Kurdish farmers caught up in Turkey's scorched-earth anti-PKK offensive
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The victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 1 November’s election means that violence in the Kurdish-majority south-east of the country is unlikely to decline any time soon. It flared up again earlier this year when the government ended peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrilla movement and launched a military offensive, declaring "security zones" in sensitive areas. I visited one of them in Diyarbakir province on the day before the poll.
"Look around you!" says the man on the donkey. "You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land."
Faik is on his way to Diyarbakir city because his wife is ill. He’s riding a donkey, she’s walking, at least for this part of the journey.
He points at the scorched landscape in the shadow of mountains where the army and PKK fighters exchange fire recently.
The military then dropped incendiary bombs, destroying many local farmers’ livelihoods.
"We have nothing left - no land no vines, no straw to feed our animals, no more wheat," he declares.
"I have no work, my children don’t have work. I’ve four sons and none of them are working. We have no possessions. We’re looking for work. If you have any, employ us."
A military helicopter flies overhead. Faik tells us to stop pointing our microphones in the air in case the troops think we are aiming weapons at them.
The countryside for several kilometres around has been declared a security zone by the military, which is trying to hunt down PKK fighters, who have dug tunnels in which to hide beneath the farmland.
Although the PKK declared a truce shortly before Sunday’s election, the military didn’t stop its operations.
Mohammed, a local farmer, witnessed the latest fighting in the area.
"Two days ago they bombed the mountains 10 times," he recalls. "People went to see what had happened and the found the bodies of eight fighters. They picked up the bodies and they took them to the martyrs’ cemetery and buried them there. Twenty-four hours later the army arrived and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off after leaving."
The military haven’t been too fussy about the effects on the civilian population, perhaps in the assumption that they are all Kurds and probably support the PKK.
"Our children were so frightened they nearly fainted," Mohammed says. "We took them in our arms to calm them down and tried to take them to places where they wouldn’t hear anything."
Mohammed’s village, Sise – in reality a collection of farms scattered over a couple of square kilometres – has been the scene of military offensives against the PKK for three decades.
If the local people weren’t sympathetic to the guerrillas when they started, they are now.
Mohammed says he will vote for the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which is fighting for rights such as the education in the Kurdish language, autonomy and a peace deal with the PKK.
"I will vote HDP, I’m not afraid to say so. This party is our party and I’m going to vote for us. If we don’t vote for our party, nobody will!"
He advises us to go to the cemetery. There might be fighters up there, he says
At the cemetery a portakabin is being installed in a space cleared of the twisted metal that is lying on the ground above the graves.
The families of some of the PKK fighters whose white tombstones stand in neat rows on the side of a hill have been camping out here – human shields trying to prevent the military destroying their loved ones’ graves.
We are told to wait for a spokesperson – for whom is not specified – and soon a short, serious-looking young man arrives.
He takes us to the other side of the cemetery, insisting that we take no photographs of him and hesitating for some time before telling us to call him Agit.
But we can take photos of the ruin here … they are all that’s left of the mosque, destroyed by the military because they claimed that weapons were hidden inside.
"There was a four-day curfew throughout the region," Agit tells us. "Anyone that went outside was shot. They came to this cemetery which they fired heavy guns at. More than 10,000 soldiers were sent for this operation."
There are 228 graves here, the latest being those of the fighters killed the other day. Some of the graves name the place of death as Kobane, the Syrian town that Kurdish militias has seized from the Islamic State armed group.
"All the graves that you see here are the graves of fighters killed in this region and who were buried in mass graves or in land around police stations or garrisons. The families wanted to collect their children’s remains and bury them together. It’s local people who built this martyrs’ cemetery and brought the remains of their children together here."
Suspecting that Agit is not just a representative of the dead fighters’ relatives, we ask whether the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.
"That depends on the attitude of the AKP," he replies. "If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war."
Agit gives his age as 22. With just a short break, the war has been going on for all his life. How does he feel about that?
"There’s been war for years and years in this region," he says. "Now we know that we can’t solve this problem with weapons. Whether it’s soldiers or guerrillas, in the end it’s blood that’s spilt. We want this bloodletting to stop."
The village of Tepebasi is the home of an AKP candidate in the election and his uncle, a former AKP candidate who is standing against his nephew as an independent. There is also an HDP candidate, who is unlikely to win.
Tepebasi stands on the edge of a stunning gorge hanging over a reservoir formed from part of the river Tigris.
"Beautiful surroundings but no peace," comments Mehmet Bozkurt.
His brother, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is mayor and not a PKK sympathiser.
"In the 1990s there were a lot of terrorist attacks by the PKK in the centre of the village and in the nearby small ones," he tells us. "They did a lot of damage. They even kidnapped certain villagers, demanding a ransom. Between 1990 and 1992 10 people were killed."
People from neighbouring villages accused the people of Tepebasi of belonging to a government-sponsored militia, according to Bozkurt, and it is an island of AKP influence in a sea of Kurdish nationalism.
Mehmet Yasar claims to be neither for the PKK nor for the state.
"If you take the state’s side you can be kidnapped or harassed by the PKK and if you take the PKK’s side you can be jailed or harassed by the state," he says. "There’s a Kurdish proverb that says you should keep your mouth shut during the day and the doors shut at night."
The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children, several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife.
He sits outside his hillside home and contemplates the sun on the cliffs overlooking the Tigris. Two men transport a solar panel down the hill on the back of a donkey. We eat figs from the mayor's garden and drink bitter Turkish tea. And Turkey waits for peace.
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