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The Smell Of Vezneciler

Police and rescue services work at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul's Vezneciler neighborhood that killed a dozen people.
Police and rescue services work at the site of a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul's Vezneciler neighborhood that killed a dozen people.

A deadly suicide attack in an Istanbul neighborhood has highlighted the increasingly fraught nature of Turkey's relations with its Kurdish minority.

Two weeks ago I was sitting in a small shop in Izmir to have my watch cleaned and its battery replaced. Husnu Bey, the owner, a very professional watchmaker, was extremely pleasant to talk to and, no surprise for Turkey, he immediately came to politics -- and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

I was interested in his take on Turkey’s "Kurdish issue," now that the government is waging a tough military and security campaign against Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and its offshoots, in both cities and villages. I wanted to hear what he had to say about the campaign itself, as well as the issue of ethnic and cultural rights for the country’s large Kurdish minority.

"Yes, I understand that they are waging a terrorist war," I said, "both against the army and security forces and against civilians."

"But imagine, if the government succeeds in eradicating a good portion of Kurdish militants and lowering the number and intensity of their attacks, who else will be left to talk to? In the end, there must be a political solution and military action alone will not provide it. There seems to be no Kurdish alternative to the PKK yet."

The PKK is a militant Kurdish organization that has been waging war against Turkey for the past 32 years. It is recognized as a terrorist organization, not only by Turkey but also by the United States and most European countries.

A screenshot of a tweet in Turkish saying "Terrorist attacks are now so frequent that we just need a form to fill out the date, place, and number of casualties."
A screenshot of a tweet in Turkish saying "Terrorist attacks are now so frequent that we just need a form to fill out the date, place, and number of casualties."

Not surprisingly, as a dedicated Ataturkist ("Ataturkcu,"), Husnu Bey’s main criticism was directed mainly against Erdogan himself.

"The majority of our Kurdish co-citizens are against PKK terror," he replied. "But Erdogan first decided to negotiate with the PKK without disarming them. And meanwhile the PKK amassed thousands of weapons and tons of ammunition in the basements and cellars of private homes. You don’t negotiate with somebody who is still armed. Now Erdogan is panicking and doesn’t know whom to attack where.

"You clean up the terror and take away their arms first and then tell them, 'Now, let's sit down and talk.' That was previously the policy and we had just a few dozen casualties every year. Since the AKP [President Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party] came to power, we have dozens of casualties dying in terrorist attacks every week. See what they did yesterday in Istanbul.”

Deaths In Vezneciler

Indeed, the previous day, on June 7, an offshoot of the PKK attacked a police vehicle guarding a road in Vezneciler, a crowded neighborhood of Istanbul's old Fatih district. Six policemen and six civilians were killed as a result; more than 36 were wounded, and dozens of shops and cars were damaged. Twelve families lost their loved ones and were devastated. The entire country was shocked and speechless.

The suicide attacker was Eylem Yasa, a 32-year old woman originally from Baglar, a suburb of the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, a city that Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists have declared as their "capital." She was reportedly trained in PKK camps in northern Iraq and later inside Turkey.

Eylem’s body was held in the morgue of the Istanbul justice hospital to be later sent to her hometown for burial. Eight days later, on June 15, the coffin arrived in Baglar, carrying the body of a brutal female suicide bomber who had killed 12 people and herself while causing so much sorrow and destruction for the entire nation.

Wouldn’t you expect the family to bury the body of the terrorist quietly in the small cemetery of that Diyarbakir suburb?

No. They turned it into a political show. The coffin was wrapped in a PKK flag; women carried it (as the deceased was a woman); men showed victory signs with their fingers and chanted antigovernment slogans. On top of this, a dozen mayors from Kurdish towns and cities in the region also came to attend the funeral and to demonstrate their support. All of them were from the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP.

The HDP is known to be a de facto "political branch" of the PKK. It is represented in Turkey’s parliament with 59 out of 550 deputies and it controls many city councils in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country.

Didn't these Kurdish citizens know what had happened? Did they know what kind of message they were sending throughout Turkey about the country's future and Turkish-Kurdish ethnic relations? Don't they realize that Turkey’s Syrian and Iraqi border regions are becoming increasingly similar to northern Syria?

I am sure that, if you asked Eylem before her suicide attack, she would justify it as part of the "fight for freedom." She would verbally condemn terrorism. ُShe would strongly condemn Islamic State. But deep in her heart, she would probably think the PKK was different. Her actions and similar attacks are "good" terrorist attacks, responding to what Kurdish militants call Turkey's "state terror," which is a term they use to justify their own violence.

"Good" Terrorism, "Bad" Terrorism?

Since the PKK and its offshoots ended a fragile cease-fire in the summer of 2015, they have brought out their weapons and ordered their militants, such as Eylem, to attack military and security targets as well as civilians. Their military commanders have been quoted as saying they should hit "everywhere in Turkey, in cities and towns."

The government response has been proportionally harsh, often ruthless.

After months of clashes between PKK militants and the Turkish Army, some southeastern cities now look like Syrian cities that have been bombed to ruins.

I don’t know if the "cemetery demonstration" in Diyarbakir is representative of most of Turkey's Kurdish minority. I hope it is not.

Sometime later I will tell you about my encounter with Necla, a fine ethnic Kurdish hotel manager from Izmir. She is from Tunceli, another city in eastern Turkey with a sizable Kurdish minority. She was telling me that her personal goal is to make a career and to "gradually move away from whatever is close to Iraq and Syria.”

“Westward, westward,” she told me. “In the east, it smells of ammunition and hatred -- religious hatred, ethnic hatred -- and ignorance. I don’t need politics. I need security, education, health, and a normal life.”

But, still, I am not sure if the Turkish watchmaker’s statement about "the majority of our Kurdish co-citizens' opposition to the PKK" offers a complete picture of Turkey today.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.