Turkey's war on militants leaves Kurdish community feeling under fire
Shortly after 9pm on a cold winter evening in December, a group of Kurdish villagers was approaching the Turkish border from Iraq when the buzzing of a drone was heard overhead.
Most of them were from the villages of Gülyazi and Ortasu - small settlements in the impoverished province of Sirnak, south-eastern Turkey. They were carrying supplies of diesel oil, sugar, cigarettes and other items that they had bought in Iraq to sell for a small profit across the border.
As they came within 50 metres of the border, two Turkish F-16 Falcon jets bombed the area. According to the handful of survivors, the attack lasted for an hour. When it ended, a total of 35 people were killed - of whom more than half were teenagers.
“It was like a lightning bolt,” said Servet Encu, one of the survivors. “I saw a bright light and the force of the explosion threw me to the ground…When I turned my head I could see bodies on fire and some were missing their heads,” the 42-year-old villager told the Wall Street Journal.
It would later emerge that the buzzing sound heard by the smugglers before the attack was a US Predator drone. According to reports, the US military passed on the information to their Turkish counterparts, who made the decision to carry out the strike.
The Turkish military would later claim it had mistaken the smugglers for militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group that has fought for greater autonomy for the country's Kurds since 1984. An ironic footnote to the tragedy emerged in the days after the incident when it was revealed that a number of the victims were employed by the Turkish state as village guards to counter the PKK.
While a full investigation into the incident has yet to be completed, the growing number of civilian casualties from Turkey's war against the PKK is contributing to a feeling in the Kurdish community that the military does not distinguish between the two.
“The [Turkish] army knew what the road was used for,” says Sadik Bayram, a trainee teacher who grew up in the district of Uludere, and now lives in nearby Sillopi. “They knew these people were not PKK. That is why we were so angry.
“The villagers have used the same road to smuggle for generations. They are poor and uneducated, they can't do anything else.”
In the days following the incident, anger swelled throughout the neighbouring provinces and thousands flooded the streets in protest. Large numbers also came out in Istanbul, home to some two million Kurds.
In Diyarbakir, one of the largest Kurdish cities in Turkey, demonstrators shut down roads and Molotov cocktails were thrown at police. Some people carried placards expressing support for the PKK's fight.
“Kurdish people came from all over Turkey. They wanted an apology or an explanation, but they got neither,” Sadik says. “This really hurt us.”
Although demonstrations had not been seen on such a scale for many years, they are a common occurrence in Turkey's south-east.
The region is home to the majority of Turkey's 15 million-strong Kurdish community, which has been the subject of cultural and political oppression by the Turkish state for decades.
Members of political parties and organisations thought to be associated with the PKK, such as the BDP, are routinely arrested and in November, Human Rights Watch accused the Turkish police of “casting the net ever wider in the crackdown on legal pro-Kurdish politics.”
A “democratic opening” announced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2009 to end years of unrest in the Kurdish region and pave the way for Turkey's accession to the European Union was not followed through, according to EU's own annual progress report.
Across the southern border in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurdish population have governed with autonomy since 1991, the situation is better. But civilians here have not escaped the war. An unofficial area of PKK control in northern Iraq begins around 100 kilometres from the Turkish border and stretches east to the Qandil Mountains on the border with Iran.
Many villages here lie empty as residents have moved away to escape the fighting. Those who remain live under the threat of air-strikes and artillery fire aimed at routing out the guerrillas from their mountain hideouts.
Shamal Hassan Sheikh Omer is 23-years-old and lives in the town of Ranya, 160 miles north-east of Baghdad. Last summer, his wife and two young children were killed in an air-strike inside Iraqi Kurdistan, not far from the PKK-controlled zone. As he stands at the edge of a winding mountain road, on the very spot where the bomb hit, Shamal calmly recounts the events of that day.
His wife Rezan had been visiting her father's farm in the village of Boly, near the Iranian border, when Turkish jets began bombing the area. She decided to drive her two children, together with her mother, father, nephew and niece south to the town of Ranya, until the danger had passed.
As the car made its way slowly down the mountain it was hit by a huge explosion, killing all seven people. A subsequent investigation by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) concluded that the truck had been hit by a missile fired from an F-16 jet. “I was in Baghdad when I got the call,” says Shamal. “It took me six hours to arrive home. When I got here, they had already buried the bodies.”
Thousands of people attended the funeral in Ranya to pay their respects and angry demonstrations followed. “I don't care about what Turkey is doing with the PKK. Whatever they do it should be away from the civilians,” says Shamal. “Because of this bomb I am living a life of suffering. I now live with my parents. I feel lonely and I am always thinking about my children.”
A relative of Shamal's named Ahmed is more direct. “When [Turkey] talks about human rights, it's a joke. They are pursuing a policy of ethnic cleansing. They just want to kill Kurds.
“All these bombardments are doing is making people more sympathetic to the PKK,” he adds.
The mountain range that spans the border has been home to the PKK for the past three decades. The group's guerrillas find refuge in the natural fortress provided by impenetrable passes, thick forests and deep valleys after carrying out attacks within Turkey.
One such attack in October last year killed 24 Turkish soldiers - thought to be the biggest loss for Turkish forces in nearly two decades.
Approximately 500 metres from where Shamal's family was killed a checkpoint manned by two young men dressed in green fatigues with Kalashnikovs hanging lazily from their shoulders marks the entry to the PKK-controlled zone.
A few miles within this area, in a small house in the foothills of the Qandil Mountains, 40-year-old PKK fighter Ronahi Serhat describes the Uludere bombing as the latest in a campaign of annihilation against the Kurdish people.
“When it comes to the Kurds, Turkey can do anything. Democratic values, international law and agreements, they don't mean a thing,” she says. “Everyone is concerned about the killings in Syria, but what about the killing of Kurds in Turkey?”
She speaks softly while two younger PKK members - a boy and girl who look as though they are not yet out of their teens - listen intently.
“It was events like the Uludere massacre which led me to join the PKK,” says Ronahi, who has been a guerrilla fighter for the past 20 years. “These massacres are happening all the time. Uludere is just one case.”
The PKK is designated a terrorist organisation by the EU and the United States, and both have repeatedly expressed their support for Ankara in its battle against the rebels.
The US drone patrols in support of the Turkish military began in 2007, in an effort by Bush Administration to foster security ties.
The current US President, Barack Obama, has also called for increased cooperation between the two countries.
Turkish military officials have repeatedly refused to comment on the Uludere drone attack and on the depth of the military relationship between Turkey and the US.
Speaking shortly afterwards, Erdogan expressed regret over the “unfortunate and distressing” Uludere bombing, and said that an investigation into the incident was under way. A month later, in a speech to his party, he vowed that “the struggle against terrorism will continue with determination.”
“The terrorists will be rendered ineffective wherever they are, be it in the mountains, in the country or across the border,” he added.
After 26 years of conflict and 40,000 deaths, neither side is optimistic about the prospects for peace in the immediate future. Turkey has maintained that the PKK does not represent the Kurdish people, and that the questions of Kurdish rights and autonomy can be solved while simultaneously fighting the group.
The PKK, meanwhile, says that in addition to respecting the political and cultural rights of the Kurdish people, the release of its leader Abdullah Öcalan from prison is integral to finding a peaceful solution, a demand that Turkey has refused to accommodate.
“We are not in the mountains by choice, it is a necessity,” says Ronahi. “We believe in a peaceful solution. If the environment is right, we are ready to put down our arms, but such an environment does not exist in Turkey right now.”
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