AS night falls on the nearby Cudi Mountains, special commando units take up positions among the trees and benches in the park in the center of town. Military checkpoints are set up on the main roads out of town. By 10 p.m. an unofficial curfew has set in. Only an occasional police car - windows down and guns pointed out - speeds down the streets.
Sirnak is a town of 15,000 Kurds and about as many Turks belonging to military and police units. It is located in Siirt province, roughly the same as what the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) calls Botan. Last year, the PKK, which has an estimated 5,000 members, announced Botan would be the center of its armed struggle to establish an independent Kurdish nation.
Formed in 1978, the Marxist-Leninist PKK took a census of the Kurdish region from 1982 to 1984 and delineated the area it hopes to liberate (map). From 1984 on, it has battled Turkey.
Almost nightly, bands of PKK guerrillas operating from bases in the Cudi Mountains attack Turkish military garrisons and village militia throughout the area.
The five-year war, which left 30 people dead last week and more than 1,500 since it first began, has now escalated. During the first six months of this year, there were 258 PKK-related incidents - village militias attacked, government buildings bombed - compared with a total of 315 such incidents for the whole of 1988, according to Hayri Kozakcioglu, the regional governor in charge of security in the southeast. He adds that the situation could worsen over the next two years if security forces do not actively pursue the PKK.
The army has responded to the upsurge by doubling the number of troops in the region to 110,000, of which 30,000 are stationed in Sirnak and the Cudi Mountains.
``The terrorists are using weapons to realize their aims ... therefore, we have to use weapons against weapons. We are working on the situation and we have taken the necessary military measures,'' said General Chief of Staff Necip Torumtay in a written statement released last week.
At least two villages in the mountains have been evacuated recently in preparation for what local press reports say will be a decisive military attack on guerrilla bases before winter sets in and makes the area impassable.
Torumtay also made special reference to villagers who support the PKK, saying, ``We must now accept that persons supporting those who are fighting against our national unity with weapons are also our enemies.''
His statement was widely interpreted to mean that the military no longer favors the ``hearts and minds'' campaign promoted by the government for the past few years.
This campaign brought basic services such as electricity and roads to the economically impoverished southeast. But observers say the government was unable to win widespread Kurdish support because of its continuing refusal to recognize officially an ethnic Kurdish identity.
The government has started to ease restrictions on the use of Kurdish, this year permitting parents' to give children Kurdish names and allowing lawyers to converse with their clients in Kurdish. Observers say it is too little, too late.
``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,'' says Ismail Besikci, an Ankara sociologist who has spent more than a decade in prison in connection with his writings on Turkey's 10 million Kurds.
``These children saw old men put on trial, who could only speak through a translator, and they heard the judge say the Kurdish langugage doesn't exist. This is when they began thinking of the problem ... the PKK is partly a reaction to repression,'' Mr. Besikci says.
Local support for the PKK is difficult to gauge. Villagers fear retaliation from either the military or the PKK should their views be made public.
But according to longtime residents of the area, years of military abuses ranging from vehicles being requisitioned to people held for days and tortured, have pushed opinion toward the PKK.
``People look at the television and wonder why there are no programs in a language they can understand. They are scared to work in their fields because the military may call them a PKK guerrilla and shoot them. And they feel the PKK is the only group fighting for their rights,'' a schoolteacher working in the Sirnak area says.
Yet, many people in this area also complain of being caught between the Turkish military and the PKK - with both sides demanding an allegiance they are not sure they want to give.
``A few weeks ago, the PKK came to my house and said it was time I went into their army. And now the Turkish Army has called me. I don't really think I want to join either. What I would really like to do is flee this whole mess,'' says an 18-year-old boy in Sirnak.