Turkey battles its enemy within

Tony Barber examines the hardline approach to the Kurdish insurgency
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The Independent Online
Diyarbakir - Unal Erkan, the governor of 10 provinces under emergency rule in south-eastern Turkey, spoke with a mixture of assurance and defiance as he defended his security forces against charges of abusing the human rights of local Kurds. "Look, it has happened that some policemen have made some mistakes," he said in an interview in his office at a barracks in Diyarbakir.

"Some terrorists were wounded, taken to hospital and not treated as well as they should have been. Once I heard about it, the policemen were removed from their jobs. About 15 of them, I would say."

A deplorable but untypical incident, he suggested, in a conflict which, according to official Turkish figures, has killed about 18,000 people since 1984, more than half of them rebels fighting for the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). However, by the admission of the Turkish authorities, more than 1,500 villages and hamlets in the south-east have been completely emptied of their inhabitants in an effort to starve the PKK, a Marxist group fighting for Kurdish autonomy or independence, of local support.

The effects are instantly visible in Diyarbakir, a city whose population, has shot up from 380,000 in 1990 to 1,500,000 today. The city streets are filled with jobless villagers.

No doubt the flow of hundreds of thousands of rural Kurds into Diyarbakir, as into Istanbul, Ankara and other cities, partly reflects Turkey's rapid urbanisation, as well as the attempt of many villagers to escape PKK pressure. But it also reflects the fact that military and nationalist hard-liners dominate Turkey's approach to the Kurdish question, an approach which sees the answer in victory over the PKK rather than in the extension of political, cultural and educational rights to Kurds.

Mr Erkan, 53, a police commander, expressed confidence that the authorities were gradually bringing the Kurdish insurgency under control. "It wouldn't be right to predict a date by which it will be finished, but generally the problem is becoming smaller. Today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today," he said.

Other sources in Diyarbakir who observe the authorities' cat-and-mouse battle against the PKK were more sceptical. One Turkish journalist said: "The fact is that the number of military sent here in the last two years has increased, and the authorities are using more sophisticated equipment. In that time the number of people killed has increased, and that is because PKK activities have increased."

Mr Erkan estimated that the PKK had a 6,000-strong force at its disposal, based partly inside Turkey and partly across the borders with Iraq and Syria. He declined to estimate the strength of the military and security forces ranged against them, but informed local sources said the army alone had at least 150,000 troops in the south-east.

It is a measure of the acute crisis in the region, and of the widespread fear of Turkey's strict anti-terrorism law, that businessmen, lawyers, lecturers and journalists in Diyarbakir were all hesitant to offer an opinion on the Kurdish question, at least without the protection of anonymity. Even to utter the word "Kurdish" seems fraught with risk, as was illustrated when a professor at Diyarbakir University confessed that some of his students sometimes spoke, outside of class, "a language other than Turkish".

To support the PKK is to incur the full wrath of the Turkish state. According to a lawyer who said he had defended clients accused of links with the PKK, a prison sentence of up to six years can be imposed on a person who has given a PKK member money or even bread. Active "terrorist activity" can be punished with 12 or 13 years in jail.

Liberal-minded academics and businessmen in Istanbul and Ankara pointed out that the heavier the state's repression of moderate Kurdish self- expression, the greater the risk that Kurdish loyalties would gravitate to the PKK. But Turkey's Foreign Minister, Coskun Kirca, said the liberals and their Western supporters failed to understand how serious a threat Kurdish autonomy would pose to Turkey's stability and integrity.

"Turkey is a unitary state," Mr Kirca said. "The nation and republic are indivisible, as in France. Put it this way. France doesn't have enemies, Britain doesn't have enemies and Spain doesn't have enemies. But here we have enemies."