Kurd Separatists Grip Southeastern Turkey
A radical guerrilla movement is increasing its support among the country's Kurds and forcing Ankara to address the 'Kurdish problem'
SEDAT KOC made his parents proud last week: He joined the Kurdish guerrillas fighting for independence in Turkey's southeastern region."I am joining because I can no longer resist the torture and pressure of the Turkish government against the Kurds," the 17-year-old wrote in a note his father quoted. "This is the most awful and painful thing in the world and because of this, I am leaving," the note said. In this depressed city of about 20,000 people, where unemployment is too high to be counted and the dry, barren land yields a hard agricultural life, at least 200 young men and women have joined the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), according to local residents. "The PKK is the voice of Kurds everywhere," says Mr. Koc's father. He asked that the family's real name not be used. As the Kurdish guerrilla war against Turkey enters its seventh year, there are indications here that support for the PKK is flourishing, and that PKK guerrillas are increasingly taking the offensive. Over the past three months, Turkish military authorities report double the guerrilla attacks compared with last year, while over the same period security force losses have increased 78 percent. In the wake of the Oct. 20 national elections, which toppled the ruling Motherland Party and put the conservative True Path Party in the leading position to form a coalition government, the problems of Kurds and the guerrilla war are expected to receive more attention.
Political support The Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP), which came in third, will send about 20 pro-Kurdish deputies to parliament, among them people who in interviews before the elections said they supported opening talks with the PKK. President Turgut Ozal shocked political commentators with a recent statement about the need to address openly the Kurdish problem. "We have to discuss everything with Kurds. If we do not, then the Kurdish Workers Party will do so," he told the daily Hurriyet before the elections. Residents of the southeast credit the PKK's struggle - which has officially left 2,700 dead on both sides and, unofficially, more than 3,500 dead - with pushing the issue of ethnic Kurdish identity to the forefront of political discussion. On the narrow roads that wind their way through the mountains of Botan, the Kurdish name for this region, residents report that PKK guerrillas often stop cars and check identity cards. When suspected collaborators such as village guards are stopped, they are often killed. After two groups of foreigners were briefly kidnapped this summer by guerrillas, the PKK's front organizations in Europe began issuing special "travel visas" to foreigners.
Impression of control Because of "the lack of efficient security measures, the separatist movement is not only flourishing in the region but also giving the impression that it is in control," the English-language Turkish Daily News wrote last week. Beginning Oct. 11, the Turkish Army staged a three-day offensive on PKK bases in northern Iraq, apparently in retaliation for the killing of 11 soldiers by guerrillas near the border. But local residents and sources close to the PKK say the guerrillas - whose main bases are in northern Iraq and the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in Lebanon - now have mobile bases in Turkey. Reports of attacks on government installations and Army posts far from border areas support these claims. Turkish officials, who over the years have said the PKK is aided by foreign powers, now say Iraq is arming the PKK to punish Turkey for its cooperation with the allied forces during the Gulf war. Kurdish journalists and a human rights activist in the region say these accounts are intended to minimize support for the guerrillas in Turkey. Assertions that the guerrillas only recently obtained anti-aircraft guns from the Iraqis are believed to be false, because there were reports before the Gulf crisis that the PKK was using such weaponry. "It's no problem to get such things," says a Kurdish journalist with contacts in the PKK. "All you do is go to Lebanon, and whoever pays the most gets it." Turkish officials say the PKK is a terrorist organization with little local support. A spokesman for the regional governor of southeastern Turkey, which is under emergency rule, said: "Obviously the PKK has not been successful, because if they had been, there would be another state here."
Daily skirmishes The Turkish Army, with an estimated 150,000 troops in the region backed up by thousands of police and village militias, is still the dominant military force in the region. But skirmishes are reported daily. And local residents say the PKK, with an estimated 5,000 active guerrillas, may not have won the military battle, but it has won the battle for people's minds. In several cities in the region this reporter saw green, red, and yellow scarves symbolizing the Kurdish flag, and heard music lauding PKK martyrs blaring from cars. Cries of "Long live Kurdistan" and "Long live the PKK" can be heard at demonstrations. The PKK has offered a cease-fire if Kurdish rights are recognized, emergency rule in the region is ended, and political prisoners are released, among other conditions. "There are two powers in this area, the Turkish Army and the PKK, and it is easy to see which side the people support," says Zubeyir Aydar, a human rights lawyer and SHP member from Siirt who was elected to parliament in the Oct. 20 national elections. Early in the year, the former ruling Motherland Party eased restrictions on Kurdish rights, legalizing spoken Kurdish and tolerating a spate of books, cassettes, and news articles about Kurds and the "Kurdish problem." "This meant nothing," says Orhan Dogan, a Kurdish lawyer and SHP member from Cizre who also won a seat in parliament. "We were speaking our language anyway. What we want is our human rights." And as is often the case concerning human rights in Turkey, the gap between what is legal and illegal remains vague. A well-known Turkish sociologist, Ismail Besikei, is in prison awaiting trial on charges of "separatist propaganda" for a book he recently published. A pro-Kurdish newspaper, Yeni Ulke, has seen over 14 of its 52 issues confiscated, and faces 20 court cases for its articles. Journalists report being detained while visiting the region; this reporter had most of her notes, film, and cassettes confiscated by police in Diyarbakir.