Part Two: Code of the Kalashnikov

The Blood of Massacred Turkish Kurds Holds a Fearful Lesson for Those Who Would Flee Iraq

 UGRAK, TURKEY—That night, the four men returned from the darkness with automatic rifles. They had come to deliver a violent message to their mortal enemies, the Tanguner and Tekin families.

In all, the families comprised over 30 people. They were unarmed and surrounded. Ugrak's muddy village square, where they stood, offered no place to hide. Except for one car, their convoy of rented vehicles—two pickup trucks and a minivan—had already left.

Eight years ago, a government-backed paramilitary campaign forced the Tanguners and Tekins to flee their homes here. Their houses and fields were taken over by the very people who advanced now from the shadows. This cold-blooded welcome was no shock. The men with guns were old adversaries, even older neighbors.

Welat Tekin with her child, survivors of village shooting
photo: Raffi Khatchadourian
Welat Tekin with her child, survivors of village shooting


Editor's Note
The 11 oil companies building a new pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey are hungry enough for Caspian Sea crude that they'll string some 655,000 tons of steel pipe across earthquake zones and dangerous political faultlines—never more than a few hundred miles from Iraq, on whose borders the forces of war are gathering.

But as Raffi Khatchadourian reports in the second installment of this series, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan route will swing wide of Turkey's southeastern provinces, scene of a violent 15-year ethnic insurgency. Caught between the ruthless rebels and the thuggish government-backed militias, thousands of innocent Kurds were killed, and possibly millions forced from their homes. If the U.S. invades Iraq, Kurds there are expected to flood into Turkey—where their new host's most brutish thugs are set to watch over them.

"Part One: Turkish Fishermen Threaten a Blockade"

Ugrak is an isolated speck of a place. It clings to two sides of a hill rising out of a vast prairie in the southeastern reaches of the country, about four hours' drive from Iraq. Fields and pastures roll endlessly in all directions. For centuries, the Tanguners and Tekin clans lived on one side of the hill, the Guclu clan on the other.

The armed men were Guclus. As their victims remember it, they approached with Kalashnikovs raised, and screamed: "What business do you have coming back here?" There was an instant of tense silence. Then, thunderous gunfire erupted.

Those who were not immediately shot dove for cover, heads to the ground. The smell of gun smoke fused with the taste of soil. Lead seared through flesh. Bullets clanged as they tore into the Renault-12 Toros sedan. The car exploded like an emerging sun.

Only after local authorities arrived could the unscathed among the Tanguners and Tekins find the courage to treat their wounded. They also took stock of their dead. Agit Tekin, who was seven, was killed instantly by a gunshot to the eye. Nazin Tekin, a clan elder, and Ikram Tekin, 45, had also died. Four others were rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

"It was like nothing I had ever seen," said an unusually candid Turkish gendarme, one of the first people to arrive at the scene after the shooting, last September. The officer declined to give his name. As he spoke, he lit a cigarette, then added, "It was like a war zone."

The Tanguners, Tekins, and Guclus are all Kurds, a stateless and beleaguered people. When Kurds across the border endured a genocidal onslaught from Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War, the world took notice, with the U.S. and its allies providing some measure of protection. Meanwhile, their ethnic kin in Turkey have been engaged in their own struggle for survival—one much less visible to those who might help them. Fifteen years of guerrilla warfare, and a government scorched-earth policy that ultimately brought the fighting to an end, have irreparably scarred this landscape and its people.

More than a decade ago, the Guclus and thousands of families like them made their deal with the military, which controlled the region under "emergency rule" and which sought to crush a Kurdish uprising. They became "provisional village guards," and for their allegiance against the Kurdistan Workers Party, a rebel group known as the PKK, they were armed and salaried by the state. Pawns in a game of divide and rule, these guards savagely turned on their neighbors. Thousands more clans like the Tanguners and Tekins refused to join the militia. They fled. In all, at least 370,000 people were driven from their homes. Thirty thousand others died. Caught between the rebels and the state-sanctioned guards, countless Kurds were thrown in jails where they were raped, beaten, tortured, and starved.

Theirs is one of the great silent tragedies of the 20th century, and though emergency rule was lifted in November, the terror is far from over. Roughly 90,000 armed village guards remain in the countryside. Last year, former emergency rule governor Gokhan Aydiner said reducing the number of village guards was "out of the question." The government says it will allow their ranks to fade away by attrition.

That is happening all too slowly. Displaced families within Turkey are now prevented from returning to their homes because of the militias. If the U.S. military descends upon Baghdad, perhaps as many as 100,000 Kurds fleeing from Iraq into Turkey could face them, too. The Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Politika reported last week that among the Turkish troops heading for the border are 500 village guards belonging a special "Lightning Group." They've been sent, the paper said, for military training, and to prepare for deployment in refugee camps.

"Adding 500 hired guns subject to clan loyalties, with very untransparent lines of command and an institutional history of criminal activities ranging from theft and drug smuggling to rape and murder, is a genuinely awful idea," says Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch. "That's about the worst thing they could do."

Family leader Mehdi Tanguner in the square where his clan was massacred.
photo: Raffi Khatchadourian
In numerous pockets throughout Turkey's rugged southeast, clan continues to turn against clan, neighbor against neighbor, and the code of the Kalashnikov, or dag kanunu—"mountain law," as villagers call it—reigns with frightful arbitrariness.
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