Turks make a desert and call it peace

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The Independent Online
AN ORDERLY hurried up with combat webbing for Brigadier-General Osman Pamukoglu, the confident commander at the sharp end of Turkey's increasingly determined thrusts against its Kurdish rebels. Heels clicking, privates scattered backwards out of rooms.

The commander slung an M-16 carbine over his shoulder and checked his pistol on one hip and long dagger on the other. Dark glasses snapped on over his high, sunken cheekbones.

"We've chopped down the tree," said the short, wiry, 47-year-old officer. "Now we're lopping off the branches."

To show what he meant, the brigadier set off to the airfield outside his headquarters in Cukurca, perched amid mountains on Turkey's south- eastern border with Iraq.

A short helicopter ride later, we were standing on a 10,000ft mountain promontory 13 miles inside Iraq, part of the UN safe haven for the 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds. Last week it was looking more like a free-fire zone. Deep into the steep-sided valleys, smoke billowed from fighting around four Turkish Kurd rebel camps, the shrub oaks and undergrowth bursting into flame from each rocket that impacted in 100-degree heat.

The area seemed unpopulated, but the UN said about 700 Iraqi Kurdish families had fled south. The Turks said they did not target any villages in the 25-mile deep by 45-mile wide combat area, but they had scathing words for the idea that they should go back to co-operating with Iraqi Kurdish groups.

"As long as they don't keep their promises to secure this region, we'll keep going in, hit and run," said Brigadier Pamukoglu, saying that the mountains harboured mostly Turkish Kurd rebels. From these bases they had launched 36 attacks in 60 days, killing 26 of his men.

Turkish troops had attacked the same camps in their March offensive into northern Iraq - Operation Steel. That was the subject of considerable European - but not American - criticism as it stretched out for six weeks and began to look like an occupation. In fact, no preparations seem under way for any permanent Turkish presence in Iraq, even if Turkish commentators may talk about northern Iraq as "our backyard" and President Suleyman Demirel says that moving the border south would make its defence easier.

The operations have more to do with Turkey's quixotic obsession with military success in its 11-year-old war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), in the time-honoured fashion in which countless rebellions since Ottoman times have eventually been crushed.

The Turkish establishmentnow claims that it is winning the war. Giving ethnic and cultural rights to the 12 million Turkish Kurds (about one- fifth of the population) would be the first step down the road to the PKK's supposed goal of an independent Kurdish state, they believe. The super-governor of the 10 mainly Kurdish provinces under emergency rule says the number of PKK v army clashes has nearly halved this year. But the fighting is no less bloody: an average of 14 people a day died in the first half of this year, compared to 17 a day last year.

Turkish soldiers do seem far better trained, equipped and motivated than even three years ago. Kurdish rebels, on the other hand, seem less able to carry out threats of attacks. Proponents of the military solution point out that Kurdish cities such as Diyarbakir have become more normal. With an increasing number of Kurdish rebel attacks, an old Turkish belief is reappearing: the Kurdish problem is an invention of meddlesome foreigners.

Sipping tea in shady kiosks on their bases, they list how Turkey's regional rivals use the Kurdish rebels: Syria protects the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan; Greek cross-party parliamentary delegations pay him reverential visits; PKK camps are tolerated in Iran - which Tehran denies.

But the policy does not somehow add up, even if four of nine presidents of the republic were of Kurdish stock. Kurds have never risen high as Kurds. And in the same breath as saying that there is no ethnic problem in Turkey, an officer can wave at a trouble-free town like Van and confide that "they all want an independent Kurdistan here".

The Kurdish reaction is not surprising. On the Turkish side of the border, a few Turkish Kurd villagers could be seen from the helicopter scything their wheat from fertile green hollows in the bare valleys. One circle of goat- hair tents showed where villagers used to go up to high mountain summer pastures.

But almost all the remoter villages stood emptied by the fighting, their roofs apparently blown off by Turkish soldiers to prevent the rebels using them for shelter. Officials accept that nearly 2,000 villages have been emptied, forcing about 300,000 people to flee. Joined by those leaving troubled towns, 2 million Turkish Kurds have sought work or security in western Turkey, where about half of Turkey's Kurds live.

Turkish commentators, noting that more than 2,782 members of the security forces are among the 17,000 killed in Turkey's war, are beginning to raise the question of whether desolation equals peace. Kurdish nationalism continues to grow, as almost every Kurdish nationalist who speaks out lands up in jail. Six Kurdish leaders elected to parliament in 1991 have been behind bars for more than a year. Last week another ex-deputy, Sirri Sakik, was jailed again .

"It was crazy to empty the villages. It creates PKK militants," said Gungor Mengi in the biggest-selling daily, Sabah, congratulating the government on its first initiative to arrange compensation and a partial return. "Buying fire-fighting planes is all very well, but it would be better to look at the cause of the fire," he said. "Even if the PKK has fallen back militarily, it is advancing politically and it is now an international problem."