Turkey's Kurds languish in poverty

The Kurdish southeast copes with unemployment, violence.

Outside a post office in this southeastern Turkish town ringed by cotton and wheat fields, men and women jostle for position, eager to read a list of names posted near the window. The names are of poor families with school-age children eligible for financial support from a World Bank program, giving each $7-14 per child every month.

Sakir Yasarer, a father of three, says he couldn't find his family's name on the list. "I'm very poor. I'm in a very tough position," says Mr. Yasarer. His children, he says, sometimes go to the dump to find scrap metal or plastic to earn extra cash for the family. "I need a factory job, something steady, something I can go to everyday."

Yasarer's story is not unusual in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast, a region that lags behind the rest of Turkey in virtually every economic indicator.

Turkey's unemployment rate is about 10 percent, but in the southeast the figure is closer to 60. And while some cities in western Turkey, where much of the country's industry is located, have per capita incomes that rival parts of Europe, many cities in the southeast have per capita incomes more in line with parts of India.

Some economists attribute this gap to decades of official neglect and the effects of the 15-year war fought between the Turkish military and the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the 1980s and 1990s. A recent increase in PKK activity after a lull of six years - some 120 Turkish security personnel have been killed in the past year - is causing concern that the southeast will again be torn by violence, further damaging its fragile economy.

"We worked very hard to put into people's minds the idea of investing here," says Kurtbettin Arzu, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Diyarbakir, the political and cultural capital of Turkey's Kurdish region. "If you had asked me six months ago, I would have said things have improved, but now we have started to go back."

In an apparent response to the growing PKK activity, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Diyarbakir earlier this month. He declared that the Kurdish problem would be solved through greater democratization. But business leaders and officials here insist that any effort aimed at settling the Kurdish issue must go beyond political and cultural rights to include economic development.

Despite a month-long cease-fire called for by the PKK following Prime Minister Erdogan's speech, violence in the region continues. In clashes last week with PKK guerrillas in a remote part of Batman, another southeast province, Turkish soldiers killed three members of the Kurdish rebel group.

In Diyarbakir, where the population has tripled over the past 15 years, fed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of villagers who had fled the fighting between the PKK and the military, local officials say poverty and unemployment have led to a host of worrying trends, including prostitution and drug use. The city of 1.2 million also has what some estimate to be Turkey's largest population of street children.

"The people in this region are asking why this region has no factories. They look at other regions and ask why they have state-sponsored industries and irrigation," says Firat Anli, a district mayor in Diyarbakir.

The government, with help from the European Union (EU) and the UN Development Program, has set up several offices throughout the southeast to assist local businesses. But Bulent Yuce, a field officer with the program, says economic growth here is kept in check by deep-rooted problems that are difficult to surmount. "Investors from the west [of Turkey] don't think about investing here, not because of terror but because of a lack of infrastructure, trained personnel, and the distance from raw materials."

Many hope that Erdogan's recent visit to Diyarbakir is an indication that his government will start paying more attention to the southeast's economic woes.

Istanbul-based political analyst Mehmet Ali Birand says economic development is the key to turning back a resurgent PKK. "You have to get people to work, you have to give them hope.... They are normal people who are thinking about jobs, about giving their children an education. Once you give those normal people something to do, the PKK cannot survive."

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