Kurds in Turkey: Caught in the crossfire
The Turkish state’s battle with the PKK in urban districts across the southeast imperils locals and chances of peace.
Early one morning in Diyarbakir last October, Halil Tuzuner, a 31-year-old construction worker, was on his roof tending to his pigeons when a bullet from a Turkish military assault team on the street below pierced his back and took his life. His stunned, pregnant wife Hulya found him minutes later.
Soon after, the newly widowed mother-of-three gathered her young sons and moved to new lodgings on the edge of central Diyarbakir – or Sur, as the old city is known – and did her best to start again.
“It’s so difficult,” the 25-year-old said during a recent interview, sitting on the carpeted floor of her modest new home as her sons clambered all over her, and her now one-month-old daughter slept in the next room. “You can’t understand how difficult it is without him. I haven’t even been able to go to the cemetery to visit him.”
For two months now, the heart of Diyarbakir, a city of a million people and the de facto Kurdish capital of Turkey, has been under 24-hour curfew and near-constant military assault. Some 20,000 people have fled, 1,500 shops have closed or been destroyed, and 10,000 people have been put out of work, according to local estimates.
Both sides to blame
Those who remain face limited water and electricity and are largely trapped in their homes owing to regular blasts and the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Hulya has barely left the house in months. Thankfully, Halil’s older brother, Aziz, who has three children and lives near by, has been helping her, caring for his brother’s kids as if they were as his own. Like Hulya, he’s tired of the fighting between the Turkish state and Kurdish fighters.
Despite their frustrations, young Kurdish fighters need to stop declaring self-rule and commandeering urban districts, while the PKK would be wise to stop bombing police stations. And with no elections on the horizon, Turkey's leaders should stop politicising the Kurdish conflict, pull back in the southeast and resume peace talks.
“Both sides are just playing for their own nationalism, and both have their reasons,” he said. “They might be right, they might be wrong – but both sides are killing people. And we, the people who live here, are in the middle of it. The minute we stop moving, we become targets.”
There have been a lot of targets in cities across the region. Turkey’s Human Rights Association says nearly 200 civilians have been killed, including 33 children. Ankara says since December 2015, it has killed more than 600 fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey, the United States and the European Union have labelled a terrorist organisation.
More than 100,000 people have been displaced, and entire neighbourhoods destroyed. Recent images from Sur, Cizre, and Silopi evoke the devastation of neighbouring Syria. It all started last August, when Kurdish activists declared autonomous zones in cities across the southeast.
Ankara responded with a harsh crackdown, prompting young fighters linked to the PKK to secure central urban districts, digging trenches, building makeshift barricades and commandeering shops and apartments to defend territory they see as under self-rule.
The Turkish state turned the screws, implementing 24-hour curfews and dispatching tanks, urban assault vehicles and waves of troops to root them out, street by street. “You will be annihilated in those houses, those buildings, those ditches which you have dug,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently, warning that military operations would continue until the area had been “cleansed” of “terrorists”.
Reminiscent of the past
Turkey and the PKK have fought an off-and-on war since 1984, and in that time, no government had made as much progress towards peace as that of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But after two years of negotiations, the violence resumed last July, when Kurdish militants assassinated two policeman days after a bombing in Suruc killed 33 people who had come to help rebuild the besieged Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane.
Now, the two sides seem farther apart than they’ve been in decades. Kemal Oyman has been repairing watches in Sur for 35 years, and has never seen violence like this in Diyarbakir. “Both sides are to blame,” says the 68-year-old. “I hope it will get better soon.”
OPINION: Turkey’s Kurdish issue: From peace to low-intensity war
But chances of the situation improving are slim. Last Wednesday, Turkey extended the curfew to five new neighbourhoods in Sur, after which dozens of families were seen lugging their belongings through the old city’s massive, UNESCO-listed stone walls, heading for safer ground.
Among Kurds in Diyarbakir, the consensus seems to be that, rather than undermining the fighters and muting anti-Turkey sentiment among Kurds, Ankara’s recent operations in the southeast have inflamed it.
“Everything changed with these kind of operations, especially among the people in these neighbourhoods,” said veteran Kurdish journalist Vecdi Erbay. “Now there’s more anger. Also, these fighters getting killed, and their bodies in the street, just lying there, for days – this is something people won’t forget.”
On such instance is the death of Mesut Seviktek, whose dead body laid on a Sur street for three weeks, inspiring his brother Ihsan – as well as his mother and sister – to go on a 20-day hunger strike. Finally, the state allowed the family to collect Seviktek’s body and bury him. Ihsan’s eldest son, a 14-year-old, recently left home to join the fighting, following in the footsteps of two of Ihsan’s younger brothers.
OPINION: Turkey is not in bed with ISIL
“I have six children and 11 younger sisters and brothers, and if all of them made the same decision I would support them because all of them are slaves here,” says Ihsan, a 42-year-old shopkeeper. “We never know when or how we will die, but at least this way it is honourable. We won’t fall on our knees for the AKP government.”
Negotiations, no more
The fighters” tactics seem to have had a similar effect on Turkey’s leaders. Erdogan has said the state would “bring the whole world down” on those who seek autonomy, and that from now on, neither the PKK nor any related political party would be accepted as a negotiating partner. “That affair is over,” he told a group of village heads visiting his presidential palace.
Ankara’s determination to beat back the Kurds has given the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group room to operate, resulting in at least three major attacks over the past seven months. Consider the way Erdogan focused on the PKK in the speech he delivered just after the January 12 attack in Istanbul. Or how he all but dismissed pro-Kurdish politician and activist Leyla Zana’s recent request for a one-on-one meeting.
Despite their frustrations, young Kurdish fighters need to stop declaring self-rule and commandeering urban districts, while the PKK would be wise to stop bombing police stations. And with no elections on the horizon, Turkey’s leaders should stop politicising the Kurdish conflict, pull back in the southeast and resume peace talks.
This will enable its military, security, and intelligence bodies to focus on the greater threat, ISIL, and the root issue, Syria. Otherwise, the divide will only deepen, spurring another generation to take up the gun against Ankara.
Somehow, Ihsan Seviktek can still see the two sides sitting down again. “This war mentality belongs to the AKP government, not the Turkish people,” he said. “That’s why I have hope, because I know there are millions and millions of people in this country that want peace, not war.”
David Lepeska is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. His work focuses on Turkey and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.