Turkish Kurdistan under fire

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The coffin of a Kurdish political representative, killed in the Ankara attack, is accompanied to the cemetery by hundreds of outraged supporters, there to denounce the “murderous state”, on Monday 12 October, in Diyarbakir, in the south-east of the country.

Above the crowd, half a dozen F-16s, returning from Iraq, cross the sky.

The deceased, Abdullah Erol, was one of the two representatives from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) killed in the Turkish capital alongside around a hundred other civilians, on 10 October [editor’s note: 102 deaths had been confirmed as this article went to press].

“It is not possible that the state was not aware of the threat,” said the co-mayor of Diyarbakir, a member of the HDP, during the funeral procession.

The terrorist attack of 10 October, the main suspects of which are two young Islamic State members, was targeted at a rally gathering trade union organisations, young leftists and supporters of the Kurdish cause, calling for an end to the violence in Turkey, three weeks ahead of new parliamentary elections.

In Turkey’s south-east, the Ankara attack is seen as the continuation of a punitive campaign launched months ago against Kurds supporting the HDP, whose recent political victories deprived the AKP (Justice and Development Party) of an absolute majority in parliament on 7 June of this year.

Two days before the election, an explosion targeting a HDP rally in Diyarbakir had killed two people. Then, on 20 July, suicide bombing in Suruc, targeting a group of students supporting the Kurdish cause, killed 34 people. The three attacks have been attributed to Islamic State militants, radicalised in Turkey and known to the intelligence services. The latter are being accused of deliberate negligence by a growing portion of public opinion.

It is against this background, further complicated by Turkey’s simultaneous fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Kurdish forces in Iraq during the month of July, that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) decided to return to arms after two years of relative calm in the region.

Eleven towns in south-east Turkey have since become the scene of constant fighting between insurgents and special forces. Clashes coupled with repeated curfews have been plaguing towns such as Cizre, on the Syrian border, where the population was caught between heavy artillery and sniper fire for nine days during the month of September.

“Ambulances were not able come in and the municipality was not able to operate,” Leyla Imret, co-mayor of Cizre, who was removed from office on 9 September for spreading “terrorist propaganda”, told Equal Times.

“I heard on the TV, during the curfew, that I had been suspended by a court decision. Why? Because I had told a journalist that there was the risk of a civil war in Cizre.”

High, compact walls built with bags of cement, erected by armed members of the YDG-H (Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, affiliated to the PKK), are still blocking access to the town centre, despite the total withdrawal of the security forces, following a siege in which 21 people were reportedly killed.

“Cizre is not like it used to be,” says a young female student who was only able start classes again in the middle of October. “Everyone is afraid the police will come back again. Look around you. The state has invaded the towns where people vote for the HDP. The president is killing us.”

“We have never seen violence like this before”

Surrounded by dozens of armoured vehicles and hundreds of men in uniform, Diyarbakir awakened on 14 October from four days of deadly fighting that claimed the life of a young girl, killed in broad daylight by a bullet to the head, just days after the Ankara bombing.

“My daughter was killed at the age of 12,” cried her mother on the day of the funeral. “The street was calm, there was no fighting. The trucks came in and started to shoot. Could my daughter be a terrorist?”

Several children and dozens of civilians have been killed in the gunfights waged one after another since the guerrilla returned to arms in the region’s urban areas.

In the media and in the streets, there are contradicting views on where the blame lies. “Erdogan wanted this internal war, to stay in power,” says a candidate from the CHP opposition party and former journalist Naci Sapan, whose electoral base in Diyarbakir is virtually non-existent.

“But it is a mistake to respond with vengeance. The PKK should not have got involved.”

A barber, speaking anonymously, said that he was terrified of the young armed militants, the YDG-H. These young urban militants, who grew up during the Turkey-Kurdish conflict in which some 44,000 people were killed, have taken up the fight against the security forces and have declared their leader to be Abdullah Öcalan, although it is difficult to determine their degree of loyalty to the orders of the PKK.

“They are forcing people to flee. I lived through the tensions in the 1990s,” continues the local resident in his barbershop. “But we have never seen violence like this before. I don’t discuss politics with my customers anymore. You can no longer trust anyone. My parents spend their nights in a cellar. People are afraid of turning on the lights at night.”

More than 130 police officers and soldiers have been killed by the armed Kurdish organisation since the elections, and there has been an escalation in the provocations on both sides.

In September, the Turkish press reported on the death of three members of the same family whose home was hit by an YDG-H rocket.

“The violence started when the HDP won a victory in parliament,” says the head of the AKP electoral list in Diyarbakir, Galip Ensarioğlu, who received Equal Times in a villa outside the town centre, surrounded by bodyguards.

“All the towns where the HDP has wide electorate support have become battlefields. People who thought they were voting for the party of peace [editor’s note: the HDP, which campaigned for peace] are now finding out that all they have been given is war.”

This line, which suspects the Kurds of wanting the hostilities for separatist or purely belligerent ends, is shared by a whole host of national media outlets and politicians linked to the government, including Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who accused the HDP, in October, of “holding a pistol in one hand whilst singing the virtues of western democracy”.

“The current situation is making our work harder,” says HDP Member of Parliament Ziya Pir, whose party has been stepping up the calls for unity since the beginning of its electoral campaign, whilst portraits of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan continue to adorn the walls of its municipal offices here and there.

“The PKK’s return to arms will no doubt damage the party’s image at a national level and our bid to represent all Turkish people at the next elections. In Kurdistan, however, people have a clearer grasp of the situation.”

“You never know where the bullets will come from”

Despite the considerable hopes raised by the negotiated peace process launched by the state and the armed organisation in 2012, the PKK has strong civilian support among the Kurds in Turkey.

The various attempts to undermine the HDP’s political campaign through intimidation and the arrest of hundreds of HDP representatives have succeeded in convincing part of the Kurdish electorate of the limitations of political action in such a toxic context.

“We don’t have any problem with the PKK or the YPG-H, because they are there to defend us,” comments a schoolteacher from Diyarbakir, who is seven months pregnant and was at the HDP rally on the day of the bombing. “Those that terrify us are the state security forces. Not only do they not protect us from the bombs of the Islamic State but now they are shooting at us.”

Local journalists are finding it difficult to cover the area and to assess the responsibility of the parties on both sides of the conflict.

“We never know if we are going to make it home alive in the evening, or where the bullets are going to come from,” says Ömer Celik, editor at the regional news agency DIHA, whose website was blocked for several weeks following a court ruling.

“But one thing has changed: since the national press in Turkey has come under pressure, the abuses we have been condemning for years in the region are finally being taken seriously.”

A few hours after the Ankara bombing, the Turkish government, which had allowed uncertainty to persist over the PKK’s responsibility, tried to stop all coverage of the inquiry into the double bomb blast.

But President Erdogan has now acknowledged that a lack of rigour in following Islamist suspects and the calls for national unity against Kurdish “terror” have lost momentum.

The HDP, which set a historic record for a Kurdish party in Turkey in the June elections, is expected, according to the latest polls, to repeat its score and to deprive the AKP, once again, of an absolute majority in parliament, on 1 November 2015.

But for fear of a renewed attack, the party has decided to cancel all rallies until election day.

This story has been translated from French.

This article was made possible with the help of the organisation P24.