The Kurdish nationalist genie that will not die: Military force is unlikely to quell the rebellion in Turkey's south-east, Hugh Pope writes from Van

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THE young boy stood by his picturesque village on the edge of Lake Van and expressed the quiet Kurdish determination that seems sure to confound Turkey's new tendency towards a military solution to eight years of separatist Kurdish insurgency.

'I want a Kurdish state, a Kurdish flag, red, yellow and green,' he said, as if repeating a basic creed. 'I don't want the Turkish flag any more.'

Why? Was he not grateful for the neat Turkish health clinic standing on the edge of the village? No. Were people bothered by soldiers who will soon move into a big new base on the hill above? Not here. Did the guerrillas come through their houses often? Only once, last year, but they didn't do much.

The only explanation the boy had was the one that can be heard all over the Turkish south-east: a Kurdish consciousness has been awakened, a fact that Turkey has refused to accept seriously, hidebound by past decades of denying the Kurdish identity and, understandably enough, fearing a Yugoslav- style break-up of the country.

Turkish officials reject calls for talks from the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), citing its massacres of women and children and actions as a Marxist cat's paw of Syrian, Iraqi or Iranian meddling. Some of this is true. But talks would also imply concessions to Kurdish national and political rights.

Turkey now seems to have decided that it is time to be tough, to go for a military solution that will stamp out 'terrorism'. The armed forces chief speaks of the need for 'all-out psychological war'. The Prime Minister, Suleyman Demirel, says: 'There is only one solution, and this attack will be repelled. If political solutions could have solved this problem, it would have been done in the last nine years.'

There are many Turks and even Kurds who agree - some of whom could be found at the mountain village of Cevizdali, where the PKK had just murdered 40 people, half of them women and children, after the surrender of its local government-armed 'village guards' militia. 'What we need is a military junta to sort all this out. Democracy cannot solve this. You have to use torture to control this kind of organisation,' said Mehmet Sirin, 44, a Kurdish village guard from the valley.

The Turkish commandos present were also by no means all Turks. 'I am a Kurd. You in the West should not see this as a fight between Kurds and Turks,' said one young officer. 'This is a fight between the terrorism and the Turkish republic.' The officer came from Antalya, a Mediterranean resort town in western Turkey, where half of Turkey's 12 million Kurds live and stand to lose much from further polarisation of Turkish society. But the other half live in the south-east, where people feel they have nothing much left to lose.

Kurdish public opinion is hard to gauge. A referendum would almost certainly bring a confused answer. A concensus would seem to be that most Turkish Kurds do not wish for a separate state - perhaps the reason why the PKK blurs its policy statements on this point. But many Kurds have lost trust in the Turkish state and turn Mr Demirel's theory on its head.

'If they could have solved this militarily, they would have done so already. It won't work now,' said a pro-government, anti-PKK Kurd from Hakkari province. A 50-year-old shopkeeper from Tatvan echoed the sentiment. 'The PKK does do these massacres, but they only did it because those people had government guns. What we really want is recognition that there is a Kurdish nation, with a right to Kurdish television, Kurdish education and so on.'

An attempt to form a moderate Kurdish nationalist party to be the voice of this silent majority foundered between the two extremes of Turkish establishment suspicion and pressure from the PKK. The PKK was left bearing the standard of Kurdish nationalism, ralling the under-educated, under- employed children of a recent Kurdish population explosion in the south-east.

The PKK, with 10,000 guerrillas, has become very strong. Bands of up to 100 roam at will through the remote mountains, where only a few people can afford the front-wheel-drive Turkish- made Renault cars that scramble up the rocky tracks like goats.

The PKK was greatly helped by a flood of arms released by chaos in northern Iraq after the Gulf war. Turkey believes it can now beat the rebels by mining and fencing the borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria, trying to lessen those countries' support for the PKK and going on to the attack.

But the genie of Kurdish nationalism is out of the bottle. And Ankara's refusal to contemplate federal-style solutions is undermined by the fact that in practice the south-east is already drifting away. The 10 worst-hit provinces of 21 in the south-east have been run under separate 'Emergency Rule' legislation since 1987, theoretically under the control of a 'super-governor' but in practice largely dictated by military needs to fight the Kurdish rebellion.

Istanbul insurance companies refuse to write policies for the region. Traders say they can no longer get the traditional 50 per cent trading credit from Western wholesalers. Transport activity is down by a third: movement along roads after 5pm can invite PKK attack.