Kurdish unrest stirs again in Turkey

Underlying social problems remain in the Kurdish southeast, where protests turned violent last week.

Relative calm has returned to this city in Turkey's southeast after three days of violent clashes between Kurds and Turkish security forces. But the underlying tensions have not gone anywhere. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Schleifer's name.]

"We want to make peace with the government, but when we say we are Kurds and want the law to recognize that, they say to us that there are no Kurds and there is no Kurdish problem," says a local student who took part in the clashes and is afraid to be identified.

The student says the Turkish government's harsh response to the protests - which spread to several other cities in the predominantly Kurdish southeast and even to Istanbul, resulting in the death of 16, including a 6-year-old, and the arrest of hundreds - has him thinking about going off to join the guerrillas of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

"There are a lot, a lot, of other young people in Diyarbakir who are thinking the same way," he says.

It may be the talk of a still-emotional young man, but his words give a glimpse of the growing tension in this volatile region, where more than 30,000 people lost their lives in the fight between the PKK and the Turkish military during the 1980s and '90s. The protests that shook Diyarbakir and some of the other cities in the southeast were the worst the area has seen in more than a decade and indicate the rise of a new generation of angry young Kurds ready to face off against the Turkish authorities.

The events, combined with a recent increase in clashes between the PKK and security forces and a string of bombings in Istanbul and other cities blamed on the organization, have resulted in a dangerous mix that is raising concerns that the region could again spiral into the kind of violence it witnessed during the dark days of the conflict.

"The [protests] were, in a way, expected by us," says Firat Anli, a district mayor in Diyarbakir. "They were the result of the political and social problems in the region not being resolved, and it resulted in this explosive earthquake."

"The young people are poor," he adds. "They are children of displaced families from villages who are having trouble adapting to life in the city, and public services are having trouble reaching them. They have a lot of rage against the system and it's very difficult to control that."

Suffering from high unemployment and a dearth of investment, southeast Turkey continues to lag behind the rest of the country in almost every economic indicator. And while recent years have seen increased cultural rights for the Kurds as well as democratic reforms, many in the region feel the changes have not gone far enough.

The European Union - one of the drivers of these reform efforts here - has expressed "concern" about how the renewed violence will be handled. "We urge the Turkish government to address in a comprehensive manner, and not only from a security point of view, the problems of this region and of its people," said Markos Kyprianou, the EU health commissioner.

However, the Turkish government feels it is fighting a terrorist organization in its struggle against the PKK, which called off a unilateral cease-fire two years ago. The US and the EU also label the PKK, which has some 5,000 fighters holed up in the mountains of northern Iraq, a terrorist group.

But perceptions of the group are different here. The funerals of 14 PKK fighters recently killed in combat with Turkish troops touched off the protests, drawing thousands of mourners who then turned their anger against the Turkish police. Many here looked at the dead guerrillas as locals fighting in their names, not as terrorists.

Meyase Pehlivan, the mother of one of the PKK members buried in Diyarbakir, explained her son's reasons for joining the group. "He was working for several years on solving this problem in a political way, but when he lost all hope he went to the mountains. He wanted to take some kind of action, so he joined the PKK."

Her 25-year-old son, Muzafer, was the leader of the youth wing of the local branch of a pro-Kurdish political party and had been arrested several times before heading off to join PKK in 2003, Ms. Pehlivan says. "He joined because he wanted to fight for the rights of Kurds and the identity of Kurds," she says.

Turkish officials say they are working to improve the situation in the area. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Diyarbakir eight months before in what was termed a historic visit, and offered his government's help in solving the "Kurdish problem."

Following the violent protests, Mr. Erdogan told parliament: "We will bring [to the Kurdish areas] more freedoms, more democracy, more welfare, more rights and justice."

But Kurdish politicians say not much has been done since Erdogan's visit and feel that the current political atmosphere gives the government little room for dialogue with the Kurds.

"The government doesn't have a program to solve the Kurdish problem," says Hilmi Aydogdu, a deputy chairman of the Diyarbakir branch of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, which has seen several of its top members arrested in the wake of the recent protests.

In Kiziltepe, a town an hour's drive from Diyarbakir where two people were killed in protests, locals were still struggling to make sense of the previous week's events.

"We've moved back 10 years," says Yasar Aygin, speaking in the small barbershop where he works. "When these events took place, I was reminded of the 1990s, when people were afraid to go out of their homes. I felt I was back in those days."

Around the corner, an owner of a shop, who asks not to be named, says his business, like every other business in Kiziltepe, was shuttered during the three days of protests.

"I wasn't angry. I have expenses for my shop - rent, taxes - but in order to get our cultural rights, our freedoms, I would close my shop for a month," he says.

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