Cynicism drives young Kurds away from government outreach, toward rebellion

Young Kurds see little reason to pin hopes on a Turkish government plan to improve their lives. Instead they are turning to Kurdish rebel groups.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
Led by Kurdish politicians, Turkish Kurds marched Nov. 11 in Diyarbakir, Turkey.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Kurdish mother Samiye was not surprised when her daughter left college earlier this year and disappeared "into the mountains" to join the Kurdish rebels. Her son was already there. He's a member of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has fought the Turkish state since the 1980s.

"They're students; they're educated, so they know what's going on," says Samiye, who wore a white wraparound head scarf and asked that her real name not be used. "The state has to give reason for us to trust them ... [it] doesn't want to solve the problem; their aim is to finish the Kurds, which is not possible."

Samiye's daughter is part of a fresh wave of young ethnic Kurds who are giving up on the Turkish government's "Kurdish Opening," a plan announced last year by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to improve the lives of Kurds in southeast Turkey after decades of war and neglect.

The "opening" was a big risk for the AKP in a nation where, since modern Turkey was founded from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, all citizens were considered Turks regardless of ethnicity. The large Kurdish minority was forcibly prevented from exercising any cultural rights; speaking Kurdish was forbidden. The war with the PKK has taken nearly 40,000 lives.

The "opening" was fiercely contested by Turkish nationalists, whose control over the judiciary, security services, and military has meant continued pressure. At least 153 Kurdish activists and politicians are on trial in Diyarbakir – a fraction of the some 1,500 imprisoned on charges of illegal political activities across the southeast.

"Even the government wants to make some [positive] steps, but nationalist Turks say, 'We are not giving up,' " laments Samiye during a recent protest against the trial at the Diyarbakir courthouse.

Three years ago here, optimism was taking hold as senior AKP politicians, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gul, who would later become president, promised to open a Kurdish-language TV channel and roll back laws that severely restricted Kurdish cultural and political rights.

The TV channel is on the air and some took advantage of the opening, like Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Diyarbakir Sur. But his push for wider use of Kurdish – including supporting a groundbreaking 12-volume set of Kurdish children's stories – landed him in jail.

That fact pushed Mr. Demirbas's son toward the rebellion. "Kurds are in the mountains because there is no democracy; that is why my son went," says the mayor. Demirbas was given jail time; his son took off in May 2009, when he was 16.

"My son said: 'You are even a mayor, and you are not allowed [to pursue Kurdish rights]. So I choose to fight with a gun,' " recalls Demirbas, now returned to the mayor's office.

"In speeches they say 'drop your guns and join democracy,' but this is not the reality," he says. "They want Kurds to go to the mountains, the AKP most of all. They talk too much about Kurds, but do nothing."

The guerrilla war – punctuated by vicious acts of violence by both the PKK and the Turkish military – has eased since the 1999 arrest of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in Kenya. The PKK no longer calls for creation of a separate Kurdish state, but for Turkey to respect Kurdish traditions and greater self-rule.

Demirbas says the endgame should be "like two flowers of different colors in the same garden."

But the military has kept up pressure against the PKK, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. And in early November, an offshoot of the PKK that opposes reconciliation mounted a suicide attack in Istanbul that wounded more than 30 people.

"When it comes to the Kurdish issue, the biggest enemy of the Kurds in this country is the PKK, because the PKK is exploiting the clean hearts and minds of Kurds in Turkey for their drug trafficking, by hijacking the lives of Kurds," Egemen Bagis, Turkey's top European Union negotiator, said last month in Istanbul.

Despite the attack, the prime minister "announced we would continue with the democratization in this country, dealing with terrorists in a language they understand, but not confusing them with lawful citizens," said Mr. Bagis.

At the Diyarbakir courthouse protest, a young Kurd in jeans says she was there "to tell the Turkish state we are not terrorists, and they are not the chosen ones."

"Nothing has changed. It has not gotten better," she says. "This hopeless period makes young people go to the mountains."

Many mothers of guerrillas were there to protest the trial, in which judges said the attempted defense in Kurdish was made in an "incomprehensible language." They told the defendants that they would remain in jail until the trial resumed in January.

Some of the protesters held PKK posters or signs, many chanting PKK slogans. The police did not intervene but were nearby, looking like "robocops" in full black plastic riot armor. Samiye, the mother of the two Kurdish rebels, was in the crowd. She's a veteran of protests demanding Kurdish rights.

"We are mothers; we don't really want fighting," says Samiye. "We want our children to come back from the mountains. We want peace not just for Kurdish mothers, but also for Turkish mothers."

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