Hunger Strike, Turkey
Qusay Saddam Hussain
More than 300.000 troops, out of Turkey’s 800.000 armed forces -- NATO’s second most numerous army -- are stationed in Kurdistan, in the eastern part of Turkey. It is at an annual cost of some 8 billion dollars that some kind of order prevails in Kurdistan. PKK fighters can no longer simply walk into villages to get food and clothes and organise political meetings. But contrary to what the army claims, the “terrorist” or “separatist” organisation, the words officially used to qualify the PKK, is far from being decimated. Recent serious incidents, which have included the ambush of a military patrol near Yuksekova, where 15 soldiers and two officers died, have proved that the PKK is still active throughout the region. With mines killing soldiers and village guards across the breadth and length of the region, a mayor kidnapped near Van, a bus burned near Erzurum, clashes in the Dersim it is clear that the guerilla remains active if elusive, in spite of the extraordinary deployment of military forces.
Hakkari: a town under siege
A small town of 15.000 inhabitants south east of Van, Hakkari is one of the forward positions of the fight against the PKK and the headquarters of the Turkish forces that regularly penetrate inside Iraqi Kurdistan from Tchoucourdja in hot pursuit of the PKK. Hakkari serves as a launching pad for regular operations in the sector of the “three borders” (Iran, Iraq, and Turkey). Kurdish guerillas have always been able to infiltrate the neighbouring country in this sector, taking advantage of borders impossible to demarcate in mountains as high as 4.000 meters. From Hakkari, Turkish army and intelligence services also watch the Iranian border, and particularly the small town of Yuksekova, nicknamed “Heroin-City”, the gateway for drug trafficking with Iran. During recent months, the Iranian military have anxiously noted that this border, traditionnally porous to all kinds of drug dealing, also lets through a trickle of PKK fighters who now enjoy some facilities in Iran, particularly in Ourmieh.
Getting into Hakkari is not easy for a tourist: stopped at a checkpoint at the city’s gate by plain clothes security services agents, one is treated courteously but definitely as an intruder. Visitors must be determined if they are to gain access to this semi-forbidden city. They are warned that “for your own protection against the terrorists” they will be escorted day and night by security services agents. “You will not take one step, either at your hotel, in the streets, or inside a restaurant, without being followed by a cop in civilian attire, equiped with a talkie-walkie”, I was warned.
A city under siege -- there are between two and three soldiers for every civilian Kurd -- Hakkari is constantly patrolled by small armored cars (British made Land-Rovers) and by armored troops transport vehicles (Soviet made BTRs
Hakkari has no resources of its own, and paradoxically its merchants can only survive thanks to the presence of this important garrison. No prosperity is possible for those who do not benefit from the administration’s and the army’s favour. There are few cities in Kurdistan where the separation between the Turkish and the Kurdish populations is so flagrant. The two worlds live side by side, without any contact. It is total apartheid.
Every afternoon, at 4 pm. the city and surrounding region are isolated from Turkey at large. The road is blocked off and all traffic forbidden entry for “security reasons”. From that moment, security forces can launch their operations, without any independent witnesses.
The Dersim Desert
One of the most mountainous regions of Kurdistan, Dersim is a natural stronghold. Its rare roads follow deep and narrow valleys, spectacularly wild gorges of breathtaking beauty which have inspired a dozen or more guerilla leaders. It was in Dersim in the late 1930s that a Kurdish revolt took place which shook Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s power. The Turkish army systematically continues its population deportation policy from the area with the aim of “drying up the swamp” of seemingly indefatiguable resistance.
Pertek is a small new city built on the mountainside, on the bank of the Murat river; the authorities transplanted and rebuilt, stone by stone, three ancient mosques from the old city of Pertek, which today lies beneath the waters of the Keban Dam, built in 1974. The small road that links Pertek with Tunceli (the city formerly called Dersim) winds up a mountainous plateau, one of Kurdistan’s most fertile areas. Today it is deserted; not a soul, not even a donkey, is to be seen along the roadside. The fields lie fallow, and the few villages which were not destroyed are almost empty.
Determination is needed to drive through Dersim, from Tunceli to the main highway that links Erzurum and Erzinjan -- a distance of not even 100 kilometers. Tourists are firmly asked to get down from the bus leaving Tunceli -- “for their well being”, since the area is “full of terrorists”, and “very dangerous”. Merchants living in the occasional villages along the road and a few truck drivers still using the road must wait patiently for hours -- sometimes three or four hours -- before a convoy is formed. A BTR leads each convoy consisting of 10 or so cars and lorries, followed by two armoured cars. After 30 km, the convoy stops without any explanation, probably because it is lunch time, and also time for the military to take a long nap.
After a wait of four hours, the convoy takes off only to stop again 20 kilometers further down the road near Kirmizikopru. This village where more than 500 people lived five years ago has only 150 inhabitants left today. Some of the houses have been gutted and have lost their roofs. It is hard to believe that in 1992 there were five hotels in what was a very touristic village. Very nervous soldiers -- two of their friends were blown up on a mine 48 hours earlier -- decide the convoy will stay here overnight. It is up to everyone to find a place to sleep, in his truck or in his car, even though some Kurdish merchants in the convoy live in Pulumur, only ten kilometers away. The convoy is finally allowed to proceed at 8 am the next morning. Slowly the valley widens -- and suddenly one reaches the Erzurum-Erzinjan highway. How many tourists driving through at high speed on this highway linking Ankara to the big cities of northern Anatolia would suspect that behind these snowcapped mountains lies one of Turkish Kurdistan’s most forbidden areas, where the army exerts an absolute power hidden away from inquisitive eyes?
Dicle: the benefits of a dam
A big village of some 5.000 inhabitants, Dicle lies seven kilometers from a dam recently built on the Tigris river. However the authorities have told the town council that all the dam’s water must be used to produce electricity, and that they cannot afford to divert a few cubic meters to irrigate the peasants’ fields. The villagers continue to collect water from the village’s old derelict fountain, and the mayor spends his time receiving peasants who blame him for not doing anything to improve the situation. But the municipality of Dicle, which theoretically gets its revenues from the central government, has not received any funds for some time. Public sector employees have not been paid for 16 months.
On the sidewalk of its main street, dozens of men sit on small stools drinking tea, waiting for the time of day when the sun forces them to look for shade on the opposite sidewalk. Some of them are from Dicle, but most come from neighbouring villages which were purged of their inhabitants: “The soldiers come and say: “Get out of your houses”, and they destroy everything”, explains one man. Why? “Because we refuse to take up weapons and become village guards. They tell us that they cannot build “karakols” (gendarmes’ forts) everywhere, and they burn down our houses”.
It is true that this region has a tradition of resistance. It was in Dicle, then called Piran, that the first shot was fired, starting Shaikh Said’s revolt in 1925. Apparently the military have no illusions: recently during a conversation with the elders of the village, one of the commanders from the gendarmerie told them: “You are all terrorists, all of you, the men, the women, everybody”!
Villagers explain why they crossed over to the camp of PKK sympathizers: “The soldiers harass us constantly. When we drive a tractor loaded with bags of wheat through one of their check points, they empty the bags on the road, saying: “We are just checking that you aren’t hiding weapons”. The young unemployed men spend their time playing cards and dominos in cafes, and being called in to the police station for questioning. Exasperated by these interrogations, they end up joining the guerrilla’s camps in the mountains north of Dicle. People say several dozen graves were recently dug in the cemetery for young fighters who were killed and buried like dogs, their families not allowed to organise a proper religious ceremony. People in the village whisper that these young men were often mutilated, and village guards bring back ears, noses, and other body parts as proof of their exploits. “But we will not move from here”, says one elder. “Our life has always been like this: it was already like this for our grand fathers; it was the same for our parents and it will be the same for our children”.
Business is good in Dogu Bayazit
Castigated for supporting Ihsan Nuri’s revolt in 1930, Bayazit’s inhabitants had to abandon their city on a mountain side, near Ishak Pasha’s palace, and settle in the new city of Dogu Bayazit in the plain. Still visible today, the ruins of the old city of Bayazit are a reminder that the policy of deportation of the Kurdish population is part of a long history.
In Dogu Bayazit, a city located 30 km from the Iranian border, the army occupies large areas as it does in all the cities in Kurdistan. A whole block of the centre of the city, surrounded by walls and barbed wire and protected by armoured cars, is occupied by housing for military personnel and their families. At the northern end of the city, a huge base spreads over several dozen acres: scores of tanks and hundreds of trucks parked there are visible from the road. But according to local Kurds, all these weapons remain idle. Unlike his predecessor who was a real “fascist”, the new general commanding the garrison is said to be an enlightened officer who spent some time in western Europe with NATO. He is reported to have reached a more or less tacit agreement with the PKK guerrillas: “If you don’t come and look for me, I won’t go and look for you”. So the army continues to occupy its positions on mount Tendurek but has pulled back from the slopes of the Ararat. So now everyone can get on with an extremely lucrative activity: importing petrol, tea and other goods from Iran.
“It is simple”, says a Kurd who does not attempt to disguise his satisfaction at the way business is flourishing. “We use only dollars here. I import petrol from Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan which is transported in trucks driven by Iranians. I bribe everyone: police, customs, the political police (intelligence service in charge of PKK), 500 dollars here, 500 dollars there, and everyone is happy”. Other businessmen import tea and other products from Dubai. The operation is similar: everyone, the armed forces as well as the PKK, benefits.
Diyarbekir: the receiving end of all Kurdistan’s misfortunes
Inexorably, the road brings us back to Diyarbakir. All those who have been expelled from their villages by the army arrive here in time. Among them is Sabahat, a 33 year old woman whose husband was killed in April 1994, near Sasson; two months later they burned down her house, throwing Sabahat and her six children (she was expecting a seventh child) out on the road. Helped by her family, Sabahat is relatively privileged. She now lives in Diyarbekir in a flat lacking everything -- but, unlike thousands of families of villagers deported from their homes, she has a real roof. Her life is crushed by grief and it is extremely difficult for her to send her children to school.
All testimonies concur: most villages were destroyed between 1992 and 1994. As one Kurd remarks: “They have destroyed everything, so they were forced to stop”. Many witnesses indicate that the policy of deportation continues, albeit at a slower pace. One of Sabahat’s neighbours tells how her 22- year-old sister was arrested in her village, two hours from Kulp, south of Bingol, accused of having encouraged a villager to support the guerrilla in the mountains. She is now in jail. Two months following her arrest the gendarmes told her family: “If you don’t leave, we will burn your house”. Terrorised, the family wonders what to do. Abandon everything, and live in misery? Or stay, at the risk of being massacred?
An official report published by a Turkish parliament investigating committee formed in 1997 has established that 900 villages and 3.000 hamlets have been “evacuated” by the security forces. The mayor of Tunceli disclosed that between 70 and 80 per cent of the 374 villages in his district had been evacuated. While the subsistence level in Turkey is estimated at 400 dollars a year, this level is reduced by half for Kurdistan, to 200 dollars per year although many families are forced to survive with an annual income of 70 to 80 dollars.
The statistics are chilling, yet the poverty and deprivation continue unabated. Since 1990 the Turkish armed forces have carryied out the largest waves of deportations Turkey has known since the end of the 1930s -- with one aim: to uproot the Kurdish people from its soil, to wipe out its identity.
This reportage was realised with the assistance of the Foundation France Libertés
(The Middle East magazine, February 1999; Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 November 1998; NRC, 28 November 1998; Ozgur Politika, 30 Ocak 1999)
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002
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