For the people of Şirnak, a Kurdish town of 15,000 located at the foot of the Cudi Mountains in southeastern Turkey, the grave of 16-year old Zayide is something of a shrine. A guerrilla fighter with the separatist Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), Zayide was killed five years ago in a skirmish in Şirnak between the PKK and the Turkish army. Local myth has it that bulldozers trying to break the ground for her grave were mysteriously unable to do so in the spot ordered by government authorities. Zayide was buried instead in an empty lot on the outskirts of the town, and her grave is now surrounded by half a dozen smaller ones — parents believe it is good luck to bury their dead children nearby. Women hoping to become pregnant visit her graveside, leaving flowers and little mementos, beseeching her spirit to bless them with children.
Far away from Şirnak, in the modern, crowded streets of Istanbul and Ankara, talk of the PKK revolves around the group’s terrorism — the murder of women and children, the burning down of schools and hospitals, the fear that pervades the southeast where the PKK is fighting the Turkish Army to establish an independent Kurdistan. International human rights reports on the Kurds stress that despite government repression, the majority of Kurds have little respect for the PKK. “[M]ost of the Kurdish activists we met claimed that there is little popular support for the PKK,” wrote Helsinki Watch in its March 1988 report on the Kurds of Turkey.
But the tale of Zayide, along with the stories of real or imagined PKK heroism told in the decaying villages and small towns around Şirnak in Sirt province, suggests that local support is difficult to gauge. Villagers fear retaliation from either the military or the PKK should their views be made public. When I visited the area this past August and asked about the PKK, people more often than not responded with awed tales of the group’s exploits.
The PKK has helped its cause over the past year by its efforts to avoid civilian casualties and by continuing government intransigence, especially the ban on the Kurdish language, Kurdish publications, Kurdish culture and organizations. President Turgut Özal’s “hearts and minds” campaign to bring roads, schools and electricity to this economically impoverished region has had little impact against the government’s refusal to recognize an ethnic Kurdish identity and continuing reports of army abuses in the southeast.
“In 1984, when the PKK started fighting, maybe 20 percent of the people around here supported the PKK,” a schoolteacher from the Şirnak area said. “But now, it’s more than tripled thanks to the way the army and the government treat the people here.” The five-year war, which has claimed at least 2,000 lives, has escalated markedly over the past year, with an average of 30 people a month being killed, according to official figures. The PKK was formed in 1978 by Abdallah Öcalan, a former political science student at Ankara University, who reportedly commands about 5,000 guerrillas based in Syria. In its first few years, the PKK conducted a census of the region it hoped to “liberate.” Since 1984, it has been battling the Turkish army — and while it is not winning, it does not seem to be losing.
Almost nightly, bands of guerrillas operating from mountain bases attack army garrisons, military vehicles and village militia guards. Roads are closed off by the army, villages are sealed and residents rarely leave home after dark.
This war in the southeast for an independent Kurdistan is only one of the battles being fought now in Turkey over Kurdish rights. In Ankara, Istanbul and other major cities to the west, intellectuals and politicians are calling for official recognition of the Kurdish minority, both as a basic human right and as a means to stem the PKK’s support. The government links its repressive policy to the PKK’s secessionist stance, but people committed to the unity of the Turkish state see no contradiction in recognizing Kurdish cultural autonomy. They say most Kurds want cultural recognition — not a separate state — but that the official refusal to acknowledge a Kurdish identity is pushing Kurds to a more radical position.
“The aim of the state is still the same — to eradicate the Kurdish identity…but the policy has become bankrupt,” says Ismail Beşikci, a Turkish sociologist who spent ten years in prison for his writings on the Kurds. “For decades, state policy against the Kurds has been one of terror and repression. The youths now in the PKK were 10 years old during the height of repression and terror at the end of the 1960s and mid-1970s. These children saw old men put on trial who could only speak through a translator, and they heard the judge say the Kurdish language doesn’t exist. This is when they began thinking of the problem…. The PKK is partly a reaction to repression.”
It is around Şirnak this past summer where the fiercest fighting raged between the PKK and the Turkish Army. Almost every dawn brought with it tales of gunfire and dead, burned houses of village militia and young boys being taken to the mountains to join the PKK. Sirt, the province in which Şirnak is located, roughly corresponds to the region the PKK has renamed Botan, and is the area the PKK last year announced would be the center of its struggle. It is also known as a region supportive of the PKK.
By day, Şirnak looks like any small town in Turkey, its coffeeshops overflowing with old men sitting on stools and smoking cigarettes, small boys running errands for shopkeepers and a few women carrying groceries and carting babies. The only signs of tension are the heavily armed soldiers who patrol the streets in pairs — and the military checkpoints set up on the three roads leading out of Şirnak. But as night falls on this town, which overlooks a large military garrison housing some 15,000 troops, shop lights are shut, streets empty out and soldiers take position in a small park in the center of town. By 10 pm, an unofficial curfew has set in, and the only noise from the street comes from the unattended cows who move lazily through the garbage.
In a hotel late one night, as a handful of people sat around waiting for gunfire, a Kurdish journalist working for a Turkish paper pulled out a cassette from his pocket and put it on the tape recorder. From a fuzzy noise emerged the distinct sounds of gunfire and cries in Kurdish: “This,” he said, “is from the first battle the PKK fought in 1984.” Slipping the tape back into his pocket, he remarked that “this tape is very popular among people.”
The next morning, local residents were talking about the PKK’s exploits of the previous night — two village militia were killed in an attack on a village on the road toward Hakkari, and the PKK spirited away seven boys from Toptepte village, a few miles south of Şirnak. A relative of one of the boys was anything but worried: “They’ll release him in a few days because he’s already done his military service in the Turkish army.” The “forcible kidnapping” of young boys, as it is called in the Turkish press, is one of the PKK’s recruitment methods. What remains unclear, however, is how many of these young boys want to join the PKK and how many are forced to become guerrillas.
An 18-year old boy from Şirnak spoke of how the PKK had come to his house a few weeks earlier and told him that he would soon have to join. “Now the Turkish army also wants me. I don’t really think I want to join either. What I would really like to do is flee this whole mess, but where can I go?” he said.
According to local residents, the PKK is trying to organize itself in a more disciplined fashion. Besides the new restriction that a recruit cannot have served in another army, young men do not have to serve if they are deemed unfit by a doctor associated with the PKK. At the same time, it is reportedly possible to serve a shorter stint, or not at all, by paying money. Normal military service in the PKK’s Kurdish Peoples’ Freedom Army, is for eight months.
In southeast Turkey, information is shrouded by fear, secrecy and the difficulty of questioning people who know neither Turkish nor what lies a few miles beyond their village. What is clear, however, is that people are frightened, and more often than not it is the army they fear rather than the PKK. Villagers from around the ?irnak region told stories of vehicles being requisitioned, people picked up for questioning and tortured and friends killed by army troops while working in their fields or tending sheep.
While power lines now bring electricity to villages, and even the most remote areas are now accessible by road, this means little in a region where people do not have money for light bulbs or cars. The schools that are built do not have enough space or teachers for the children, and residents of the region say that at night these schools are turned into military barracks, making them targets of the PKK. For the Kurds of the southeast, the government represents one thing — the military. And the military’s activities, instead of turning people against the PKK, are turning against the government.
The growing public discussion of the Kurds in cities such as Istanbul and Ankara has had little real effect on the lives of the people in the southeast. Increasingly, the PKK is seen as the only group that is concerned with and fighting for the Kurds. Back in Şirnak, a television is constantly on in one of the restaurants frequented by journalists. Before darkness sets in, people gather to eat the one meal on the menu — goat stew — and watch soccer and films. Almost every night, the news program that interrupts at 8 pm broadcasts reports about the increasing fighting in the southeast. One night, amid reports of army plans to conduct a massive raid on the Cudi Mountains before winter sets in, General Chief of Staff Necip Torumtay appears on the screen.
“It is not easy to crush the guerrillas, but the people love their nation and the fight to protect it will go on,” he says. “All the people of the region [the southeast] are on the side of the nation.” The camera cuts to another story.