Abdullah Demirbas told his two sons that Turkey’s Kurds should claim their rights through politics, not war. One agreed, and is preparing to start compulsory service in Turkey’s army. The other didn’t, and fled to the mountains to join militants fighting against it.
“When warplanes flew sorties over our house, my wife prayed until the morning,” fearing for the safety of their younger son as Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK bases came under Turkish bombardment, Demirbas said. Baran, 20, joined the group four years ago, according to Demirbas, mayor of a district in Turkey’s main Kurdish city, Diyarbakir. “He said results can only be achieved through arms. My other son is a teacher and he believes in politics, like me.”
A peace initiative is under way that may test both arguments. Among Kurds and within Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, momentum is swinging toward a political solution. The conflict has killed almost 40,000 people and cost more than $300 billion over three decades, according to government figures, as the PKK fought for autonomy in the largely Kurdish southeast. Erdogan’s past efforts to end it foundered, first amid a nationalist backlash in 2009 against what were seen as victory celebrations by the PKK, and then when a bombing raid near the Iraq border in 2011 killed more than 30 Kurdish civilians mistaken for PKK fighters.
Erdogan has confirmed contacts with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, a breakthrough for a country that once directed media to refer to him as “the baby-killer,” and classifies the group as terrorists, as do the U.S. and European Union.
The Peace and Democracy Party, the main legal Kurdish group which Demirbas represents, said yesterday that the initiative has raised “high expectations.” It comes as many Syrian Kurds seek greater autonomy after the fall of Bashar al-Assad while Kurds in northern Iraq, who are already largely self-governing, engage in a tense standoff with the Baghdad government over oil revenue.
Success would “liberate Turkey to have a more effective hand in the neighborhood, and demonstrate to a multi-sectarian Middle East the ways to accommodate religious and ethnic diversity,” said Fadi Hakura, an analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London. “That’s a powerful message.”
The murder of three Kurdish women linked to the PKK, one a founder of the group, in Paris last week showed the dangers ahead for the peace process. Their funeral ceremony in Diyarbakir today may pose another challenge.
Tens of thousands of Kurds gathered in a field in Diyarbakir’s Batikent suburb. Most were wearing white scarves as a peace symbol, as urged by the city’s mayor, Osman Baydemir. The coffins, draped with the PKK’s colors, yellow, green and red, were brought by funeral cars decorated with red carnations. In the crowd, people flashed victory signs and chanted a PKK marching song in praise of the armed militants. “No winners from war, no losers in peace,” one banner read.
A police helicopter hovered above and hundreds of police in riot gear waited nearby with dozens of armored cars. The headquarters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was placed under armed guard.
There were no initial signs of trouble as the crowd dispersed after the ceremony. Authorities had warned that PKK elements opposed to reconciliation may attempt to provoke violence. Ocalan, in an appeal issued via his brother Mehmet, called for “common sense,” according to Milliyet daily.
Diyarbakir’s 1.5 million population includes at least 250,000 Kurds who were forced out of their villages in an army campaign in the 1990s.
In that decade, when the war was at its height, Turkey spent an average 3.9 percent of gross domestic product on the military, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The conflict eased after Ocalan’s capture in 1999. Under Erdogan’s government in the eight years through 2010 the figure was 2.6 percent, in line with the global average at the end of that period, according to SIPRI. Fighting flared up again last year, when more than 700 people were killed.
Speeches by Erdogan and Selahattin Demirtas, co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, showed the gap the two sides still have to close.
The premier said yesterday that military operations against the PKK won’t be put on hold during talks, and will continue until the group disarms. Demirtas said such attacks may sabotage a fragile process, and accused the government of lacking a roadmap for meeting Kurdish demands. Those include the right to education in Kurdish, and the release of Ocalan and thousands of other prisoners.
Today, he told the crowd in Diyarbakir that “Kurdish people are ready for peace,” and challenged Erdogan to act.
“What is the assurance of the Turkish government?” Demirtas said. “It must take a concrete step, if it wants to bury the mentality of war in these lands, instead of young bodies.”
Earlier in his premiership, Erdogan raised expectations in the southeast by removing some restrictions on the Kurdish language in education and media, part of a promised “opening” to an ethnic group that accounts for as much as 20 percent of Turkey’s 75 million people.
Until the latest initiative, the government had been taking a harder line. About 8,000 people are still in detention on charges of belonging to the PKK’s urban arm.
The PKK’s military commander, Murat Karayilan, said “no one should expect a quick solution,” and that the group won’t be fooled by offers of anything short of “autonomy,” the Kurdish Firat News Agency reported Jan. 4.
An accord with the PKK would remove one source of tension between Turkey and the Kurds who control northern Iraq. Turkey is seeking to import more of their oil and develop rail links.
Genel Energy Plc, the largest oil producer in Iraqi Kurdistan, started trucking crude to Turkey last week under a barter deal. For the Iraqi Kurds, locked in a dispute with the Baghdad government and seeking to cement their autonomy, Turkey offers a potential export route.
Turkey has blamed Iraqi Kurdish leaders for tolerating the PKK’s presence there. The group’s bases, in the high and rugged terrain where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet, are regularly bombed by Turkish jets.
Those are the kind of raids, Kurdish mayor Demirbas says, that make his family nervous, thinking of their son in the mountains. “There have been many nights that we didn’t sleep at all,” he said. “At least I didn’t receive any bad news.”
Minutes after he spoke by phone, several Turkish F-16 jets buzzed over Diyarbakir, heading for the Iraqi border.