No Sign of Peace for Turkey’s Kurds After Erdogan Victory

Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast has been beset by unrest in recent months as security forces battle Kurdistan Workers Party militants after a ceasefire collapsed in July. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar

By Ayla Jean Yackley

SILVAN, Turkey, Dec 20 – The shepherd’s widow no longer asks God for peace.

Like many Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, Sevgi Gezici, 22, believed President Tayyip Erdogan might relent in a clampdown against Kurdish militants after his party won back its majority in an election in November.

Three days after the vote, her husband Engin, just back from seven months tending sheep, was shot dead in the street, caught in the crossfire as he ventured out of their house to find help for their children during a curfew, she said. His aunt was fatally shot minutes later after rushing to him.

“I used to pray for peace, for God to help Turks and Kurds,” said Gezici cradling their two-year-old daughter beneath her husband’s portrait, which was covered in a thin scarf.

“After this, I have no hope. God can do what he wants. We are forsaken,” she said.

Before the Nov. 1 vote, the view among some of Turkey’s Kurds was that Erdogan had engineered a new conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to win over Turkish nationalist voters and help the AK Party he founded, but no longer formally leads, return to the single party rule it had lost in an earlier vote in June. Erdogan rejects such a plot.

Nearly two months after the second election achieved a stronger-than-expected single party majority for the AKP, swathes of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast are still under lockdown. Battles once fought in the countryside are now waged in densely populated urban areas.

Erdogan vowed this week security forces would “annihilate” militants in their “houses.”

The operations are aimed at “protecting residents from terrorism and restoring public order”, authorities have said.

Turkey, along with the United States and the European Union, list the autonomy-seeking PKK as a terrorist organization. It is reviled throughout much of the country for its use of violence.

‘WOLF’S TEETH HAVE TASTED BLOOD’

Armored police vehicles guard the entrance to Tekel, the Gezicis’ working-class neighborhood in the town of Silvan.

Facades of apartment blocks are riddled with bullet holes, and interiors are charred black from fire.

Graffiti legible beneath whitewash reads: “The wolf’s teeth have tasted blood. Be afraid.”

The governorate described Engin Gezici, 24, as a PKK member, as it has with others that rights group said were civilians. His family denies he was in the PKK, saying he was the breadwinner for eight people.

More than 130 civilians have been killed in the southeast since the PKK abandoned a two-year ceasefire in July, according to the Human Rights Association (IHD). The government has not given a civilian death toll, but says 3,000 rebels have been “neutralized” in Turkey and rebel camps in northern Iraq.

Dozens of soldiers and police have perished in the strife.

Raci Bilici, head of the IHD in Diyarbakir, the southeast’s largest city, said that rather than use the power gained from its election victory to restart the peace process, the government took it as a mandate to crack down harder.

“Voters said: ‘Fight.’ The election showed the government has support for its crackdown, so why relent?” he said. “But with violence spreading to cities, the fear is we may cross the threshold of civil war.”

As he spoke, gunfire could be heard ringing out from Sur, a district of the city that has been under curfew for two weeks.

While the lockdown made it impossible to enter Sur, the view from a police barrier on the edge showed garbage piled up in the street and businesses shuttered.

Police in fatigues and masks carried assault rifles, prowling past Diyarbakir’s massive 4th century Roman walled fortress, part of a UNESCO World Heritage site whose monuments are now badly damaged. Last month, lawyer Tahir Elci was gunned down at a historic mosque in the district.

‘THEY’RE COMING THROUGH THE WALLS’

The conflict in Turkey has complicated the international campaign against Daesh fighters in neighboring Syria.

Turkey’s 15 million Kurds identify closely with their Syrian Kurdish kin, who have proven the most capable allies on the ground of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Daesh.

NATO member Turkey is a member of the coalition against Daesh, but hostile to the Syrian Kurds, believing they could inspire separatism at home.

The spasm of violence wrecked peace talks once touted by the AKP as the best chance yet to end one of Europe’s longest-running insurgencies. Some 40,000 people have died since the PKK took up arms against the state in 1984.

This time, the PKK has largely abandoned its traditional rural battleground to take the fight to the city, recruiting a new generation of militants who dig trenches and use heavy weapons in populated areas to keep police at bay.

If the PKK’s shift to urban warfare sought to force a return to talks, it has so far failed. Authorities have imposed curfews and cut power, water and phone coverage to root out militants.

On his way to Brussels this week, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to pursue the PKK until the area is “cleansed”. Turkey aspires to join the European Union.

“Gross human rights violations are happening on both sides,” said Kati Piri, European Parliament rapporteur on Turkey after a visit last week. She called the building of barricades by the PKK “unacceptable” and the response “excessive”.

“It seems like mass punishment. The danger is it will only radicalize more people,” she said.

Some 1.3 million people in 17 towns and cities have been affected by 52 curfews so far, according to official figures.

Up to 200,000 people are displaced by the fighting, the People’s Democratic Party, which has Kurdish roots, says. In Silvan, 11,000 people fled, said Mayor Kerem Canpolaten.

He took office after his predecessor became one of two dozen mayors jailed for “undermining state unity” for backing calls for Kurdish autonomy. The new mayor himself spent a decade in jail, beginning in 1992 at age 16, on terrorism charges during an earlier phase of the insurgency.

“Prison taught me the solution to the Kurdish matter has to be political. This war will only end in peace,” he said.

Silvan’s municipal government says 15 civilians aged 9 to 75 died in six separate curfews since August in the town of 85,000.

The last curfew began two days after the election. Engin Gezici had returned from pastures 100 km (60 miles) north.

The couple spent a night sheltering their three children in the kitchen as a firefight raged outside. In the morning, Engin told Sevgi he would find help. Minutes later, he lay dead, and his aunt Ismet, 63, was also hit. With roads shut, it was impossible to reach a hospital.

“The children saw everything,” the widow said.

“They wake at night, screaming, ‘They’re coming through the walls.'”

 

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