Out of Turkey: Deafening silence in city of terror

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The Independent Online
DIYARBAKIR - I had barely put my knuckle to the dilapidated door of another apparently closed-up party office when a youth appeared at our side, beaming an unusual smile of welcome but wearing a flak jacket under his coat and carrying a semi-automatic rifle.

The gun turned out to be for the party's protection, but one never knows. On the long lonely country roads of south-eastern Turkey, it can be hard to tell from a distance if the men up ahead with khaki uniforms, keffiyeh headscarves and Kalashnikovs are an undercover police unit, government-armed village guards or rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

For most of the 10-year insurgency, the conflict has hit hardest in bullet-pocked hill towns and poor mountain villages. Now fear is rampant in the chief regional city of Diyarbakir. The same cold February day that I arrived, five people were murdered in the city, adding to more than 500 unsolved 'mystery murders' in the past four years.

Most party offices in the scruffy streets were empty shells with police guards sitting around stoves or lurking in doorways. At the Motherland Party, despite the forthcoming elections, only a small group of grim-faced businessmen sat in an upstairs room. All they could offer was tea.

'It's better that we say nothing,' said the thick-set deputy chief. 'People are getting killed. Nobody is smiling in Diyarbakir. Perhaps (the late Turkish president) Ozal could have solved all this. The current government can't do anything.'

On the apparently busy main street shopkeepers complained that business was minimal. Only long-established traders can get credit from suppliers in western Turkey, insurance is difficult and companies are closing down outlets. In Diyarbakir and some other towns the political atmosphere is so tense that newspapers can only be bought from police stations.

'I can't tell you anything, except the old saying that 'May the snake that does not bite me live for a thousand years',' said a clothes retailer. 'But please do have some tea.'

In the curiously-named nearby town of Batman, many businessmen have invested in western Turkish towns against the day when they may no longer be able to work in the south-east. Intense Islamist and state pressure on Kurdish nationalists mean that they have left too. 'Officials tell local people: look what so-and-so was saying about Kurdistan, and where has he gone? To Istanbul, to Izmir, not to Hakkari and Arbil (in autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan),' said one businessman, an Arab who had quietly insured his family with the purchase of a flat and shop in Ankara.

Over elaborate kebabs in a Batman restaurant owned by a Kurdish nationalist, now in exile in Germany after being twice bombed and threatened by Islamists, the businessman described brutal methods people were using to survive. 'My uncle is a contractor and got a letter from the PKK demanding 100 million lira (pounds 4,000). So we gathered our family together and called in five pro-PKK businessmen,' he said. 'We told them we were not going to pay and that if anything happened to my uncle, we would kill all of them. We never heard anything about it again.'

The Islamist 'Hizbollah' group uses the same ratio of murderous intimidation - you kill one of ours, we kill five of yours. They are rapidly filling the gap left by Kurdish nationalists as ruthless state repression bites home, although nobody will quite admit to being them.

People point nervously to men selling Islamic cassettes from barrows on the streets of Batman, to hard-bitten villages where Iranian-style posters hang on walls, or the bearded young militants on the fringes of the mainstream Welfare Party. Officials of the party deny any knowledge of Hizbollah, but then they even contend that a television station broadcasting Islamic propaganda from one of their party front rooms has 'nothing to do with politics'.

The Islamists are visibly hard at work in the south-east, as elsewhere in Turkey. None of the experimentation of the Welfare Party's liberal wing in Istanbul was visible here, no recruitment of ex-fashion models and women dentists. There was no doubts about what the fight was about: a new Islamic order for Kurds within a neo-Ottoman Turkey. 'The (Marxist Kurdish rebel) PKK has nothing to do with Kurdish rights, it has left only corpses and tears behind it. The only solution is Islamic culture,' said the Diyarbakir Welfare Party chief, Mehmet Emincan, a Kurd. 'The government, does not represent the Turkish people. The system is blocked. The Welfare Party is like a bulldozer clearing it out.'