SEMDINLI, Turkey — This town of 19,000 nestled in an idyllic mountain pass of impossibly green pastures and golden autumn trees is on the front lines of Turkey’s rapidly escalating guerrilla war.
In a struggle for autonomy as well as independent language and education rights, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has waged a low-grade conflict in Turkey for decades. But in recent months, the group has reemerged as a stronger, better equipped and increasingly organized force that is now in the midst of one of its bloodiest campaigns since the worst days of the conflict in the 1990s.
The rebels, observers say, appear to be taking a cue from the recent Arab uprisings, seeking to inspire a “Kurdish Spring” among segments of a stateless ethnic group numbering roughly 30 million and traditionally living in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The campaign is presenting a major security risk for Turkey at a time when this strategically vital NATO member is also pushing for a limited international intervention against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Turkish officials see as being at least partly responsible for the mounting PKK threat.
As Assad’s grip on Syria has loosened during the civil war, a Syrian Kurdish faction allied with the PKK has established itself as a de facto administration in a growing number of northern cities and towns. Some analysts and diplomats suggest that Assad may be tactically ceding lands to Kurdish rebels there, allowing Syria to become a transit point for weapons and fighters targeting Turkey, which has called for his immediate ouster. Others suggest that Assad, struggling to quell a broader uprising, has simply been unable to prevent the group’s spread.
Either way, the rising strength of Kurdish rebels in the region is fueling a bloody uptick in Turkey’s long-simmering guerrilla war. The death toll in Turkey has climbed to at least 490 in the past 10 and a half months, making this the conflict’s deadliest year since at least 1999, according to International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization.
Here in Semdinli, near the mountainous border with Iran and Iraq, a massive truck bomb went off Nov. 4 just as a Turkish army tank rolled by. Marking the worst bombing here since 2005, the explosion sent hot shrapnel raining down on revelers leaving a wedding party, killing an 11-year-old boy, wounding 24 others and blowing out windows and storefronts for blocks.
The blast followed a series of assaults in which rebel commandos attempted to seize this town populated largely by ethnic Kurds, attacking an army base and launching rocket-propelled grenades at the regional governor’s residence, forcing Turkish troops to stage a daring rescue of the Ankara-appointed governor and his wife.
“Their tactics have suddenly changed,” said Sedat Tore, Semdinli’s mayor. “They used to come down from the mountains for quick attacks and quick retreats. Now, they are staying and trying to control territory.”
The deepening conflict comes as armed Kurdish groups across the region appear to be increasing their level of cooperation. Terrorism experts, for instance, say more Kurdish fighters from Iran — where the pro-Assad government reached a truce with another faction of Kurdish rebels last year — also appear to be pouring into Turkey.
“We think the PKK has become an organization that is being utilized by a number of countries as proxies, to inflict harm on Turkey and show displeasure with Turkey’s policies toward its neighbors,” said Suat Kiniklioglu, an Ankara-based political analyst and former national legislator from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party.
In Semdinli, old bullet holes in apartment buildings and city walls stand as testaments of the frequent fighting over the decades. But residents call the recent bout of violence among the worst they’ve seen in years. “My children are so scared they can no longer sleep at night,” said Nucran Tire, 35, who had to pick shards of glass from her 12-year-old son’s back following the early-November bomb explosion, which blew out the front windows of the family’s apartment. “The violence is getting worse. We must have peace.”
Formed in the 1970s as a radical Marxist guerrilla outfit, the PKK has long fought for a list of demands aimed at ending what they call the “assimilation” of Kurdish youths into Turkish society and the suppression of their rights. After a horrific period of war in the 1990s punctuated by suicide bombings and the hijacking of Turkish Airlines Flight 487, the conflict entered a more subdued phase following the arrest of the movement’s de facto leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.
Kurdish rights groups hoped Erdogan’s arrival on the political stage in the 2000s signaled a new chance for peace. That optimism among Kurds in Turkey for a settled agreement increased as Ankara fostered heathy ties with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. Yet in a country where Turkish nationalism remains strong, the peace process has seemed to take one step forward and two steps back.
In 2009, the government granted what some saw as a breakthrough. In a country where Kurds could once be detained for listening to music in their native language and were called “mountain Turks” to avoid any reference to their differing ethnicity, Turkey legalized Kurdish programming on state television and allowed Kurdish language classes as an elective in secondary schools. But that same year, authorities also arrested scores of local and national Kurdish politicians and alleged PKK sympathizers.
After the latest round of talks broke down last year, the PKK launched a new military offensive in June 2011 that escalated this summer. Turkish authorities are now facing a multi-faceted Kurdish resistance, including a hunger strike by jailed Kurds that started with 65 prisoners in one compound two months ago. It has now spread to hundreds of inmates and Kurdish politicians nationwide, with their list of demands including the improvement of conditions for Ocalan, who is being held in a prison on an island in the Marmara Sea.
The Turkish government this month said it would move to comply with at least one of the strikers’ demands — legalization of Kurdish in Turkish courts. But Kurdish leaders say that is not enough.
“We don’t want independence, just a separate parliament and rights within Turkey that recognize our different language, our separate identity,” said Esat Canan, a national legislator from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. “The demands of the Kurds are reasonable. If the government would just sincerely move to help us obtain our rights, the fighting would stop.”
In the meantime, the hunger strike and increased PKK activity appear to be heightening tensions in Turkey’s southeast. A reporter who recently drove through the heavily Kurdish city of Yuksekova near Semdinli, for instance, witnessed gangs of masked, rock-throwing Kurdish youths burning tires and staging running battles with Turkish security forces.
The PKK and splinter groups loyal to their cause have also redoubled efforts in the area to firebomb schools — seen as “indoctrination centers” — and detain Turkish teachers sent to the region by the government in Ankara.
“It takes us so much time and energy to build these schools out in the mountains, to give these children a chance at an education,” said Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Erdogan. “But this is part of their totalitarian and backward Marxist-Leninist ideology. They think we are still in the 1970s.”
On a chilly morning in Semdinli this month, Hamida Kara, 55, sat under a white canvas mourning tent, rocking back and forth in solemn grief. The aunt of the 11-year-old boy killed by the car bomb that struck the town Nov. 4, Kara held the hand of her younger sister — the boy’s mother — as they received a grim parade of well wishers.
Yet Kara, like many paying their respects after the boy’s funeral, still appears to support many of the goals — if not the tactics — of the PKK. A woman who clings closely to her Kurdish heritage, she was forced with her family to relocate here from their rural village during the anti-PKK sweeps in the 1990s. Ten of her family members have died in the violence. More have been jailed under anti-terrorism laws.
Towns like Semdinli, observers say, remain a fertile recruiting ground for new rebel fighters, with many residents privately expressing sympathies for the PKK despite the recent rebel siege that began here in July.
But conflict-weary residents — particularly the mothers of young children — also say they just want the violence to stop.
“The sweetest boy in the world was taken from us,” Kara said, weeping. “We have reached the point where this needs to be settled with pens, not guns.”