Nabaz Mustafa – Tepecik, Batman Province:
“This used to be my house, and this was my uncle’s,” Ayşe Korkmaz tells me, pointing to a pile of stones in the village of Tepecik, her former home in the mountainous Kurdish region of south-eastern Turkey. As we move on up the hillside, Ayşe indicates what appear to be just a few scattered stones littering the path. “This was the village tea room,” she explains.
In 1992, during a fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish army destroyed and burned the entire village. Tepecik was one of about 3,000 villages that were reduced to rubble in the war that raged between the PKK and the Turkish authorities throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 2011, fighting between the two sides resumed in earnest, after several years of relative peace.
65-year-old Ayşe is keen to show us around her old village, a place that for her is filled with both happy and sad memories. She helped with the construction of her house, which she says was once surrounded by an orchard. She remembers catching fish from the nearby river, which she would grill and serve to her family in the evenings.
“I’m happy because I spent my childhood and youth here,” explains Ayşe. “But I’m sad because now we have lost everything.”
Ayşe was one of around 400,000 Kurds who were forced to flee their when the Turkish army set out to crush the Kurdish uprising with an iron fist. Disappearances, torture and other human rights violations became a part of everyday life for Kurdish civilians.
Ayşe herself was tortured in jail for 29 days after being taken from her village by Turkish troops. She says the army tried to force her to reveal the whereabouts of local PKK fighters.
The PKK’s conduct in the war was, of course, not exemplary either. Classified as a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the EU, the organisation has been involved in various bombing and kidnapping campaigns. According to the International Crisis Group, the PKK has been guilty of a number of crimes, including murder, extortion, and the destruction of schools. In many instances, the local Kurdish population was simply caught in the crossfire between the two sides.
The struggle between the PKK and the Turkish army has now lasted for almost 30 years, and has proved to be one of the most intractable issues for the government in Ankara. But now, renewed hopes of peace have arisen. With the exception of a minority of extreme right-wing nationalists, Turks are now broadly supportive of the on-going peace process. In a war that has already claimed some 40,000 lives, people are growing weary of fighting.
Places like Tepecik are also witnessing small signs of returning to normality. According to Ayşe, around 30 of the village’s original 80 families have now returned home, more than 20 years after they first fled the conflict.
One such person is 75-year-old Tevfiq Atesh, who has returned to Tepecik with his wife. Tevfiq says he has received €11,300 from the authorities in Ankara as compensation for his destroyed home, which he has used in combination with his savings to fund the construction of a new house.
For Tevfiq and his family, however, the war is not yet over. Two of the old man’s sons are in prison because of their ties to the PKK, he explains, while two others are still “up in the mountains,” fighting in the ranks of the organisation.
The boys took to arms and joined the PKK because of the violence of the Turkish army and their humiliating treatment of the local Kurdish population, Tevfiq says. The only way his sons would lay down their arms, he believes, is if the authorities released PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and ensured equal rights for Turkey’s Kurds.
But Öcalan’s release is unlikely to happen any time soon. Even the recent negotiations between the government and the imprisoned Kurdish leader represented a huge step forward for Turkey, where the media regularly describes him as a “child murderer”, among other things.
In Diyarbakir, the principal city of the country’s south-east region, the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have issued a set of demands they say are essential for securing a lasting settlement.
According to the party, the Kurds must be recognized as a distinct group, with the right to practice their culture and education in their native language. In addition, all BDP politicians currently in jail should be released, and Abdullah Öcalan’s prison conditions improved. Finally, the party argues, some form of Kurdish self-government is required.
“I believe that during the negotiations Öcalan has called for political rights for the Kurds, but the government still will not grant them,” BDP member of parliament Amine Ayna said.
After years of bloodshed, trust between the Kurds and the Turkish government remains low. In the Kurdish south-east, people regularly say they want peace, but few truly believe that the on-going negotiations between the two sides will succeed. “I’m not very optimistic,” says Ayna. “These are only games the government plays before national elections.”
Walking along the dusty roads of her burnt village, Ayşe is equally pessimistic, and does not believe that talks between the government and Öcalan will lead to a lasting peace. In some ways, she argues, the Kurdish region can still live together with the rest of Turkey. Like the vast majority of Kurds, Ayşe does not believe that full independence for her region would be a good idea. “Without us, Turkey is not very strong,” she explains. “And without Turkey, we’re not very strong either.”
Photo credit: Dûrzan cîrano