Cizre, Turkey – When the crackle of gunfire echoed through the outskirts of this majority-Kurdish town on a recent evening, its residents knew they were in for a long night.
Located on the Tigris River just upstream from Turkey’s Iraqi and Syrian borders, Cizre has been shaken by nocturnal gun battles between police and residents in recent days.
Its streets remain deserted after sunset, while families sleep in the innermost rooms of Cizre’s squat, cinderblock homes to protect themselves from gunfire.
Hostilities have smouldered here since Turkey’s government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) abruptly ended a two-year ceasefire in late July, imperilling the hard-won gains of Kurdish politicians and reversing prospects for a historic peace deal nearly achieved in March.
Since July 23, Ankara has launched hundreds of bombing missions against the PKK’s strongholds in northern Iraq, while the PKK has killed at least 18 members of Turkey’s security forces in guerrilla attacks throughout the country’s east.
Those attacks have put Cizre, a long-defiant bastion of pro-Kurdish sentiment, back on the front lines of a conflict that has cost more than 30,000 lives since 1984.
“They say war is coming, but it’s already here in Cizre,” said Rasid Nerse, a 26-year-old construction worker.
On the night of July 29, Rasid’s cousin, Hasan Nerse, was fatally shot in what Turkey’s state media described as an armed confrontation with security forces.
“Revenge!” chanted members of the 17-year-old’s funeral procession as it pushed down Cizre’s main thoroughfare last week in the scorching heat.
An unverified photo posted on social media has added to the community’s fury, convincing residents that Nerse was gravely abused before his death.
In the grainy image, a male figure lies on a street curb with his hands bound behind his back. Multiple dark patches on his legs and torso resemble gunshot wounds.
“It was definitely Hasan, and it was definitely torture,” said one mourner, who asked not to be named for fear of arrest or reprisals. “The coming war in Cizre will be a dirty one.”
The ending of the ceasefire came less than two months after Turkey’s Kurdish-rooted People’s Democracy Party (HDP) scored a historic victory in national elections.
Though Kurdish deputies usually run for parliament as independents, the HDP cleared a daunting 10 percent electoral threshold to become the first pro-Kurdish bloc to formally enter parliament under its own name.
Kurdish leaders had hoped to restart peace talks between Ankara and Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK. But on July 20, a suicide attack killed 31 pro-Kurdish activists in the Turkish border town of Suruc.
While Ankara condemned the attack as the work of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and granted the United States access to its bases in order to carry out attacks against the armed group, Turkey’s Kurds remained unconvinced.
Kurds have long accused Ankara of secretly aiding ISIL in its battles against Kurdish armed groups in Syria. Two days after the bombing, the PKK killed two Turkish police officers it claimed had collaborated in the ISIL attack.
Though the HDP has called on both sides to end the subsequent hostilities, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attacked the political party, requesting last week that parliament strip Kurdish lawmakers of their legal immunity from prosecution.
Our citizens see the police as a threat to their security, not a provider of it.
Ankara has ordered the detention of more than 1,000 HDP members in a national “anti-terror” probe that has focused on the PKK. The PKK is listed as a “terrorist group” by Turkey, the European Union and the US.
In Cizre, that crackdown has helped bring about the present security crisis.
As mourners returned to their homes after Nerse’s funeral, many struggled past a series of makeshift walls and ditches that have recently been erected to encircle their neighbourhoods.
Armed members of the PKK youth wing (YDG-H) began setting up the improvised barriers on July 26, when 21-year-old resident Abdullah Ozdal was killed during a protest.
The vigilante youth group grew out of previous security crackdowns, which saw hundreds of Cizre youths radicalised while in Turkish prisons.
Operating at night and frequently armed, the YDG-H similarly encircled the town during anti-government riots across the region last year.
“Our citizens see the police as a threat to their security, not a provider of it,” said Kadir Kunur, the town’s HDP mayor. Kunur pointed to the dozens of bullet holes that pockmark the HDP’s building in Cizre, remnants from one of many deadly raids police launched here in the early 1990s.
Cizre’s recent history is no less troublesome. Residents suspected police of gunning down 12-year-old Nihat Kazanhan on the town’s outskirts in January.
A leaked video of Kazanhan’s final moments seemed to confirm those suspicions, and later led to the arrest of a police officer.
According to state media, Hasan Nerse died while fighting with the police.
But Mehmet Nerse, Hasan’s uncle, denies that claim, insisting that his nephew was more interested in Turkish pop music than in Kurdish politics.
On Friday, the Sirnak Chamber of Physicians, a local health workers’ union politically aligned with the HDP, released an “initial examination” of Nerse’s body. The report claimed he had suffered from six gunshot wounds, while his body bore evidence of being bound by the hands and feet. The union labelled the killing an “execution”.
That night, tracer fire raced over Cizre’s Cudi neighbourhood, where police and the YDG-H clashed for hours.
It is unlikely that the circumstances of Nerse’s death will ever be verified by an independent investigation, adding his name to the 1,400 uninvestigated killings by security forces which, according to government estimates, have occurred since the 1980s. Kurdish rights groups say that number is closer to 17,000.
The governor’s office in Sirnak province, where Cizre is located, did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Turkish authorities have meanwhile pledged to continue the regional crackdown against the PKK in the coming months.
Meanwhile, in Cizre, the hardline stance of national politicians seems fated to engender more confrontations between a notorious police force and the radicalised youth of the YGD-H.
Kunur, the HDP mayor, predicts more sleepless nights at his office. “Peace is a long process, even when everybody is working for it,” he said.