Europe

DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

As Turkey looks west, its future will likely be decided in its strife-torn southeast

ADNAN R. KHAN April 4 2005
Europe

DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

As Turkey looks west, its future will likely be decided in its strife-torn southeast

ADNAN R. KHAN April 4 2005

DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

Europe

As Turkey looks west, its future will likely be decided in its strife-torn southeast

ADNAN R. KHAN

THERE’S AN UNSETTLING feeling of isolation that comes with losing your cellphone signal in Turkey. Here, the mobile phone is a symbol of progress and, of course, the West. There are few places where one doesn’t work in this country, a European Union hopeful, and when it happens, something is amiss. Mine stopped functioning on a road in southeastern Turkey, the impoverished and predominantly Kurdish region. It was a reminder that I had entered an area where the rules are different. In the western part, the nation

envisioned by Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, has come into existence: Turkish cities like Istanbul and Izmir are unquestionably European and the standardbearers for Turkey’s EU membership bid. The vision in the southeast, on the other hand, has gone a bit cross-eyed.

The southeast is a war zone, with military checkpoints, armed camps, lines of soldiers

patrolling the mountain passes. But it’s also here, amid the destitute villages, that the future of 70 million Turks may be decided. This is Turkey’s dirty little secret, tucked away in the deep valleys and gorges of the snow-capped Zagros mountains, the natural boundary dividing Iran and Iraq from their westward-looking neighbour. The downtrodden area is home to one of the least

understood conflicts in the world, pitting Turkish forces against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the main Kurdish militia group, in a war that’s left nearly 30,000 dead and up to three million people, mostly civilians and predominantly Kurds, displaced. But as former Turkish prime minister Mesut Yilmaz stressed in a 1999 speech, referring to the southeast’s unofficial capital, “the road to the EU passes through Diyarbakir.” Human rights groups have for years struggled to draw the world’s attention to the region—alleging that Kurds have been systematically oppressed. And now the spotlight is on. The EU has demanded that the Turkish government address its problems

with human rights and minorities, giving the country’s 13 million Kurds reason to hope. “The government will not be able to continue to act the way it has in the southeast if it wants to join Europe,” says Nazim Berk, 47, a subsistence farmer in the mudsplattered village of Ortakoy. “We demand a normal life, and we hope the EU can give us that.” Recent reconciliatory overtures, granting Kurds language and cultural rights, are only a first step, he says. His main concerns now are the lack of economic opportunity and the intrusive military, which he claims continues to use intimidation and torture to keep the Kurds in line.

Human rights groups agree. Emin Yuksel, a 33-year-old doctor working with the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey in Diyarbakir, says that while the Turkish government has made substantial progress on paper, a culture of impunity still exists within the lower ranks of the military and police services. In 2004, the foundation, which deals exclusively with torture victims, registered 19 new cases, all Kurds. “The old prejudices are

much harder to root out,” Yuksel admits.

What the Kurds face is a cultural bias deeply imbedded in the Turkish psyche. Modern Turkey was born out of the chaos following the First World War, when Atatiirk’s

THE spotlight is on. The EU has demanded the government address its problems with human rights and minorities.

movement fought a successful war not only against the remnants of the disintegrating Ottoman government, but also Greek forces that had occupied the western part of the country. Turkey’s national pride flows from that era, but the establishment of a secular state also wiped out any hopes the Kurds had for a nation of their own. The memory of im-

pending national disintegration is still too fresh for many Turks to accept the idea that ethnic diversity can exist within a national framework. Says Selahattin Demirtas, director of the Human Rights Association, another group in Diyarbakir: “This paranoia must be gotten over, this idea that any Kurd who talks about more rights and freedoms is really talking about independence.” Militarism is the result. In Ortakoy, soldiers are everywhere, outnumbering villagers two to one, some residents say. When I first arrived, I was greeted by heavy artillery fire so powerful that my car shook. The villagers shrugged off the noise as routine. “It happens every day at 4 p.m.,” one explained. “It’s the military’s warning to the PKK in the mountains that they’re waiting for them.” The salvoes aside, there has been relative calm in the southeast since the PKK called a unilateral truce after the capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999. Fast spring, the PKK’s political wing, now calling itself Kongra-Gel, did cancel the ceasefire, citing the Turkish military’s intransigence. But although fighting

resumed, it is at a significantly lower level than in previous years.

The PKK is not the military’s only concern. Just over the mountains, in Kurdish-controlled Iraq,

Kurds are rallying with a renewed sense of opportunity. The Iraq war has been a boon for them and their calls for independence. A December 2004 petition signed by 1.7 million Iraqi Kurds and delivered to UN headquarters in New York City demanded a referendum on the issue. Turkish authorities have repeatedly said they will oppose any such move, fearing the emergence of a Kurdish nation could further incite their own Kurdish population to rebellion.

Those concerns may be justified. Kurds, often called the largest stateless ethnic group in the world, have all suffered oppression, whether in Iran, Syria, Turkey or Iraq. This common experience binds them more securely than national affiliation. In the area of Iraq controlled by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)—which, united with another Kurd party, won 75 of 275 assembly seats in the recent Iraqi election—there is sympathy for the PKK. In fact, for many former fighters from the Turkish side of the border, the KDP has become a second family. Before the Iraq war, guerrillas coming down out of the mountains were encouraged to join the KDP peshmerga, the Iraqi militia that fought on behalf of Kurdish interests during Saddam’s rule. Although the practice was reportedly stopped after the invasion, a close affiliation between the two groups still exists. “We welcome any PKK who decide they want to leave the movement,” said one KDP official in Dohuk, a town straddling the Turkish border. “They are fellow Kurds and we will do what we can to help them reintegrate into normal society.”

This close relationship is worrying for Turkish authorities. The U.S. has promised it will eventually root out PKK guerrillas hiding in Iraq. But with the current situation still out of control, U.S. commanders say they are stretched too thin to do anything for the time being. In ajan. 3 meeting with Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul, former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage proposed three-way talks between the U.S., Turkey and Iraq to work out a plan to deal with

the more than 5,000 fighters ensconced in mountain camps on both sides of the border. But will Iraqi Kurds support a U.S. offensive against fellow Kurds? In the mountains around Dohuk, Iraqi border guards, all former peshmerga fighters, admit they often come across PKK camps while on patrol. “We sometimes have tea together,” one guard said.

Turkey itself has little room to manoeuvre, in part because of its EU membership bid. For human rights groups, those negotiations provide added leverage to their demands for fundamental reforms, and the conflict with the PKK tops their agenda. “The first thing the government of Turkey needs to do,” says Demirtas, “is call a general amnesty.” Without a negotiated peace, he argues, the Kurdish question threatens the very future of the country. “How can there be development,” he adds, “when onefifth of the country is a military zone?”

Back in Ortakoy, Berk echoes the same opinion, though his words are more ominous. “We’ve heard promises before,” he says. “What we need is real change in our lives.” Without it, he adds, “we will have no choice but to go into the mountains to fight.” If recent indications are any sign, it may not come to that. The Turkish government seems to be listening—it has no choice. Iffl