Turkey: massacre reflects ancient traditions and volatile politics

An attack in the southeast that killed 44 at an engagement party was rooted in a blood feud.

Ibrahim Usta/AP
People gather for the funeral prayers for the victims of Monday's attack in the village of Bilge, near the city of Mardin in southeastern Turkey, Tuesday, May 5, 2009.

An attack by masked gunmen on an engagement party in a small village in southeast Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of 44 people, is being seen as a reflection of both the troubled region's ancient traditions and volatile modern politics.

According to locals in Bilge, a village that sits on a small hilltop about 12 miles from the city of Mardin, there was a decades-long dispute between the attackers' family and the family of the would-be groom. The semi-official Anatolia news agency reported that the masked attackers had wanted the bride-to-be to marry one among their own group of friends or relatives, but that her family would not allow it.

The bride, Sevgi Celebi, the groom, Habib Ari, his mother, and his sister were all killed, as was the imam who was presiding over the engagement at time of the attack, according to the agency.

Turkish officials said eight suspects were in custody, caught with their weapons.

"Honor is very important in this region, and it's very difficult to change the traditions that deal with honor. They are a very strong part of this society," says Mazhar Bagli, a professor of sociology at Dicle University in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

Experts believe dozens are killed each year in "blood feuds" in rural Turkey. Efforts to stop the feuds' violence have been limited, mostly left to individuals such as Sait Sanli, a former butcher in Diyarbakir who helps broker peace treaties between warring families.

But Professor Bagli says the fact that the families involved were part of the "Village Guards," a well-armed militia set up by the Turkish government in the 1980s to fight the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), meant something more than tradition was to blame for the massacre.

Observers have long criticized the "Village Guard" program, saying it created a violent division in Kurdish society and allowed militia members to use their power to settle scores and even expropriate land.

"[The village guard system] has changed the balance of the society here," Bagli says.

"The problems created by the political situation and the traditions – I think both of them are part of this crime."

Turkish leaders, meanwhile, criticized the attack and the traditions behind it in strong terms.

"No customs and mores can be used as an excuse for this massacre," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a party meeting in Ankara. "This is the painful price we are paying for such customs and mores."

In a statement, President Abdullah Gul called for "individual and institutional" efforts to prevent incidents like this from happening again.

"We are feeling a great sorrow as a nation. Such a primitive cruelty that opened deep cuts in our conscience is inexplicable," Mr. Gul said. "Everybody should think seriously about tradition, blood feuds, and animosity standing before human life in this era we are living in."

In Bilge, tractors were busy digging graves in the small cemetery near the entrance to the village. Inside the village, relatives of the murdered individuals and residents of nearby villages gathered near the one-storey house where the killings took. Inside the house, bullet holes riddled the walls.

"This comes from ignorance, nothing else. What's the reason for coming to this point and killing so many people?" said one relative who lives in a neighboring village and who asked not to be named. "How can life come back to normal here?"

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