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.
"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
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
"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
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
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