Part Two: Code of the Kalashnikov

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

So unsettled is the region that builders of a pipeline for shipping crude from Azerbaijan to Turkey's southern coast lengthened their route by 150 miles in order to detour away. One of Eurasia's most important new development projects, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, or BTC, already must stretch over a thousand miles and cross mountains of 9000 feet on its way from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. But for its backers—including principal owner BP (formerly British Petroleum) and the U.S. government—the decision to skirt this chaos came naturally.

"Clearly this is a very turbulent part of the country, where there has been a great deal of violence," says Barry Halton, a BP spokesperson. "The pipeline deliberately avoids it so as not to be provocative."

American officials have also turned away. During the Cold War, when Turkey was of immense strategic importance, the U.S. sat idly while the crackdown on the PKK slid into a systematic program of oppressing innocents. Today, with the U.S. again depending heavily on Turkey's good graces, American diplomats have openly said they won't support an independent Kurdish state.

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

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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"

What the oil companies and politicians dodge haunts the people of Turkey's interior, where the paramilitaries largely persist for the same reasons they were first assembled. Given their knowledge of the terrain and of their neighbors, village guards were instrumental in emptying the Turkish countryside of suspect civilians.

With the recent capture of its leader, the PKK has been greatly weakened. Talk of Kurdish autonomy has faded. As the government in Ankara struggles to win the prize of European Union membership, it is enacting reforms that hold promise for Turkey's biggest minority. Kurdish language and broadcasting rights have been expanded, if only a little. Torture and police brutality are less commonplace.

But a war to unseat Saddam Hussein from power could dramatically alter the lives of Kurds, both here and across the border. Northern Iraq operates virtually as a de facto Kurdish state. Turkish officials fear that if Saddam falls, and the Kurds there gain real independence, it will inevitably provoke anew the drive for a separate Kurdish state in Turkey.

In 1988, roughly 60,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees pushed into Turkey. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf war, half a million more came over. The effects of these migrations far outlasted the humanitarian crisis. Iraqi and Turkish Kurds forged a solidarity, with the common goal of establishing a nation for their people. PKK terrorist activity surged.

Today, as American forces prepare for an attack on Baghdad, the number of guerrilla fights with soldiers has begun a slow but undeniable incline. In January, troops attacked a group of PKK hiding out in a cave near the town of Lice, killing 12. Later in the month, the rebels responded by hitting a military garrison near Idil. One soldier died.

"From now on, our forces will retaliate every attack carried out against our people or our guerrilla forces," said the PKK in a statement released in Germany this month. The PKK had committed to a voluntary cease-fire after its leader, Abdullah "Apo" Ocalan, was seized in East Africa in 1999. That agreement appears to be fraying.

Historically in Turkey, a greater climate of rebel violence triggers a greater use of military force, and hence, the village militias retain their roles as enforcers. Usually, the terror inspired by the village guards is not accompanied by bloodshed, although the killings in Ugrak are hardly an isolated incident. More often, locals say, villagers so deeply fear the paramilitaries that they sidestep confrontation with them at all costs. Those few who dare—and are permitted by the regional authorities—to return to their homes often take long, circuitous dirt roads to avoid village-guard checkpoints, widely regarded as places of intimidation, shakedowns, and sometimes beatings. Others prefer simply to stay away.


Mehdi Tanguner, at 65 his clan's elder, decided his family could not stay away. He wears a pin-striped suit jacket, with pants that do not match. His thick frame appears burdened with overwhelming fatigue. On the streets of a metropolis, he might appear a broken man—and when his family struggled with life in the city of Diyarbakir, he says, that is exactly what he was.

Here, in Ugrak, when Tanguner walks into a room, men stand to shake his hand. They offer him the most prominent seat. This is his home. These are his fields.

After the shootings, most of the Tanguners and Tekins decided to remain in Ugrak—even though their enemies live within firing range, on the other side of a winding dirt road. "We could not survive in Diyarbakir because we were all unemployed," Tanguner explains.

"We came to look after our fields," he adds, sitting cross-legged in his new home. "When we were in the city, the younger family members would say, 'Please do something.' We figured the fight against the PKK had ended, so we applied to return to our village. We came back to live here, where we always had lived."

Two dozen or so Tanguners and Tekins stand near. The clan leader is about to elaborate, but he cuts himself short. A commander from the local gendarmerie, or Jandarma is at the door. The Jandarma are part of the military. They wear uniforms and carry heavy machine guns. They are the sole official police force in the Turkish countryside.

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