Kurds see tide turning back toward repression

DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY — DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- When the Turkish government lifted its ban on the letter "W," it seemed like a breakthrough.

After decades of repression of Kurdish ethnic identity and a deadly war with separatist rebels, the Islamist-led government made moves toward democratic reform in recent years, part of Turkey's bid to improve its chances of joining the European Union.


Letters that appear in the Kurdish alphabet but not the Turkish one were no longer banned from print. Emergency military rule was lifted. The death penalty was abolished. Arrests and reports of torture declined.

But the tide began to turn, many Kurds argue, even before violent clashes between police and Kurdish protesters in late March left 13 civilians dead in the region's worst violence in more than a decade.


"Being Kurdish means you are a terrorist. That is how Turks see us," said Cemal Ceylan, 24, an unemployed Kurd with a third-grade education. He spoke between small glasses of tea at a coffeehouse in this rough city in southeast Turkey, his bitterness echoed by the young men around him.

Few of the men had jobs, they said as they slammed domino-like tiles against a metal table, absorbed in a game that whiles away their empty afternoons. Most live in cramped, tiny apartments in the slums that ring Diyarbakir.

The city has seen its population more than double in 15 years with the influx of rural Kurds, driven from their homes by the government's war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or military reprisals. Youths have been reared on stories of the flight, memories of burning villages, and decades of abuse and repression.

"There is a high percentage who have always felt themselves to be harassed and isolated. No money, no land, no luck," said Reyhan Yalcindag, an official with the local Human Rights Association. "People are reliving the trauma of the '90s and wondering now if it will be the same."

Their anger exploded in the March protests. The resulting violence, along with a renewed campaign by separatist guerrillas, is testing the Turkish government's commitment to reform.

A moderate Islamic nation, U.S. ally and member of NATO, Turkey has pledged greater democracy and respect for human rights to meet EU standards. But a rising tide of Turkish nationalism and the growing influence in government of Islamic conservatives have jeopardized the reforms and the EU bid.

The Kurdish question is widely seen as an important barometer for Turkey's performance. Eight months ago, Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to this city and gave a landmark speech, acknowledging past "mistakes" committed by Turkish authorities against Turkey's Kurdish minority.

But after the March clashes, which left an elderly man and four children dead, Erdogan vowed to crush Kurdish protests, warning darkly that Turkish security forces "will intervene against the pawns of terrorism, no matter if they are children or women."


By most accounts, there was provocation on all sides, with plenty of blame to go around. What is clear is the sense that the region has lost ground and hurtled backward.

Erdogan now refuses to talk to politicians from legally recognized Kurdish parties, and his government plans to toughen a terrorism law in ways some fear will impinge on civil liberties.

In early April, a veteran researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, in southeast Turkey to investigate claims of police abuse against Kurds, was detained by police and deported. Authorities contended that the researcher, a British national, did not have the proper visa, even though it was the same type of document he had used in 20 years of human rights work in Turkey.

Days later, a Turkish prosecutor probing the role of the military in fomenting unrest in Kurdish areas was fired after he issued an indictment implicating one of the army's top commanders.

"In the end, those who do not want calm in the region, who want conflict, they have been successful," said Diyarbakir's Kurdish mayor, Osman Baydemir. "The target was the Kurds, but also the EU reform process, the government democratization, the return to civilian life."

Baydemir said he was deeply disillusioned by the reversals and saw a powder keg of discontent in the city he governed, primed to explode again - or to swell the ranks of the guerrillas.


Angry, dejected young men vary on whether they want an independent Kurdish state - a subversive goal, as far as Ankara is concerned - or simply more recognition of their heritage. To Ankara's horror, some see the Kurds in neighboring Iraq, who enjoy relative autonomy, as a model and future partner.

An estimated 14 million Kurds live in Turkey, roughly 20 percent of its population. Successive Turkish governments have stamped down any expression of ethnic pride for generations as a way to curb separatist aspirations.

A critical turning point came in 1999, with the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the top commander of PKK separatists. From his jail cell, Ocalan ordered his followers to stop fighting. The PKK declared a cease-fire in a war that had claimed 30,000 lives since 1984, and most guerrillas retreated across the border into northern Iraq.

Peace prevailed, Kurdish-dominated cities were allowed to elect their own mayors, and in 2002 the government lifted a state of emergency that had been in place for 15 years. With an eye on joining the EU, Turkey finally allowed limited public use of the Kurdish language, including brief television broadcasts.

"I can finally use the 'W,'" Kurdish newspaper publisher Arif Aslan said. He continues to publish his newspaper, in the nearby city of Batman, in the Turkish language, because he would lose advertisers if he published in Kurdish, he says, and few Kurds read Kurdish. But he now freely prints the odd Kurdish-language headline.

But benefits have been slow to trickle down to ordinary Kurds. And some reforms have been so restricted as to raise questions about the sincerity of Turkish authorities in granting them.


After amending the Turkish constitution, Kurdish-language teaching finally was admitted but only in private schools that were financially out of reach to most Kurds.

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.