’t have equal rights in society, even if you are talking in a political party, you could be accused of being a separatist. The DTP [the Kurdish Democratic Society Party] is a legal political party … but they often get mixed up [by the police] with the PKK, so it’s easy to charge DTP members to be PKK.”
Ibrahim Sunkur, the head of the Van branch of the DTP, agrees: “To be a political party, you need to have meetings, to express ideas, to have freedom of speech, but we are not completely free as all our activities are followed by the police and they are going to open a court case even if we say simple and basic things.”
Sunkur has been president of the local DTP for less than a year – all previous presidents have been arrested sooner or later. After he took part in a local TV debate two weeks ago, the military came to the TV station and demanded copies of the tapes to analyse what he said.
Turkey’s membership talks with the EU have had some positive but limited impact on Kurdish rights in recent years. As one retired intellectual in Van puts it: “There were very good steps during the EU process but not enough. If it wasn’t scared of the EU and US, Turkey would take back all the rights it has given very easily.”
Limits on freedom of speech
For Ayhan Cabuk, head of the Van Bar Association, these steps are the merest tokens: “Many people here are living and speaking Kurdish and under pressure of the EU you give them half an hour a week broadcasting but not by yourself. That’s nothing. How can that be an answer to the problem? The limit of half an hour shows their mentality and their hearts.”
And this month, the military found a way to jam the frequency through which Kurdish TV is beamed into homes from abroad.
Speak their language
Yet today the central demand of many Kurds is not for the separate state that the Turks so fear, and not even for a federation (publicly calling for a federation itself could lead to separatist and so terrorist charges) but for the use of their mother tongue in education and in the media.
Even though there are between 15 to 20 million Kurds in Turkey, and many in the southeast speak Kurdish as their first or only language, children start primary school understanding only Kurdish, but are spoken to and taught in Turkish.
One teacher quotes a now-dead Kurdish writer from Diyarbakir who described this as: “cats barking like dogs”.
Sunkur insists cultural rights are now their main demand: “We aren’t looking for an independent state, and we’ve taken back a step on the federal goal – even though big countries like the US, Germany and Russia have federations and it’s normal and they are thinking of it in Iraq now.
“But we do not want to damage the unity of the state. We want to use our language freely and to have education in their mother tongue for all our children at all levels… We’ve a right to broadcast our language in radio and TV too.”
At the start of October, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire raising hopes in the southeast that a new breakthrough may be possible, including a general amnesty for PKK fighters.
The area of Van has suffered
But General Buyukanit, the new military chief of staff, ignoring more subtle and positive responses from various politicians, responded aggressively saying the army would fight till every last PKK fighter was dead.
Abdulbasit Bildirici, the head of the local branch of an Islamic human rights NGO Mazlumder, is pessimistic: “There was a group in government and in the military supporting this ceasefire but then the ‘deep state’ won and shut up the others, and there have been four or five big military operations in and around the region recently so they are not responding to the ceasefire.”
Army lorries and police checks can be seen in and around Van.
Bildirici thinks this ceasefire is a “last chance for Turkey” since if the government doesn’t respond: “It makes ceasefires meaningless to people’s minds… this feeling is very strong.”
He worries that divisions between Turks and Kurds have become deepened: “There is a broken bridge between the state and people here.”
A local businessman puts it even more strongly: “You [the Turkish state] accuse people of not loving you, but you broke all their lives and stole their windows, took their property, and took everything, and now they are in an indescribable, inhuman situation and you ask them to love you and be grateful.”
The ending of the last PKK ceasefire two years ago, accompanied by renewed violence, and the Iraq conflict, has not made the Turkish public, government or military more open to a peaceful solution. “Of course,” says Bildirici “the northern Iraq and Kurdish situation increased the nationalist movement in Turkey.”
“To be a political party, you need to have meetings, to express ideas, to have freedom of speech but we are not completely free as all our activities are followed by the police and they are going to open a court case even if we say simple and basic things”
He adds that for Kurds in Turkey, seeing Kurds in northern Iraq run their own affairs is a boost to self-confidence after the “humiliation” of being second-class citizens in Turkey. But he insists that “apart from a few small radical groups, most Kurds in Turkey have no idea of having an independent state here”.
But though many Kurds here are clear on their two main aims of a general amnesty and full cultural rights, there is an absence of a political strategy for persuading their Turkish counterparts to accept those goals.
Instead, a sense of political as much as geographic isolation and impasse hangs over Van.
Turkey is now in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections next year – and parties of all colours are turning up their nationalist rhetoric. Whether the glimmer of hope provided by the new PKK ceasefire can take the two sides past the elections and into a constructive new political dynamic remains to be seen.