The war in southeast Turkey: ‘This country hates the Kurds’
(This article was originally published on Beaconreader.com on 25 May 2016)
Illustrations by Gijs Kast.
A policeman with a balaclava and a machine gun installed himself at the passenger seat of the minibus I was in, his weapons aimed at the passengers. The minibus was packed with men and women of the so-called ‘human shield group’, a civilian group that tries to stop the fighting between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK. I was with them to make a story. It was early September last year and it was already dark. When another policeman aimed his flashlight on me and asked me who I was, I hoped that my answer ‘Geerdink, foreign journalist’ would provide the group some protection. And maybe it did – who knows if otherwise shots may have been fired. But my status as a foreign journalist for sure didn’t help me. After three days, which I spent with the whole group in the prison cells in the basement of the Yüksekova police station, I was first flown from Van, in the east of Turkey, to Istanbul and then put on a plane to Amsterdam.
For me, my expulsion was a sign that the Turkish state cares increasingly less about what the European Union thinks of human rights violations in Turkey. Foreign journalists in Turkey have to renew their press cards every year, and with the press card a new residence permit can be obtained for another year. That had been problematic for me for a few years already, and every time I was once again saved by Dutch politicians in the European Parliament, who pulled ties wherever they could to get my papers in order again. This started after I settled in Diyarbakir in the summer of 2012, after I had been reporting from Istanbul for six years, and drew ever more attention to my work by focussing on the Kurdish issue.
This time European politicians couldn’t save me. I should have seen it coming, after the court case the state started against me in early 2015, accusing me of ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’. I was acquitted and just continued working. What other option did I have? I didn’t want to return to the Netherlands. And now that I have been forced back to my home country and roam from one friend’s guest room to another (since affordable housing is close to impossible to find), I keep closely following developments in Turkey and Kurdistan.
The debate about the TV comedian in Germany, the conviction of two Turkish journalists for publishing Charlie Hebdo-cartoons, the stepping down of PM Davutoglu. However serious these issues may be, my focus was and is primarily on the region about which you hear so little in Western media: Turkish Kurdistan. I miss it so much, the land where the iron fist of Erdogan is felt the hardest. How are my friends doing, the people with whom I worked and lived up until I was forced out? I called some of them.
Nobody is doing well.
Agit isn’t. He is a young computer specialist from the city of Sirnak, in the southeast of Turkey close to both the Syrian and Iraqi borders. We got to know each other a few years ago when I tried to establish contact with activist youth in the town. Agit sends me photos of his neighbourhood in Sirnak, destroyed in the fighting between PKK affiliated militants and Turkish security forces. ‘Hardly any building is standing anymore’, he says. He and his family took refuge in a village nearby, where they will stay with relatives until they can return to what no longer exists. ‘Some friends of mine were fighting, and some young men who were my neighbours. They are dead now. Their bodies remain on the street.’
Nurcan Baysal isn’t doing well either. Recently she burst into tears when she was buying tomatoes at the market and heard the constant artillery fire aimed at Sur, the historical city centre of Diyarbakir. Nurcan works as a researcher for several organisations and also publishes books of her own, for example about the Armenian history of the southeast of Turkey, and about the fate of Yezidi Kurds in areas controlled by ISIS. ‘My office is not far from Sur’, she says. ‘Work goes on, my children go to school, I make lunch and dinner, I get my groceries, but while I live and eat, ten minutes down the road people are dying. In those very same places, Fréderike, where we were having coffee last year.’
'I failed to find words'
And with Vecdi Erbay it’s the same: his answer to the question of how he is doing is also ‘not well’. He is staying in what he calls ‘the village’, the city of Kiziltepe right at the Syrian border, where he was born and raised and where his family still lives. ‘I am once again without a job’, my good friend and fellow-journalist who is a poet at heart, says with a dispirited smile. Vecdi is often out of work but is still writing all the time for publications which pay hardly anything or nothing at all, because just as it is for me for him it’s hard to get a grip on the tragedies around him without writing. Although in the city of Cizre, it was especially hard. Vecdi: ‘It made an indelible impression to talk to people who had lost their child, their home, their future. I had to look into the eyes of the people who had lived through these tragedies. As a journalist, I failed to find words for what I saw in those eyes.’
Cizre, originally a city of some 130,000 inhabitants, had been under constant siege since December last year and the clashes between young armed PKK sympathisers and the Turkish army were merciless. Groups of civilians ended up stuck in basements of half destroyed buildings with hardly enough water and food, often injured and without ambulances being permitted to take them to hospital.
Lawyers had to go as far as the European Court of Human Rights to make sure the civilians got access to medical care. Kurdish politicians kept in touch with people in the basements and tried to convince the Minister of the Interior to intervene, but to no avail: the basements were set alight. Post-siege videos showed civilians, politicians and journalists in the basements, their faces showing abhorrence at the sight of charred human remains and the smell of decaying flesh. Vecdi was there too.
And I, I never know what to answer to the question about my wellbeing. I am healthy, I am safe, I work, my friends and family provide me with shelter, but despite all that, I’m not at all well. My deportation was connected to the developments in Diyarbakir and the whole of south-eastern Turkey. I never knew how it felt when the city and the land that you consider to be ‘home’ are being shot to pieces and when the people there, to whom you feel connected, lose their lives. In fact, I still don’t. I am not a Kurd. But imagine how I feel seeing the daily destruction and the end of the hope of a nation that wants peace. Angry, confused, desperate sometimes, sad, half in a panic now and then. Then how must it feel for my friends there, the Kurds who are directly part of it and victims of it?
I was going to be a peace journalist, I thought, a few months after I took up residence in Diyarbakir as the only foreign journalist, in August 2012. The peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdish armed movement, the PKK, was about to start. The idea that this process could actually lead to the solution of a problem which had been festering for more than a century, inspired me.
Usually journalists leave when peace breaks out, but I would stay. Write about how Kurdish self governance, which would inevitably be part of a peace deal, would look, and how minorities would be treated. How the Kurdish identity would develop, no longer in need of the strong politicising that defines the Kurdish identity in Turkey now. What an amnesty law for PKK fighters would look like, and for which crimes both the Turkish state and the PKK leadership would have to do penance, and how.
Inclusive and liberal constitution
In reality this peace process never thrived. For outsiders it may have seemed that the measures the government of (then) Prime Minister Erdogan took actually meant something, but in the end, it was all symbolism. The change of law that enabled establishing private schools with Kurdish as the language of instruction was a cynical example. In the southeast hardly anybody has the money to send their children to a private school. Besides, the measure was only legally possible by considering Kurdish a ‘foreign language’, since only schools instructing in a foreign language can obtain a clearance for instructing in a language other than Turkish.
Serious measures that would actually bring the solving of the Kurdish issue closerare only possible with radical constitutional changes. Only with such changes would it be possible to teach in Kurdish in state schools as well, an important demand of the Kurdish political movement. Also, only constitutional change can terminate a justice system that breaths ‘Turkishness’ and in which there is no room for other identities, languages and cultures. But this new, inclusive and liberal constitution wasn’t written, and the efforts made were just political games without genuine intention to force democratic reform.
Meanwhile, luckily at least a cease-fire was holding. It made sure no PKK fighters or soldiers were returning from the mountains dead. The decrease in violence (civilians were killed by state violence during the cease-fire, for example some who joined the Gezi protests in the summer of 2013, and several people in the southeast) enabled the Kurdish movement to start building the autonomy they envisaged. In the cities where the Kurdish party DBP (Democratic Regions Party, the regional sister of the nationally operating HDP) is in charge, neighbourhood councils were elected, among other things to work on the ideal of ‘grassroots democracy’, and in 2014 a few primary schools were opened where the language of instruction was Kurdish (and which lead to police interference a couple of times, including teargas).
The ceasefire dragged on without political progress. But both the government and the PKK didn’t have any interest in a return to violence. Kobani changed everything. The ISIS-siege of the Syrian Kurdish city right at the Turkish border started in September 2014. The Kurdish fighters of the PKK-affiliated YPG (People’s Protection Units) held their ground with weapons that couldn’t match those of ISIS, but managed to eventually break the siege supported by American air strikes and the more advanced weapons the peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan brought when they rushed to help their Kurdish brothers in Syria. Erdogan had counted on a different outcome. Even openly: at a rally in early October he doubted the effectiveness of American air strikes and said almost casually: ‘Kobani has fallen, is falling’.
Kobani didn’t fall. At the end of January 2015 the Kurds celebrated their victory. Erdogan couldn’t stomach it, which isn’t so strange when you look at it from a Turkish perspective. The victory in Kobani strengthened the YPG and its political entity the PYD (Democratic Union Party), which wanted to connect the three Kurdish ‘cantons’ in the north of Syria, of which Kobani was one. In that land called Rojava (Kurdish for ‘west’) they wanted to work on their grassroots democracy, in which experiments had also begun in Turkish Kurdistan. This is Turkey’s biggest nightmare, because from a Turkish perspective this threatens its borders and thus the very existence of Turkey. Having ISIS at the border was preferable, since that group doesn’t pose such an existential threat as the PYD/YPG, but is merely a security risk. A security risk that can be dealt with in cooperation with the international coalition.
The Turks, paralized by their fear, disregard that the YPG/PYD and the PKK are not aiming at breaking up Turkey. Their common leader Abdullah Öcalan has already in the 1990s said goodbye to the separatism of the early years of the PKK. The movement now strives for ‘democratic federalism’, a system that according to the movement does justice to the multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies of the whole MiddleEast.
Anything that even smells like PKK
The Turkish government could have chosen to overtly join the alliance of the US and several European countries with the YPG to fight ISIS, but for that, the Turkish enmity against anything that even smells like PKK is rooted too deeply. The Kurdish movement, both armed and unarmed and both in Turkey and Syria, had to be crushed. And for that, the ceasefire had to end.
This urge grew even deeper after the parliamentary elections of June last year. The HDP, the leftist party originating in the Kurdish political movement, did so well that the AKP lost its majority in parliament. That summer, behind the scenes Erdogan steered towards a failure of coalition negotiations, thus towards new elections. The nationalist voters, who had voted for the ultra-nationalist MHP out of discontent with the very existence of the state’s peace talks with the PKK, had to return to the AKPnest. The only way to do that was to reduce the Kurdish issue from a human rights issue to a terrorism problem again, with matching strategy to tackle it.
But the first clear signs that the AKP was done with the low-violence years, had already become visible before the June elections. Late in February representatives of the AKP and HDP jointly presented the so-called Dolmabahce Agreement, a sort of roadmap of ten points meant to salvage the peace process, and which was considered a break-through. The roadmap was written in close cooperation with Öcalan on Imrali prison island. The next month, Erdogan started to complain and told journalists he didn’t think the agreement was right. As of early April, the boat that had been servicing Imrali island stopped sailing, and up until today the PKK leader is in isolation. In July,so after the elections, Erdogan massacred the agreement by saying he would never accept it. Around the same time the PKK declared that they considered the ceasefire as ended.
Higher and stronger, stuffed with explosives
Nobody doubts that the PKK armed the youth in the cities in the southeast. The leadership denies it, but the fact is that the militant young men and women suddenly changed their stones and Molotov cocktails for Kalashnikovs and were even seen with rocket launchers on their shoulders. They were no longer called the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDGH) but the People’s Protection Units (YPS).
The name change has to do with how the YPS members (sometimes under aged but usually adults) regard themselves: as the security forces of the ‘autonomous regions’ that several DBP mayors had announced starting in the summer of 2015. In these freshly declared ‘autonomous regions’, the YPS says, Turkish police and army have no business. The youngsters entrenched themselves in neighbourhoods behind barricades. In the days before I was expelled from Turkey I saw such barricades in Yüksekova, a town that is under siege now and where the fighting is fierce. But what I saw at the time, in early September, is nothing compared to what the YPS builds now: the barricades are higher and stronger, often stuffed with explosives.
I often wondered whether Agit was active in the YDGH or not. He swore he wasn’t. He studied computer technology and contributed to the family income as a self-employed programmer and designer. But, well, that doesn’t say much about the kind of trouble he may be getting himself into at night. Now that I contact him and it turns out he is in a village with his family and no longer in Sirnak, I can be sure he’s always been honest. A young militant only leaves the battleground dead.
Agit is, in one word, disillusioned. He believed in the PKK’s struggle, voted HDP out of conviction, and besides his studies and work did whatever he could to support the movement. In an interview via Facebook, I ask him who he holds responsible for the current violence, for shooting the cities to pieces, for the many dead among innocent civilians. The state or the PKK? That the state is most responsible is clear for him: it is after all the state which has been suppressing, denying and killing the Kurds since even before the foundation of the republic in 1923. ‘But also the PKK is to blame’, Agit says. But not, as I expected, because the group has consciously moved the war from the rural areas to the cities. Agit: ‘Why did the PKK remain in the mountains? Why didn’t they come to help the YPS? They have armed the youth but left them to their fate. I am sure’, he adds, ‘that if the PKK had come down from the mountains en masse, civilians would have joined them and wouldn’t have fled. Then we could have won.’
It’s doubtful if he’s right. The Kalashnikovs, rockets and roadside bombs of the PKK can’t compete with the tanks and helicopters of the Turkish army. That’s in fact the whole point: both groups have been waging war against each other ever since the first PKK attack against the state in 1984, and neither one of them has succeeded in beating the other militarily. And it’s not any different now. The weaponry of the army has modernized ever since and the PKK’s hardly has, but the PKK has grown in support and has evolved into a true mass movement, which keeps them strong and vital. That’s why it’s important what Agit says: less support from the people can weaken the group.
How enormous the chaos and violence are in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey becomes clear from reports of several human rights organisations, like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV). Especially the latter keeps a meticulous eye on developments. In their last update of 20 April they calculate that since the first curfew, in August 2015, a total of 65 curfews have been declared in areas where altogether some 1.6 million people live. At least 355,000 people, like Agit and his family, had to leave their homes, and a minimum of 338 civilians have died in the fighting between young armed PKKsupporters and Turkish forces, among whom 78 minors, 69 women and thirty elderly people over 60 years of age. By the way, ‘curfew’ is not the right word. It is in fact a matter of sieges: the bans to go outside apply 24 hours a day and for indefinite periods of time, and in Sur and Cizre the sieges lasted for months, and in parts of Sur the siege is ongoing.
How many fighters died on both sides is hard to determine: the figures presented by both sides differ widely and are impossible to check.
Researcher and writer Nurcan Baysal says: ‘This is not a war with just tanks and weapons, it’s also a psychological war. Why else is a video broadcast in which a street cat eats a dead body?’ She refers to videos appearing on social media. The video with the cat, recorded at the end of March in Yüksekova, was shared a lot on Twitter. Early in October the video of 24 year old Haci Lokman Birlik, shot by security forces and dragged through the streets of Sirnak tied to an armoured vehicle, went viral. And then there were the pictures, in early March, of arrested men in Diyarbakir, stripped naked and humiliated by policemen. All made public by the perpetrators, the members of the security forces, themselves. Often some formal investigation started, but just to bring to light the leak, not to punish the deed.
Initially, Nurcan says, people were angry at the PKK because they deliberately took the war to the cities. She says: ‘But that doesn’t mean there is more sympathy for the state now. On the contrary, especially when it became clear how disproportionately the state’s forces went berserk: when civilians got stuck in basements of buildings and these basements were set on fire, when even neighbourhoods without barricades were attacked, when people who tried to get their wounded to hospital on handcarts were shot at.’
Not only civilians and human rights activists point to the disproportionate methods of the state. In April, Selim Kuru, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), published an article on the site WarOnTheRocks.com about the war in Kurdish cities (like Diyarbakir, Cizre, Silopi en Nusaybin), in which he wrote that the Turkish army (TAF), used to battling against the PKK in remote areas, was not prepared for city war. He wrote: ‘According to a military officer familiar with operations, few of the security forces involved had training in urban environments, and many lacked basic necessities such as riot gear and body armour. The PKK, on the other hand, had entrenched itself during the long truce with the government, with explosives buried beneath cement roads and well-trained snipers in key positions. To regain the advantage, the TAF relied heavily on artillery, practically blowing up whole neighbourhoods . Overwhelming force here indicated weakness, rather than strength.’
Now what’s next? The end of the violence doesn’t seem near. Once a ‘curfew’ ends a new one is imposed somewhere else, existing ones get extended to more villages or neighbourhoods, and the AKP government and President Erdogan keep vowing to annihilate the PKK once and for all. Government papers announce expansion of the number of deployed PÖH’s and JÖH’s, the abbreviations with which the special forces of police and gendarmes are referred to. The number of PKK attacks in the rural areas is increasing now that the metres-high snow in the southeast has melted, more PKK members come down from the mountains to coordinate the battles in the cities. The isolation of Öcalan, the still uncontested leader of the Kurds, continues. Breaking that isolation would mean that the government was considering returning to the negotiating table, which would give Öcalan a reason to call for a halt to the violence on the Kurdish side. And a return to talks would give the PKK leadership in the Qandil mountains in the north of Iraq and the YPS fighters in the cities reason to listen to their leader.
But something bigger is happening. What does the current violence do for the goal of the Kurdish movement, both armed and unarmed, to strive for a democratic Turkey for everybody, and not for a state of their own? The theory of ‘democratic confederalism’ is well substantiated and was intensely discussed and taught among Kurds, but it never erased the longing for an independent Kurdistan.
In the last couple of years I have brought this matter up countless times with the many Kurds that I have talked to on my travels to the Kurdish regions. ‘Peace’ is always the first answer of every Kurd to the question of what her or his wish is for the future. After that comes the answer they give with their mind: we want to live in peace with Turks and with all other groups living in Turkey. After that, and often only after a little persistence, comes the answer from the heart: a country. The patience that people show when they say this, touches me every time; ‘Maybe my grandchildren will live to see that, or the grandchildren of my grandchildren. Not me.’
Are Kurds running out of patience? To one of my best friends in Diyarbakir, Ahmet, who’s in his fifties and runs an agricultural company and a petrol station with his family and who is active for the DBP as well, it’s often my first question when we talk on Skype to keep each other posted about our lives. ‘Hey Ahmet, how are you? Do you already want a country?’ He always laughs, and patiently explains to me again how a nation state won’t solve the problems of the Kurds, that the nation state is an obsolete concept, that all people and all religions in Turkey and in the whole Middle-East will have to learn to live with each other and that a system of autonomous regions, in which everybody’s rights are secured and no ethnicity or religion plays the dominant role, is the best recipe to achieve that.
Agit from Sirnak says he never really believed in that ideal. He feels betrayed by it, and also by the HDP party. We talk on Skype and he says: ‘The HDP had become a purely Turkish party. Why didn’t they leave parliament when it became clear how many people are being killed here, how the state ravages? By staying in the parliament, they legitimize the state that is murdering us.’
It angers him when he hears the co-leader of the party, Selahattin Demirtas, speak about the necessity of a new peace process. ‘What did the previous so-called peace process bring us? It hasn’t been sincere at all, the government hasn’t taken any serious step at all. As long as there is no independent Kurdistan, no Kurd will be safe.’
Nurcan Baysal gives a deliberate answer to the question of how she now thinks of peaceful co-existence with the Turks. She says: ‘Maybe it would be better to become good neighbours with Turkey. You know, I grew up in the 1990s, when we went through a similar phase as now. At the time I thought: if our Turkish friends, our fellow countrymen, knew what is happening here, they would stop it. Now they know exactly what happens, they can know what happens, and they do nothing. This country hates the Kurds, and it hurts to realize that again and again.’
Turkey is unpredictable. In the summer of 2012 nothing yet pointed to the ceasefire that would start some half a year later. However, the chance that an equally important turnaround will take place again in the short term is small – the circumstances are so different. But however long it takes, one day the current war will inevitably lead to the negotiating table. In that climate I can return to Turkey, return to Kurdistan to report about it.
* For security reasons, Agit’s name was changed.
* A shorter version of this story was published in Dutch weekly magazine Vrij Nederland. Read it here (blendle link)!