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Amid The Rubble, Some Turkish Kurds Wary Of EU-Ankara Deal

Residents of the Baglar district carry their belongings as they leave after clashes between Turkish special forces and militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on March 15.
Residents of the Baglar district carry their belongings as they leave after clashes between Turkish special forces and militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on March 15.
By Norma Costello

As Ankara and the European Union hammer out possible measures to stem the flow of war refugees and other migrants to Europe, Kurds in Turkey's turbulent southeast are condemning the negotiations as a "farce" that threatens to draw an unwitting EU into the persecution of a beleaguered minority.

Some of the estimated 300,000 people displaced by recent Turkish military operations to strike at Kurdish separatist strongholds warn that any migrant plan boosting EU funds to Turkey should include strict criteria to ensure that European money doesn't end up funding a hidden war against Turkish Kurds.

"They won't stop killing Kurds until we are all dead," 28-year-old Ahmet Tunc says as he waits for friends at a cafe in the Sur district of the mostly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, one of the epicenters of a recent security push. "Europe is going to give Turkey millions, [and] they will use this money for new tanks and bombs. Europe doesn't care about Kurds."

Residents of Sur call the monthslong military operation that is finally easing one of the bloodiest chapters they can recall since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched its armed campaign for greater autonomy in southeastern Turkey in 1984, sparking violence that has killed more than 45,000 people.

Kurds have long sought to play a greater role in decision making in the region over objections from Turkey and other states with sizable Kurdish minorities, a desire that was highlighted this week when Kurds fighting against the government in Damascus and the radical Islamist group Islamic State (IS) vowed to declare a federal region in northern Syria. 

Smoke rises after clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants in the Sur district of Diyarbakir on February 11.
Smoke rises after clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants in the Sur district of Diyarbakir on February 11.

'Everything Was Destroyed'

Late last year, after a flare-up of violence that included the deaths of two police officers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered a stepped-up military effort against the PKK.

The campaign in Diyarbakir has included a strict curfew in much of Sur that was only recently eased, allowing some people to return to their homes or shops for the first time in months.

"They bombed it at night. Everything was destroyed. What was left, they stole," Faruk Taylan says as he surveys the damage to his shoe shop. Other stores on this cobbled street mostly survived the government's three-month military operation, but the facade of his store lies in ruins on the sidewalk. Locals gather around as the father of three scoops up shoes scattered in the rubble, the remains of his once-profitable business.

"They had tanks and bombs that fell from the planes and created big fires," Taulan says of fighting during the curfew. "They left the bodies on the street for days. The smell was so bad. Before they lifted the curfew, they picked up all the bodies and put them in trucks." 

Faruk Taylan stands inside his damaged store, where he once sold shoes and clothes in the Sur district of Diyarbakir.
Faruk Taylan stands inside his damaged store, where he once sold shoes and clothes in the Sur district of Diyarbakir.

Ankara's operation is thought to have left hundreds of Kurds and dozens of Turkish soldiers dead, although reliable figures are hard to come by.

"We've never seen war like this," Taylan says, then adds as if to underline that he and other Erdogan critics see another threat on the horizon. "If Europe gives Turkey money, they won't use it to help poor people, they'll keep killing people. They will keep this money -- it will be a joke, a farce."

Collective Punishment?

Many Turkish Kurds say they're afraid the government's strong bargaining position in talks with Brussels to ease the migrant crisis -- Turkey is, after all, the major conduit for hundreds of thousands of war refugees and other migrants flooding into Europe -- will leave them and fellow Erdogan detractors out in the cold.

Ankara has demanded at least 6 billion euros ($6.8 billion) from Brussels in connection with any agreement, in addition to major concessions like visa-free travel to the West and accelerated talks on EU membership. 

Migrants sit on a boat near the village of Kucukkuyu in western Turkey.
Migrants sit on a boat near the village of Kucukkuyu in western Turkey.

Human rights groups urged EU leaders to insist on greater accountability and transparency from Turkey before handing over additional funding.

Andrew Gardner, a researcher for rights watchdog Amnesty International, which has previously described Turkish operations against Kurdish targets as "collective punishment," says it is "vital [that] the money given to Turkey goes to humanitarian support and not human rights abuses such as detention or increased border restrictions. We need to ensure this aid is not used solely for the protection of European borders."

Following snap elections in November that gave the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority in parliament, the PKK issued a statement calling the administration in Ankara a "war government."

The PKK remains popular among Turkey's Kurds despite being regarded as a terrorist organization by NATO and the European Union, among others.

Erdogan last week hinted at a continued focus on combating PKK and its supporters, saying, "It is not only the person who pulls the trigger, but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists, regardless of their title."

Turkish troops previously deployed to Sur are now being moved to Baglar, a much larger district of Diyarbakir with more than 300,000 people, as well as to the eastern city of Yuksekova and Nusaybin on the Syrian border.

Ankara has also expanded attacks on Kurdish armed groups outside the country. Turkish warplanes are currently carrying out air strikes in Iraq near the Qandil Mountains, a historic PKK stronghold, and in Syria, where Turkish forces are targeting the People's Protection Units (YPG), who are themselves fighting IS near the Turkish border but whom Ankara accuses of trying to divide up Syria for its own ends. 

A woman knits in front of a home that was destroyed by a bomb during fighting in Sur.
A woman knits in front of a home that was destroyed by a bomb during fighting in Sur.

Back in Sur, six districts are still under tight curfew but the winding down of military operations in other areas has brought a semblance of normalcy.

Tunc, who gave up a job in a coastal town to return to Diyarbakir to look after his mom and sister after his brother was killed fighting with the PKK, gestures toward other young men smoking cigarettes and drinking tea in the cafe. "Look around you. Here there is no work, there is no nothing. We are just left here to think about the war."

He adds: "We just want peace. We say in Kurdistan, 'Same food, same people.' Why is there all this fighting?"

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