Violence in the Kurdish regions of Turkey

„Silopi could turn in another Kobani“

The conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK is intensifying. The bloodiest clash so far happened in the Basak neighbourhood of Silopi.

Traces of the confrontations between the PKK and Turkish security forces in a street of Silopi. Foto: reuters

SILOPI taz | The mother’s face reveals several emotions: grief for the loss of her 17-year-old son, shot while sitting on the front-door step at 9 o’clock in the morning; gratitude for the condolences of the people who fill her courtyard five days after the fatal riot; and wariness of the foreign journalist who is visiting for the first time.

Zeynep Tamboga lives in a modest, two-story house in Silopi’s Basak district, which earned notoriety on 7 August when its young residents held off the police for four hours. The provincial governor’s office accused the youths of belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), saying they attacked the police with „rifles and rocket-propelled grenades“ from barricades and ditches dug to obstruct armoured cars.

The governor said three people were killed and seven wounded, including two policemen.

Turkey has suffered turmoil since an alleged Islamic State-suicide bomber killed 33 people in Suruc on July 20. But nowhere else has there been such a pitched-battle as that in Basak, a low-income suburb whose walls are stencilled with the face of the imprisoned PKK leader, Apo Ocallan.

People in western Turkey have been alarmed by the battle of Basak, as well as a two-hour gunbattle between police and PKK in Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli district on 10 August. Such confrontations recall the anarchy that infested Turkey in the late 1970s, an era that ended in the coup of 1980.

Basak hit the news again when, also on 10 August, alleged PKK fighters detonated a bomb that blew up a paramilitary vehicle, killing four policemen and wounding a fifth.

The police who arrived on the scene, out of rage or panic, began firing randomly, according to witnesses.

The family samovar has been wrecked

Basak resident Seyhan, who did not want her surname published, invited TAZ into her house to see how heavy machine-gun fire – from the turret of a police armoured car, presumably – had peppered the walls of her house, wrecking the family samovar (chrome-plated urn for boiling tea) and penetrating her father’s black suit. The street wall of her house bears 27 bullet holes. Similar holes are to be seen on seven houses nearby.

Minutes after the shooting spree began, police came to her house and, finding the door locked, knocked a hole in the wall with pick axes to gain entry.

Seyhan showed the freshly-cemented wall where the hole was repaired. She said the police were looking for men, but there were only women and a child in the house at 9:30 am.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the PKK must surrender its weapons, and the campaign against Kurdish militants will continue „until not one terrorist remains”.

„We don’t believe Erdogan,” Seyhan commented. „He has lied many times. If the PKK put down their guns, then the police could kill us again.”

Much of what happens in Sirnak province, of which Silopi is a part, is not reported in Turkey’s mainstream media, possibly because the incidents often do not cause fatalities.

Fighters, masking their faces with PKK flags, stopped two TIR lorries driving between Silopi and the Habur border gate with Iraq on 11 August. They forced the drivers to get out, doused the cabins with petrol, and set them on fire.

The lorries were carrying aluminium tubes for construction. They were blackened by the fire, but intact. The cabin-engine section of the trucks were gutted utterly.

The driver who spoke to TAZ said the fighters did not harm him, but he was shocked that Turkish citizens could so calmly destroy each other’s property.

A young man who eavesdropped on the interview rebuked the driver for „blaming the PKK”. The driver moderated his answers, declining to say why he thought the fighters had burned his truck.

„They did it to show the state has no authority,” said a Turkish customs official at Habur Gate, who had seen the trucks. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

„It was done to frighten people”

In another incident that escaped the big media, a bomb placed in an underground drain in the Sirnak high street exploded on Monday evening, shattering the windows of five shops. Nobody was injured as most shops were closed at 7:30 pm and the pavement was deserted.

„It was done to frighten people,” said Yilmaz Tatar, who estimated it will cost him 15,000 Turkish Lira (euros 4,840 or US dollars 5,380) to repair his window and replace the cell phones that were on display.

What is fuelling the rising lawlessness is the collapse of the peace process with the Kurds, who comprise about 20 percent of Turkey’s 75 million people.

Two days after the Suruc bombing, PKK hitmen sneaked into the apartment of two policemen in Ceylanpinar, another town on the Syrian border. They shot the policemen dead in their beds. The PKK said they had done it to avenge the police’s „collaboration with Islamic State”.

This was a turning point. It gave the government the cue to launch a disproportionately large campaign of F-16 airstrikes and detentions against the PKK. Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc gave parliament figures that showed six times as many PKK suspects had been detained as IS suspects.

The PKK announced that the ceasefire declared in March 2013 was finished. In the past three weeks, the group has killed more than 25 police and soldiers.

The conflict has re-opened old divisions in Turkey, forcing Kurds to choose between obligation to their state and feelings for their people.

In the shaded courtyard of the Tamboga family in Basak, daughter Kezban, 25, expressed her predicament.

„One of my brothers is serving in the Turkish army,” she told TAZ. „And one of my brothers was killed in the street wearing slippers, and has been labelled a ‚terrorist’.”

Asked how the fighting could be ended, Kezban said: „It’s the government that began this cycle of violence and it’s the government that can end it.”

She insisted the people in the streets when her brother was killed were not armed. Her brother had been watching the spectacle when he was hit by a police bullet fired from about 200 metres.

But some of Basak’s youths must have been armed: two policemen were wounded and the rioters torched a bulldozer brought in to fill the ditches and remove the barricades.

The lawmaker for Silopi, Faisal Sariyildiz of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), acknowledged the Basak fighters were armed. And he recognised that just as the barricades and ditches are still there, so too are the weapons.

What did he feel about having an arsenal of rifles and RPGs in the backyard of his constituency? „I’ve lived in such an environment since my childhood,” he replied to TAZ, adding „the police have many more weapons than the young people.”

He was asked if he were afraid of Silopi becoming like Kobani, the north Syrian town that suffered a four-month battle between IS and the Syrian Kurds.

„If the government doesn’t give up its passion for control, Silopi could turn into another Kobani,” Sariyildiz said.

Unusually even-handed

One ray of light in this morass of blood, accusation and counter-accusation is the Kurdish businessman Shahismail Bedirhanoglu.

The owner of a prominent hotel in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, he is the chairman of the Southeastern Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association, which has met the prime minister to lobby for change.

Bedirhanoglu is unusually even-handed in apportioning blame. He condemns the PKK’s killing of the Ceylanpinar policemen as an atrocity that „undermined what the Kurds have gained”.

He faults the government for failing to support the peace process with the legislative reforms that the Kurds expected in return for their ceasefire. „The government has been fooling the Kurds,” he told TAZ in an interview.

The way out of the impasse, Bedirhanoglu said, is for the government and the Kurds to „resume negotiations from where they broke off”. To that end, „NGOs and CEOs must put pressure on both sides.”

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Seit dem Putschversuch im Sommer 2016 entwickelt sich die Türkei unter dem Präsidenten Erdogan immer stärker zu einer Autokratie.

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