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Caught In the Middle of a Civil War Between Turkey and Its Kurds

8 minute read

After Zerda and Yoldas, a Kurdish couple in their 30s from Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, married about 15 years ago, they bought a parcel of land from relatives in the town’s old city, across the street from a school. The land contained a small house, which they expanded over the years, adding rooms one by one, mixing the cement themselves. They began to raise their three children there. “We were poor, but we had a nice home with a nice garden,” says Zerda.

With roughly a million inhabitants, Diyarbakir is the de facto capital of this heavily Kurdish area of southeastern Turkey. The Kurds are a loosely defined ethnic group united by language and scattered across parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Armenia, with hundreds of thousands more living in a diaspora in Europe and beyond. Diyarbakir is at the center of a long war between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdish groups in Turkey, some of them armed, who have demanded first independence, then autonomy from the state. The dominant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)–considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the U.S.–has fought the Turkish authorities since the 1980s. The conflict has left 30,000 people dead over periods of intermittent warfare.

The latest cycle of violence began in July 2015, when a suicide bomber killed at least 33 people, including pro-Kurdish activists, in the border town of Suruc. The attack was blamed on ISIS militants, and two days later the PKK killed two Turkish police officers it accused of collaborating with ISIS. Turkey retaliated with airstrikes on both ISIS positions in Syria and PKK camps in northern Iraq.

Inspired in part by Kurdish fighters who had been battling ISIS across the border in Syria, Kurdish youth began organizing into militias. They appeared on the streets of Diyarbakir and the other towns of the southeast, digging trenches in a bid to keep out the security forces. One of those neighborhoods was Sur, the centuries-old core of the city of Diyarbakir, where Zerda and Yoldas and their three young children lived. The war had come home. “The fighters came and said, ‘Go, leave from here,'” says Zerda. (Their names have been changed to protect them from reprisals.)

Zerda and Yoldas refused to leave, staying in Sur through the fall of 2015 and into the winter. The Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent well-armed police to roust insurgents from the so-called autonomous neighborhoods. Some parts of heavily Kurdish areas of Turkey were placed under 24-hour curfews for weeks at a time. That included Sur, where the fighting raged in the streets. In a year of combat, at least 338 civilians have been killed. The government says about 500 security forces have also died, along with more than 5,000 Kurdish fighters in both Turkey and Iraq.

By December, the fighting had intensified in Sur. The government sent in tanks and began shelling parts of the neighborhood. Seeking protection from the gunfire, Zerda, Yoldas and their children slept on the floor of their bathroom.

Early one morning during the curfew in December, Zerda decided to try to take her children to a relative’s house to eat. They had heard occasional gunshots, but it was relatively quiet, so Zerda gathered the children, opened the front door and stepped into the daylight. Suddenly gunfire crackled, and a bullet struck the wall near her daughter’s head. Screaming, Zerda rushed the children inside. Her daughter had been bruised by a piece of debris that had chipped off the side of the house, but she wasn’t bleeding.

Even after that scare, the family remained in Sur until mid-January, leaving only when the government imposed another curfew on the neighborhood. They were among 30,000 residents of Sur, and 350,000 people across the southeast, who fled during six months of fighting. “If we didn’t leave, we’d be stuck between the two sides,” says Yoldas.

It’s hard to believe that not long ago, Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) were presiding over an easing of tensions with the Kurds, including peace negotiations with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. In 2009 the AKP government launched a “democratic initiative,” heralding a new era of pluralism and a reset in relations with Turkey’s minority groups. For years, many Kurdish voters–including Zerda and Yoldas–supported the AKP, helping the party win election after election.

The era of reconciliation came to an end in 2014. The success of U.S.-backed Kurdish militants fighting ISIS in Syria lent momentum to Kurdish nationalism inside Turkey. During the ISIS siege of the Syrian border city of Kobani, Turkish Kurds clashed with police over what they saw as Ankara’s failure to allow aid to reach the town. In elections in June 2015, a pro-Kurdish party entered parliament for the first time by passing a required 10% threshold of the vote, dealing a bruising setback to Erdogan.

The elections failed to produce a ruling coalition, triggering a snap election that gave Erdogan another chance to maintain full control of the government. When violence surged after the Suruc bombing, the AKP ran on a platform of law and order, enforcing a security crackdown in Kurdish towns. It worked. Erdogan’s party regained its majority in the new elections last November.

The win freed Erdogan to pursue an even more ambitious goal of shifting Turkey to a presidential system, a step critics say could move the country closer to Vladimir Putin–style authoritarianism. They point to other heavy-handed gestures by Erdogan, including recent arrests of critical journalists and academics. On June 8, Erdogan approved a law that strips members of parliament of their legal immunity, which would allow him to remove pro-Kurdish lawmakers.

The Kurds are cast as enemies both of the state and of Erdogan’s ambitions. “Right now the only obstacle to [Erdogan] is the PKK,” says Harun Ercan, a sociologist employed by the Diyarbakir municipal government. “If they run the elections and PKK says they’re going to boycott it, he’ll be President of Turkish people, not Kurdish people.”

In the southeast, the security forces have managed to end the urban insurrections that began last year, albeit at the cost of emptying entire neighborhoods and destroying more than 6,000 buildings. But Kurdish armed groups have shifted tactics, carrying out bombings that have killed both police and civilians. In Istanbul on June 7, a car bombing in a major tourist district killed 11 people, including seven police officers.

These attacks increasingly threaten the sense of security in the otherwise peaceful cities of western Turkey, hundreds of miles from the insurgency in the southeast and the wars in Syria and Iraq. With mainstream voters outraged at the violence by Kurdish groups, Erdogan and the AKP will keep gathering power. “It means a more autocratic Turkey, but at the same time it means a stronger AKP,” says Burak Kadercan, an expert on Turkish politics and a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “Fifty percent of the voters have chosen to back AKP, regardless of what they’ve been doing.”

The view is darker for the Kurds. At a cemetery in Diyarbakir last November, the graves were freshly dug. Some headstones were draped with the flag of the People’s Protection Units, the Kurdish militia in Syria, a sign of the growing number of Turkish Kurds fighting across the border.

Others are the graves of young people killed in Turkey. At one site, a woman named Fatima smoked a cigarette near her child’s grave. She said her 17-year-old son Onur Koc was shot in the back by police in Diyarbakir on Oct. 4. Street battles had taken place in the city around that time, but Fatima claimed her son was shot during a moment of calm. “What can I say? My child is dead and in the ground,” she said. “Only God can help us achieve peace now.”

Zerda and Yoldas are now living in a rented apartment in a newer neighborhood outside the old city walls. They have not been able to return to their home. The security forces have cordoned off most of the old city, and the family is waiting for permission just to enter the exclusion zone and see whether the house where they began their family is still standing.

Sitting on the floor of his temporary home, Yoldas arranges coffee cups and an ashtray to make a map showing how close their house was to the front line: police here, fighters there. The three children scamper in and out of the room. Zerda and Yoldas don’t know if the bullet that nearly stuck their daughter was fired by the security forces or insurgents. They don’t think it matters.

“They’re not the ones suffering. It’s the mothers on both sides,” says Zerda. “If they really want war, let’s put Erdogan and Ocalan in a ring with sticks so society doesn’t have to pay.”

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