Turkey: Children of the repression
- Children of the repression
Turkish Kurd teenagers turn to the PKK after enduring
years of brutality
Ian Traynor in Diyarbakir, Turkey
Monday June 5, 2006
Sevder is seething. Growing up in poverty and squalor,
he has seen schoolmates shot dead by Turkish security
forces and had to put up with the vulgar taunts of
Turkish policemen towards his mother and sisters. His
grudges have been nourished by endless tales of family
and friends burnt out of their villages in the hills
and decanted into the slums of Diyarbakir.
"We've had enough," says the 17-year-old Kurd, wearing
a Ronaldinho Brazil T-shirt and crouching in the heat
and dirt of the teeming city, a couple of hours from
the Iraqi and Syrian borders.
Sevder and his friends are part of a new wave of
militancy among young Turkish Kurds. "There is a
different generation now in Diyarbakir," says Sezgin
Tanrikulu, a lawyer. "These youths are aged 14 to 20.
They've grown up in this place feeling they don't
belong. We can't communicate with them."
Hisyar Ozsoy, an anthropologist and expert on Kurdish
politics, says: "There is something new here. These
are the children of serhildan [the Kurdish word for
intifada or uprising]."
Turkey's long war with its repressed minority of
Kurds, who comprise up to 20% of the population of 73
million, runs in cycles. After dying down seven years
ago, it is now spiralling into a new and threatening
Subversive nationalist elements within the Turkish
security apparatus appear to be exploiting the
conflict to try to destabilise the country and at the
same time Kurdish warlords, clan leaders and political
elites are also stirring up trouble in internal power
Meanwhile the successes of Kurdish autonomy in
neighbouring northern Iraq are exerting a magnetic
attraction on the Kurds of south-eastern Turkey eager
to share in the freedoms enjoyed across the border.
For Sevder and his friends Cevat and Sinan, their
debut as street fighters in a new youth-led intifada
came two months ago during three days of disaster in
Diyarbakir that left 10 dead, hundreds injured,
hundreds more arrested and beaten and plenty of scores
to be settled.
The rioting erupted during the funerals of four of 14
Kurdish guerrillas ambushed and killed by Turkish
security forces. The guerrillas, from the Kurdistan
Workers' party (PKK) that is considered a terrorist
organisation by Turkey, Europe and the US, have a
tight grip on this city of one million people,
rewarding loyalty, punishing "traitors" and enforcing
"Of course, we all support the PKK," says Cevat, 17.
"Every family here has someone in the PKK. "
The rioting in March and the brutal response of the
Turkish security forces have worked as an effective
recruitment drive for the PKK. "We're fed up of the
discrimination. It doesn't have to be like this," says
Cevat. "But every time they do something like this,
more people go into the mountains."
"Going into the mountains" is a common phrase in
Diyarbakir. It means going to join the PKK fighters,
thought to number around 5,000, in their bases in
nearby northern Iraq.
At least 100 local youths have gone into the mountains
in the past month, says Mr Ozsoy. "Guys I know have
just disappeared. They're like ghosts. You would see
them in the cafes and now they're not here."
Selamettin Ata, a 44-year-old grocer whose
seven-year-old son, Enes, was shot dead by Turkish
police on March 30, said at least 90% of the city
sympathised with the PKK. Enes had told his father he
was going to visit his aunt 200 metres away. He became
curious about the protests and went to take a look -
only to receive a bullet in the heart. Enes was the
youngest of the 10 civilians to be killed during a
48-hour period. The oldest was 78. Five of the dead
were teenagers, one of whom died from a cracked skull.
Another 500 people were wounded.
The clashes were the worst experienced here in more
than a decade. Their consequences and the general
poverty in a city simmering with pent-up frustration
help to explain why a youth-led intifada could explode
with greater force at any time.
During and after the trouble, 180 under-18s were
detained. According to a report from the Diyarbakir
bar association based on witness statements and
medical reports, all of them were subjected to severe
abuse in detention.
"Mistreatment and illegal torture was applied. The
unlawful behaviour of the police lent a new dimension
to the situation," the report says.
The teenagers said they had been repeatedly beaten,
threatened with death and rape, stripped naked,
immersed in cold water, subjected to high pressure
hosing and had cigarettes stubbed out on their bodies.
Three-quarters of the detainees were originally from
hill villages surrounding Diyarbakir, their militancy
a legacy of the dirty war that peaked in the early
1990s in this region when the Turkish army used a
scorched earth policy to depopulate thousands of
Kurdish villages in the mountains.
As a result 1.5 million Kurds were displaced, pouring
into cities such as Diyarbakir, which has tripled in
size in little more than a decade. Unemployment is
almost 70% and there are estimated to be 28,000
children spending most of their lives on the streets -
700 of them scratching a living from combing the
city's rubbish dumps.
The Turks emptied the mountain villages partly to try
to destroy the rural base of the guerrillas. Instead,
they have created an urban guerrilla movement.
Faced with this crisis, the Turkish government of
Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be at a loss. Mr
Erdogan has won plaudits for coming to Diyarbakir
twice during the past year, signalling a policy shift
towards conciliation and concession. But he has not
followed up the promises and the Kurdish political
leadership is disenchanted.
The Democratic Society party (DTP), the main Kurdish
nationalist party generally seen as the PKK's
political wing or the Kurds' Sinn Féin, runs 56 town
halls across south-eastern Turkey. But the real power
in the region is wielded by the Turkish military and
Ankara bureaucrats dispatched as regional governors.
The Turkish electoral system is structured to keep the
Kurdish nationalists out of parliament in Ankara. A
party needs 10% of the national vote to enter
parliament. The DTP, which gained 45% of the vote
across much of the south-east in the last election in
2002, cannot obtain 10% nationally.
In the absence of political channels, the men of
violence on both sides hold sway. The children of
Diyarbakir are growing up to swell the ranks of the
In the centre of Diyarbakir hangs a red and white
banner draped across a main road. "Happy is he who is
a Turk," it reads, a mockery to Selamettin Ata
mourning the death of his son. "I'm not allowed to say
I'm a Kurd and be proud of it," he says.
Kurds, a 20 million-strong mountain and tribal people
of Sunni Muslims, are divided between northern Iraq,
Syria, Iran and Turkey, which has the biggest
community, of up to 15 million - the exact figure is
not known. After a long history of uprising and brutal
suppression through the 20th century, the current
Turkish-Kurdish conflict erupted in 1984, with
Abdullah Ocalan, the charismatic guerrilla leader of
the Kurdistan Workers' party, leading the rebellion.
A long dirty war followed, with Turkish death squads
and ruthless Kurdish guerrillas sowing terror.
Thousands of Kurdish villages in the south-east were
torched and 1.5 million Kurds uprooted before the
Kurds called a ceasefire in 1999 after Ocalan,
Turkey's enemy number one, was arrested and
incarcerated. The war resumed in 2004 when the rebels
called off their truce. The conflict is currently
escalating. In 20 years , it has resulted in around
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