Friday, January 14, 2000

Turks Find It in Nation's Interest to Befriend Foe
Conflict: About-face on Kurds, fostered by gains against rebels and by EU aspirations, fuels hopes of peace.

By AMBERIN ZAMAN, Special to The Los Angeles Times

     DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- "Happy is he who is a Turk," the nationalist slogan etched across bleak hillsides and grim police stations in this largely Kurdish province, is being replaced by a more inclusive motto: "This country belongs to us all."
     Buoyed by military successes against Kurdish separatists and the capture last year of their elusive leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the Turkish government has launched a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the country's alienated Kurdish minority. Security officials who once scowled and pointed their guns are now more likely to smile politely when asking civilians to show their identity cards. Kurdish villagers, uprooted by 15 years of fighting that has claimed more than 30,000 lives, are being allowed to return home.
     A mood of hope is palpable in Diyarbakir, would-be capital of the would-be Kurdish state that Ocalan's Kurdistan Workers Party has long fought to carve out of southeastern Turkey.
     At an art gallery in the city's ancient gray fortress, 21-year-old university student Sefik Ozcan greets visitors in front of his work, which shows fluttering white doves set against a deep blue background. It is titled "Peace."
     Outside, Hasan Caglar, a farmer in traditional baggy trousers held up by a checkered cummerbund, negotiated a cart full of squawking chickens through heavy traffic. "I am 67 years old, and it's the first time I am being treated like a human being," he said. "Tell me, will it last?"
     The answer depends on how Turkish leaders manage what many agree is their best opportunity to settle the long-running conflict. A peaceful outcome could advance Turkey's dream of joining the European Union and serve as a model for Kurdish minorities' relations with regimes in Iran, Iraq and Syria.
     Turkey's 12 million Kurds make up about one-fifth of the population. The Kurdish rebellion is the biggest challenge yet to the Turkish republic's longtime ideology that demands assimilation by the country's ethnic minorities.
     Since Kemal Ataturk founded the republic in 1923, Kurds have been fighting on and off for an independent Kurdistan in a mountainous region that extends from Turkey into parts of the same three neighboring Mideast states. An additional estimated 11 million Kurds live in those countries.
     The government's hearts-and-minds campaign has gathered pace in recent weeks, after European Union leaders on Dec. 10 invited Turkey to start lengthy negotiations to join the bloc. Days after that decision, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem called for easing restrictions on broadcasting in the Kurdish language.
     Mesut Yilmaz, a former prime minister who shares power in Turkey's ruling coalition as head of the Motherland Party, has urged an end to repressive "emergency rule" in five Kurdish provinces. Mothers of slain Kurdish guerrillas showered Yilmaz with white carnations as he told 2,000 Kurds at the City Hall here: "Turks and Kurds . . . we deserve more freedom."
     A once-vengeful Turkish public has reacted calmly to recent statements by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit that Turkey cannot hang Ocalan if it wants to join the EU, which opposes capital punishment. Turkey put the execution, originally scheduled for June, on hold Wednesday to allow the European Court of Human Rights to review Ocalan's appeal.
     The nascent climate of peace here owes as much to the Kurdish leader's overtures from prison as it does to Turkey's military strength and EU aspirations. Since a court issued his death sentence last June, Ocalan has ordered his guerrillas to end their armed struggle and withdraw from Turkey to Iran and Iraq.
     Renouncing autonomy or independence as an "unrealistic" goal, Ocalan declared that recognition of expanded cultural rights, including public education in the Kurdish language, would be enough to satisfy his people.
     Ocalan persuaded 16 prominent followers based in Europe and Iraq to surrender to Turkish authorities during autumn, hoping to elicit concessions from the government.
     All 16 were arrested. The Turkish armed forces' high command has said it will not negotiate with "terrorists" and will keep battling Ocalan's fighters until "every last one is neutralized."
     Yet the commander in chief, Gen. Huseyin Kivrikoglu, said fighting in the Kurdish region has declined "by 90%" since the guerrillas began withdrawing. About 500 rebels remain in Turkey, he said, down from 10,000 in the early 1990s.
     "There has been a marked decline in terrorist activity," Cemil Serhatli, Diyarbakir province's new governor, said in an interview. "Still, we cannot say it has ended for good until they all turn themselves in with their weapons."
     Seated behind a large sign that reads, "Don't be afraid to speak the truth," the governor is part of a new corps of liberal-minded Turkish bureaucrats being deployed in the war-racked Kurdish region.
     In Kusdami, a farming village 30 miles northwest of here hugging the forbidding Simsim mountains, Serhatli's office is providing bricks and cement as war-displaced Kurds return to rebuild their homes.
     "I am a happy man, back on my soil and, Allah willing, for good," said Haci Gokcer, a weather-beaten farmer standing outside his new two-bedroom house.
     In the neighboring township of Hazro, young Kurdish women sit behind rows of looms weaving wool carpets with flowery patterns destined for export to Europe as part of a government-sponsored project to boost employment.
     "Until last year, all 17 schools in Hazro were shut down because of the violence," said Birhan Uslu, a town official. "They have been reopened. Tuition, books and uniforms are all free. We are trying to heal the wounds."
     According to parliament, at least 3,600 Kurdish villages were emptied and destroyed between 1990 and 1996, the peak of the rebellion. More than 500,000 Kurds became homeless. Government security forces expelled most of them because they either refused to join a state-financed militia known as the Village Guards or were suspected of having fed and sheltered the rebels.
     Those who refused to join the militias were frequently beaten, Western human rights groups have reported. Those who did join were targeted for death by the rebels, along with hundreds of teachers, engineers, postal workers and others they branded as "colonizing agents of the state."
     The government's policy of destroying villages eroded the guerrillas' logistical support but created pools of homeless villagers ripe for recruiting into the separatist ranks.
     Amid high expectations for peace, many Kurds are questioning whether the rebellion was worth it. The only concessions won in 15 years is the lifting in 1991 of a ban on speaking the Kurdish language in public and a growing official tolerance of selected Kurdish-language publications and recordings, which had been subject to a blanket ban.
     A clutch of Kurdish cultural foundations also is legal now. And Kurds are called "citizens of Kurdish origin" in official Turkish discourse, which once dismissed them as "mountain Turks."
     "Is this what my son went to the mountains and died for?" asked Havva Muminoglu, a gaunt Kurdish woman, as she lined up at a state-run soup kitchen here.
     "The reward for such sacrifice should have been independence," said Mohammed Salman, a jeweler at the gold market. "Ocalan is a traitor, bargaining away the Kurds to save his own life."
     "We understand their emotions, but we need to be realistic," said Cezair Serin, mayor of Diyarbakir's Surici district. "Erecting new boundaries in today's world no longer makes sense."
     Ocalan's expulsion from his base in Syria under Turkish military threats, his futile search for asylum in Europe and his capture in Kenya last February, Serin added, "was a huge blow to the Kurdish movement . . . that exposed just how isolated we Kurds are."
     Serin and 38 other Kurdish mayors came to power in elections last April that many Kurds hailed as a step toward self-rule. But a vocal group of Kurdish intellectuals argues that the national government in Ankara still runs the Kurdish region with a heavy hand.
     Laws that in effect forbid free debate of the Kurdish issue remain in force. The largest pro-Kurdish daily, Ozgur Bakis, is banned in the five provinces under emergency rule, and distribution of two Kurdish magazines was recently halted. A Diyarbakir television station, Kanal 21, has been shut down for broadcasting music deemed to incite Kurdish separatism.
     Mustafa Ozer, chairman of the Diyarbakir Bar Assn., dismissed a government offer of amnesty for separatists who have not been involved in violence. Only an amnesty for all of the 3,000 to 5,000 guerrillas outside the country and the 10,000 separatists in Turkish jails, he said, can bring lasting peace.
     But proposals for a full amnesty and language rights face resistance from the far-right Nationalist Action Party, which shares power in Ecevit's government.
     Another pressing problem is a regional economy that suffers 75% unemployment and is still awaiting the multimillion-dollar investments that Ecevit promised during a visit here in October. Kurdish industrialists have called for breaking the power of the agas, a landowning elite whose exploitation of landless peasants over the centuries was a guerrilla grievance.
     "The choice for us Kurds would be to form a poor, landlocked country, or to work together with the Turks to become equal partners someday in a prosperous, fully democratic European state," said Bedrettin Karaboga, who leads a lobby for Kurdish industrialists. "Common sense, on both sides, has got to prevail."