Saki Işikçi sits in a coffeeshop below a picture of the founder of the Turkish republic — Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — and ticks off the problems he faces as the deputy mayor of Cizre: bad roads, poor schools, not enough water, no jobs. The city’s monthly budget barely covers municipal salaries, and emigrants from outlying villages are straining social services.

And then there is the war between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to control southeast Turkey, home to about half the country’s estimated 12 million Kurds. “The government isn’t interested in us,” says Işikçi, whose house and car were firebombed last August by Turkish soldiers claiming to be ferreting out PKK guerrillas. “They are only concerned about the war, and driving us from the southeast. To them, we are all terrorists.”

Işikçi, a nervous-looking man, these days rarely visits the municipality’s office, a ramshackle building with bullet-scarred walls and darkened hallways. Last summer, the mayor, Haşim Haşimi, was detained by police who accused him of aiding the PKK, and now Haşimi, too, spends most of his time elsewhere. “Nothing has been spared,” says Işikçi, marveling for a moment at the lack of authority elected officials in the southeast hold these days. “My house, the mayor’s building, even the hospital, they have all been attacked by soldiers.”

Cizre is on the verge of collapse. Decades of government inattention and the United Nations economic embargo against neighboring Iraq have crippled the economy. A few dimly lit shops struggle on, selling cheap goods, and a couple of grimy garages hawk smuggled Iraqi fuel.

If Cizre one day disappears, its people scattered westward, far from the widening war zone, it will be due to a confluence of events rooted in the Turkish government’s long-standing desire to destroy Kurdish nationalism and the PKK. And when Cizre finally does cease to exist, as many here believe will happen if the fighting continues, it will mark yet another setback for Ankara as well as for the people who call it home. The human rights abuses of the government and its security forces translates into more support for the guerrillas. Despite the PKK’s own violent practices, the group is respected as the only organization with the will and strength necessary to pursue Kurdish goals of self-determination.

Turkey for the Turks

Cizre and its 24 outlying villages scattered in the surrounding plains and mountains were never high on Ankara’s list of priorities. Since the founding of the republic in 1923, successive Turkish regimes, determined to establish a strong central government, have viewed the southeast’s periodic displays of Kurdish nationalism with apprehension.

The first of these localized insurrections erupted in 1925, and others followed through the mid-1930s. Although the Kurds had fought side by side with the Turks in the war of liberation, led by Mustafa Kemal, they emerged with few rights under a regime self-defined as Turkish. Kemal, who took the name Atatürk (father of the Turks) in 1934, moved to destroy Kurdish nationalism by decimating Kurdish social structures and implementing a policy of forced assimilation. Leaders of the uprisings were hanged and their supporters imprisoned. Land was expropriated, families were relocated to western Turkey and Kurdish language use was banned. The regime opened cultural and educational societies to teach Turkish language and history and implant a new national Turkish identity.

Economic investment lagged, however. People in Cizre still recall when the trappings of development first appeared — it was not until the mid-1950s that the city was hooked up to electricity and running water. [1]

The decade of water and light followed the country’s first multi-party elections in 1947, in which Kurds were wooed by the new Democrat Party. The party was not pro-Kurdish, but was untainted by the harsh assimilationist policies of the Kemalists. When the party triumphed in the 1950 national elections, Kurds were rewarded with some basic social services.

“Since the beginning of the republic, the government didn’t give any help to this region,” says Mayor Haşimi. It was not until 1961, when a Kurd from Diyarbakır became minister of health, that the region acquired health facilities. “But since then,” the mayor adds, “no improvements have been made on the facility.”

By 1968, Cizre had received a bridge, new roads and widened streets, a park named after Atatürk, a cinema and a variety of municipal buildings. Ankara considered such favors sufficient to bring the Kurds of Cizre — and throughout the region — into the arms of the Turkish state.

Cizre’s economic heyday in the 1980s was thanks to the highway which cuts through the center of the city, a road that crosses into Iraq to the east and Syria to the west. At the height of commercial traffic, some 5,000 gaily painted trucks passed through Cizre daily, lumbering to Iraq and back, bringing with them a huge demand for services. Repair shops, restaurants and cheap hotels cropped up on both sides of the road for miles outside of the city. Young boys sold cigarettes as truckers idled at Cizre’s one stoplight. Others bustled about the tea shops offering to clean the grease off drivers’ shoes.

“We had the cheapest, best goods in the area,” said Haşimi, recalling the days before the 1991 Gulf war, when trade with Iraq was embargoed. “From all over people came here to buy and sell. Everyone was earning a good living, from the small children to their fathers. But when the border was closed, 90 percent of the shops closed down.” For all its riches, Cizre has never compared with a city in western Turkey. The highway is paved, but the narrow dirt roads in residential neighborhoods are bisected by streams of raw sewage. The shops are well-stocked, but with the cheapest, most basic goods. The schools are still overcrowded even though some families cannot afford to send their children to school. Electricity is available only intermittently and water pipes do not extend to every house. Cizre never had a proper factory, and some people only survive on migrant labor. Depending on the season, families can be found picking cotton in Adana, selling fruit in Istanbul, or working in restaurants along the Mediterranean coast.

Good Village/Bad Village

In the summer of 1984, 84 kilometers away from Cizre, guerrillas from the PKK opened their first offensive against Turkish security forces. The military’s response was quick and harsh: hundreds were arrested, and security forces tortured and beat recalcitrant suspects. The government was no doubt caught off guard: The region had been under emergency and then martial law since 1979, and the 1980 military coup had ushered in a whole new round of repression. Tens of thousands of Kurds throughout the country were detained, periodicals shut down and restrictions on Kurdish expression strictly enforced.

Around Cizre, the guerrillas made more enemies than friends. By this time, nearly every village in the area had a school. Turkish television was intermittent, but a proper transmitter was under construction. Turkish newspapers were available every day — or at least every other day. By one count, in 1983 there were more than two sheep for every one of the area’s some 32,500 people, not to mention the Angora goats (one per person), cows and water buffalo. With the coal mine up the road and the traffic off the highway, many villages found that trade was a lot smoother if they remained on good terms with the authorities.

But Turkish security forces treated everyone harshly. By the late 1980s, they had separated “good” villages from “bad” by means of a simple test: If villagers did not agree to join the village guard, a government-sponsored Kurdish militia which paid participants a hefty wage, they immediately came under suspicion. Around Cizre, a number of villages provided village guards, some of whom joined solely to deflect military pressure.

The PKK attacked villages and guards and also dealt severely with villages that refused to support them with food and water, or which did not seem amenable to the group’s Marxist-Leninist message of liberation. Still, when all was said and done, many Kurds around Cizre came to respect the PKK’s campaign of Kurdish nationalism. Feelings toward the PKK grew warmer as the security forces upped their pressure. The PKK might come in and kill a pro-government mukhtar and his family, but the security forces would detain a whole village, beat the men and women, ransack houses and then kill a couple of people just for show. By the end of the 1980s, the army had banned villagers from grazing animals and farming on the mountains into which the PKK retreated after attacks. Tractors were confiscated and nightly curfews were enforced. Villagers fled to nearby towns.

Around the time the rural economic base started to crumble, Turkey embarked on its ambitious Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), a multi-billion-dollar project to harness the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The plan envisions nearly two dozen dams and some 19 power plants which will boost irrigated land by a third and double electricity capacity. The government touts the project as an example of its commitment to developing the southeast. The dams, once complete, will make arable huge swatches of now arid land. The boost in agricultural output will presumably increase jobs and wealth, and attract light industry to the region.

Some Kurds fear that big landowners will quickly take possession of the new arable land, leaving villagers not much better off than before. The government has also used the project as an excuse to relocate Kurds whose homes were targeted to disappear under vast lakes. The GAP, meant to integrate potentially productive parts of Kurdistan into Turkey’s economy, is more likely to marginalize further the mountainous region to the east where the PKK is strongest. PKK guerrillas have recently torched machinery and tried to bomb a couple of dams.

Nor have the guerrillas ignored Ankara’s other investments in the region. Oil refineries in nearby Batman have been bombed, as has the now idle pipeline through which Turkey used to transport Iraq’s oil. Guerrilla attacks have slowed road construction (the PKK argues that the roads transport soldiers), cut tourism (last summer close to 30 tourists were kidnapped by the group) and halted archaeological digs. The burgeoning war — in which 11,700 people have died, some 500 in the first two and a half months of this year alone — is also cited by Central Asian states that are loath to pipe oil to Western markets through Turkey.

Establishing Autonomy

These days, downtown Cizre is a dismal sight of half-shuttered shops and overcrowded coffeehouses. Under pressure from the security forces, thousands of people have streamed in from the countryside. The city’s population is now around 60,000, up from 20,200 in 1980. Many immigrants are not from Cizre’s outlying villages — of which at least a fourth have been forcibly emptied by soldiers — but from more distant parts of the region.

Some in Cizre fear their city will go the way of Şırnak, a nearby town of 29,000 bombed by soldiers almost two years ago. The attack on Şırnak was ostensibly precipitated by a clash with the PKK, but when the shooting stopped about 50 hours later, the police station, government buildings and military base had escaped virtually unscathed and almost all casualties were civilian. So far, promised government restitution has not materialized.

Cizre may indeed become another Şırnak. Its people are known for being strong PKK supporters, something that often sets off a shooting spree by soldiers. “The guerrillas are Kurds, they are fighting for our homes, our lives and our national identity,” says a truck driver who frequently passes through town. “But the government — well, they are only interested in beating and killing us. Every night I go to bed and wonder if I will live to the morning.”

Last September, Cizre was closed off for two days after soldiers clashed with three guerrillas hiding out in a house. When the smoke cleared, the guerrillas were dead, the house in which they were hiding destroyed, and lots of other houses had been damaged. By the time the curfew was lifted, downtown Cizre was littered with shattered glass. A month earlier, soldiers had also embarked on a shooting spree — no one is quite sure what set it off — during which they managed to destroy a row of restaurants and service stations just outside the town. Along the way, a couple of houses in a nearby village were shot up and, when his truck was firebombed, a sleeping driver burned to death.

Local residents say there is no civil authority to which they can appeal. The mayor and deputy mayor readily admit they have no power. The government-appointed administrator has not been open to complaints about security forces abuses. When M. Ali Dincer, a human rights lawyer whose office was firebombed by soldiers, tried to complain, he was told that the guerrillas must have perpetrated the act. “At one o’clock in the afternoon the PKK is driving around Cizre in tanks?” asks Dincer. “The people are lying because they are afraid of the terrorists,” responds Ömer Adar, the smooth-talking government administrator.

For now, the only economic aid seems to be going to the neighborhood controlled by village guards. They need their own school — they are so hated by other residents that their children cannot safely be sent to schools in the center of the city. “Soon, when the fighting ends, there are a lot of things we will do all over Cizre,” insists Adar, describing proposals for a vast irrigation system, agricultural investment and a host of vocational training programs. A Kurd himself, Adar believes Kurdish agitation for greater rights is nothing more than PKK propaganda. “Only some ignorant people who don’t know anything about the world want Kurdish education — after all, what use would it be in the world? The Turkish language and culture are very rich, while the Kurdish culture is a very ignorant culture. There is no future for Kurdish.”

The PKK cannot add electricity lines or pump more water, but it does offer a well-functioning judicial system, after-school classes in Kurdish and an enforceable moral code. Tired of being beaten by your husband? The PKK will explain to him that men no longer are allowed to beat their wives. Trouble collecting on a bill? The guerrillas do not like it when one Kurd tries to cheat another. Too many teenage boys getting drunk? The group will ban alcohol. Is pornography ruining local morals? The movie theater will be shut down. Was your brother murdered in a fight over a woman? The PKK will put the assailant on trial.

“There’s no longer any need for people to seek out the PKK when they have a problem, because the PKK is everywhere. It will hear about the problem and take steps to deal with it,” explains one local Kurdish professional. “The PKK has to do this. The government doesn’t care anymore if one Kurd kills another Kurd.”

Cizre’s experiences are reflected throughout the southeast. According to the Turkish Human Rights Association, at least 874 villages have been forcibly emptied and more than 500 Kurdish activists mysteriously murdered since 1991. Torture of police detainees is rampant, as is arbitrary arrest and harassment.

Economically, much of the region is in a state of disrepair and disintegration. Rarely a week goes by without a politician in Ankara stating that economic factors are at the root of the guerrilla war, but establishing a well-functioning economy in southeast Turkey means creating a secure environment for businesses and farmers. This would require halting arbitrary detention and torture, mysterious murders of activists and shooting sprees by the security forces. Villages could no longer be burned down because the people refused to take up arms against the guerrillas. It also means an environment in which discussion of Kurdish life and aspirations is not throttled as “separatist propaganda.” Restrictions should be lifted on free discussion of Kurds in Turkey, their past, present and future. With state-protected — and even promoted — freedoms, public and private interests will feel free to invest in economic development in the southeast.

After all these steps are taken, it might tum out that the Kurds want more. Perhaps the PKK is the party of choice for the Kurds. Ankara, in its zeal to crush Kurdish nationalism, has managed to undermine and destroy non-violent Kurdish movements, in effect helping ensure PKK dominance. Between the state and the guerrillas, Kurds have not had many options for protesting restrictions on their identity. But even without the PKK, a majority of Kurds may continue agitating for full separation from Turkish control. Ankara must take the chance and deal with it democratically. Right now, the only thing certain is further bloodshed by both the PKK and the Turkish army as long as changes are not made.


[1] This and other historical details about Cizre come from Abdullah Yasin, Butun Yönleriyle: Cizre (1983).

How to cite this article:

Aliza Marcus "City in the War Zone," Middle East Report 189 (July/August 1994).

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