Part Two: Code of the Kalashnikov

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

Nothing happens in villages like Ugrak without the Jandarma knowing: The commander is curious why a foreign journalist has come to visit. Four armed soldiers surround the building, and as the commander takes off his hat and sits down uninvited, Tanguner gets up. The old man kneels toward the Jandarma officer, presents him a cigarette, then quietly walks to the back of the room.

"Please continue," the commander says. He takes out a clipboard and begins to record what everyone says. "We are all family here."

In Turkey's Kurdish countryside, the Jandarma are feared second only to the village guards—often, the two work in close collaboration. According to Human Rights Watch, after a series of particularly violent PKK attacks, the Jandarma "responded with widespread village raids and mass detentions. Detention almost invariably meant torture by beating, electric shocks, and sexual assault, as well as deprivation of food and water."

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"

The Jandarma seem to be improving their behavior by a small margin. During interviews outside Ugrak, members of the Tekin clan explained that they had begged the local gendarmerie to remain with them for protection. They believe that if soldiers had stayed, the bloodshed could have been prevented.

In setting the Kurds to repress and slaughter each other, the Turkish government has taken advantage of deep fault lines running through the people. Traditionally, Kurds occupy a stretch of wild territory at the fringe of the regional power centers now governed by Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. "Kurdistan" is only an idea—one, in its grandest incarnation, that encompasses great swaths of territory in all three countries. Kurds speak different dialects, hold different religious affiliations, and have had wide-ranging political experiences. One estimate puts their number at 25 million, some 12 million of whom live in Turkey.

"The Kurdish nation," said Shaykh Ubayd Allah, an Ottoman-era Kurdish warlord, in one of the first expressions of his people's modern sense of self, "is a nation apart." For the present-day Turkey, which succeeded the Ottoman Empire following WW I, this has always been a dangerous proposition. As late as 1983, legislators moved to ban just about any form of Kurdish national expression. The word "Kurdish" was so taboo it was not even mentioned in the bill that proscribed Kurds from speaking their language, or listening to their music. Instead, Kurds were often referred to as "Mountain Turks."

Extreme repression gave way to extremism of another kind. Among the various Kurdish insurgency movements today, the Marxist-steeped PKK is arguably the furthest on the left. The PKK began its career by assassinating Kurdish feudal lords, who maintained heavy levies over Kurdish villagers. But in traditionalist Kurdish society, the group's harsh secularism and ruthlessness were less welcomed than feared. Many Kurds hated the rebels.

The government's countermeasures were even more severe, conducted with extreme brutality and lawlessness, and as Kurds began to identify with the rebels, thousands of villages were emptied and burned in a campaign to deprive the PKK of civilian support. But unlike the Kurds living in northern Iraq, where the massacre at Halabja crystallized for the Western media Saddam Hussein's willingness to gas unarmed civilians, Turkish Kurds can point to no singular event that so readily symbolizes their suffering, only the slow, determined push of generations from their lands.

A Turkish parliamentary report notes that by 1998, the destruction of villages deemed unfriendly to the state had displaced as many as 378,335 people. Local human rights agencies say a more honest figure is anywhere between 2 million and 4 million.

The landscape tells its own story. Roads crossing the southeast pass desolate ruins. Many look like the abandoned village of Baba Aki, on the way to Ugrak. Here, mud brick walls slowly crumble into the earth; the wind whips through the empty voids that once held windows; grass grows wild. Amid such total destruction, there is an overwhelming sense that human beings could only have lived here millennia ago. But Baba Aki was a vital settlement up to the 1990s.

Meanwhile, cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Diyarbakir are teeming. Kurdish families from outlying areas pile into congested living spaces, most often shanties.

In 2001, Turkey's Immigrants' Association for Social Cooperation and Culture, also known as GOC-DER, conducted a survey to track these movements and determine their causes. According to that study, most of the villagers made such migrations between 1989 and 1999, during the insurgency's peak. The survey notes that 83.7 percent of the respondents said they left because they had no choice. The top three reasons given were the hardships of emergency rule and the brutality of the village guards, followed by a general "fear of death."

Consider the combined testimony of two people who were surveyed in the GOC-DER study. It is attributed to Huseyin and Adile Kaya, a married couple who lived in Turkey's Siirt province:

"They tortured us in order to convince us to become village guards. . . . In 1989, about 15 families couldn't bear the pressure any more and accepted to become village guards. Security forces made us carry their food and belongings. [A] villager named Yusuf Timurtas was shot and killed since he didn't want to carry their food. Although everybody knew who killed him in reality, the villagers were accused of killing him. Three or five of the villagers were arrested then. Later they took back the guns of the village guards, and pressure and armed operations increased."

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