Turkish Kurds: some back the state

Though embattled, not all Kurds support the militant Kurdistan Workers Party.

He may be a Turkish Kurd, but Mehmet Gungor says he has every reason to "hate" the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Twenty years ago, armed Kurdish separatists visited his uncle's house, asking the extended family to provide food and one or two children as PKK recruits. Citing their poverty in remote southeast Turkey, the family refused.

Mr. Gungor, then barely a teenager, watched through his window as the militants set fire to the place, killing 13 relatives. Then they torched his family's house. "If the security forces had come five minutes later, we would have died," he says.

The result of that event has led him to a rare position among Turkey's long-embattled Kurds: standing firmly alongside the military and state authorities.

"While the terrorists try to gain their Kurdish rights, at the same time they kill their own Kurdish people," says Gungor, who heads the Sirnak branch of the national Association of Veterans and Martyrs and whose stance has spurred him to pack a pistol. "If they want to establish a separate Kurdish [state], why do they choose to kill civilians? That is not the way."

The PKK waged a brutal fight against the state from 1984 through the 1990s that left some 37,000 dead, the majority of them guerrillas. The conflict was marked by PKK killings of teachers, village guards, and other civilians, beside Turkish troops, causing the US and European Union to list the PKK as a "terrorist" group.

That designation continues. Last week the US special envoy for countering the PKK, retired Gen. Joseph Ralston, said: "[The PKK] should be treated as murderers by everyone, including the United States."

Turkey's military responded in the early 1990s with a harsh state of emergency, under which 3,000 villages were evacuated in a scorched-earth policy, hundreds of thousands were displaced, and abuses included killings and torture.

Fighting calmed after the PKK said in 1999 that it had given up its separatist demands and would struggle for Kurdish rights peacefully. But PKK attacks have mounted in recent months, spurring Turkey's military and government to threaten a cross-border operation into Iraq and order recruitment of 50,000 more local village guards.

On Sunday, four masked ex-PKK members, one of them a woman and all of them claiming to have just "escaped," told journalists in Sirnak that the guerrillas were fleeing the northern Iraqi camps. "In the last few days, the rumors of a cross-border operation have triggered fear within the [PKK]," one said. "All the camps have been emptied." The ex-rebels also claimed to have witnessed two US armored vehicles delivering weapons to the PKK in northern Iraq, giving ammunition – apocryphal or not – to some Turkish claims of secret US support for the PKK.

The toll rose Wednesday with reports that two PKK fighters had been killed by Turkish troops while trying to lay a mine in eastern Tunceli Province, and that a pro-government village guard had been killed in nearby Bingol.

Gungor says the 1987 attack on his family caused him to "grow in his hate" against the PKK and to join the village guards. "Like all Sirnak citizens, we were in the middle," says Gungor, whose desk is watched over by a portrait of modern Turkey's secular military founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. His office organized a June 9 anti-PKK rally, which drew some 5,000 people, almost all of them Kurds, to the streets.

"Sirnak people hate PKK terrorism," says Gungor, as a video of the rally plays on his computer. "Though Sirnak is small, there are many people [at the rally] – they are cursing terrorism."

Contrary to the view of many Kurds and their lawyers, Gungor claims that Kurds and Turks share "equal rights" and that "we can't see discrimination."

"We are all Kurds living under the same flag; if they choose, they must accept that Turkish sovereignty," says Gungor. He says the PKK fight is pointless: "There was no cease-fire. They said they gave up their arms, but in fact never gave them up. If they find any excuse, they fight."

The renewed violence has brought a host of applications to join the village guards, to bulk up the 12,000 already attached to Sirnak region. Gungor asserts that people who "go to the mountains" and join the PKK are "tricked and forced" to go.

"Sirnak citizens are really innocent, [so] they are easily tricked," he says. "We have many who were tricked in the 1980s and 1990s – generally the poor."

This hillside town – adjacent to one of three areas near the Iraq border where the military established special closed zones for the next four months – has lost 325 citizens to the conflict.

The seventh soldier from Sirnak to die (all males must serve in the Turkish military) was buried last month after being killed on June 4 with six other soldiers in a PKK bomb attack. News reports noted that, at the funeral, the mother of Private Burhan Yalcin sang Kurdish songs as she mourned.

"My son is murdered for the state," says the soldier's Kurdish father, Yusuf Yalcin, a senior police officer. "As Turkish citizens, we raise our children with the aim to protect our country and its people."

In Turkish tradition, the family sent their son to the military 10 months earlier with celebration and singing. The father says that his son's calls home always included these words: "Our heart is for our country and our body can be sacrificed for our flag."

Mr. Yalcin remembers one conversation in which his son spoke of setting up his own carpentry shop after his tour. Instead, the father has a black plastic bag full of official condolence letters: Turkey's prime minister wrote that "the fire only burns the place where it falls," and that the son's "immortal spirit is still protecting their country, and protecting us."

The father, his gray mustache and hair well trimmed, receives visitors on the wind-swept roof of his house, overlooking a verdant ravine that gives way to brown fields. Inside, the family has set aside a room for a memorial, which is unfinished but includes portraits of their son in uniform and a triangle-folded Turkish flag presented by senior officers.

The family says their son's funeral was the largest ever in Sirnak, with 2,000 mourners. "One Birhan is killed, but 1,000 Birhans will be reborn," Yalcin says stoically. "Turkish soldiers are very young, very fresh, like saplings. At the same time, they resemble an oak tree that lives long and has lots of roots."

Yalcin expressed his thanks profusely, twice, to all Turkish authorities for their support.

"By killing, shooting, or slaughtering the innocent ones, [the PKK] can't do anything. That's not a solution," says Yalcin. "If they feel themselves to be brave, I suggest the PKK [fight] face to face, not with suicide attacks."

Next: Ethnic Kurds who say that they are proud to back the PKK.

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