Journalist // Brussels

State scorched earth


State cracks down as Kurds fear return to Scorched earth

This article was published in the Independent on 25 August 2015, but has since disappeared from the website for unknown reasons. Here is the piece in full: 


25 AUGUST 2015

TUNCELI PROVINCE - The roads into the mountains of Tunceli are lined with burnt-down houses and abandoned schools, remnants of a conflict many here had hoped to leave behind.

In its decades-long war against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish state forced thousands to leave the isolated province. Only since a ceasefire was declared in 2013 have Tunceli’s residents begun to return from exile.

Now the threat to the two-year peace process from Turkey’s campaign of air strikes against the PKK has left many in Tunceli fearing a return to the dark days of the 1990s, when soldiers set forests ablaze and burnt entire villages to the ground to flush out the guerrillas.

“In 1994, they told us to leave and said if you don’t, you will burn with your houses. It may happen again. I’m afraid it may,” said Hatun, 63, a seasonal worker tending to her orchard and cow in the eastern mountains of Tunceli. 

Hatun said she had been warned in recent weeks to leave the area or risk losing her life. Since the beginning of August, guerrillas have attacked trucks and military vehicles on the road into the province and fired on helicopters and army barracks. The military have retaliated by bombing their hideouts in Tunceli’s mountains, which serve as a base for the PKK.

The renewed violence began in July, when an Isis-affiliated suicide bomber killed 32 activists in the border town of Suruc. Kurdish militants who believe Ankara supports Isis in its fight against the Kurdish forces in Syria, executed two policemen in retaliation.

The real test to the ceasefire came on 24 July, as the Turkish government began bombing PKK bases in northern Iraq, and the guerrillas resumed attacking Turkey’s security forces.

Last week, governors of provinces across the south-east began declaring temporary “security zones” in regions where they suspected PKK activity. In Tunceli, the governor declared a total of 14 zones covering roughly one fifth of the province.

“In those areas, no one can enter or leave after 5pm. If they go out they could be shot,” said Celaleddin Polat, the mayor of Hozat, a region in Tunceli where two security zones have been declared. “The state made people sign these documents, saying we will take no responsibility.”

According to the documents, the zones are “primarily to ensure the security of our citizens’ lives and property”, but many see a more sinister motive, fearing renewed forced evacuations.

Ali Riza Guder, the head of the local branch of the main opposition CHP, disagrees. “This is not forced displacement, it’s a temporary security measure,” he said. “But I doubt declaring 14 security zones is necessary and it’s definitively not proportionate.”

In Tunceli, trust in the state has been low since a local uprising against the government was brutally suppressed in 1938, when troops and bombings killed as many as 70,000 people.

In June’s elections, Tunceli’s voters gave a 60 per cent vote share to the new leftistpro-Kurdish HDP, whose gains contributed to Erdogan’s biggest ever election loss. Having failed to form a coalition since, Erdogan has now called new elections. Observers suspect renewed tensions with the PKK are an effort to curb electoral support for Kurds.

Some of the villagers in Tunceli see the PKK as their protectors. “If they finish the guerrilla movement, we will have to leave. If the guerrillas put down their guns, the state will finish us,” said a village headman in the eastern countryside of Tunceli.

His village, a small collection of colourful houses, has only been rebuilt in the past four years. The broken walls of the old village are a constant reminder of the state’s power. The 600-year-old village was forcibly evacuated and burnt in 1994. Of the 300 residents, only 20 returned.

“There is fear all around,” said the headman, who asked to remain anonymous. He, too, was asked to sign the governor’s document.

“In the 1990s, we were threatened. Now it’s different. They let us know so that when they do something, when they burn a place or kill people, they will not be responsible,” he said. “They will say we warned you.” 

“Ten years ago, we didn’t know if we wanted peace or war,” said Huseyin Tunc, a municipal employee in Tunceli. “Today, people don’t want anything except peace.”