By Vincent Boland
December 5 2005 02:00
Shortly before lunch on Wednesday November 9, a stranger entered the
Umut Kitapevi bookshop in Semdinli, a town of about 15,000 people set
in the high mountains of Kurdish Turkey, close to the Iran and Iraq
borders. He removed two grenades from the pockets of his bulky jacket,
primed them, threw them on the floor and fled. Seconds later, the
little shop exploded in a swoosh of dust, shrapnel and flying books.
Mehmet Zahir Korkmaz, a taxi driver who was preparing lunch in the
back room of the shop, was gravely injured and later died. Seferi
Yilmaz, the shop’s owner and the apparent target of the attack,
survived. When townspeople, alerted by Mr Yilmaz, apprehended the man
and an accomplice they found documents and maps in their car linking
them with the military.
The attempt to assassinate Mr Yilmaz, a separatist who had served a
long prison sentence for membership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers
Party (PKK), did more than destroy an unlikely outpost of learning
in a depressed town. It sparked serious civilian unrest: at least six
people died in the days that followed in riots and demonstrations here
and in nearby towns. Two members of the security forces were charged
in connection with the attack, a fact that has put Turkey’s military
in the dock and caused a rift between the generals and the government.
Out of the blue, it reawakened Turkey’s worst nightmare: that the
war between the state and Kurdish separatists that killed at least
35,000 people and disfigured the country’s political, economic and
moral life from 1984 to 1999 may not, after all, be over. “This is
not my personal problem,” Mr Yilmaz says, standing in the wreckage
of his bookshop. “This is the Kurdish problem.”
Turkey has many problems to address as it seeks membership of the
European Union but none has such power to thwart its ambitions. Inside
the country are perhaps 18m citizens – there is no official census
data – who do not consider themselves Turkish but Kurdish and who,
to a greater or lesser degree, refuse to be assimilated. A former
Turkish foreign minister once observed that Turkey’s route to Europe
led through its Kurdish regions.
Soli Ozel, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University, says
republican Turkey had four demons: liberalism, communism, Islamism
and Kurdish separatism. Now, he says, “the liberals are irrelevant,
the communists are dead and the Islamists have been co-opted. The
Kurdish issue is the last and final hurdle we have to get over. It
is different from the others in that it is very violent, and has been
met by violence.”
After six years of relative peace, most Turks had thought the problem
solved. The 1984-99 conflict ended in apparent victory for the
state. Violent Kurdish separatism as practised by the PKK appeared
to be waning. Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is in prison.
But the troubling realisation for most Turks is that those six years
may have been wasted. The region today reflects not so much peace as
the absence of war. Old grievances – lack of investment, unemployment,
social discrimination, forced assimilation through the education
system, a military presence that can seem excessive and provocative –
have not been addressed by successive governments in Ankara, in spite
of endless warnings from human rights groups and encouragement from
the EU.
Gunter Verheugen, the former EU enlargement commissioner, became
something of a hero in the south-east with his frequent visits there
while in office until last year. Olli Rehn, his successor, has also
been to the region and has made it clear that conditions there are a
source of major concern to Brussels. He has also called for an in-depth
investigation into the Semdinli incident. “If security officials are
involved in the bombing, severe sanctions must be taken against those
responsible for such provocation,” he said. “The south-east needs
peace, investment, jobs, respect for cultural rights – certainly
not violence.”
The explosion of rage across southeastern Turkey in recent weeks is
partly a response to what locals believe is a deliberate campaign of
harassment by elements of the security forces. But Kurdish political
leaders say it also reflects a profound sense of alienation and
frustration at their continued poverty and exclusion from the economic
success people elsewhere in Turkey are enjoying. Sedat Yurtdas, a
lawyer in Diyarbakir who is deputy chairman of the Democratic Society
Party, a new Kurdish political movement, says: “Semdinli looks to
me like the reaction of people who are trapped, who have no hope of
getting out.”
Turkey’s Kurds have undoubtedly suffered much since the republic
was founded in 1923. In the late stages of the 1984-99 conflict the
politicians in Ankara gave a carte blanche to the military. The army
forced thousands of peasant families into the cities and destroyed
their villages and farms. Many of these people still live in appalling
conditions on the edges of Diyarbakir, Hakkari, Sirnak and other
cities in the region, in spite of half-hearted attempts to resettle
them (see below).
The plight of the Kurds elicits much sympathy in parts of
Europe. Politicians in Ankara sometimes explode with frustration at
European interest in “Turkey’s Kurdish problem”. As Hisyar Ozsoy, an
advisor to the mayor of Diyarbakir, observes: “They [the politicians]
always ask why the Europeans and Americans always come here. It’s
because Ankara never comes here.”
Yet rural Kurdish society remains profoundly conservative and
tribal. Many in the countryside are in thrall to the PKK, which Turkey,
the EU and the US have branded a terrorist organisation. Hursit Tekin,
the mayor of Semdinli, says the PKK “represents the political will
of the people of this region”.
This view of the PKK is far from universal among Kurds, however. One
of the striking developments of recent years is that Kurdish political
opinion is no longer monolithic. The cultural and political beliefs
of rural and urban Kurds are diverging noticeably. There is a world
of difference between the relative modernity and sophistication of
Diyarbakir, the political capital of the Kurds, where the inhabitants
have no choice but to try to fit into Turkey, and the people of the
mountains. These are perhaps Europe’s most geographically isolated
people, a fact that adds to their sense of separateness.
Then there is the Istanbul effect. In the past 25 years, Turkey’s
most culturally and economically vibrant city has experienced a huge
influx of Kurds from the east. Many were fleeing the conflict but
many more came to escape poverty, isolation and family pressures. To
a large extent, they have left their ethnic grievances behind.
Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, reckons there are at least 3m
Kurds now living in Istanbul and the city has become the undisputed
cultural capital of the Kurds. Overall, at least 10m Kurds now live
outside the traditional Kurdish regions, mainly in western and southern
Turkey. Intermarriage among Kurds and Turks in the western cities is
common. There are many Kurdish MPs for mainstream parties who were
not elected on specifically Kurdish platforms.
It is such developments, at least as much as the eclipsing of the PKK,
that are creating a more pragmatic Kurdish political vision. “Until
1992 or 1993, the basic aim [of the Kurds] was independence and an
enlarged Kurdistan, and I marched for this when I was a student,” Mr
Baydemir says. “But there has been an evolution to a more realistic
vision.” Provided Turkey continues to become more democratic and takes
Kurdish grievances seriously, a policy of “equal citizenship” is now
the mantra. “Separatism is not dead,” he continues. “But in terms
of the general political feeling, the demand now is for integration
rather than separatism, for democracy rather than independence.” Most
Kurds appear to be strongly in favour of Turkey’s accession, believing
that it will bring about greater minority rights.
Is Turkey ready to bargain with these Kurds? It faces two problems. One
is the poor quality of the Kurdish political leadership. Recep Tayyip
Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister – who visited Semdinli two weeks
ago – acknowledged the “Kurdish problem” in Diyarbakir in August and
admitted that Ankara had made mistakes in the past. But he has no
obvious interlocutors. “I wish we had better political leadership
among the Kurds,” Prof Ozel says.
Mr Baydemir is a progressive young politician, but he may not have a
constituency outside Diyarbakir. Some Kurds have pinned their hopes on
Leyla Zana, a former Kurdish MP who spent a decade in prison and was
released last year after sustainedinternational pressure. Associates
say she is living near Diyarbakir, refusing to give interviews and
apparently biding her time. But her silence may betray her ultimate
lack of vision for the future.
The second problem is Iraq. As Kurds in Turkey simmer with resentment,
those across the border have started to prosper. Northern Iraq, which
is mainly Kurdish, is autonomous, relatively well-off and has huge oil
reserves. Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, is a Kurd. Cengiz Aktar,
head of the European Studies programme at Bahcesehir University in
Istanbul, observed in his newspaper column last week that “the rapid
growth and the pull of northern Iraq’s Kurdish region is quickly
turning the area into a reference” for Turkey’s Kurds.
It is critical, diplomats say, that Turkey start to address the
problems of its own Kurds to avoid a resurgence of separatist sentiment
stoked by developments in northern Iraq. Mr Erdogan has promised a
transparent investigation into the Semdinli incident. He seems aware
of what is at stake. But more will be needed in a region where the
only Turks that many Kurds ever meet are soldiers.
There were 10 military checkpoints one day last week on the vertiginous
road that links Hakkari and Sirnak, two ramshackle south-eastern
cities. On a mountainside along the road, beside a gendarmerie station,
there was a sign painted into the landscape. It read: “We are brave. We
are strong. We are ready.” These are fine sentiments for soldiers to
have. But it will take more than military jingoism to bring about a
definitive end to Europe’s bloodiest and most intractable separatist