TOPICS > Politics

Turkey: Living on the Edge

March 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Diyarbakir is the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. It’s a very old town along the Tigris River about two hours drive from the border with northern Iraq. Though this has been part of Turkey since it became a modern state after World War I, most people here speak Kurdish as their first language. They have close familial and historical ties to the other Kurds living in a wide swath of territory stretching east from here across Syria, northern Iraq, and Iran.

Yesterday, for example, a coalition of labor and human rights groups gathered outside a local park to mark the day 15 years ago when Saddam Hussein attacked Kurds in Halabja, a town in northern Iraq, with poison gas. Squads of police broke up the event before it began. They detained some organizers and drove people away from the park, an indication of the high state of tension as war in the region draws near. Kurds in gatherings like this have long faced opposition from Turkish security authorities, but human rights attorney Selahattin Demirtas said the situation is especially tense now.

SELAHATTIN DEMIRTAS (Translated): Here in Diyarbakir, the government obstructs any action by the opposition that represents a step forward for us. With the war coming closer, the unlawful behavior of the police is rising and today we have experienced violence at a very high level.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Farnsworth: Diyarbakir was a hotbed of support for Kurdish separatist guerrillas, known as the PKK who fought an armed, bloody 16 year battle against the Turkish military in the 1980s and 90s. Hundreds of Kurdish villages in the Southeast were destroyed as the military targeted what it said were the guerrillas’ sources of support. Homes are being rebuilt, but ruins are still visible in villages near Diyarbakir.

Thirty-six thousand people died in that war, and Turkey’s government has told the Bush administration it fears the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will bring a rekindling of the separatist movement here. The post-Gulf War no-fly zone enforced by British and American warplanes over northern Iraq has allowed a kind of semi-independent Kurdish state to flourish there. And Turkey opposes any more Kurdish gains in northern Iraq now.

In recent weeks, the Turkish army has moved equipment and thousands of troops to the border with Iraq, and several thousand Turkish soldiers have reportedly crossed into Northern Iraq itself under cover of night. Their mission, military officials say, is to prevent an influx of refugees into Turkey as fighting begins. Turkish officials say PKK guerrillas entered with refugees after the Gulf War.

But American officials fear the troops will clash with the Iraqi Kurds to prevent an even more independent Kurdistan inside a post-Saddam Iraq. In Diyarbakir, human rights attorney Demirtas insisted Turkey’s Kurds do not want a separate state, only more civil rights.

SELAHATTIN DEMIRTAS (Translated): If a separate state is formed in northern Iraq, it doesn’t mean that Kurds here will want to separate from Turkey and form a Kurdish state. Kurds want to live here within the Turkish state. But here we have a problem being recognized as Kurds. Here Kurds are under cultural pressures and can’t practice their democratic and political rights freely.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Kurds in Turkey are not permitted to put up any signs or publish newspapers in their own language. Kurdish names considered provocative may not be given to Kurdish children. Last year, Turkey lifted some of the restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language in accordance with requirements for entering the European Union, a long-time goal of Turkish officials; but there is still only limited Kurdish programming available on radio and TV.

Many homes in Diyarbakir have two satellite dishes, one for Turkish television and another to receive programs in Kurdish broadcast from Germany. And last week, a Turkish court outlawed the leading Kurdish political party, known as HADEP, provoking Kurdish protests in the streets of Diyarbakir. Though the case had been in the courts for years, HADEP official Mefahir Altindag said he believed the outlawing had to do with the coming war in Iraq.

MEFAHIR ALTINDAG ( Translated ): A war in northern Iraq will directly affect the Kurds in Turkey. The representative of the Kurds is HADEP. To prevent trouble here, HADEP was closed down.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The environment gets more tense close to the border with Iraq. We drove south from Diyarbakir to Kiziltepe. We weren’t permitted to film military installations, but in this rich valley, part of the fertile crescent that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, are several Turkish large bases where troops are preparing for action when war begins. Some American equipment and troops have been moving here in recent days too. They’re upgrading airfields and preparing logistically in case a parliamentary vote comes soon enough to permit American troops to invade northern Iraq via Turkey. Townspeople in Kiziltepe said they’re afraid.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What are people afraid of?

PERSON ON STREET ( Translated ): We are afraid of Saddam, and everybody is afraid and worried.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This woman said everybody is afraid. When airplanes fly over, the children say mama. When war comes will we all die? She said, we try to explain but they don’t understand. Wherever we went, we were closely monitored by Turkish security officials. And as we videotaped along the highway from Kiziltepe to Iraq a Turkish border guard spotted us and alerted troops ahead. We were detained at an army base for almost five hours. We were treated well, warned not to tape Turkish military installations in the future, and we returned without further problems to Diyarbakir, but the detention was one sign of how tense the military is on the eve of war.

In Diyarbakir, human rights attorney Demirtas said he fears the worst is yet to come. The state of emergency imposed during the counterinsurgency struggle in this region was lifted on November 30 last year. But Demirtas said Kurdish activists are now being arrested again.

SELAHATTIN DEMIRTAS (Translated): Recently, we have been experiencing something like a state of emergency or something like martial law as if it had already been declared. And we are worried that it will be officially declared after war starts.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Diyarbakir was on edge today, as the week begins. People wanted to know when we thought the war would start. At the airport, Patriot missiles stood ready in case Saddam Hussein directs a missiles this way.