Turkey's Kurds still prepared to fight

Attacks by Kurdish separatists have surged this year after several years of calm.

Sultan Koyun says she cries as much for fallen Turkish soldiers as for killed militants of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). For the first half of this story, published June 6, click here.

But as a Kurdish member of the "Mothers for Peace" group in southeast Turkey, she holds the PKK and its three-decade separatist struggle in higher regard. She is proud to count her son as a guerrilla, fighting Turks "in the mountains" for minority Kurdish rights that until recent years have been all but denied by the Turkish state.

"The State says the PKK is a terrorist organization, but the PKK is founded by our sons and daughters," says the sturdy matron with wire-rimmed glasses and head scarf. "They are not terrorists. They are just Kurds, humans like others, created by God."

"There are 40 million Kurds," says Mrs. Koyun, overcounting regional numbers by 10 million or so. "My question is to the state: "Does this mean there are 40 million terrorists?"

Offering tea in the Spartan "Mothers offices," Koyun and another mother describe how lives for many ethnic Kurds are defined by harassment at the hands of Turkish authorities, which for decades referred to Kurds as "mountain Turks" and refused to permit a separate cultural identity, including banning the Kurdish language from government institutions.

There is no talk of the PKK's many civilian casualties, except denial that PKK has caused any. But they both say that government pressure caused their sons – like thousands of others – to join the fight with the PKK in a 15-year war that stopped in 1999 after an estimated 37,000 deaths, but has now begun to reignite.

"The PKK is an organic part of society here, and largely through dead bodies," says a Western-educated Kurdish analyst in Diyarbakir who spoke on condition of anonymity.

TICKING OFF numbers, he says that 20,000 PKK militants have been killed, 10,000 more are in prison, and that there are 20,000 PKK activists in Europe, all with extended families. That means that hundreds of thousands of Kurds "are organically tied to the PKK," he says. This analyst himself lost three siblings who fought for the PKK.

"The naive strategy would be to claim they are only a terrorist organization, with no support," says the analyst. One hurdle is the "dehumanization" of Kurds by constant use in the media of the "terrorist" label.

Koyun's son was arrested in 1994 at the institute where he was a student, during the peak of a sweeping Turkish military state of emergency marred by mass clearances of Kurdish villages, disappearances, and torture. The son was "tortured badly," the mother says, so "had to run away to the mountains" – the euphemism here for joining the rebels.

Abuse continues in Turkey, though the state of emergency was lifted years ago. "Torture, ill-treatment, and killings continue to be met with persistent impunity for the security forces in Turkey," Amnesty International reported last week.

There were "widespread allegations of torture" after mass arrests during lethal demonstrations in Diyarbakir in March 2006, Amnesty said, in which 10 protestors were shot dead.

Koyun has been questioned many times by police, and once when her husband was arrested, he was told that 800 guerrillas had been killed.

"All of these 800 are like sons to me," the father says. The belief that their son was killed was dispelled only after eight years. They were able to visit him at a PKK base in northern Iraq a couple years ago. He had been badly wounded, and no longer fights on the front line, but decided to stay.

"We are all here as slaves without those rights, so he chose to stay and fight," says Koyun. "I was proud of him.Emine Ozberk is another activist, a mother who has been jailed twice, with two nephews and a niece who died fighting for the PKK.

Because of their role, Mrs. Ozberk's son was pressured by police, fled, and was arrested in Europe, before joining the PKK.

"Our children are defending themselves, because the Army and government does not give any human rights," asserts Ozberk. "They have nothing else but a simple weapon, [but] there is an Army that engages them with tanks and planes and guns."

In a first for a Turkish leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2005 admitted that Turkey had a Kurdish "problem" and that "mistakes have been made" in its heavy-handed dealings with the Kurds. They should be given "more democracy," not more oppression, he said.

Mr. Erdogan made the comments after several years of relative calm, when Turkey had made some EU-inspired legal changes that eased pressure on Kurds.

"What is going to change Kurd-Turkish relations in Turkey is not the EU, but what happens in [Kurdish] northern Iraq," adds the analyst. "While northern Iraq has 10 TV stations, here there is only 45 minutes [of Kurdish broadcasting allowed] each day. Here, you can't work in Kurdish. There, universities teach in Kurdish. This may radicalize [Turkey's] Kurds."

That is now happening, say Kurdish activists.

"[Turkish Kurds] don't expect so many things – [just] their own culture, language, and richness, but it's not allowed in Turkey," says Hasan Gungor, head of the Diyarbakir branch of the Teacher's Association. "A child is born, but can't be taught in [his or her] own language. It's a big infringement of human rights."Some restrictions have eased, but Mr. Gungor's predecessor has been sentenced to 14 months in prison for affixing his name to a statement marking international peace day, and legal cases continue against teachers caught addressing pupils in Kurdish."From childhood, I learned the struggle from my father and older brothers," says a Kurdish woman and PKK supporter who asked not to be identified. "I will struggle forever for my rights, until my death." The PKK guerrillas "want to put the weapons down, but the Turkish state keeps on attacking them, so I accept PKK attacks as defending themselves," she says.Even with attacks against civilians? "Never, never, says the woman, "The PKK never attacked any civilian."

Second of two parts. The first part is available here.

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