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Cynicism drives young Kurds away from government outreach, toward rebellion

Young Kurds see little reason to pin hopes on a Turkish government plan to improve their lives. Instead they are turning to Kurdish rebel groups.

By Staff writer / December 17, 2010

Led by Kurdish politicians, Turkish Kurds marched Nov. 11 in Diyarbakir, Turkey.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Diyarbakir, Turkey

Kurdish mother Samiye was not surprised when her daughter left college earlier this year and disappeared "into the mountains" to join the Kurdish rebels. Her son was already there. He's a member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has fought the Turkish state since the 1980s.

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"They're students; they're educated, so they know what's going on," says Samiye, who wore a white wraparound head scarf and asked that her real name not be used. "The state has to give reason for us to trust them ... [it] doesn't want to solve the problem; their aim is to finish the Kurds, which is not possible."

Samiye's daughter is part of a fresh wave of young ethnic Kurds who are giving up on the Turkish government's "Kurdish Opening," a plan announced last year by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to improve the lives of Kurds in southeast Turkey after decades of war and neglect.

The "opening" was a big risk for the AKP in a nation where, since modern Turkey was founded from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, all citizens were considered Turks regardless of ethnicity. The large Kurdish minority was forcibly prevented from exercising any cultural rights; speaking Kurdish was forbidden. The war with the PKK has taken nearly 40,000 lives.

The "opening" was fiercely contested by Turkish nationalists, whose control over the judiciary, security services, and military has meant continued pressure. At least 153 Kurdish activists and politicians are on trial in Diyarbakir – a fraction of the some 1,500 imprisoned on charges of illegal political activities across the southeast.

"Even the government wants to make some [positive] steps, but nationalist Turks say, 'We are not giving up,' " laments Samiye during a recent protest against the trial at the Diyarbakir courthouse.

Three years ago here, optimism was taking hold as senior AKP politicians, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, who would later become president, promised to open a Kurdish-language TV channel and roll back laws that severely restricted Kurdish cultural and political rights.

The TV channel is on the air and some took advantage of the opening, like Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Diyarbakir Sur. But his push for wider use of Kurdish – including supporting a groundbreaking 12-volume set of Kurdish children's stories – landed him in jail.

That fact pushed Mr. Demirbas's son toward the rebellion. "Kurds are in the mountains because there is no democracy; that is why my son went," says the mayor. Demirbas was given jail time; his son took off in May 2009, when he was 16.

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