War memories haunt Turkey's Kurds

In southeastern Turkey, the US invasion of Iraq is viewed with mixed emotions

Less than an hour from Ankara lies a land of broken villages and homes reduced to rubble that seems closer to Afghanistan than to the edge of Europe. The homes are the remains of another war that ended four years ago and which much of the world ignored or forgot.

But through Kurdish eyes, memories of a brutal 15-year conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels are deeply woven into the picture of what might emerge from the war in neighboring Iraq. In this predominantly Kurdish area of southeastern Turkey - the region closest to Iraq - the war across the border has already been making itself felt in different slices of society.

For Cahit Ates, who recently brought his family back to their shattered village of Tepecik after being driven out in a hail of violence a decade ago, the war brings concerns about more fighting and deprivation. For performers like Farqin, a popular Kurdish singer who is regularly banned by police from giving concerts, the war has tightened an already stifling atmosphere for expressions of Kurdish identity. And for politicians, a new Turkish government decision to ban one Kurdish political party and begin proceedings to shut down another have left people exasperated with efforts to transform their once-separatist aspirations into a democratic struggle for equal rights in Turkey.

The welcome mat to Tepecik, a village whose name means little hill, consists of two angry watch dogs, an unpaved road, and the crumbled frames of homes that look as though they belong on an archeological site. Tepecik has no running water and no school, mosque, or other facilities. But it does have electricity, allowing the Ates family to spend their days watching the war unfold on the television in the corner of their one-room house.

Mr. Ates checks it from the corner of his eye as he recalls how Tepecik, once a village of 80 homes, was emptied one winter night in 1992. "They came and started to shoot all of us," he recalls. They shot with Kalashnikovs. They threw grenades. They poured fuel on the houses and set them on fire. They killed five people, including Ates's sister and her son, who had been trying to run away.

Who "they" were is one of the most explosive questions in Turkey. They were their own neighbors, people here say, men hired by the Turkish military to serve as "Village Guards" to attack and flush out communities that were suspected of supporting the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK. The PKK was at war with Turkey until it declared a unilateral cease-fire after its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999 and convicted. Around 5,000 of its guerrillas are now based in northern Iraq.

The Turkish government says that it was the PKK who assaulted, burned, and otherwise destroyed some 4,500 villages during the course of the war, which displaced about a million people. Now, after years of struggling to survive as virtual refugees on the outskirts of Turkish cities, some former residents have decided that it is time to go home.

The conditions under which they are able to return to their native villages, however, is a subject of controversy. Only those willing to sign a government form stating that their village was attacked by terrorists - synonymous in Turkey with the PKK - are allowed to return, human rights organizations and Kurdish political parties claim.

"Some villagers don't want to sign this so they don't go back," says Mustafa Karahan, the local chairman of DEHAP, a Kurdish political party that a Turkish state court moved to close down last month. "I saw this letter, but I wouldn't sign it because it's not true. The state burned down our village, and I won't say otherwise."

Exhaustion hangs in the gray air and in the eerie, empty spaces left behind by families who fled to Turkey's big cities or Europe.

Only about 20 of the village's 80 original homes have come to life again. Few here express a keenness to see a renewal in fighting between Turks and Kurds. But the flip side of their fears of new tensions is a hope that Iraq's war will lead to a Kurdish state - the very thing the Turkish establishment fears most.

"I think all the people will be happy after the war if there is a Kurdish state," says Teyfik Ates, Cahit's older cousin. "The people of southeastern Turkey, they will want their freedom, too. Maybe the people will strive for a Kurdish state here. Not with weapons, but with their minds."

Or with a song. It is close to midnight at a subterranean nightclub, where a live band is playing songs in Turkish - and an occasional one in Kurdish.

When they do, smiles appear. A young Kurdish journalist whispers: "You could still get in trouble for this."

Mr. Farqin, a famous Kurdish singer, says his band Koma Azad - "the Freedom Group" - is regularly banned from holding concerts. Turkish police, Farqin complains, incorrectly translate their lyrics to make them sound radical.

When he sings lines about feeling that he's in a prison because he misses a lover, it is interpreted as longing for the armed struggle for independence from Turkey.

"They want to sabotage the peace situation," says the handsome singer, dressed in jeans and a black turtleneck sweater during an interview at the Tigris and Euphrates Art and Cultural Center, a new hangout for Kurdish artists.

The center's director, Giyasettin Sehir, agrees. "Our idea of peace means that we can speak our language and have our cultural identity," he says. "Their idea of peace is for us to be silent, to refuse our history, to think like Turks, read like Turks, act like Turks."

Just last August the Turkish parliament allowed Kurdish to be broadcast for a few hours a week, and said the Kurdish language would be permitted to be taught. In practice, neither decision has been fully implemented.

Both were specifically geared toward meeting requirements for joining the European Union - a goal that has been floating further away from Turkey.

Crystalizing differences, the European human rights court ruled last month that Mr. Ocalan, the PKK leader, had not received a fair trial.

The next day, Turkey closed down HADEP, a party Turkey accuses of having connections with the PKK, and started proceedings to close DEHAP, which essentially has the same membership.

Party members think it was a way of discouraging Turkish Kurds from even thinking about following in the footsteps of their fellow Kurds in Iraq. Others warn it could backfire, taking away chances for expression and forcing Kurds to look for other alternatives.

"It was the beginning of a relaxed situation. Then the war discussions started and things changed," says Selahattin Demirtas, the chairman of the Human Rights Association of Diyarbakir.

"If the people don't have the ability to use their democratic rights, then they can go to the mountains," he says. It is a phrase, in these parts, that is a euphemism for fighting.

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