In Turkey's Kurdish southeast, pock-marked hope
Two years after a bookstore bombing rocked this community's faith in democratization, the owner – a former PKK guerrilla – has reopened his shop.
Semdinli, Turkey — When he finished a 15-year jail sentence for being a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2001, Seferi Yilmaz returned home to put his prison experience to good use.
"I read a lot of books while I was in prison and I believe an enlightened person is someone who will turn away from violence," says Mr. Yilmaz, who opened a book store selling Turkish and Kurdish tomes in this small town ringed by craggy mountains 20 miles from Turkey's border with Iraq. He named it Umut – "hope" in Turkish.
Instead, violence came to Yilmaz's one-room shop in an event that locals portray as a negative turning point in efforts to democratize a troubled region that saw tens of thousands killed in the Kurds' separatist fight during the '80s and '90s.
Reform efforts were under way and calm had settled in when, two years ago this week, a pair of grenades were thrown into Yilmaz's store, leaving it charred and shrapnel-pocked.
Yilmaz barely escaped the Nov. 9, 2005, bombing and – with other locals – quickly apprehended the bomber, along with two accomplices who turned out to be intelligence officers with Turkey's paramilitary gendarmerie. The three tried to escape in a car, in the trunk of which were found more weapons, a list of names including Yilmaz's, and maps detailing where these people lived and worked.
The bombing of the Umut bookstore was followed by several days of violent rioting throughout Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, and a court case against the attackers still drags on today.
While international attention has recently honed in on renewed clashes between Turkey and the PKK as a major threat to the gains of democratization in the region, locals see the bombing and its inconclusive aftermath as an earlier test of democratization – one that many say the country might have failed.
"Before, people didn't believe that bombings could be done by the military or police, they thought it was propaganda. But in this case they lived it," says Yilmaz, sitting in his bookshop. It's been repainted a creamy yellow, except for the ceiling, which is pocked with shrapnel marks. "People now understood how things work."
Violence is nothing new to those living in Turkey's southeast. Still, the last few years have seen the Turkish government institute a number of political reforms in the region, and there was an initial belief in Semdinli and other places that the investigation of the case would benefit from that.
"There was some kind of hope that there would be a result out of the investigation of the bombing, but that hope was left unmet," says Emin Sari, a Kurdish political activist in Semdinli, whose name was among those found on the list in the trunk of the bookshop bombers' car.
The Turkish government's first response to Semdinli was decisive, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promising to get to the bottom of the case. An aggressive prosecutor from the nearby city of Van, Ferhat Sarikaya, took on the case, but ran into trouble when he declared that top-level military officials had supported covert illegal operations in the southeast.
In the face of a powerful military, the government took Mr. Sarikaya off the case, saying he had overstepped his bounds. Turkey's Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges disbarred him for life.
Still, in June 2006, the two officers charged in the bombing were found guilty and sentenced to 39 years in jail. But this past May, Turkey's top appeals court quashed the verdict on procedural grounds and sent it to a military court. Observers in Turkey say the ruling could be the case's demise.
"It was a big chance to get to the bottom of rogue elements of the security forces doing violent, lawless activities in the name of counterterrorism, but the government made a mistake," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Turkey.
Despite the setback, there is still a sense of hope in Semdinli. The local authorities have responded by improving life in the dusty town, building new roads and a bridge.
Yilmaz reopened his bookstore with a cheeky new sign that incorporates a hand grenade into it and announces the shop as the site of the famous Semdinli bombing.
Several soot-smudged books – from a Danielle Steel novel to a volume about UFOs – are kept in two bookcases with glass doors, along with a teapot pierced by shrapnel.
Two small craters on the floor, marking where the grenades exploded, have been left untouched.
"I believe this is part of our history and I want it to be remembered," Yilmaz says.