A report from behind the lines, as the PKK resist a ferocious government campaign to crush their uprising.
Cizre, Turkey – The streets here are almost desolate, except for the armored personnel carriers that patrol this war-wrecked Kurdish city. The few children who have recently returned or withstood two and a half months of curfew and intense fighting kick around a ball, while their parents salvage the remnants of their homes, scorched black and blown apart by intense shelling. Pavement ripped up by tank tracks is pocked with craters where Kurdish rebels detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against their enemy. Pain and suffering are etched on the faces of survivors, who now live under the close surveillance of an invading army.
This is not Syria, nor is it Iraq. It is Turkey, America’s NATO partner, now in the throes of a rapidly expanding war against its Kurdish population in the country’s southeast. Lazar Simeonov and I are the first foreign journalists to pass through the ring of steel that surrounds Cizre since Turkish government forces started a military campaign last year to crush an uprising by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Checkpoints surrounding the city prevent access to almost everyone but local residents, and police thoroughly search anyone entering. We observe heavily armed special forces as they search a pregnant woman trying to leave the city. She looks agonized and helpless, reclining on a stretcher, as the troops order her husband and young children out of the emergency ambulance for pat-downs as they sift through medical equipment in search of weapons.
Hundreds of civilians were killed before the military assault ended on February 11. Human-rights groups say government forces have carried out massacres of civilians and extrajudicial killings. However, according a Cankız Çevik, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (an Ankara-based organization that is recognized by Amnesty International, the Council of Europe, the Red Cross, and the UN for its documentation of human-rights violations and support for survivors of torture across Turkey), gathering accurate information has been hampered by the Turkish government. She says her organization’s forensic specialists have been denied access to autopsies and blocked from the city, which remains under curfew.
Cizre and the old city of Diyarbakir—the de facto capital of Turkish Kurdistan—have seen the most severe fighting in an urban rebellion that has spread across what Kurds call northern Kurdistan. It’s a homeland the Turkish government refuses to recognize. Nor does it guarantee national minority status for an ethnic group that makes up some 20 percent of the country’s population, concentrated in the southeast but also a large minority in Istanbul.
According to PKK fighters and commanders that The Nation spoke to behind barricades in the embattled city of Nuysabin, on Turkey’s border with Syria, it was the government’s unwillingness to accept national minority rights during peace negotiations nine months ago that led to the collapse of talks. They say this new war—the latest phase in a three-decade conflict—will expand, and they vow that the PKK will move its guerrillas into eastern, Kurdish-majority cities in the coming months while also bringing the war to the country’s major metropolises, like Istanbul.
Children playing in front of their damaged house in Cizre. Lazar Simeonov
The government claims that it’s engaged in a war against terrorists who are destabilizing the country. Indeed, the government lists the PKK as a terrorist organization, as do the European Union and the United States. It’s clear that the government granted us access to Cizre in the hope that we would see the war through its eyes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has little interest in discussing Kurdish demands for rights and autonomy. An hour after Turkish police violently broke up a demonstration we covered in Diyarbakir, a local AKP representative canceled our scheduled interview.
Passing through a checkpoint in Cizre, where soldiers wearing balaclavas and carrying submachine guns hold up residents for hours, the commander in charge is hesitant about giving us access.
“If we don’t let them in to see what things look like, they will only hear the PKK propaganda,” Samih Deniz, a representative from the prime minister’s press office who coordinated our visit, tells the commander, who finally relents, though he insists on an armored police escort. They follow us closely, trying to direct our interviews and monitor the photos we take.
“Smile,” the cops instruct terrified Kurdish residents standing in front of their battered homes and shops as Simeonov snaps photos. “You see what the terrorists did here,” Deniz tells me as I walk through a second-floor room of a house with a huge hole in the wall, one clearly caused by a government tank shell. “Look at this destruction they cause,” he adds, in the charred room where heat from the blast had melted the shattered glass.
Under fear of reprisal from these occupying forces, the residents, whenever they’re in earshot of Deniz or the police, say only that they are trapped between the PKK and government forces. It’s only after Simeonov and I split up and lose our escorts on the rubble-filled side streets that we start to hear the real stories from survivors of a merciless government onslaught.
“Kurdish people are fighting for our rights, and Turkey is trying to finish us off,” says 53-year-old Ramazon Sakci as he stands in the garden of his home, which is riddled with bullet holes. His house is in better condition than most—its walls are intact, while his neighbors’ homes have been blown apart. Sakci hid with his 12 children in his basement during the 10 days of bombardment before they were finally able to leave.
“Turkey may give us [Turkish] ID cards, but they attack us all because we are Kurds,” he adds, accusing the Turkish government of collective punishment intended to suppress the community’s political demands.
As he vents his frustration, we hear the rumble of armored personnel carriers patrolling the adjacent main road. The smell of death is everywhere, three weeks after the end of fighting. Residents describe how the military first surrounded them with tanks in the mountains overlooking the city, then rained shells down on them from all directions. After weeks of bombardment, police special forces and soldiers entered the city, going house to house.
“Where is America?” fumes a middle-aged woman with a traditional white head scarf. She declines to give her name, fearing reprisal, and lashes out at the United States’ silence regarding its NATO ally’s treatment of the Kurds.
Surrounded by neighbors on a street corner, she describes bloody, close-quarter combat. Rebels had punched holes in the upper-level apartments to provide firing positions against government forces. “We lost 21 people in this street to army snipers,” she says, pointing to the high ground overlooking the neighborhood. She can only see a future of more intense fighting. “Our children now grow up with feelings of revenge.”
A sense of betrayal is common among Cizre’s survivors, who want to know why the West supports the Kurdish rebels in Syria but calls their allies in Turkey terrorists, even though they have the same leader and ideology.
The buildings in Cizre show the intensity of the fighting that took place. Lazar Simeonov
“All we hear is Kobani, Kobani, Kobani; what about Cizre?” says Zahila Sahin, 50, referring to the Syrian Kurdish city whose defenders were celebrated around the world in 2014-15—and supported by Western airpower—as they withstood a months-long siege by the Islamic State, or ISIS. As she drinks tea with her husband in the front yard of their shrapnel-filled house, Sahin condemns as hypocrisy the US policy of supporting Kurds when fighting for their rights against ISIS but not when doing the same against Turkey.
According to Çevik of the Human Rights Foundation, at least 92 civilians were killed in this town of 132,000 between December 14, when the curfew began, and February 11. Casualty numbers between February 5 and 11 have not been fully calculated, but she says that at least 178 additional people were killed in three basements where people took shelter during the security forces’ final advance at that time. It’s unclear if they were hit with government shells, grenades, or rockets, but the bodies were burned so badly, Çevik says, that 101 of them have still not been identified.
The government claims they were all PKK fighters, but Çevik disputes this, saying, “Maybe just one or two of those killed in the basement were militants.” The Human Rights Foundation has called it a massacre. “[Turkish security forces] imposed the curfew on Cizre. They are responsible for what happened inside it,” she says bluntly over the phone from her Ankara office.
The gruesome way these 178 people were killed has outraged Turkey’s Kurds. In neighborhoods now filled with barricades in the border town of Nusaybin, “Revenge for Cizre” is scrawled on the walls.
Some parts of Cizre have been heavily shelled by the Turkish army. Lazar Simeonov
Nusaybin, a PKK guerrilla stronghold, a base for hit-and-run attacks on Turkish security forces, has been a frequent victim of government curfews since the peace process broke down in July. Just outside the bustling downtown of this small city, which is only a few miles from Syria, barricades of paving stones in working-class neighborhoods block the streets. Multicolored blankets with slits for wind to pass through are strung between balconies to block the view of government snipers. Drones circle overhead.
Teenage boys stand on the corners, serving as scouts for rebels and delivering messages on foot to relay information about suspicious activity. Nothing here is communicated by cellphone.
Tensions are running high when we arrive in the city. Two weeks earlier, the PKK kidnapped and then released three Turkish journalists. Just two days before our visit, rebels launched a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack on police special forces, killing one officer and wounding two others. Dubbed the Civil Protection Units (YPS), these PKK militias are modeled on the US-backed Syrian Kurdish armed wing, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.
At first, Nusaybin seems like any other Kurdish municipality in Turkey. Police stations are protected behind sandbags and reinforced walls, while up-armored police and military vehicles are parked outside, but the downtown cafés and shops are bustling with midday commerce. As we arrive for a meeting with the legally recognized Democratic Regions Party (DBP), a left-leaning organization representing Kurds at the municipal level, the pressure from the crackdown becomes clear. Turkish police had come to the DBP offices 15 minutes ahead of us and arrested the local party cochair, Zinet Algoin. Our meeting is canceled.
Turkey’s targeting of legally recognized Kurdish parties is nothing new. Nationally organized Kurdish parties have been banned on several occasions, accused of being fronts for the PKK. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a coalition of Turkish socialist and Kurdish parties formed out of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, is regularly accused by the government of advocating terrorism.
A small crowd has gathered outside the shuttered storefront office, and local residents chatter excitedly, anxiety etched on their faces. Nearby, we meet a local activist from the embattled Yenisehir neighborhood. He leads us out of the downtown and through a network of side streets, walking at a brisk pace and constantly looking over his shoulder. “Take off your sunglasses,” he instructs me. “You stick out as foreign.”
We cross a parking lot edged with rubble and mounds of dirt and encounter a pimply-faced teenager. He looks at us for a second, flashes a grin, and nods in our direction. We continue into a maze of barricaded streets while the kid slips away to let the fighters know of our arrival.
Old women hang their laundry under the cover of the concealing blankets while kids play in the dirt street under a cloudless sky. Only a few cobblestones are now left on the roads and sidewalks between barricades. It’s as if this Kurdish community has put into practice a famous slogan from the 1968 Paris revolt—“Beneath the paving stones, the beach.”
On these near-empty roads where surveillance drones circle overhead, it seems beyond coincidence when we encounter the same three-person construction crew carrying a large drill on four separate occasions. Indeed, it turns out they are PKK fighters observing our movements. Eventually, they introduce themselves and lead us to a house that serves as their operations center.
Posters of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan are plastered on the living-room wall next to pictures of fallen guerrillas from the neighborhood. In the back garden, young men and women in green fatigues and cargo pants sit around, drink tea, and watch their walkie-talkies. The PKK puts great focus on gender parity and an even greater propaganda emphasis on the feminist nature of its struggle.
Mustafa, who doesn’t give his real name, pulls out chairs on the porch and insists we sit down for tea. “First we have tea, then we will take you to the commander,” says the 26-year-old with a mustache bushy enough to send an envious Stalin spinning in his grave.
“We can’t leave the neighborhood, because it’s too risky,” he says, donning a vest and green cargoes. Still, he points out that police forces haven’t attempted to raid the community in two months. He says their biggest problem is not the surveillance drones but police snipers.
Mustafa then cuts his explanation short and disappears into the house, reappearing moments later with a double-barreled shotgun. Stepping into the street and taking aim at the white dot buzzing in the sky, he fires. But the drone is far out of range. He then grabs two more shells, opens the barrel, and stuffs them inside. As he takes careful aim again, I can’t seem to shake the image of him as a frustrated kid playing duck hunt on the original Nintendo. But this is no video game. Once again he fires, still too far out of range. “These drones just take pictures,” he reassures me.
We finish our tea and are then led by a different guide through another maze of barricaded streets where “PKK” and “YPS” are scrawled on the walls. Jumping into the back of an unmarked white van, we are driven across town to the neighborhood of Firat, which has also joined the rebellion. The bridge connecting the district to the city center is partially blown up; a gas truck riddled with bullets has become a barricade on the other side. “They blew up the truck when security forces tried to invade the other day,” our guide says, referring to PKK guerrillas. We had also seen blown-up trucks in many areas of intense fighting in Cizre; these makeshift bombs are a common weapon deployed against government forces.
Navigating yet another network of dirt roads and cobblestone barricades, we reach the commander’s post. Going by the nom de guerre Botan Dersim, the tall, thin 40-year-old guerrilla leader shows us into a locked back room with large, glossy posters of martyrs on the walls. He has come down from the PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains, across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan, to train and organize local YPS volunteers.
When negotiations fell apart last year, Turkey began a bombing campaign against this irregular army’s cross-border havens, targeting their bases in the mountains. (As a first step in the talks in early 2015, the PKK had recalled its fighters from Turkey to Qandil, from where they had also been deploying to fight ISIS’s advance on the northern Iraqi front lines in Sinjar and near Kirkuk. PKK forces not only fought ISIS but trained the besieged Yazidis of northwestern Iraq to do so as well.)
Dersim blames Erdogan for the collapse of the peace process, pointing to the Turkish president’s refusal to recognize a distinct national status for the Kurds. Dersim says the aim of the PKK’s current offensive is to create the conditions for a political solution, not to move toward sovereignty.
“The [negotiation] table is important, but for it to work, we have to get rights [enshrined] in the Constitution,” he contends, arguing that the PKK’s goal is to end Turkish police control of Kurdish communities and gain political and cultural autonomy. “We are not fighting to replace the Turkish state; we are fighting for rights and recognition,” he adds, citing Ocalan’s recent calls for local democratic control—much as the Kurdish cantons in northern Syria have put in place. “It’s OK if there are Turkish soldiers on the border, but not their police in our streets,” he insists.
Abdullah Ocalan has achieved a status among Kurds much like that of Nelson Mandela. A political theorist who first pursued a Marxist national liberation struggle uniting the Kurds across four countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran), he cofounded the PKK in 1978, leading the movement in a protracted and bloody guerrilla resistance in the 1980s and ’90s, until his capture in 1999. Ocalan’s original death sentence was commuted, and he officially abandoned Marxism and the goal of independence before last year’s peace talks. He adopted the philosophy of the late American anarchist Murray Bookchin, developing a theory of loosely federated Kurdish communities that would not necessarily cause the breakup of Turkey’s national territory. Ocalan has become a symbol of a struggle that crosses many of the divides in Kurdish national politics. While there are large differences among Kurdish national movements, Ocalan as a figure stands above them.
For Dersim, real negotiations can only begin when Ocalan is released from his island prison and leads the Kurds at the negotiating table. Until then, Dersim promises an expanded war. He contends that thousands of guerrillas will soon be coming down from the Qandil Mountains and fanning out across southeastern Turkey. “We expect heavy clashes across northern Kurdistan in the spring. There will also be clashes in Turkish metropolises,” Dersim insists.
Dersim, who claims there are hundreds of fighters in Nusaybin, says the YPS militia primarily uses RPGs, AK-47s, and IEDs against Turkish government forces. He claims the PKK has killed hundreds of Turkish soldiers already; official Turkish numbers are considerably lower. He also implies the PKK has taken heavy losses, but he won’t give numbers. Along with lots of new recruits and the return of fighters from Qandil, he says, they have received an additional boost from Turkish Kurds who fought in Syria alongside the YPG against ISIS. Those battle-hardened troops are now returning to join the resistance in Turkey.
The war in Syria has had a profound military and political impact on Turkey. On February 17, a PKK splinter group carried out a bombing in Ankara that killed 27 Turkish soldiers and one civilian. Turkey, quick to blame not only the PKK but also its Syrian sisters in the YPG, began shelling Kurdish positions across the border in the Syrian province of Aleppo, as the YPG advanced amid the chaos created by Russian bombing.
Kurds blame Turkey for not doing enough to combat ISIS, accusing Ankara of giving the jihadists leeway to attack them. They also generally hold Turkey responsible for the ISIS bombing last July in the town of Suruc, which killed 33 people, mostly young leftist students who were meeting there to help rebuild the Syrian city of Kobani, just across the border.
That attack put the final nail in the coffin of an already moribund peace process. The PKK avenged the blast with an attack on Turkish police, killing two officers. The Turkish government responded with a bombing campaign in northern Iraq and Syria that primarily targeted the PKK—although Ankara claimed it was equally targeting ISIS. The offensive was accompanied by mass arrests that were also supposedly targeting the PKK and ISIS but in fact focused on Kurdish civilians and banned left-wing organizations. Kurds again lashed out at Turkey after an ISIS bombing in Ankara last October of a pro-Kurdish and pro-peace demonstration led by the HDP; 102 civilians died.
When peace talks began last April, there was much optimism in the Kurdish community. The HDP had positioned itself as the central broker between the PKK and the government. Its leaders met with Ocalan in jail and carried his demands to Erdogan.
However, that all started to change after the parliamentary elections last June, when the HDP did better than many expected, winning 13 percent of the vote, well over the heightened 10 percent threshold that most believe was intended to block them from participation in Parliament. The HDP’s success denied Erdogan’s AKP a majority.
“In the June elections the HDP was successful, but Erdogan saw that and went on a war footing,” says Omer Onen, cochair of the Diyarbakir branch of the party. He accuses Erdogan and his party of deliberately sabotaging the talks and cracking down across the southeast, using war with the Kurds to raise tensions and change the parliamentary poll results. As conflict raged throughout the summer and fall, the AKP delayed forming a government. After another vote was held in November, the AKP regained its majority.
Now the HDP has found itself on the sidelines in both Kurdish and Turkish politics. “We tried to stop the PKK from its threats to expand the conflict,” says Gulsen Ozer, the other regional party cochair. “If this war expands, we will have no role to play,” she adds.
According to Ercan Baran, an organizer in Diyarbakir with DISK, a large Kurdish-majority labor union, the hope that infused the HDP’s vision of the peace process is evaporating. “Kurds saw a place for themselves in a new, democratic vision of Turkey,” he says, sitting in his living room. “But with the way that this has hit everyone, people increasingly can’t see themselves reconciling with Turkey.”
Now, on the streets of the de facto Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir, the example the YPG has set of liberating Kurdish territory by force in Syria is increasingly popular. Turkey’s siege and bombardment of the district of Sur, lasting more than 90 days, has become a driving force in this changing attitude. Reports of civilians trapped by the fighting and stories of women fighters killed in action being stripped naked and left in the streets to rot for weeks have incensed the population. The few dozen guerrillas still fighting to hold off Turkish security forces have become a symbol of inspiration to many Kurds.
The shelling of Sur can be heard from around the city, and helicopters constantly circle overhead, while the large military and police barracks in the heart of the city are a constant reminder of life under occupation.
Inside Sur, the staging area for the Turkish offensive is filled with military vehicles. Next to the bombed-out buildings of this UNESCO world heritage site, recaptured buildings are draped in massive Turkish flags.
Alongside their military campaign, security forces have invited the media to observe the formation of a two-hour humanitarian corridor to allow civilians and the wounded to leave. Placing ambulances in front of their armored vehicles, the authorities announce over loudspeakers that they will provide assistance to anyone wanting to escape the fighting.
Not a single person emerges. The residents of Sur look on helplessly behind police barricades about 50 yards away. “This is all theater,” a woman in her 40s says of this window of reprieve. “Our children have been in there for 90 days.”
An armored Humvee pans its rooftop machine gun menacingly across the crowd. When the security forces notice me talking to people behind the barricade, they start screaming frantically and order me to go look at the empty ambulance. “This will be the last time we create this corridor,” a government press official says as the clock winds down. “After this, the final push will begin.”
Thousands take to the streets of Diyarbakir the next day to demand that security forces end the siege and create an extended humanitarian opening. But it’s not just those caught up in the fighting who feel the repression. Throughout the city, water cannon and APCs patrol the streets, constantly on the alert for protests, which invariably end with tear gas barrages and high-pressure water blasts. Kurdish journalists are routinely arrested and jailed for writing critically about the government or security forces. Thirty of them are currently behind bars.
As people gather in a park and on the street next to it, riot police move in on both sides. As if repeating a choreographed chain of events, middle-aged women, dubbed “the mothers of peace,” form a barrier between young people and the police. “Everywhere is Sur, everywhere is revolution!” the crowd chants, followed by calls of “The PKK is the people, this is the people!” Chants like these are usually followed by attacks on the protesters. As a result, fewer young people see political action as a path to achieving their rights.
“We don’t believe in this fake peace process anymore,” says 25-year-old Yeter, who declines to give her full name because she worries about future police harassment. Wearing a dress with bright traditional Kurdish colors, she expresses the frustration, disillusionment, and determination of a generation that grew up with war and has been let down by failed negotiations. “I believe in both the armed and the popular struggle together,” she says, pointing to the YPG’s success in Syria as her main source of inspiration for the future of the struggle in Turkey.
Interestingly, she speaks in Turkish. Most of this generation grew up when the Kurdish language was banned, students were forbidden to speak it in school, and parents were discouraged from teaching it to their kids. While the ban has been lifted since the end of military rule, Kurdish is still not taught in public schools, and no state resources are spent on its promotion. Although Kurdish is more common in smaller communities, in Diyarbakir, almost all the signs are in Turkish, even though the city is almost entirely Kurdish. Most of the young people who do speak Kurdish have learned it as a second language, and study it as part of their cultural and political activism.
As the speeches wind down, the police come on the loudspeakers. “We have given you time for your democratic expression,” a booming voice echoes. “Now it’s time for you to go home.” No sooner is the announcement made than the crowd is beset with volleys of tear gas and water cannon laced with Mace.
Yet it is what happens to those detained that opens a window into the totality of the repression. According to Raci Bilici, chairperson of the Human Rights Association based in Diyarbakir, torture and beatings are on the rise again. He describes a routine police practice of beating arrested Kurds on the floor of armored vehicles all the way to the interrogation centers. Since the beginning of this round of conflict, he says, his organization has documented 101 cases of torture, and he adds that many don’t report it because they fear additional reprisal from the state.
Amid the omnipresence of war and repression, it is common to hear Kurds compare their current situation with the violence of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Turkey carried out a brutal counterinsurgency in the countryside, where it torched an estimate 2,400 villages. Those displaced ended up mostly moving into the working-class neighborhoods of Kurdish cities, which were largely spared from the violence in that round of fighting.
This new battle is primarily urban and fought by the children of those who fled the countryside. It’s a story exemplified in the life of Mahmut Oruc, a 23-year-old guerrilla killed in Sur. His older sister, 33-year-old Selvinaz Coban, is part of a family that has gone on a hunger strike and keeps a constant vigil in a downtown Diyarbakir park to demand the return of their loved one’s remains.
“In our village, he saw people dragged out of their homes and beaten in the streets,” she says, reflecting on what set her brother on the path to armed struggle. “We used to hear the screams of those taken to the nearby army base and tortured.”
Coban talks about how the exploitation and poverty experienced by Kurdish workers and the discrimination against Kurdish students led her brother to join the PKK when he was 17.
“We tried dialogue during the peace process, we tried to find a middle way,” she says, exasperated. “But the other side always wanted to assert their power. I no longer believe in peace.”