The Hidden War in Turkey

Grim and disturbing events are taking place in Turkey, where a large-scale, and under-reported, war is being fought against the Kurdish rebels in the southeastern part of the country. Turkey is in a deep financial crisis, and there are persistent rumors of a military coup. Tourist sites have been bombed by Kurdish guerrillas, and hundreds of prominent Kurds have been assassinated in the past year by unidentified assailants. The war also helps to explain why, in the local elections on March 27, for the first time since Kemal Ataturk established a secular Turkish republic in 1923, an Islamic fundamentalist party succeeded in electing mayors of Ankara, Istanbul, and some twenty other cities. Turkish society has been deeply divided by the war and by the extreme measures the government has been taking against opposition groups, including the arrest of Kurdish members of parliament shortly before the March elections.

On March 2, the Turkish Grand National Assembly by a show of hands voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of seven Kurdish deputies who had been elected to the parliament in 1991, enabling the government to charge them with crimes against the state, which are punishable by death. On March 17, after fifteen days of interrogation in an Ankara jail, six of the seven—five men and one woman—were formally arrested and charged, under Article 125 of the Turkish Penal Code, with “threatening the territorial integrity of the state.” They remain in prison while the Ankara State Security Court prepares for a trial that will begin sometime after the middle of June.

Only one of the six has been charged with criminal acts: harboring and seeking medical attention for a wounded member of the outlawed Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), the radical Kurdish separatist group that has been carrying on fierce guerrilla warfare in ten southeastern Turkish provinces since 1984. The rest, it appears, will be tried only for “crimes” of speech and association, for speaking against Turkey at meetings in foreign countries, and for calling for the recognition of Kurdish rights. “I will use all legal means to punish these people,” the chief prosecutor, Mr. Nusret Demiral, told me when I met with him in Ankara in April.1 Mr. Demiral will demand capital punishment for all of the deputies, claiming “they are members of a terrorist organization. Their speeches endanger free speech.”

I could not get permission from Turkish officials to visit the Kurdish deputies in prison, but I talked to several of the two hundred lawyers, both Turkish and Kurdish, who have volunteered to defend them. These lawyers all claim that improper and illegal procedures were used against the deputies. It is no accident, they believe, that the deputies were charged ten days before the local elections were held in March. With many Turkish voters increasingly disturbed by the human and economic costs of the war against the Kurds, the government, in arresting the deputies, was demonstrating its toughness toward Kurdish activists. At a closed meeting of the True Path Party, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller proposed the plan to remove the deputies’ immunity—a violation of Article 83 of the 1982 Turkish Constitution, which states that “political party groups in the Grand National Assembly…shall not hold discussions or take decisions regarding parliamentary immunity.” The accused deputies were barely given an opportunity to defend themselves in parliament; some of them were arrested before they had a chance to reply to all of the charges against them. While they were being held in jail, their conversations with their lawyers were monitored by the police. Moreover, the records of their interrogation have been classified as secret, and have not been made available to the defense.

Even before the parliament voted to lift their immunity, the chief prosecutor ordered the police to surround the parliament building, as if the deputies were criminals who would try to escape. Police officers with walkie-talkies patrolled the corridors while the debate was under way. Two of the deputies were arrested as they were leaving the building; one of them argued with the police and TV cameras caught him being roughed up and pushed into a waiting car. The five remaining deputies barricaded themselves in their offices for two days before giving themselves up to the police.

The arrested deputies were among the seventeen Kurds from southeastern Turkey who were elected to parliament in October 1991, during a brief period when it seemed possible that Turkey might at last have a government committed to democratic, humanitarian values. The 1991 elections resulted in the defeat of Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party which, after coming to power in 1983, had continued many of the repressive practices of the previous military dictatorship. The two large traditional parties—the right-of-center True Path Party of Suleyman Demirel and the left-of-center Social Democratic Peoples Party (SHP) of Erdal Inonu—then formed a coalition that brought back Mr. Demirel, who had been toppled by the military in its 1980 coup, for his seventh term as prime minister, a position that was taken over in 1993 by Ms. Ciller when Demirel was elected president by the parliament.

When Demirel became prime minister in 1991, he promised there would be “transparent government” and an end to police torture. He also promised to deal with “the Kurdish reality,” and to respond to the grievances of the twelve million Kurds in Turkey, who make up about one fifth of the population. Most of the Kurds live in great poverty in the mountain villages in the neglected and under-developed southeastern provinces. They have high rates of illiteracy and unemployment, lack medical or other services, and they are not allowed to speak Kurdish when talking to officials or to have any political or cultural institutions of their own.

When elected Mr. Demirel appointed a Kurd as the country’s first minister of human rights, and said he would restore Kurdish cultural rights. He promised to end the detested “village guard” system in the southeast, under which local people are forced to take up arms to support the military in its battle with the PKK, whose forces, variously estimated to number between 5,000 and 20,000, make use of bases in Northern Iraq and Syria.2

Demirel’s promises came to nothing. The fighting in the southeast grew worse. The government blamed the PKK, which it believes will settle for nothing less than a separate independent Kurdish state. Since it emerged in southeastern Turkey in 1984, the PKK has not only battled the Turkish army but has committed countless atrocities against Kurdish civilians who cast their lot with the military. PKK violence has also spread to western Turkey, and recently tourist sites have been bombed, discouraging many foreigners this spring from visiting Turkey. The PKK has claimed responsibility for twenty-two explosions in Istanbul since January, including one that recently killed two tourists in the Covered Bazaar.

But the military has also contributed to escalating the war. Given a free hand by the government, it is combatting PKK violence by indiscriminately arresting and mistreating Kurdish civilians in southeastern Turkey. Kurdish civilians are caught between the two warring parties, forced to take sides and risk retribution, or to flee from their homes. A Turkish newspaper has published the names of 874 villages and hamlets in the southeast which it claims the army has “cleansed” of their residents, burning them to the ground.3

The army admits it is moving people from small villages to larger ones “to protect them from the PKK,” but it claims that it is the PKK which has burned the villages. “This is not ethnic cleansing,” a Turkish human rights worker told me. “It is human cleansing. The villages are not repopulated, they are destroyed, and they don’t care where the people go.” Diyarbakir, the largest city and the unofficial capital of the southeast, has reportedly tripled in size, and hundreds of refugees have fled also to Adana, Mersin, Gaziantep, and other cities, where they are living in shantytowns.

At the same time, mysterious anti-Kurdish death squads, operating with impunity despite the heavy presence of soldiers and police, have been responsible for the assassinations of hundreds of prominent Kurdish doctors, lawyers, writers, human rights activists, and political leaders, and for thirteen disappearances in the southeast since 1993. During the past two years, for example, sixteen journalists were murdered, mainly in the southeast; other journalists were arrested and tortured, and some have been charged with subversion and imprisoned. Offices of Kurdish civil and political organizations have been bombed, not only in the southeast but throughout the country.

The government’s 1991 promises of human rights reforms have been suspended, because, it says, of the “unrest” in the southeast. The police continue to torture people in special anti-terrorist centers, and twenty-one deaths in detention were reported in 1993.

The Kurdish deputies under arrest ran for office in 1991 on the slate of the Social Democratic People’s Party, the junior partner in the resulting coalition government. Once in parliament, however, they asserted their Kurdish identity at every opportunity, and later formed their own Kurdish party, the Democracy Party (DEP). This required considerable audacity in a country where the government, until recently, denied the very existence of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks,” and outlawed any public use of the Kurdish language and customs. Only during the past few years have government officials reluctantly been willing to acknowledge that the Kurds actually exist—they were forced to do so, in part by the growing war with the PKK, but mainly because of the mass exodus of Iraqi Kurds into Turkey during the Gulf War and the unprecedented world attention that was suddenly given their plight.

There are 20 to 25 million Kurds in the world, mostly in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, while a small number live in the former Soviet Union. They have never had a country of their own.4 Their hopes for a united Kurdistan, whose territory would include some of the world’s richest oil fields, have been destroyed time and again. Powerful countries with an interest in the region have continued to play one group of Kurds against another and to provoke warfare among them, as happened during the Iran-Iraq war when Iran and Iraq each encouraged the Kurdish people in the enemy country to oppose their own government. (Saddam Hussein’s use of chemicals in the town of Halabja was widely viewed as retribution for the collusion between the Iraqi Kurds and the government of Iran.)

Under the Demirel government people are no longer sent to prison for saying that there are Kurds in Turkey, as they were in the 1980s, but Kurds are still not permitted to speak Kurdish in court or other official places, and they risk arrest if they sing Kurdish songs. Turkish authorities continue to say, “We are all Turks here.” They defend themselves against charges of repression and discrimination by pointing to the many people of Kurdish origins who have become prominent in Turkey, including the late president, Mr. Ozal. As a Turkish friend once explained to me: “You can say softly that you are of Kurdish origins, but if you shout ‘I am a Kurd!’ you go to prison.”

Several of the newly elected deputies made it clear from the start that they would not act as if they were assimilated or allow themselves to be patronized. At the opening of parliament they wore handkerchiefs of red, green, and yellow, the colors of the Kurds, which the government associates with the PKK. While taking the parliamentary oath of allegiance to the Turkish state, they gave brief speeches in Kurdish about the friendship of the Kurdish and Turkish peoples. Most of the other parliamentarians, including the SHP members who had sponsored the Kurds, were outraged.

The only woman in the group, Leyla Zana wore a red, green, and yellow headband on her first day in parliament. She had been married at fifteen to the former mayor of Diyarbakir, who had been brutally tortured during the fourteen years he spent in prison. Born into a poor family in Diyarbakir, she grew up speaking only Kurdish and learned Turkish after she was twenty, so that she could campaign for her husband’s release. Ten years later, at the age of thirty, she was elected to parliament. I first met her in early 1992, shortly after her election.

Kurds have always been elected to parliament, but not as Kurds,” she told me then. “I wore a headband showing the colors of the Kurdish people. People are being persecuted for these colors. The Interior Ministry is trying to ban their use; it even wants to change the traffic lights to red, yellow, and blue. I was protesting that ban.”

The oath taken by new members of parliament, Ms. Zana said angrily, “was written by the military. It denies the existence of the Kurdish people and speaks only about the great Turkish nation. I spoke up for friendship between the Kurdish and Turkish peoples.” She seemed at a loss for a moment about how to describe what happened next. “A turmoil followed…. I was surprised by [then prime minister] Demirel’s response. He started banging on the desk.” That she had spoken “words from a different language” during the oath-taking ceremony is now one of the charges made against her, charges that could cost her her life.

The chairman of the DEP, Hatip Dicle, another of the arrested parliamentarians, has also had little experience as a politician. He was head of the struggling Human Rights Association in Diyarbakir before his election to parliament. Earlier this year he enraged many people in Turkey when, after the PKK used a bomb to attack a group of military cadets in an Istanbul railway station, killing five and wounding several others, he told the press that the cadets were a “legitimate military target” because the country is at war. His remarks immediately led to demands that the Kurdish deputies be punished. The Turkish army’s chief of staff, General Dogan Gures, said: “There is no need to look for the bandits in the mountains. Unfortunately, some of them are under the roof of the parliament.”

DEP is not monolithic,” a lawyer friend who was critical of Dicle’s statement told me. “Some of the deputies are young and poor, others are older, from privileged backgrounds, wealthy landowners who are astute politicians. After the election, they reinvented their Kurdish identities. Some are closer to the PKK than others. But they are all under great pressure from PKK threats, from their own backgrounds, from their constituents.”

Gulsum Sakik, the wife of the arrested deputy Sirri Sakik, was one of a group of relatives of the Kurdish deputies who invited me to their apartment in an attractive housing complex for parliamentarians in Ankara. Well dressed and soft-spoken, she told me that the Kurdish deputies’ phones have been tapped since they first arrived in Ankara, and that they are kept under surveillance. She described her own family’s place in the feudal system that still prevails in the rural southeast. “My husband owned two villages and our relatives lived there,” she said. “There were thirty to forty houses in each village. They burned my husband’s two villages. Five of our relatives were chained together and thrown into a house. They were burned to death.”

As the war continues, and violence spreads to Istanbul and other cities, many Turks are becoming increasingly hostile to the Kurds. I was told that every Turk knows someone whose son was killed in the war in the southeast. I found little sympathy for the imprisoned deputies, even among my liberal friends, who themselves were unjustly imprisoned under the military regime. “In America you have never experienced organized terrorism,” a friend told me, “and because of that you can talk of free expression.” People whose views I respect believe that the deputies are PKK sympathizers, or even puppets, and they were deeply disturbed by Dicle’s statement justifying the killing of the cadets in Istanbul. But they also object to the severity of the proposed sentences and to the illegal treatment of the deputies when they were arrested. No one claims that the deputies were engaged in acts of violence. Even the chief prosecutor, when I pressed him about the evidence for the deputies’ alleged PKK connections, could only say: “They had telephone conversations, they gave money, they praised them.”

The war in a third of Turkey’s territory is one of the most heavily militarized in the world today. The Turkish military now reportedly is using 400,000 soldiers, police, intelligence officers, and village guards to combat what it claims are about 5,000 guerrillas, although most independent experts say that the PKK forces are considerably larger. According to military experts, counterinsurgency warfare requires five to ten soldiers for every guerrilla; in Turkey, if one believes the official figures, the ratio is eighty to one. The government plays down the war and is keeping a tight lid on information about it.

Most of the American press continues to show neglible interest in the war or, for that matter, in anything that is happening in Turkey. This is especially odd because Turkey, after Israel and Egypt, is the third largest recipient of US aid, and Turkey’s longstanding strategic value in NATO’s defense planning against the USSR has been replaced by other equally important roles. Turkey is a US ally and was willing to close its oil pipelines from Iraq during the Gulf War. It is, ironically, a launching pad for US planes protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq. It has strong influence with the Turkic nations that were formerly part of Soviet Central Asia, and it acts as a counterforce to the attempts by Iran and other neighboring Islamic states to exert pressure on them.

Even before the current conflict began, most Turks did not travel to the small villages and mountainous terrain of the southeast. They had few reasons to go there, and it would have attracted suspicion if they did. Foreign diplomats and outside observers who travel to the region now are put under military escort “for their own protection.” Foreigners who have tried to travel to the Kurdish regions independently have found it hazardous to do so: some were taken hostage by the PKK; others were told to leave by the army. Jonathan Rugman, a correspondent for the London Observer, reported in February on a clandestine one-week journey he managed to take through southeastern Turkey: “We found a landscape of burnt villages and a fearful population caught in one of the most violent and under-reported conflicts in the Middle East.”5

The Turkish army has launched a major offensive this spring, vowing to end the war before the year is out. It is bombing PKK camps in northern Iraq and airlifting troops into the region in an attempt to establish a buffer zone between Turkey and Iraq. These maneuvers, far from the public eye, could not have been undertaken without the cooperation of both the US government, which polices Northern Iraq, and the Iraqi Kurds who live there and are completely dependent on Turkey’s good will if they are to continue to receive supplies and US protection. Hundreds of Turkish Kurds have recently fled to Northern Iraq as a result of the recent offensive. The war reportedly cost Turkey at least $8 billion last year and has forced Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, an economist, to turn to the IMF for help for an economy that is in shambles; its currency has lost half its value and the inflation rate, always high, has sharply increased.

The war colors everything,” a journalist in Ankara told me. “It’s going on in every city, every village. Kurdish civilians are on one side, and everyone who sympathizes with them are targets, too…. But Turks are also suffering. All of cultural life is infected by this war. The government has stirred up nationalistic feelings, and this, in turn, has brought about a rise in fundamentalism.”

The journalist was referring to the stunning victories won in the recent local elections by an Islamic fundamentalist party—the Welfare Party—which elected the mayors of Istanbul, Ankara, and some twenty other cities. The secular Turks I talked to, whether politicians, journalists, or business people, seemed astonished and bewildered by this upset. There is much discussion of the Welfare Party’s apparent strength among rural Muslims who have moved to the cities and about its possible affinities with Muslim movements in other countries. Some take the Welfare Party’s victories very seriously, dismayed that the new mayor of Istanbul opens municipal meetings by reading from the Koran, that he plans to build a great mosque in the center of Istanbul’s Taksim Square and has indicated a desire to impose Islamic customs on the people of Istanbul. Others believe that the Islamic leaders will have to modify their views when faced with the realities of governing. Still others view the vote as a protest vote against the ruling parties and powers, especially because the Welfare Party vowed to end the bloodshed in the southeast. They see the election results as part of a general breakdown of Turkish society, a collapse caused largely by the war in the southeast and its enormous costs.

The Islamic party criticizes the Turkish government for being too deferential toward the Western nations. It profits from the general dismay over the West’s inability to prevent “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia and anger at what is seen as Western hypocrisy with regard to human rights. Many Bosnian Muslims have settled in Turkey over the years and there is considerable rapport between the two secular Muslim states. I was told over and over again that the Bosnian Muslims have been abandoned by the West simply because they are Muslims.

On April 10, several thousand Turks turned out in the streets of Ankara in response to Islamic television broadcasts erroneously claiming that chemical weapons were being used against the Bosnian Muslims in Gorazde. The demonstration turned ugly, and the crowd eventually stormed the US Embassy in what was later described to me as the worst threat to the embassy’s security in the history of US-Turkish relations. So far as I have seen, none of this was mentioned in the US press.

An experienced Turkish journalist who writes for a pro-Kurdish newspaper told me that he may go to prison for “separatist propaganda,” i.e., writing about “the Kurdish nation.” “My conscience got me involved,” he said, explaining that he has never even been to southeastern Turkey. We were talking in the newspaper’s offices, which had recently been bombed. “To say that there are people here who are ethnically different is an act of treason.”

I heard a similar view from the leaders of the DEP, when I met with them in the temporary offices they have occupied since their main office in Ankara was destroyed by a bomb. The obligatory photograph of Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, hung incongruously above the DEP banner behind the desk. They told me that their party would soon be banned as a separatist group; they were expecting a ruling to this effect by the Constitutional Court any day. “We are not separatists,” their spokesman said. “We have no organic connection with the PKK. We want recognition of the Kurds as an existing people within the territorial integrity of Turkey. But to them, defending the existence of the Kurds is the same as defending a separate state.” He went on to say that the DEP’s demands include the right to use the Kurdish language without restriction, to attend Kurdish schools, to have Kurdish political parties and cultural groups without government interference, and to elect Kurds to local and provincial offices. He indicated that federation, or some form of autonomy, was the party’s goal.

Seventy members of the DEP, I was told, including one member of parliament, have been killed by death squads, twenty DEP offices throughout the country have been bombed, and in March the party’s general secretary was seriously wounded. More than three hundred candidates and election workers were arrested during the campaign preceding the local elections in March, and twenty-four DEP mayoral candidates were also arrested and, they claim, tortured. Because of this persecution, DEP decided in February to boycott the local elections. Some believe that their boycott encouraged a protest vote among Kurds, particularly in the Southeast, in favor of the Muslim Welfare Party, which was seen as challenging the political establishment.

Members of the ruling coalition disagree. They claim that the DEP withdrew from the elections because it knew that it had lost favor among its constituents, that the DEP deputies did not effectively represent the interests of the Kurdish people in parliament (“They never even asked for a hospital”), but rather used their positions to make militant statements about Kurdish ethnic identity and to pursue policies dictated by the PKK. The DEP deputies, they point out, have refused publicly to condemn the PKK and its acts of violence.

There are some who believe that the DEP might have helped to work out a negotiated peace between the PKK and the government. Most of the lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists I talked to want a political, rather than a military, solution to the conflict. US State Department spokesmen and the European Union have called for a political solution, although just what form it would take remains unclear. Some talk of a federation between Turkish and Kurdish republics; others, including the European Parliament, support local autonomy for the Kurds.

But the government views any political arrangement as a step toward secession and loss of territory; it believes that the Kurds will not be satisfied with anything less than a separate state. It rejects any notion of negotiating with the PKK. “We will not negotiate with terrorists,” government officials assert vehemently whenever such a possibility is raised. They believe that the PKK leaders are supported in their aims by the governments of Iran, Syria, and Greece, all of which want to weaken Turkey.

The PKK, while once explicitly separatist, has recently modified its official position. “I would like to emphasize that we are not insistent on the division of Turkey,” its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, said in a statement sent to an international conference in Brussels on March 10. Mr. Ocalan, who is based in Damascus, went on to suggest a bilateral cease-fire as a prelude to talks with the Turkish government conducted “within a democratic framework where we can express the legitimate demands of our people…. We are ready to discuss any alternatives, including federation.”

The Turkish government ignored Ocalan’s offer, dismissing it as a “tactical move” on the eve of the new Turkish military offensive. The government seems to have learned nothing from the repeated failures of other governments that have tried to combat guerilla armies solely by force and have ended up mistreating civilians in an effort to “drain the sea” of supporters. The governments that tried to suppress the ANC, the PLO, and El Salvador’s FMLN ultimately ended up at the negotiating table with their sworn enemies. Turkey might have avoided such a destructive sequence of events if it had responded ten years ago, or even more recently, to Kurdish demands for elementary cultural and political rights, and had done more to improve the economic conditions of the southeast. The PKK might never have been able to grow and flourish. Now, however, it may be too late.


The Hidden War in Turkey’ June 8, 1995

  1. 1

    I went to Turkey in April on behalf of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, formerly Helsinki Watch.

  2. 2

    The Turkish government has always tried to minimize the number of PKK guerrillas. When I visited the southeast in 1987, estimates of PKK fighters ranged from 200 to 1,500. The PKK, which was then regularly engaged in violent attacks against the local population, appeared to have little support. In recent years, however, the PKK has modified its tactics toward civilians while the Turkish army has become increasingly harsh. As a result, support for the PKK appears to be growing along with the number of PKK fighters.

  3. 3

    The Turkish Daily News, February 9, 1994.

  4. 4

    See my article “Turkey’s Nonpeople,” in The New York Review of Books, February 4, 1988.

  5. 5

    The Observer, February 13, 1994.