In Turkey, New Fears That Peace Has Passed

Guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party relaxed in 2004 in northern Iraq, where many found refuge after their leader was jailed in 1999.
Guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party relaxed in 2004 in northern Iraq, where many found refuge after their leader was jailed in 1999. (By Robin Shulman -- The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

PERVARI, Turkey -- Residents of this town nestled in the cliffs of southeastern Turkey counted 86 military vehicles lurching deeper into the mountains one day last month, with foot soldiers peering out. Overhead, Cobra attack helicopters stuttered across an epic blue sky laced by the contrails of F-16 warplanes.

The Turkish military was attacking a guerrilla army in its alpine camp.

The combined-arms assault here, sweeping a remote mountain stronghold by air and ground, was precisely the kind of offensive that Turkey has spent most of the last two years asking U.S. forces to mount in northern Iraq -- against the same rebel group. The Kurdistan Workers' Party, an armed group of Turkish Kurds that the State Department calls a terrorist group, maintains a large base in Iraq's Qandil range, about 200 miles north of Baghdad.

Although the Bush administration has vowed repeatedly to confront the PKK, as the guerrilla force is known, its fighters have not only continued to enjoy a haven in Iraq, they have begun returning in force to Turkey. And with them come reminders of a conflict that people here, after almost five years of peace, had begun to believe was over.

"And now we can't leave our houses. We are fearing again," said Metin Ozel, 43, who owns a service station in Pervari. "You feel lonely. You feel encircled. You feel stuck in the middle of nowhere with all these things happening around you."

The new fighting has mostly been like the mid-April assault on the PKK base near here, which the military later said resulted in the deaths of three soldiers and 24 guerrillas from a camp said to hold 350. In scope and intensity, it is several magnitudes below the civil war that raged here in the 1980s and '90s and claimed an estimated 30,000 lives, most of them civilians caught between soldiers or paramilitary fighters and PKK guerrillas.

But memories of that conflict are still raw, and the prospect of renewed fighting is a matter of profound concern here. Some Kurdish activists fret that a return to arms would cost not only lives but also the fragile gains that Kurds have won since the fighting stopped.

"It looks like five years of a calm, peaceful environment are turning into another conflict," said Giyasettin Sehir, a playwright and activist in Diyarbakir, a provincial capital crowded both by displaced villagers and by the business travelers who have returned with the peace. "I can say the people definitely don't want armed struggle.

"Of course," he added, "there's a small minority in the population who are emotional, especially at funerals."

Sehir was sitting at a table in the Tigris and Euphrates Cultural Center, a combination cafe, performance space and rehearsal complex that embodies the changes in Turkey's southeast. The center exists for Diyarbakir residents to express their Kurdish heritage -- the language, music and customs that set them apart from the country's Turkish majority.

Modern Turkey was founded on the notion of "Turkishness," a rigid concept that made no accommodation for ethnic diversity. The country's estimated 14 million Kurds, who trace their ancestry to the mountains above the Mesopotamian plain rather than the steppes of Central Asia, were called "mountain Turks." The three letters that occur in the Kurdish alphabet but not in Turkish -- x, w and q -- were officially banned. Parents who gave their children Kurdish names were prohibited from registering them.

The impulse to insist on an ethnic identity helped give rise to the PKK, which mixed Kurdish aspirations with Marxist dogma, overlaid by the brutal cult of personality encouraged by the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company