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Reluctant Ally

Elizabeth Farnsworth reports on how Turkey has contended with its role in the tensions surrounding a potential U.S.-led war with neighboring Iraq and examines the struggles of the Kurdish community living there.

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    A trip to Habur, on Turkey's border with Iraq, where trucks wait in line before passing through customs, helps explain why Turkey's leaders have not yet publicly promised full cooperation in any war with Iraq. They're warning that a new conflict in the region could place their country at risk.

    The area along the border is tense. Bombed-out villages remind visitors that this has been a key battleground in Turkey's counterinsurgency struggle against Kurdish guerrillas. That conflict took on new ferocity when the economy crashed after the Gulf War.

    Turks often refer to their part of the world as "a dangerous neighborhood," and this border crossing at Habur between Turkey and Iraq might be one of the hottest corners. The hills behind me are in Iraq. Just a couple of miles down the road is Syria. A bit further in that direction is Iran. In the years before the Gulf War, about 2,000 trucks would pass through here each day. Now the number is down to about 200.


    Because of U.N. economic sanctions on Iraq, only certain kinds of trade are permitted, and customs officials search each vehicle, if only cursorily. Trucks carrying potatoes and other goods wait for hours, sometimes days, to cross. The empty tankers in line are heading for Iraq to pick up oil.


    Hi. Where are you going?


    He's going to a spot between Mosul and Baghdad.


    How do things seem over there? Do they seem any different? In this time that people are talking about war?


    Yes, things have changed. They have positioned soldiers in different places.


    Thousands of drivers, most of them from Turkey's Kurdish southeast, went bankrupt after the Gulf War, abandoning their trucks in fields near Habur. The Turkish government claims that the country has lost more than $40 billion since the war. And officials say those losses played a role in precipitating a devastating economic crash last year, the worst since World War II.

    Former World Bank Vice President Kemal Dervis was brought back from Washington to lead a recovery program, and the economy is now growing again. But Dervis warned that a new war could bring disaster.

  • KEMAL DERVIS, Former Economy Minister, Turkey:

    We will lose tourism revenue. Tourists are unlikely to come and visit a neighboring country while there is military activity. Oil prices will go up; we are a big oil importer. We trade somewhat within the United Nations parameters with Iraq. That will be interrupted. There may be panic in financial markets.


    Cities like Diyarbakir in the southeast, not far from the Iraqi border, have been hardest hit by the crash. Diyarbakir is an ancient place on the banks of the Tigris River, surrounded by a wall that goes back to Roman times. It is the most important city in Turkey's Southeast, where about 10 million Kurds live. Cemil Serhadli is the appointed governor of Diyarbakir Province.

  • CEMIL SERHADLI (Translated):

    Before the embargo, whatever was produced in Diyarbakir, whether it was agriculture, industrial goods or handicrafts– everything that Diyarbakir produced was sold to Iraq. After the Gulf War and the embargo, all of this was cut off.


    The collapse led to high unemployment. A visitor is struck by the number of men who sit in downtown Diyarbakir all day with little or nothing to do. And the unemployment in turn produced more sympathy for the Marxist guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party, the PKK, who began a struggle for economic change and Kurdish autonomy in the mid 1980s. The PKK were also strengthened by changes in northern Iraq after the Kurdish exodus in 1991. Then, under attack by Saddam Hussein, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fled towards Turkey and Iran.

    In response, coalition forces established a no-fly zone, a Kurdish sanctuary in the North, which has since been protected by US and British fighter planes flying out of Incirlik, a Turkish base. The PKK took advantage of the safe haven to set up bases in northern Iraq and launch attacks on Turkish troops. Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel:

  • SUKRU SINA GUREL, Foreign Minister, Turkey:

    In 1990 after the Gulf War, there was a no-man's land in northern Iraq. Actually, no authority was present there, and the terrorist organization which attempted to divide Turkey, the separatist terrorist organization, PKK, could find a base in northern. Iraq. And they could easily penetrate into Turkey and be more effective in the southeast, which had become more vulnerable to terrorist attacks and since the disruption of trade with the region and Iraq especially.


    The result was a civil war that only died down in 1999, after Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's charismatic leader, was arrested and called for a cease fire. Diyarbakir Governor Serhadl:

  • CEMIL SERHADLI (Translated):

    In the last 15 years, about 35,000 people died in the fighting that took place in the region. When I say 35,000 people, this includes security forces, teachers, village guards, and citizens that were deceived by the terror network. In addition, a much larger number of people were wounded and disabled.


    How deep was PKK support and how wide?

  • CEMIL SERHADLI (Translated):

    The fact that this war lasted so long is an indication that the PKK had a lot of support. Unfortunately, in this region, rates of literacy are extremely low and the tribal links are very strong which enabled terror and fear to gain a certain force in society. And so, the PKK gained the support of those who had nothing to lose. At the same time, without money and weapons it could not have continued for so long.


    The guerrillas came out of Iraqi and Turkish mountain hideouts to attack troops in villages like this one, Shaklat, about two hours north of Diyarbakir. Several young men in this town joined the PKK, and after a firefight and four deaths in 1994, the village was destroyed. People here told differing stories about what happened. The village chief seemed eager to absolve the government of any role in the destruction of Shaklat's homes, but others said the village was leveled by Turkish forces.

    It is a matter of public record that the PKK carried out acts of murderous terrorism and also that the government destroyed about 4,000 villages and outlying settlements in the southeast in their war against the guerrillas. Member of parliament Hasim Hasimi, who is Kurdish, described what it was like during the civil war in a town further south where he was mayor.

    HASIM HASIMI, Member of Parliament (Translated): In my capacity as mayor, I was confronted with many painful situations. I remember one day when I had to visit the scene of a bombing, and encountered a horrific scene. A family of nine people were torn to pieces by the explosion. A nine-month-old baby's remains were splattered all over the wall. Those kind of things happened a lot. I had once been an emotional person, but had become an automaton. And so, we collected the body parts and put them in sacks and buried them.


    In the past year, the government has encouraged people to return to their villages, and Shaklat is slowly being repopulated and rebuilt. But it is riven by divisions. Villagers deemed disloyal reportedly get no government assistance, while those who opposed the guerrillas get help in rebuilding their homes. Turkish government leaders say war with Iraq, and especially any moves towards Kurdish autonomy in the safe haven of northern Iraq, will further tear the social fabric here.

  • CEMIL SERHADLI (Translated):

    We already experienced the Gulf War and its aftermath, and I'm afraid that with the new war, tranquility will definitely be disturbed. The social and economic balance will be disrupted. Of course, we haven't fully established it yet and a war will inflict great damage.


    With the guerrilla war virtually over, the struggle for Kurdish rights in Turkey has moved into the political arena. A coalition of Kurdish parties, Dehap, just last week got permission to run in next month's parliamentary elections. Their campaign is closely watched by police. At this opening of a new neighborhood office in Diyarbakir, there were at least 15 plainclothes police who questioned us but avoided our camera, and a busload of regular police waited nearby.

    The coalition's issues are the same ones Kurds have been pressing for years: More freedom for the expression of Kurdish culture, an end to torture and other human rights violations, and relief from the poverty that makes life hard for a majority of Diyarbakir's people.


    How are you living in this house? Who brings an income?

  • HATUN KELEKCIER (Translated ):

    We are three people here: Me, my father and mother. My father doesn't work. We grow vegetables in our garden. We make do with that. There's no one working here.


    I noticed your mother is sick, she's in bed. Are you able to get medical help for her?

  • HATUN KELEKCIER (Translated):

    No, we can't get any medicine. So we get sick like this. If you get better by yourself, fine – if not, that's how it is. We can't even go to the hospital.


    Hatun Kelekcier's father worked in construction, she said, but he's too old to do that anymore. She has 18 brothers and sisters, some of whom are working and help when they can. She had no formal schooling and has looked for a job without success.

    Kurdish politicians are calling for more government projects to help provide more jobs, but in Diyarbakir, the key Kurdish issue is civil rights. Turkey has sat hard on the Kurds because Turkish leaders haunted by history have long feared Kurds would try to separate and form their own state. It almost happened after World War I, when the victorious allies tried to take part of Turkey to create a state called Kurdistan. Ever since, a top priority of Turkey's leaders has been to prevent that from ever happening again.

    Kurds have a rich, ancient culture, and some of it is visible in Diyarbakir. But there are many restrictions on what Kurds are allowed to say and do. Until 1991, Kurds could be prosecuted for speaking their own language in public; and there are still no radio or TV stations broadcasting in Kurdish.

    Many houses in Diyarbakir have two satellite dishes, one of which is used to get Kurdish television coming from Belgium. As part of Turkey's effort to enter the European Union, the parliament in Ankara passed laws in August permitting education and broadcasting in Kurdish. But the legislation has yet to be implemented. The Kurdish elected mayor of Diyarbakir, an attorney who has been imprisoned and tortured for his activism, said the new laws are flawed.

  • FEREDUN CELIK, Mayor, Diyarbakir (Translated):

    These new laws that have been passed by parliament to make Turkey's integration into the EU easier are supposed to permit TV broadcasting in Kurdish and thing of that nature, but there are many restrictions and limits governing these laws. For example, if people give Kurdish names to their shops or businesses, which they are increasingly doing, they risk being prosecuted because it's not yet legal to do so.


    Governor Serhadli said he supports the new laws as long as they don't encourage divisiveness.

  • CEMIL SERHADLI (Translated):

    If Kurdish names, language and television do not serve to unify Turkey, but to pull it apart, whatever the European Union says, we will have to cancel everything. The important thing is the unity and integrity of Turkey.


    A determination to protect that unity is driving Turkey policy in northern Iraq. We'll report on that tomorrow.

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