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Kurdish rebels sow new fear in Turkey

Kurdish rebels have begun returning in force to Turkey from Iraq. And with them come reminders of a conflict that people here, after almost five years of peace, had begun to believe was over.
Guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party relaxed in 2004 in northern Iraq, where many found refuge after their leader was jailed in 1999.
Guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party relaxed in 2004 in northern Iraq, where many found refuge after their leader was jailed in 1999.Robin Shulman / The Washington Post file
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Residents of this town nestled in the cliffs of southeastern Turkey counted 86 military vehicles lurching deeper into the mountains one day last month, with foot soldiers peering out. Overhead, Cobra attack helicopters stuttered across an epic blue sky laced by the contrails of F-16 warplanes.

The Turkish military was attacking a guerrilla army in its alpine camp.

The combined-arms assault here, sweeping a remote mountain stronghold by air and ground, was precisely the kind of offensive that Turkey has spent most of the last two years asking U.S. forces to mount in northern Iraq -- against the same rebel group. The Kurdistan Workers' Party, an armed group of Turkish Kurds that the State Department calls a terrorist group, maintains a large base in Iraq's Qandil range, about 200 miles north of Baghdad.

Although the Bush administration has vowed repeatedly to confront the PKK, as the guerrilla force is known, its fighters have not only continued to enjoy a haven in Iraq, they have begun returning in force to Turkey. And with them come reminders of a conflict that people here, after almost five years of peace, had begun to believe was over.

"And now we can't leave our houses. We are fearing again," said Metin Ozel, 43, who owns a service station in Pervari. "You feel lonely. You feel encircled. You feel stuck in the middle of nowhere with all these things happening around you."

The new fighting has mostly been like the mid-April assault on the PKK base near here, which the military later said resulted in the deaths of three soldiers and 24 guerrillas from a camp said to hold 350. In scope and intensity, it is several magnitudes below the civil war that raged here in the 1980s and '90s and claimed an estimated 30,000 lives, most of them civilians caught between soldiers or paramilitary fighters and PKK guerrillas.

‘Another conflict’
But memories of that conflict are still raw, and the prospect of renewed fighting is a matter of profound concern here. Some Kurdish activists fret that a return to arms would cost not only lives but also the fragile gains that Kurds have won since the fighting stopped.

"It looks like five years of a calm, peaceful environment are turning into another conflict," said Giyasettin Sehir, a playwright and activist in Diyarbakir, a provincial capital crowded both by displaced villagers and by the business travelers who have returned with the peace. "I can say the people definitely don't want armed struggle.

"Of course," he added, "there's a small minority in the population who are emotional, especially at funerals."

Sehir was sitting at a table in the Tigris and Euphrates Cultural Center, a combination cafe, performance space and rehearsal complex that embodies the changes in Turkey's southeast. The center exists for Diyarbakir residents to express their Kurdish heritage -- the language, music and customs that set them apart from the country's Turkish majority.

Modern Turkey was founded on the notion of "Turkishness," a rigid concept that made no accommodation for ethnic diversity. The country's estimated 14 million Kurds, who trace their ancestry to the mountains above the Mesopotamian plain rather than the steppes of Central Asia, were called "mountain Turks." The three letters that occur in the Kurdish alphabet but not in Turkish -- x, w and q -- were officially banned. Parents who gave their children Kurdish names were prohibited from registering them.

The impulse to insist on an ethnic identity helped give rise to the PKK, which mixed Kurdish aspirations with Marxist dogma, overlaid by the brutal cult of personality encouraged by the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

The PKK's campaign for a Kurdish state in the Turkish southeast erupted into warfare in 1984. The conflict raged for 15 years, with both sides accused of widespread atrocities. But when Ocalan was captured in 1999, the PKK was paralyzed, called a cease-fire and retreated to northern Iraq, which Iraqi Kurds controlled under the protection of a U.S.- and British-enforced "no-fly" zone.

In Turkey, the "Kurdish question" shifted tracks, becoming bound up with Turkey's ardent desire to join the European Union.

To bring its laws into line with E.U. norms on human rights, Turkey eliminated the death penalty, sparing Ocalan's life. Parliament voted to allow the broadcast and private teaching of the Kurdish language. The Tigris and Euphrates Center, which three years ago was raided by Turkish police and intelligence agents almost daily, went weeks without an official visit.

"But the atmosphere is changing," said Sehir, who served 10 years in prison for a bit of street theater glorifying the PKK. "It's almost starting to feel like the early '90s again."

Rising tensions
The change began last June, when the PKK announced it was dissatisfied with the pace of change inside Turkey and with Ocalan's restricted access to his attorneys. Small guerrilla bands sneaked back across the heavily fortified Iraqi border. Reports of skirmishes began appearing again in Turkish newspapers.

In recent weeks, tensions have increased sharply. The spark was a widely publicized street demonstration in which a Kurdish teenager burned a Turkish flag, fueling a surge of Turkish nationalism that many Kurds fear will reverse momentum on legal reforms.

Already, "there is a strong resistance within the judiciary and the military against applying these laws," said Mihdi Perincek, who represents the Turkish Human Rights Association in the country's southeast. The association, which works closely with the E.U., had documented a reduction in reports of torture, detentions and other abuses by Turkish security forces last year. But the trend reversed after the E.U. voted in December to give Turkey what it wanted: a date to begin negotiations for membership.

"So we see the government was trying to protect its image until December 17," Perincek said, "and after that the numbers jumped."

In February, for example, the association fielded 120 complaints of torture in Turkey's 22 eastern provinces, more than one-third the total for all of 2004.

The U.S. refusal to move against the PKK in Iraq has fueled not only anti-Americanism in Turkey but also what opinion polls indicate is a core conviction that Turkey must act on its own because it has no reliable friends. In a recent speech, Turkey's top general, Hilmi Ozkok, complained that putting the PKK's "name on the list of terrorist organizations does not have any meaning in practice."

"Failure to take action so far," Ozkok added, "is thought-provoking."

U.S. officials insist they will get to the PKK eventually. But with American troops overstretched battling Arab insurgents in central Iraq, there is scant appetite to mount an offensive in the relatively quiescent north.

‘We must deal with the PKK’
"We agree that, over time, we must deal with the PKK," Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, said in the Turkish capital, Ankara, in January.

Analysts estimate that 6,000 PKK guerrillas remain in Iraq, while their numbers inside Turkey have swelled to 2,000. Most are believed to be scattered in caves and other mountain redoubts.

"It's not like we don't want this problem to be solved," said Haci Senci, 44, a member of the paramilitary "village guard" the government recruited more than a decade ago to fight the PKK and its supporters at the local level, a strategy that pitted neighbor against neighbor.

"We've been on duty nonstop for 14 years," Senci said, cradling a bare foot with his hand as he kept watch outside a stone hut on the main road into town, his AK-47 assault rifle within easy reach. "The closer to the border you get, the more clashes. When the nights get longer and the leaves grow, of course there'll be more clashes."

In town, a bus driver who declined to give his name looked into the mountains and then at his feet. "All we know," he said, "is this is not good."