Turkey Struggles With Kurdish Uprising
SIIRT, TURKEY — THE first time Abdulharim Ozonal was forced out of his village, soldiers gave the 80 families there the choice of either forming a militia to fight separatist Kurdish guerrillas or leaving. Now, three years later, after settling in another village in southeastern Turkey, Mr. Ozonal, himself a Kurd, thinks he will soon have to move again.
``Last year I was beaten and detained for 50 days because I wouldn't take a gun from the government,'' he says. ``Nobody in my village wants to fight, so almost every day now when we wake up we see soldiers surrounding our homes and threatening us. But this time, where can I go? I can't afford to lose everything twice.''
Across southeastern Turkey, where the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) is waging an armed struggle for an independent Kurdish state, hundreds of villages have been evacuated by security forces on grounds that the people cannot adequately be protected from PKK attacks.
But displaced villagers say the villages evacuated - often with only 24 hours' notice and after weeks of harassment - are those that refuse to set up a militia. They say this is their punishment. According to local human rights officials, over 30,000 people were forcibly moved in 1989.
``Every year it gets worse for us,'' says a man from a village near Siirt, where much of this year's fighting is centered. ``But this war won't be finished until we get our rights, which means a Kurdish state. I may not be fighting with [the PKK], but I love them and am one of them.''
As the war between the PKK and the Turkish Army enters its sixth year with no signs of lessening, government attempts to break local support for the guerrillas seem to be failing. More and more people are willing to speak up for an independent Kurdistan, say local lawyers and human rights activists.
And while the PKK's base of support has historically been limited to the tiny villages dotting the mountainous southeast, observers say it has now spread into the cities, where people are weary of poverty, harassment, and official policies denying the existence of 10 million Kurds among Turkey's 55 million people.
``Even if security forces would clear away every village, the PKK would just come into cities like Siirt for food, which they do already,'' says Mr. Zubeyir Aydar, a lawyer from Siirt. ``People are no longer afraid of the security forces, because they have been harassed and detained and tortured so much that they cease to be scared.'' Mr. Aydar was sent into internal exile last fall for three months after he investigated allegations of torture of civilians by security forces.
Kurds took to the streets this spring to protest government policies that deny their existence and alleged abuses of civilians by security forces. The demonstrations, which spread to almost all major cities in the southeast, were put down after two weeks, but not before being labeled the ``Kurdish intifadah [uprising].''
In response, the Turkish government issued a decree in April granting the regional governor wide-ranging powers to exile people, transfer ``harmful'' state employees, evacuate villages without prior notice, and censor press coverage of the southeast anywhere in Turkey.
``If the aim of the decree was to stop people from supporting the guerrillas and break democratic resistance, then the opposite has happened, and the Kurdish national movement has strengthened,'' says Mehmet Gultehin, deputy editor of the political magazine ``2000'e dogru'' (Toward the Year 2000), which was permanently closed in June under the decree.
``I can't estimate the number of people in the southeast who support the PKK,'' says Ilyas Erdem, a spokesman for the regional governor. ``But these people are being forced to help them because the PKK comes at them with guns and if they don't help, their lives are in danger.''
Fighting between the PKK, which has an estimated 8,000 guerrillas, and the Turkish Army has escalated this year, with clashes reported daily. In Siirt, helicopters buzz overhead during the day while at night security forces patrol the streets.
Although the PKK is vastly outnumbered - the Turkish Army has about 100,000 troops based in this region, backed up by 24,000 paid civilian militia guards - it does not seem to be losing ground. Local Kurds and a few Turkish observers say this is because most of the local population supports the guerrillas by giving them food, clothing, and money.
Over 2,500 people have died since the PKK first began fighting in 1984. At least one-third of these were villagers. International human rights groups, such as Helsinki Watch, say the PKK continues to kill civilians. But many local residents insist the guerrillas have changed their tactics and that the villagers targeted are government militiamen.
``They tell us we must take arms or else the PKK will attack us, but the PKK comes and talks to us,'' says one villager from near Siirt. ``It's the government, the state, the soldiers, we're afraid of because they don't talk - they kill.''
Turkish officials have tried to restrict journalists' access to this region. This reporter was followed and photographed throughout a three-day visit.
Criticism of Turkish government policies toward the Kurds is now coming from the opposition Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP). The SHP issued a report in mid-July referring to government mistreatment of the local population in the southeast. It called for abolition of the village militia system and lifting of the ban on the Kurdish language.
But Kurdish and some Turkish observers question whether the SHP, in the unlikely chance it came to power, would actually institute these measures. Not only would it face opposition from the military, they say, but the SHP's treatment of its Kurdish deputies has lost the party much support and trust among Kurds. Last fall, the SHP expelled seven deputies who attended a Kurdish conference in Paris.
The recognition of Kurds ``is a very sensitive issue, and everyone should be careful about it,'' Turkish President Turgut Ozal told a press conference last month. ``To see the Kurds as a separate people would be against their interests. But in no way are we discriminating against the Kurds.''
Mr. Ozal said he supported repealing the 1982 law banning use of the Kurdish language, but that he was against the use of Kurdish in schools.
In any case, Kurdish villagers say, it is too late to wipe out the problem solely by legalizing the Kurdish language. They say that, short of some form of autonomy, the fighting will continue.
The PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was reported in the Turkish press a few months ago as willing to negotiate a truce with the government.
But a few days later the government issued its decree restricting coverage of the Kurdish issue and all discussion of this topic ceased in the press. And a few weeks ago, Turkish prime minister Yildirim Akbulut said there were no Kurds in Turkey, and that everyone living ``on this soil is obliged to be a Turk.''