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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Emin Guclu, the leader of the Guclu clan, has a wiry frame and penetrating hazel eyes. His skin is reddish. His hair is graying, his moustache dark. When he wants to make a point, he brings his right hand up, and squeezes his thumb and forefinger against each other. When he is finished talking, his lips come together to form a wry smile.
Although the Jandarma commander sees fit to escort this journalist to Emin Guclu’s home, he does not find it necessary to stay and take notes. Guclu won’t permit his photograph to be taken. Currently, only three members of his clan are in state custody for the killings. Many here say Emin Guclu should stand trial beside them.
Guclu claims that he is not a member of the village guards and that his family never received weapons from the state. (A Jandarma officer familiar with the case, when interviewed separately, not only refers to him as a village guardsman, but also says the government armed his clan.)
He begins by explaining that he can’t comment on the attacks, because he wasn’t there. Then he says the shooting occurred because the Tanguner and Tekin clans attacked the Guclus with sticks. If anything, he finally suggests, tensions between his clan and the others were the result of a long-running feud. But when pressed, he admits the feud mostly involved a third family, one friendly with the victims and not present at the scene of the crime. When asked why witnesses say he fired two warning shots on seeing the Tanguner and Tekin families arrive, he replies, “It was an accident.”
Whether Emin Guclu is innocent or guilty might not make any difference. In Turkey today, village guards and security forces who commit crimes most often go unpunished.
Thus the violence continues. Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch cites the village-guard system as the most easily identifiable obstacle for Turkish Kurds trying to go back home. Three returning villagers were shot dead by guards in July. Another nearly died after being stabbed in October. “The fact that these sort of incidents keep happening suggests that village guards feel more or less immune from serious legal consequences,” Sugden says.
But in Ugrak, as the Tenguner, Tekin, and Guclu families struggle to share the same lonely hill, matters of innocence or guilt give way to more profound questions. “How is it possible that these people who are your neighbors, who you grow up with in the same village—you watch their children grow—one day come and kill you?” wonders Gulestan Tekin. “No, I don’t think there can ever be peace between us.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 18, 2003