Sunlight flooded the main square of Silopi, a town in the southeast of Turkey, less than 15km from the borders with Iraq and Syria. Between December 2015 and January 2016, Turkish security forces heavily assaulted its 80,000 inhabitants, and fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is calling for democratic confederalism and demanding autonomy for areas with a Kurdish majority. The fighting was out of public view: Silopi, like other towns, was isolated for 37 days by curfews.
Throughout Turkey, including Istanbul and Ankara, the police are regularly targeted in attacks; this leads to greater suppression, which provokes reprisals. On 10 June the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a radical splinter group of the PKK, claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on police in Istanbul. A few days earlier, the government had voted in a law lifting the immunity of some parliamentary members, to silence 59 MPs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
The atmosphere in Silopi back on that spring morning was tense. The regular appearance of police armoured vehicles, and the helicopter circling overhead, were a reminder that war was never far away. Queues formed in front of two public scribes who had set up their tables and typewriters. They had more work than usual, with people wanting a form filled in because their house had been destroyed, a letter to the prison director or a death certificate.
Riskyie Seflek, 60, lives in the middle of the combat zone. She said: ‘The tank behind the house was aiming for the mosque. But the shell went through the living room.’ Under her headscarf, which Kurdish women wear drawn back, she looked tired. We were in her garden with her husband, daughters and grandchildren. One of the boys had brought new clothes, which the family were inspecting. ‘They’re for Temer, my grandson,’ Seflek said. ‘He’s 16 and in jail. Before that, he was in hospital for three weeks after being shot in the hip.’ Temerwas not a militiaman; he was caught in the middle of the fighting, like everyone in Silopi, confined in a town that has become a prison.
Many people told me similar things in the towns of Turkish Kurdistan that I visited. They draw the same conclusions everywhere: The peace process between the authorities and the PKK, initiated in 2009 to end a conflict that started in 1984 and has killed more than 40,000, is over. For President ErdoÄŸan and his new prime minister, Binali YÄ±ldÄ±rÄ±m, ‘there can no longer be any dialogue with the PKK.’ The vocabulary is unambiguous: ‘cleansing’, ‘purge’, ‘total victory’.
In spring 2013, talks led to the withdrawal of Kurdish fighters towards Iraq, but they were unable to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war. Tensions rose during the battle for Kobane, in which Syrian Kurdish forces close to the PKK fought ISIS (Islamic State). In Kurdish towns, there were demonstrations condemning the Turkish government’s passivity, and it was accused of colluding with ISIS. On 20 July 2015 a suicide attack attributed to ISIS killed 33 and injured 100 young Turkish and Kurdish socialists in SuruÃ§, close to the Syrian border: They were on their way to help reconstruct Kobane. The demonstrations intensified and two days later the PKK, accusing Ankara of complicity with the jihadists, killed two police officers in CeylanpÄ±nar, close to the Syrian border. That act was the pretext for the Turkish authorities to declare a ‘war on terror’, supposed to target both ISIS and the PKK but mostly directed against the Kurdish forces.
Since last September, there have been serious clashes in the main Kurdish strongholds. In Silopi in December, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) dug trenches in the streets and put up barricades ‘to protect themselves from the Turkish police’, as they declared the city’s autonomy. They were quickly relieved by hardened fighters from Iraq, notably the Kandil mountains where the PKK leadership is based. These urban insurgencies led to the deployment of 10,000 Turkish soldiers, supported by tanks and helicopters. Permanent blockades were established everywhere. ‘Curfews became mechanisms for destroying towns,’ said HDP MP Ferhat EncÃ¼. When urban fighting ends and the PKK militants withdraw, the Kurdish local authorities are first in line for political retaliation. Many mayors affiliated with the HDP, like Emine Esmer in Silopi, have been arrested, imprisoned and prosecuted for ‘inciting armed rebellion against the government’.
Many people in the southeast are convinced that ErdoÄŸan has connections with ISIS, and that there is an arrangement with it to hamper Kurdish aspirations. The October 2015 attack on an HDP meeting in Ankara in which 97 people were killed (the perpetrators have yet to be identified or arrested) has heightened these suspicions. In another incident, two Cumhuriyet journalists were imprisoned and then convicted of ‘disclosure of state secrets’ after broadcasting a video suggesting that the secret services were delivering arms to Syrian Islamists. Some witnesses have reported jihadists fighting alongside government forces. AbdÃ¼lkerim F from Sur told us about men he had surprised praying in his house. ‘They didn’t speak Turkish, maybe Azeri. They had long beards and looked like ISIS men.’ He had come back to fetch his identity papers after fleeing the house because of weeks of tear gas.
There is nothing to support these allegations, but many observers and diplomats have criticised the ease with which aspiring jihadists and lorryloads of black-market oil have been able to cross the border with Syria. The PÃ–H and JÃ–H (police and military police) special forces took part in operations in Kurdish areas, their presence indicated by the racist and sexist graffiti they left on town walls. In Silopi, they read ‘Dear Turkey, we are cleansing you in God’s name: we are the JÃ–H, we have come to send you to hell!’ In the ruins of Cizre there were calls to rape Kurdish women. ‘Our turn to teach you a lesson! — PÃ–H’; ‘We’re here, girls, where are you? — JÃ–H’.
According to information gathered with local journalists and HDP MPs, it seems likely that Jitem, the military police intelligence and anti-terrorist service, thought to have been disbanded, has reappeared. This underground group, organised into cells of military police, soldiers and members of the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves, massacred Kurds in the 1990s. Inscriptions have been left on the walls of Sur: ‘Wolves are drawn to blood, be afraid!’
The methods used against Kurdish civilians are the same as 20 years ago, and groups claiming to belong to Jitem are active on social media. They publish photographs of Kurdish fighters’ bodies torn to pieces by mortars or burned with petrol. Women’s bodies are treated with particular brutality.
Poorest district of DiyarbakÄ±r
The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey already suggests that 300-400 people have been killed and 600,000 displaced. In January, Amnesty International said that the Turkish government offensive, which it calls a ‘collective punishment’, had endangered ‘the lives of nearly 200,000 people’. The western part of Sur, which is the fortified old town of DiyarbakÄ±r, considered the capital of the Kurdish southeast, has been emptied of residents. With 70% of it destroyed, according to the local authority, it remains difficult to reach.
On 1 April, the day after an attack killing seven police officers and shortly before his resignation as prime minister, Ahmet DavutoÄŸlu visited DiyarbakÄ±r, with an impressive security detail. He praised the urban regeneration plan that ErdoÄŸan wants for destroyed areas. ‘We’ll make Sur into the new Toledo,’ he shouted to applause from a hand picked crowd. The young waiting staff standing around a restaurant television were stone-faced. It was their town, their lives, that the government was promising to obliterate with triumphant bluster.
When the speech was over and the officials had left, the residents returned to their restricted routine, with checkpoints at every crossroads and further restrictions if and when they are able to get home. Gafur S, a quiet literature teacher, complained: ‘This is now an occupied territory.’ Every morning, he crosses police roadblocks at the entrance to Sur, on his way to take classes in one of the only two schools that have not been burned down. Every day, he is searched, forced to strip to the waist and reply to questions from the same police, who now know him. He can afford to live in the modern town, and with more than 10 years’ experience, could ask for a transfer. But he refuses. ‘I will not abandon these children. Sur is already the poorest district of DiyarbakÄ±r. They take the same exams as the other schoolchildren in Turkey, but the others don’t have bombs falling on their houses. Where is the equality in the education system between the western Turks and the Kurds? All these children could become engineers. They just need to be given a chance.’ Gafur is of a generation harassed by police for speaking Kurdish in the street, and saw its grandparents turned away from hospitals because they couldn’t speak Turkish. Like all in Turkey’s Kurdish region, he now subjected to new restrictions.
Since the war began again, all roads in Botan (the name Turkish Kurds use for their region) are punctuated with checkpoints. Whether travellers can get through depends on the goodwill of the police. The car journey from DiyarbakÄ±r to Cizre now takes seven hours, compared to four under normal circumstances. Since last December curfews lasting up to several weeks have come into force, depending on the level of violence or the mood of the authorities. Cizre was completely isolated for 79 days. We were able to enter it after the fighting and found a ruined landscape, traumatised residents and uncertain security. In the Cudi district on the left bank of the Tigris, all that remained was collapsed buildings; tanks had systematically shelled the load-bearing pillars. As much as 80% of the residential area had been destroyed.
Several months after the blockade was lifted, people who come to look for personal items in the rubble of their homes are still finding the remains of bodies. Atrocities were reported to have taken place during the 79 days of complete isolation, in particular so-called ‘basements of barbarism’. In two documented cases, around 30 people were trapped in buildings and bombarded for days, sometimes weeks. The Turkish forces stopped aid from getting through, leaving the injured to die. After these operations, only charred bodies were found, including those of children. Relatives of the victims had to provide DNA samples for identification and were then handed the remains in a plastic bag: ‘Five kilos of bone and burned flesh’, said a dazed young man of 17, speaking of his father.
Entering a basement on BostancÄ± Road, still accessible on 24 March, the smell of death lingered and the air was unbreathable. Marks on the floor outlined the shape of a body; there was what looked like a piece of bone from a child, forgotten in the ashes. This will not become a memorial site — since our visit it has been demolished. If the plans for urban transformation announced by the authorities are implemented, all of these cellars and other evidence that could prove war crimes were committed will be removed by bulldozers.
The charity Rojava Solidarity, which brings together volunteers from all over the Kurdish southeast to help the people of Rojava (the name given to Syria’s Kurdish enclaves), had been active in Kobane. It intervened in Turkey and was able to get in to Cizre on 9 March, a week after the blockade was lifted; its priority was to distribute supplies from an abandoned warehouse a few streets away from Cudi. It was supported by progressive militants from western Turkey fighting against the authoritarian drift of the government, and by others from Rojava.
Ferid B, whose face had been severely damaged by shrapnel, told members of the charity about the first ‘dirty war’ between the army and the Kurdish forces in the 1990s. He spent years in prison for his involvement with the PKK and read many books on the history of the French Revolution. ‘I don’t know if France had a revolution of the people or a revolution of the bourgeoisie. But here in Kurdistan we came to understand that revolution needed reform. Kurdish democracy is feminist, ecologist and based on local autonomy. This is why they drag the tortured bodies of our women through the streets, destroy our environment and arrest our mayors.’
The legacies of this new ‘dirty war’, with its collective punishments under the cover of curfews, are a distraught population, and a greater gulf between the Kurdish southeast and the rest of Turkey.