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Iraq: Kurds On Turkey's Border Fight For Survival, Not Independence

Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria are home to some 25 million Kurds. Nearly half of them live in Turkey, primarily in the country's southeast. Kurdish separatism, spearheaded by the Kurdistan Workers Party, has long been a factor in Turkey's history and explains Ankara's concerns that the U.S.-led war in Iraq may once again stir a drive for independence among the region's Kurds.

Silopi, Turkey; 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Most of the 30,000 people living in Silopi, a town on Turkey's border with Iraq, are Kurds. Located at the foot of long, snowy Mount Judi, part of the Ararat mountain range, Silopi's geography has in large part determined its fate.

The mountain rising above Silopi and neighboring towns was home to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), founded in 1973 by Abdullah Ocalan with the aim of controlling the Kurdish populations in the villages below as part of an independent Kurdish state.

Beginning in the 1980s, Silopi found itself wedged between fierce opponents: Turkish troops and PKK militants. Thirty-year-old Hashim, a shop owner, said he will never forget those days. "People [in Silopi] were living in constant fear of bombings and fighting," he said. "It was a nightmare. We were like a small river between two mountains or like a mouth between moustache and beard."

Hashim added: "During the daytime, we were interrogated by the Turkish military as supporters of the PKK. At night, we were tortured and robbed by Kurdish militants as collaborators. None of them were sympathetic to us. Many people's lives turned to ashes because of this war."

Many Silopi residents say life in the region has changed dramatically since Ocalan was arrested in February 1999. Shops and restaurants remain open all day, and people say they feel reasonably safe and secure. But even though Turkey's war with the PKK has ended, life in Silopi is anything but normal, as residents fight deepening poverty.

Ibrahim is the owner of a car-repair shop, where dozens of unemployed men gather each day to exchange stories and news. He said he hasn't made a single sale over the past month. "In every family, there are at least eight to 10 people. You just talked to a kid who said there are seven children in his family. Everybody around you is the head of a big family like this. But if you look in their pockets, you won't find more than 2-3 million lira [$1.50 to $2]. You can imagine the life of their families," Ibrahim said.

Ibrahim's companions agreed. "The war with the PKK was not our war," one of them said. "Today's war in Iraq is also not our war. Our war is a bread war. If we have our bread, we don't do anything to anybody. But when our bread is gone, then we will definitely make war."

Life is miserable for most people in Silopi. Before Turkey's war with the PKK, locals were primarily engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. But once the war took hold, the region's only option for survival was trade with Iraq. Nearly 90 percent of the male population became truck drivers, carrying goods to Iraq as part of its oil-for-food program. But complete closure of the border two years ago has stolen their sole remaining source of income. Nowadays, in and around Silopi one can see numerous so-called "truck cemeteries," where more than 50,000 trucks sit unused. For the men of Silopi, their only hope is to see the border reopened.

Frustration is mounting in Silopi, where residents like Hasan, a former truck driver, say they feel ignored and abandoned. "We were bringing crude oil from Iraq and making good money until the Turkish government closed the border."

He said the feeling seems to be, "Whatever bad things happen, they should happen to southeastern people; only southeasteners should suffer."

Despite such bitterness, these Silopi residents say they have no dream of creating an independent Kurdish state. They see their future as part of Turkey, and they want to be given a chance to make their life better by having the border with Iraq reopened.

Ibrahim expressed a sentiment often heard in Silopi. "What will change if there is an independent Kurdish state?" he asked. "What benefit would it bring to our lives? We don't want such independence. It has nothing to do with our identity. Everybody here [in Turkey] has the same identity: We are Turkish citizens."

There are no Kurdish-language schools in Silopi or in other towns of southeastern Turkey. Adult men speak Turkish, as do the children attending Turkish-language schools. Only the region's women, primarily housewives, continue to speak Kurdish and promote other Kurdish traditions. But even this may change with the times. For the past several years, young girls have been attending school for the first time. This is yet another trend, residents say, that will dramatically change life in Silopi over the next 10 to 20 years.