Survivors of the city wars
Welat Kara (23) was carrying two hand grenades with him as he was trying to find his way out of Sirnak last June. He had been fighting with the Kurdish youth group the YPS (Civil Protection Units). But the fight was over. The youngsters had run out of ammunition for their Kalashnikovs and the army and police had taken hold of the neighbourhoods that the YPS had held for weeks. ‘I would use the grenades to kill myself if the police arrested me’, Welat says. ‘You know, we can’t surrender.’
Welat made it out of the city and eventually returned to his home in the refugee camp close to the city of Maxmur in Iraq. He is talking in the local youth club, where he and his friends have been busy the last few days repairing the roof and rebuilding a wall. On the room’s walls there are PKK flags, portraits of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and, most prominent, a huge poster with the portraits of five young men and one young woman from Maxmur camp who lost their lives as YPS fighters in what is called ‘Bakur’ here, the ‘north’ of Kurdistan, in other words the part of Kurdistan situated in Turkey. Welat points to one of them, Segvan, and says: ‘I was with him when he died. There was fighting going on outside, he went out through the window and was hit by artillery from a tank. Later we buried him right there.’
Welat Kara. The slogan on the poster says: 'We will make Kurdistan free with our young strength.' Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
Sirnak was one of the cities in the southeast of Turkey where, since the fall of 2015, clashes have broken out between Kurdish youth and the Turkish army and police. In the summer, the ceasefire between the Kurdish armed group the PKK and the Turkish state, which had held since late 2012, had collapsed. Subsequently, Kurdish mayors in the region started declaring autonomy in the municipalities they administered. The YPS considered it its task to defend these autonomous municipalities militarily and entrenched themselves behind trenches and barricades. (Read more on that in an interview with PKK co-leader Cemil Bayik here.)
The Turkish army didn’t hesitate. Several neighbourhoods in Sirnak, but also in the cities of Cizre, Silopi, Yüksekova and Diyarbakir’s historical Sur district, were reduced to rubble by artillery from tanks and helicopters. Subsequently the damaged houses and other buildings were bulldozed to the ground – in Sirnak, this operation is still ongoing.
It is often assumed that most of the YPS members died in the city wars. But talks with several former YPS members in Maxmur camp seem to indicate something else: yes, many youngsters died, but for example in Sirnak, where some 100 to 120 members were fighting the security forces, about 65 lost their lives, according to Welat and another fighter, Derya. Others made it out of the city, carrying their last explosives to avoid getting arrested. The numbers are hard to check, and how many survived in other cities remains unknown.
For the first time
Another assumption about the YPS, namely that the group consisted of only local young people, also turns out to be untrue in Maxmur camp: from here in late 2015 and early 2016, some fifty to sixty young men and women illegally crossed the border into Turkey to help their comrades in the cities. Darya Tas (18) explains: ‘We saw the murders by the Turkish state on TV, we saw the mothers crying, and we felt we had to do something, we had to help.’ It was not the first time Derya had gone to help in the armed struggle: in the summer of 2014 she went to Sengal, where the Yezidi-Kurdish population was under attack by Daesh. She says: ‘I was sixteen then and I wasn’t allowed to join in the fighting. I gave lessons in Kurdish to children. This time, in Sirnak, I fought for the first time.’
There is a special relation between the 12,000 inhabitants of Maxmur refugee camp and the province of Sirnak, of which Sirnak city is the capital. In the 1990s, when the fight between the PKK and the state was as fierce as it is now, the Turkish army destroyed and burned to the ground some three thousand villages in the Kurdish region, also in Sirnak province. Many citizens of Sirnak were given the choice: become village guards (Kurds armed and paid by the state to help the fight against the PKK), die, or leave.
They crossed the border to Iraq and after some wandering ended up outside Maxmur. Then Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein picked the place: there was nothing there, the inhabitants remember, besides scorpions, snakes and stones, and in summer the temperature on the treeless plains easily rises to 48°C. Over the years, the people built houses and set up a system of governing themselves. They still long to return home, although for that the Kurdish issue in Turkey needs to be solved first. A dream that seems ever more distant now that the war is intensifying even further.
Welat’s family is originally from the town of Hilal in Sirnak province, although he adds that it’s ‘old Hilal’, meaning not the current town but the one that was destroyed almost twenty-five years ago. Derya’s family is from Hakkari province, further east, and came to Maxmur at the end of the 1990s.
Even now, some Kurds on the run from the Turkish authorities land in Maxmur. Like Destan (not her real name), a 21 year old from Cizre. She too was a YPS fighter, but a local one. She managed to leave Cizre when the fighting in the city was over and escaped to the Kurdistan Region in Iraq in the back of a truck. She was caught by the security forces of the Kurdistan Region, the peshmerga, for illegal border crossing and held in prison for almost a month before they let her go. She is staying in Maxmur camp now, until the situation in Turkey changes and she can go home.
Street view in Maxmur camp, September 2016. The sky is black of smoke, caused by Daesh burning oil fields. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
Destan shares her experiences in the town where she grew up factually and without emotion. But her words are fierce. She was, before the city war broke out, mainly involved in non-violent activities, for example in campaigns for education in Kurdish. But occasionally she threw stones and Molotov cocktails in protests and clashes with the police. She says: ‘Every stone I threw, I threw consciously and with a meaning. A stone for education, a stone for my culture, a stone for autonomy. But when the war began, we had no choice but to unite and take up arms. We had to stand together against the blood sucking vampires, the only way was to resist. We had to write history, we could not bend, we could not let our friends bathe in blood.’
She says the digging of trenches and the building of barricades in Cizre started after a list was discovered of hundreds of people that the authorities wanted to detain. She was in Istanbul at the time, studying law and applying for participation in the European Erasmus student exchange program – she had set her eyes on Spain. Then the news came that her father had been arrested, along with an aunt. ‘How could I not go home and fight?’
Talk to the people
It is often assumed that at least some of the inhabitants of the neighbourhoods where the YPS entrenched itself did not support the trenches and barricades. Destan dismisses that and praises the unity among the people, but Welat remembers talks with residents. He says: ‘Before the fighting broke out in full force, our main task was to talk to the people. They would often ask us to please not dig the trenches and not build the barricades. They were afraid the army would use it as a pretext to destroy their houses. But we explained that the state was going to destroy their houses anyway, and that we couldn’t just let it happen, that we had to resist.’
He says the eventual war proved the YPS right: the destruction was, he says, disproportionate, and neighbourhoods where the YPS had not entrenched themselves were also destroyed. That the reaction of the state was disproportionate was also the view of human rights organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Destan says: ‘Maybe the trenches worsened the situation. So be it. We cannot abandon our will and the struggle connected to it.’
Derya Tas outside the house where she lives with her family, in Maxmur camp. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
The YPS used Kalashnikovs in the war, but had shoulder-fired rocket launchers (RPG’s) and machine guns as well. Besides that, they fabricated their own road-side bombs, used to damage tanks or destroy armoured vehicles. Derya and Welat say the weapons were provided by the PKK, and Derya adds some fighters took explosives from training camps in the Qandil mountains, which she attended herself as well, together with her elder sister Evin (22). Derya says: ‘I went to the training camp after I came back from Sengal. It took fifteen days, and it was just to learn the basics about weapons for self defence purposes. After all, in Kurdistan wars can start any time, any place, and as citizens we have to be able to protect ourselves.’
Welat gives the account of the last days he spent in Sirnak, in a basement where he and some other YPS members had taken refuge when the army was taking over the city. At some point, the basement was filled with smoke, caused by a fire inside or outside, he is still not sure. He remembers the suffocation he felt, and then, how he woke up again, covered in dirt. ‘I looked around, saw that six of my friends had died. There was blood coming out of their noses.’
Bulgur in water
The survivors, including Derya, managed to escape from the basement in the early morning hours. Every morning before sunrise they would move to the next place where they could hide. ‘We were too weak to run, so every night we managed to cover only small distances on our way out of the city. Sometimes we would find some food in a house where we stayed. We would put some bulgur in water, let it rest for hours and then eat it. It was never enough.’ Then he holds his left wrist with his right hand, and then directs his left hand to his mouth, explaining: ‘I had to put the spoon to my mouth like this. One arm alone was too weak to do it. We were all malnourished and still suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.’
In Turkey, often debates would start about the YPS members, and about the many civilians killed in the cities where the army entered. Were the YPS members to be counted as civilian deaths, or as fighters? Welat finds it a somewhat academic question. ‘We were both’, he says, looking at the picture of his friend Segvan holding a Kalashnikov. ‘We are Kurdish citizens defending our lands. We do that with weapons, we have no choice against the state. Does that make me less of a citizen?’
Among the casualties of the YPS are also young people from Maxmur. Their bodies remain there where they lost their lives, but in the camp farewell ceremonies are being held to commemorate and honour them, attended by both Maxmur citizens and by PKK members, who are in charge of the camp’s protection.
Farewell ceremony of one of the YPS fighters from Maxmur camp who died in the city war. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
The war has changed him, Welat says. He used to know what having fun was, and his spirit was high. ‘Now I have hate in me’, he says. ‘Of course, we citizens of Maxmur are here for a reason, the enemy was always in our lives, but now it’s different. I lost three good friends in Sirnak. I meet their families on the street. I see them look at me, I know they wonder why I came back and their sons didn’t. I can barely look at them.’
Derya speaks with a soft voice and doesn’t want to talk much at all when asked about how her presence in Sirnak during the city war has affected her. She does mention that she doesn’t sleep at night. Her sister Evin adds: ‘She wants to be alone more often than before. She cries and doesn’t want to talk.’ Still, Derya intends to join another battle if she gets the chance. However, she never really considered joining the PKK to become a guerrilla. She explains: ‘Then the leadership decides when you go to war or when you have other tasks to do. I don’t want that. I want to go to the war whenever I choose to.’
Destan too says she will not ‘go to the mountains’. Maybe, if it takes too long before the situation in Turkey changes enough for her to return without the risk of ending up in jail for the rest of her life. ‘For now’, she says, ‘I think it’s too easy to join the PKK. The work in the city is harder, you are very close to the enemy every day, you can get killed every day. To help preserve our culture and work with the people, I want to take that risk, to make that sacrifice.’