Turkey drives Kurds' trucks to the wall

"We are like stones which have been thrown away by the government," Hamad Nuri said, as he waited beside his truck just north of the Iraqi border. He had been there for 10 days, one of thousands of Turkish Kurd lorry drivers who form part of a 23-mile queue of trucks that has hardly moved since Turkey invaded Iraq.

In impoverished south-east Turkey, ravaged by the war between the Turkish army and Turkish Kurd rebels of the PKK, driving trucks to Iraq is one of the few ways to make money. Each lorry has tanks capable of holding 2,000 litres of diesel that Iraq, desperate to break the UN embargo on exporting oil, sells cheaply in the border town of Zakho. The Turkish invasion has ruined the trade.

Ownership of a lorry is often the sole means of earning money for families. The drivers, although they are running out of food, do not dare lose their places in the queue that snakes across the plain, past wrecked and empty villages.

On a day when only 25 lorries crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan at the Khabur Bridge, Ahmed Kayn was playing cards with five other drivers beside his truck. They complained that the bread and water sold by local villagers was twice the normal price. One said: "I do not even have enough fuel to go home."

Asked what the government had done for them, Abdullah Yilmaz said: "Nobody speaks, nobody asks, they don't show it on television. We could die here like animals."

Most drivers are Turkish Kurds, who look nervous when questioned about Operation Steel - the invasion of Iraq by 35,000 Turkish troops in pursuit of the PKK. "I think the PKK knew the army was coming and went away," one said.

The army's campaign has not been confined to Iraq. On the road to Iraq, east of Diyarbakir, are ruined Kurdish villages. "The soldiers used to come every night to search the village where my family lived, so they had to leave their house and go to the city," said one resident of Diyarbakir, whose population is reported to have risen in 10 years from 300,000 to 2 million.

Turkish army roadblocks are thorough. Our car, after a two-hour wait, was given an escort of an armoured car and a busload of soldiers to the barracks at Cizre, a university town now largely depopulated. Surveying the bullet-scarred buildings, a security guard in dark glasses said with satisfaction: "This town is quiet now compared to 1992."

The army says the PKK is responsible for the devastation of the countryside. Among the Kurdish farmers driven from their villages and the truck-drivers ruined by the border closure, there is bitterness. That explains why the PKK does not lack recruits.

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