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'We grew up with 30 years in war': Is end in sight for one of world's longest-running conflicts?

Flags with the face of imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan dot the crowd at Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on Thursday.Danny Gold

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- The dancing, singing and picnics marking Kurdish New Year were last week punctuated by a message from an imprisoned icon, whose image graced thousands of T-shirts and flags at the celebration.

Guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan's statement expressed a willingness to halt violence and negotiate with the Turkish government. It also offered a glimmer of hope that a conflict which has claimed 40,000 lives since 1984 may soon come to an end.

Shortly after Ocalan's announcement was read to hundreds of thousands of Kurds gathered in this southeastern city for Newroz festivities, Turkish fighter jets boomed overhead. To many, their message was clear.

"We trusted the Turkish government before," said Ilyas Dalgia, a 27-year-old from a nearby village who works in tourism. "This is the last time, and only because Ocalan says."

For now, most Kurds will put their trust in the man that many call "Apo," or uncle, and who has been held in an isolated prison on an island for the past 14 years.

Ocalan is leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated as terrorists by the United States, European Union and Turkey.

His statement called for a new era of negotiations with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and offered a cease-fire and the withdrawal of guerrilla fighters to outside Turkish borders. The move comes after a particularly bloody year in the insurrection, which is one of the world's longest-running conflicts.

Yet in the streets and political offices in the Kurdish region, heavy skepticism remains as to the extent to which the Turkish government is willing to commit. Thirty years of fighting and generations of oppression have left the Kurds with very little trust in the government, and repeated failures in past negotiations have left a bitter taste.

The Kurds are an ethnic group which lives mainly in an area straddling the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Iran and Iraq officially recognize internal regions as Kurdish.

They make up an estimated 15 million of Turkey's population of around 80 million people. They have long suffered discrimination and oppression at the hands of the Turkish government.

While Ocalan once called for the establishment of a Kurdish country, the PKK has tempered demands to greater autonomy, including constitutional rights allowing Kurds to openly express their cultural identity.

According to Kendal Nezan, president of the Kurdish Institute of Paris, the Kurds have fought various powers throughout history -- from the ancient Assyrians to the Ottoman Empire -- to create an independent Kurdistan, but the last Kurdish principality collapsed in 1847. He describes the Kurdish people as a "victim of ... geography, of history."


At 27 years old, Ilgias has never known peace times in the southeast region of Turkey. Like most Kurds his age, he has friends who have either gone up to the mountains to join the guerrillas or been imprisoned. "If this chance does not go well, one million will go to the mountains," he says with the typical bombast of young men.

The sentiment, though, is echoed by many in the region who feel that this is the last in a string of many chances for peace. Many are asking whether this is just one more mark in an endless cycle of unfruitful peace talks.

Previous efforts have failed, having catastrophic results. In 1999, Ocalan issued a similar call for withdrawal, and hundreds of Kurdish guerrillas were massacred as they crossed into Iraq. For some, these incidents speak louder than statements from Erdogan.

"It won't be so easy. Maybe something will change, but I don't believe the government. If they want (to make peace), they can do it easily," said a 26-year-old local journalist who goes by Ozgur Amed.

Amed has been arrested three times and currently awaits sentencing on two trials, a fact of life he finds so commonplace it takes three days of conversation for him to bring it up. In 2012, Turkey was ranked number one by the Committee to Protect Journalists in imprisoning journalists after jailing dozens of Kurds for alleged ties to terrorism.

Like many others in Diyarbakir last week, Amed had to flee his village as a child after Turkish forces razed it for alleged support of terrorists. During the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of villages were deserted as the war raged. 

Despite his skepticism, he still thinks the people have little choice but to cling to the prospect of peace. "In Diyarbakir, the people are tired. Their neighbors, their families are in prison," he added. "They're so tired. "

In recent months, violence between the PKK and the Turkish government reached the highest point in at least decade. In a November report, the International Crisis Group estimated that 870 people had been killed in the conflict in the past 18 months. In late December 2011, the Turkish military bombed a group of Kurdish smugglers it mistakenly thought were guerrillas crossing the Iraq border. Thirty-four civilians were killed and massive protests, often violent, rocked the country. Later in the year, hundreds of Kurdish prisoners waged a 60-day hunger strike that only ended when Ocalan called it off.

With the January assassinations of three Kurdish women in Paris, one a founder of the PKK, it seemed as though 2013 would proceed in the same manner. Yet the past few months have been marked by progress.

The Turkish government has openly acknowledged that it has been negotiating with Ocalan. It has allowed the Kurdish language to be spoken in courts and allowed the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the most powerful Kurdish political party, to meet with Ocalan. Prisoners on both sides have been released.

Firat Anli, mayor of a municipality in Diyarbakir, was released in February from a Turkish prison after serving three years on terrorism charges. In recent years, the Turkish government has imprisoned thousands of activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians on charges that they were connected to the outlawed Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), an umbrella organization of Kurdish parties that oversees the PKK. "When you are working for human rights, the government says you are a terrorist," he said.

So many of his colleagues had been arrested that Anli had actually called the police department two months earlier to request that they not come to his house if they planned to arrest him, but rather call and he would turn himself in. His request was ignored, but Anli was happy that his children were sleeping. He says he now feels like a foreign person in his own city.

"We are living in a tragedy," he said. "We grew up with 30 years in war. This has given us trauma. Forgetting this is not so easy. No one can tell us to forget."

'We want to believe our eyes'

Still, Anli maintains a cautious optimism for peace. He brings up Nelson Mandela as an example, saying that now the legal, democratic means are the only way. He is hesitant, though, of being too optimistic until concrete steps are taken. "We don't just want to believe our ears, we want to believe our eyes," he said.

Anli says that PKK fighters will not immediately come down from the mountains and become farmers simply because Turkey has said it wants peace.

"This doesn't mean the PKK and Ocalan will give up their guns," he said. "In the Middle East, if you have no guns you have no power, and you will be destroyed."

Abdullah Demirbas, mayor of another municipality in Diyarbakir, spoke of instability in the Middle East -- especially in Syria, where a Kurdish militia affiliated with the PKK has gained a foothold -- of contributing to the change of heart of both parties regarding a peaceful solution. "Both the Turkish side and the PKK have realized it's impossible to make progress by killing," he said.

For Demirbas, the halting of violence is especially urgent. One son is about to join the Turkish military, as service is mandatory. Another went to the mountains to join the PKK four years ago. Every time he hears a Turkish military jet roar overhead, he fears it is on its way to kill his son. He says his heart is "crushed in three parts," one in the mountains, one in the military, and one in the jails with many of his colleagues and friends. 

A day before Ocalan's announcement in Ali Pasa, a poor neighborhood whose narrow streets and strong PKK support usually deter police from entering, a group of tough looking young men loitered by a small park. Graffiti swearing allegiance to the PKK and "long live Apo" littered the walls. The young men said they would only believe Turkey wants peace when Apo is free.

Teyfik Karakoc, 50, lingered outside a small shop nearby. He, like the others, has seen his share of suffering and is ready for it to be over.

"Our hope is to stop the killing," Karakoc said. "All of us, like everyone, we want peace, but we don't see anything." He then paused as a Turkish military jet flied overhead, drowning out his words.

"It is not so easy to say we forgive you," he added, as the jet disappeared.


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