Amidst the political upheaval in Turkey, the Kurdish thnic minority faces discrimination and even death
By: Nick Ashdown/The Media Line
ISTANBUL – Forty-four people died in an attack claimed by an armed Kurdish group in Istanbul this week. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) took responsiblity, which targeted police buses and killed 36 officers near the centrally located Vodafone Arena two hours after a soccer match.
TAK is believed to be closely connected with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting with the Turkish state for over three decades and is considered a terrorist group by the United States and European Union.
Crisis Group says 2,467 people, including at least 383 civilians, have been killed in fighting since a 2.5-year ceasefire between the group and the Turkish state was broken in July 2015. This includes scores of people killed in urban bombings perpetrated by PKK and its affiliates.
At least half a million people, mostly Kurds, have been displaced since the end of the ceasefire, according to a new Amnesty International report. Most of those people have migrated to bigger cities, including Istanbul.
“What I’m wearing now is what I was wearing when we came from Cizre,” says Fatma, the 37-year-old matriarch of a family with eight kids.
She’s sitting with her family on the floor of the wood stove-heated living room in their two-bedroom apartment in Istanbul’s conservative Üsküdar district. About three months ago, Fatma fled with her family from war-torn Cizre in the mostly Kurdish southeast, with not much more than the shirts on their backs.
In August 2015, the government started enforcing temporary curfews that eventually became months-long in some cities, sometimes including utilities, Internet and mobile phone cuts, as well as restricted access to basic food supplies and medical care. This included a 78-day curfew between last December and March in Cizre when the town of 100,000 was completely cut off from the outside world.
In the late days of the ceasefire, tensions started rising with Turkey’s large Kurdish minority when the government prevented fighters from crossing into the ISIS-besieged Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria on the Turkish border. Violent protests erupted in Turkey’s southeast in October 2014, resulting in 31 dead, to which the government responded with troop deployments and curfews.
“[Security forces] came to people’s houses and took them somewhere,” Feyzula, a 48-year-old member of Fatma’s extended family who works as a driver, tells the Media Line.
“We started to dig trenches, to prevent [the government] from coming and taking people by force. We closed the streets, we built walls and we dug trenches with excavators. After digging the trenches, they started coming with helicopters and tanks, and started to bombard the city.”
“It was like a rain of bombs. They had no mercy,” 26-year-old Mehmet, another relative, explains. “There’s a population of 100,000 [in Cizre], and they sent 20,000 police and security forces. They used everything they had – tanks, helicopters, everything.
“These security forces in Cizre, these people were born to kill. They sent us killers. They’re people who can shoot someone without even blinking. They’re like ISIS. That’s why they didn’t let journalists in.”
“The bodies stayed on the streets for several days and the animals started to eat them […] They collected the bodies with an excavator and threw them into the Tigris river,” Feyzula says. “They bombed non-stop for three months. No water, no electricity, no medicine, no food.”
Some of the worst casualties in the fighting in the southeast have been seen in Cizre, where at least 281 have died according to Crisis Group.
In one incident, Human Rights Watch says security forces deliberately killed 130 people, many of them civilians, in three basements in Cizre last February. In another, three-month-old Miray İnce and her 73-year-old grandfather, Ramazan İnce were shot and killed in December 2015.
“These people are so mean they’ll shoot a baby. These snipers know what they’re doing,” says Mehmet, who says he’s friends with Miray’s father.
Andrew Gardner, Amnesty’s Turkey researcher, says the trenches and mined barricades, manned by members of the PKK-affiliated Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) and accompanied by declarations of self-governance, warranted a response, but that the government went too far.
“The way they responded with these unlawful curfews, with this completely disproportionate displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, was completely unacceptable,” he tells the Media Line.
Gardner says the curfews and demolitions of buildings in cities in the southeast are continuing despite the fact that the urban warfare ended last June, though it has continued in rural areas.
“This is something that’s hard to believe can have a legitimate purpose,” he says. “In certain instances […] it does start to look like collective punishment.”
The ruling Justice and Development Party’s Diyarbakır chairperson didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Amnesty speculates in its report that the displacement of civilians, government seizures of large, central areas in the war-torn cities, demolition of housing and building of new security structures may have been part of a “premeditated plan […] to ensure security through changes in infrastructure and transfers of population.”
Some cities have been left mostly destroyed, and the massive population displacement has wreaked havoc across the region.
“It’s like an earthquake in all the region. A big earthquake that doesn’t end,” activist and writer Nurcan Baysal tells the Media Line over the phone from Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkey’s Kurdish region.
“[Istanbul] is a prison for us,” Mehmet says. “We work, but it’s not enough [money]. Electricity, water and gas are very expensive. We have many children. There’s no one to work, but there are plenty to eat.”
Feyzula says there’s nothing to go back to in his hometown.
“The government said go away, go to Istanbul or Ankara, don’t stay in Cizre,” he says. “They demolished our home, and it’s prohibited to build a new one.”
There’s also a great deal of political tension and discrimination these days.
“When you say you’re from Cizre, [landlords] turn you away,” Fatma says.
“They check your IDs on the street and look at you with suspicious eyes,” Feyzula says. “When we’re on the bus people look at us judgmentally. They look at me strangely when I speak Kurdish to my friends, like I’m from another country.”
Though fighting between the PKK and the military has moved from urban to rural areas, memories of the violence still haunts millions of people. It’s been especially traumatic for children.
“Every five minutes, [there were] bombardments and shootings. Multiple jets, very low. Sometimes they’re so low that they set off car alarms,” Baysal says, describing life in war-torn Diyarbakır.
“I told my son, ‘Maybe there is a wedding and people are celebrating. That’s what the noise is.’ And my son said ‘No mom, don’t you know? The state is bombing us.’ Children know. They know everything. My children are afraid of any soldier, any cop, anything from the state […] They’re afraid to leave the house.”
Baysal says many children have been out of school for a long time.
“A lot of schools have been transformed into police stations.”
Critics say the government, which increased its powers with a state of emergency soon after an attempted military coup on July 15, has added to the hardships of displaced Kurds by shutting down many of the civil society organizations helping them.
On November 11, 370 NGOs were shut down and accused of links to terror groups, without any evidence shown. Two of them, Sarmaşık and the Rojava Association, were key to the relief effort.
“It’s really kicking people when they’re down,” Gardner says, adding that Amnesty worked with both organizations. “This has tangibly made their lives more difficult.”
He calls the closures “arbitrary” and says the organizations that survived face government pressure.
“It’s not just the closures, it’s sort of a more widespread harassment of these NGOs preventing them from doing their work.”
Baysal, who also worked with both main relief organizations, says Sarmaşık was supporting 32,000 people and Rojava Association was aiding perhaps a million.
“I think the aim of closing these NGOs was to harm the social solidarity of the region,” she says. “They just want a society here that depends on the government.”
Feyzula says the government crackdown against the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic (HDP), whose leadership were arrested in November, has also hurt the aid effort and relations between Turks and Kurds.
In September 2015, the government blocked a 55-mile HDP march to Cizre.
“If the state would let HDP help, maybe we wouldn’t have to be in Istanbul,” Feyzula says.
He says in the past there was a chance for peace, but that opportunity may now be lost.
“Of course we had hope two years ago, and we had trust. We didn’t think the state could be such a swindler,” he says. “For Turks and Kurds to live together now, it’s very hard. They killed so many people.”
Authorities detained 568 people on terror charges on Monday and Tuesday, including HDP members and social media users.