Invaders parade typewriters as spoils of war

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The Independent Online
Two battered manual typewriters, both cream-coloured and one with its lid placed neatly beside it, were the first sign that the attack on Kurdish guerrilla camps in northern Iraq by 35,000 Turkish troops was not the triumph portrayed on Turkish television. I saw them first in a shed at a military base at Silopi, just across the border from Iraq. They were part of a display of military equipment designed to show the troops had caught the guerrillas by surprise and captured their arsenals.

But, if this was the most successful Turkish military operation since the occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974, as was claimed by the Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, why was it necessary to boost the official catch by including typewriters?

The obvious explanation was that the commanding officer at Silopi had pressed them into service because, however one arranged the Kalashnikovs and mortar bombs, the haul looked too skimpy to be convincing evidence of an important victory.

Signs of military triumph were elusive on the Iraqi side of the border. After refusing for five days to let foreign correspondents who do not live in Turkey into Iraq, the Turkish army relented and flew a group of us from their base at Diyarbakir to Silopi, and then on to an old Iraqi army camp at Darkaracan, a Kurdish village in a grassy plain. We drove in trucks up a zig-zag road into the mountains, which the army said had been a supply route for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).

Half-way up, a mine explosion had created a landslide and swept part of the road into the valley. Turkish sappers had dug a muddy track, by which we got through. But they said the mine was planted only 24 hours before the Turkish offensive - another sign that the Kurds were not caught by surprise.

The base camp of the guerrillas was in a village called Sharanj, perched on the edge of a torrent and surrounded by poplars. As we skirted empty fields, a Turkish officer said: "Keep to the road because of mines - PKK mines." Not that anybody can be definitive about who planted mines in Kurdistan. They usually come courtesy of the Iraqi army and the most common is an Italian anti-personnel mine that looks like a large white mushroom. Another feature of the landscape is the Valmara jumping mine, which hops into the air and explodes when you touch a trip wire.

Back in Dyarbakir, I met an Iraqi Kurd who lives in Zakho, about 10 miles from Sharanj. Serbest Zakhoyi said that people from the Kurdish cities used to take their holidays in the village to escape the summer heat. Today, there are no tourists and few people of any sort moving on the mountain roads, apart from an occasional taxi.

For decades, the Iraqi army systematically destroyed Kurdish villages, forcing people to resettle in grim suburbs around the main cities, close to army barracks. Since the Iraqis fled in 1991, some of the villages have been rebuilt, but most of the terraces on the lower slopes of the Kurdish mountains are uncultivated or have reverted to scrub.

Kurds usually flee early. Warfare in Kurdistan has been more intense and has lasted longer than in Lebanon. The lesson learnt over 50 years is, if you run, do it before the roads are cut or blocked by other refugees. For the moment, the Turkish checkpoints, usually just a soldier with a red flag, are less menacing than those in Turkey itself. But the villagers do not know how long this will last.

They are right to be edgy. Power changes hands quickly in Kurdistan. Flying east, we landed near Batufa, where President Saddam Hussein had almost completed a summer palace when it was stormed by Kurds in 1991. A headquarters for the Kurdish Democratic Party for three years, the half- ruined palace is now held by the Turks. Their stay, in the face of international hostility, may be short.

The PKK will return and, in a country where everybody carries a gun, will have no difficulty replacing weapons lost to the Turkish army. Their greatest difficulty may be to obtain new typewriters. In Kurdistan, they are more difficult to buy than Kalashnikovs.

Patrick Cockburn