Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish
“We will fire bullets on you if you throw stones at us”, police officers in Cizre were quoted saying to local children. Cizre, a town located on the Syrian-Turkish border, has experienced a haze of tear gas and live ammunition over the past few weeks as various groups fight with the state for authority in Turkish Kurdistan. The town has seen a return to the tense atmosphere of the 1990s, where a civil war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state brought about a multitude of deaths, arrests, depopulated villages and the spread of the Kurdish diaspora around the world.
Over the last few years, the Kurdish-Turkish peace process appears to have established a new understanding between the state, the PKK and Kurdish citizens of Turkey. 21 March 2013 saw the beginning of a ceasefire, proposed by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. The loosening of the restrictions of the Kurdish language on use and education alongside the rise of Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair People’s Democratic Party (HDP), as a major political voice, have presented Turkey as a democratic, socially inclusive country.
Nonetheless, many claim that these are merely superficial measures and that the state remains vehemently opposed to the rights of Kurds. The Turkish government and its intelligence branch (MIT) have been plagued for the past year by accusations that they have systematically aided ISIS and other Islamist groups in order to undermine President Bashar al-Assad. Any aid towards ISIS would undermine the self-governing Kurds of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), which would in turn diminish the hopes of Kurds in Turkey towards autonomy. Sources within Syria and Turkey have alleged that MIT has shipped armaments to ISIS and that Turkish medical facilities have treated ISIS fighters, while rejecting treatment of Kurdish refugees.
On 19 January 2014, three trucks were stopped in Adana province in southern Turkey on their way to Syria, allegedly carrying arms shipments from MIT to groups linked with Al-Qaeda. Recently, a gag order was made to restrict reports on leaked documents regarding the shipments, while five of the prosecutors for the judicial case investigating were suspended. Aziz Takçı, one of the suspended prosecutors, claimed that Turkish authorities were aware of several terrorist plots within Turkey prior to their occurrence and even protected the culprits.
Terrorist attacks such as the Reyhanlı bombing are on-going in Turkey. Not long ago, on January 6, Diana Ramazanova, the wife of a killed ISIS militant, carried out a suicide attack in a police station in Istanbul, killing one officer and herself. Lately, the source behind these threats has been from within the Turkish Republic, instead of Syria. 18 January alone saw three bombing attempts in Istanbul, none of which caused any casualties. One homemade explosive bore the initials YDG-H, referring to the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, a group affiliated with the PKK. Another bore the message “Cizre will be avenged”.
Anger against the government rose quickly amongst Kurds as the siege of Kobane rolled on, resulting in widespread clashes across the nation beginning last October, with 42 fatally injured by tear gas and bullets. Violence once again inflamed Cizre at the end of last year, beginning with clashes between YDG-H supporters and members of Hüda-Par (the Islamist Free Cause party). The group claims that it is a democratic political party; it has undeniably drawn support from followers of Turkish Hizbullah (unrelated to the Lebanese group), who fought against the PKK in the 1990s.
In recent months, popularity of the PKK and YDG-H has grown amongst Kurdish youth, following PKK’s commitment to fight ISIS where the Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq has failed. In October, members of YDG-H declared the Sur and Nur neighbourhoods of Cizre as self-governing; subsequently, ditches were dug in the main roads into the neighbourhoods. Clashes led to three deaths over one weekend in Cizre.
The agitation of affiliated groups such as the YDG-H is not the only sign of the crumbling peace process and displaced trust in the PKK’s militant tactics. At the end of October, four soldiers were shot dead by the PKK (one in Diyarbakır and three in Yüksekova). Shortly after, 22-year-old Abdullah Budak, who was accused of being an agent for the Turkish state, was shot by the group. Many Kurds regarded the initial reluctance of police forces to interfere in clashes between Hüda-Par and the YDG-H in Cizre as a plot, akin to their alleged support of ISIS, to destroy Kurdish unity from within. Others have corroborated this theory, with the Human Rights Association in Şırnak claiming that members of the ‘deep state’ – an unofficial state within a state, governed by undemocratic nationalism, violence and allegiance to corporate interests – have aggravated turmoil by using excessive force. HDP leader Demirtaş stated, “What happened in Cizre is just a conspiracy by people who have infiltrated both sides and who consciously wish to create conflicts and massacres.”
The violence soon spiralled into clashes between the state and its citizens, in which eight people, as of 18 January, have died. The police claim little responsibility, though eyewitness reports differ. Official reports claimed that the death of 12-year-old Nihat Kazanhan was caused by a shot to the head from a rifle most likely looted during the October clashes. However, Şırnak’s Human Rights Association alleged that police officers in this case tampered with evidence such as the bullet casings. Prime Minister Davutoğlu said, “Those who claim that [Kazanhan] was killed by a police bullet are provocateurs”, yet many at the scene asserted that the bullet came from a police vehicle. Kazanhan was not the only child to die in Cizre this month. Ümit Kürt, 14, was shot in the heart, on his way back from shining shoes to earn a living for his family. His mother told reporters that her son had never participated in protests, while his father reiterated that his son “had never hurt anyone. As he was trying to earn his bread, he was shot in the heart and killed.” Such saddening tales are not uncommon in Kurdistan.
At present, the future of the Turkish-Kurdish peace process looks bleak, with previous deaths remaining unaccounted for. Perceived support of ISIS seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many Kurds now find it impossible to trust in a peace process initiated by a government which has allegedly armed ISIS. A Kurdish student at SOAS said that there is “overwhelming evidence to suggest this [collaboration]”, adding that “No elected MP has any role in the actual process.” Thus, the Turkish state has no right to its claims of a democracy. Hope for the peace process appears to be dying, though Kurds in Kobane, as of the 26th of January, have liberated themselves from ISIS. Indeed, as I walked the streets of Diyarbakır last September, graffiti called out to me: “Kurdistan will be the grave of Turkish-ISIS collaboration.”