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For Kurdish youth in Turkey, autonomy is no longer enough

Youth in Diyarbakir, the Kurdish 'capital' in Turkey's southeast, have been celebrating triumphs on the battlefield and at the ballot box, even as a peace process with Turkey unravels. 

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    A group of Kurdish youth activists pose for a photograph on August 5, 2015 in Diyarbakir, Turkey.
    Dominique Soguel
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In her flowing dress, leather sandals, and sunglasses, Ozgur Yesha, whose name means “Live Free” in Turkish, looks a lot like an American hippie from the sixties. 

The teenager doesn’t strike you as someone ready to rush off to battle. Still, her parents lose sleep over the idea that she might run off with the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters rolling back Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.

Her ideological zeal exceeds that of her parents and is emblematic of a generational divide among Turkey’s Kurds that is crystallizing in a time of turmoil. In recent months, Kurds have celebrated victories over IS across the border in Syria and made unprecedented political gains in Turkish elections, only to see the unraveling of a three-year peace process between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK. 

Ms. Yesha's parents voted for a pro-Kurdish party and sympathize with PKK militants demanding autonomy within Turkey. But for their daughter, that's not enough. “The main difference is that we want independence for Kurdistan, whereas they are okay living in Turkey,” she says. 

Independence, separation, and war are the buzzwords this summer of Turkish Kurds in their teens to early thirties. Everyone seems to have a classmate, friend, or relative already fighting with a Kurdish faction against IS in Iraq or Syria.

The youth of Diyarbakir, or Amed, the Kurdish name they prefer for their de-facto capital, had little vacation this summer, which opened with the successful push to get the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) well past the 10 percent threshold to enter parliament.

But their faith in democracy and political activism has been crushed as Turkey, simultaneously with joining the US-led anti-IS alliance, recently launched a vigorous campaign of arrests and airstrikes against the PKK, pummeling its enclaves in the mountains of northern Iraq. 

Run-ins with Turkish forces

Diyarbakir’s Kurdish community has a long tradition of resistance. Many in the younger generation grew up with images of dead relatives – martyrs from the PKK-Turkey war of the nineties – hanging on the wall alongside portraits of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured and jailed in 1999. In 2012, Mr. Ocalan entered peace talks with Turkey. 

But even in these last years of relative peace, many youths have brushed up against state forces. They name peers who were arrested for throwing stones or Molotov cocktails at police, an infraction that earns the full wrath of the law.

“They are charged like a member of the PKK,” explains Bayram Baran, a graduate of Dicle University’s law school in Diyarbakir. “They are not formally PKK members, but they get huge punishments – kids sentenced to 10, 15 years.”

What sets this new generation apart – analysts, parents, and teachers warn – is that they are less fearful and far more ambitious than their predecessors. Their nationalist resolve has been forged on the front lines against IS and boosted by social media.

“Today the positions of the Kurds in the Middle East made the younger generation more self-confident and made them think about separation,” says Mehmet Alkis, a political lecturer at Dicle University. “They say we don’t belong to Turkey psychologically and politically.”

Unraveling of peace process

That feeling of alienation has grown with the collapse of the peace process. An imperfect cease-fire largely held until July, but the PKK announced mid-month it was stepping up attacks over what it said were violations.

What brought things to a boiling point was an IS-linked bombing in the Kurdish border town of Suruc that killed 32 young people on July 20. Reflecting the views of the Kurdish nationalist movement, Diyarbakir’s young blame Turkey, accusing it of helping the IS in Syria.

After Suruc, the PKK stepped up attacks on Turkish security forces, while Turkey began airstrikes against PKK camps. Since then, 18 Turkish policemen and soldiers have died in PKK-linked attacks, while Turkey has rounded up more than 800 alleged PKK collaborators, stripped HDP leaders of parliamentary immunity, and begun investigating them for “inciting violence and carrying out terrorist propaganda.”

Mr. Alkis warns that if the peace process doesn’t resume by year’s end, matters will spiral out of control. While the Kurdish upper and middle classes voted for the HDP, throwing their lot with Turkey for economic reasons, the younger generation is leaning toward militant separatism. 

Opposed to assimilation in Turkey

The debate on how to press the Kurdish struggle in Turkey and beyond is vibrant at the headquarters of Tevger, a Kurdish youth movement established in 2013. “The new generation is aiming higher than its predecessors,” says Tevger General Secretary Serhat Merdini.

Mr. Merdini juggles leadership at the association, where many come to learn and polish their Kurdish, with peshmerga rotations as far afield as the Mosul area in Iraq. “There are big wars in front of us. The fight will not just be on the military front, it will be political, diplomatic and economic. Kurdish youth should be ready,” he says.

Other than the crumbling peace process, the main obstacle the independence-minded youth see on their path is Turkey's relative success in assimilating Kurds into cities. During Turkey's election campaign, some youth turned their back on the HDP because its supporters raised the Turkish flag along Kurdish banners at an election rally in Diyarbakir.

“First we must educate the Kurdish nation here,” says Yusuf Tan, who unlike his peers was raised speaking Turkish at home and is now doing his best to rapidly master Kurdish. “Then we will enter an armed struggle.”

This hardening of attitudes worries those whose work is dedicated to advancing Kurdish rights and putting to rest the conflict between the Turkish state and PKK. So does the Turkish state’s heavy-handed reactions to Kurdish youth activism, particularly during the IS siege of Kobane in northern Syria. 

“We know that in the last few years many youth have joined the YPG and YPJ,” says Abdurrahim Ay, a lawyer and vice-chairman of human rights association Mazlumder, referring to PKK-affiliated fighting units in Syria. “The next generation is much more radical. We can’t control them.”

No fear among today's youth

The names of those who have fought and died in Kobane and other recent battles fill two notebooks in the offices of Meya-Der, an association for the families of martyrs. There, bereaved parents gather and watch the news on a PKK channel. The network of such families numbers 3,500 in Diyarbakir, 20,000 nationwide, according to the association. 

“The old generation wants the peace process to succeed but the younger one has different ideas,” says co-chairwoman Ayse Dicle, whose teenage son and daughter long to fight in either Iraq or Syria. “In the nineties there was so much fear and torture. Today’s youth haven’t absorbed this. There is no fear. The new generation won’t tolerate attacks on Kurds. We can’t hold them back.”

Ms. Dicle, clad in khaki and sporting a floral headscarf, warns that war will come to Turkey if the peace process is not revived.

Even the academically minded wonder if the final fight will be not across the border in Syria and Iraq but against Turkish forces at home. Among them is the lawyer Mr. Baran, who wants peace but ultimately believes separation from Turkey is the best solution to the Kurdish question.

“I am against going to the mountains,” he says. “But if the government doesn’t give us the opportunity to challenge in a democratic way, most of the young generation will want to go to the mountains and fight.”

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