The Middle East Channel

The enduring frustration of Turkey's Kurds

"After these years of killings, what else can people feel but distrust?" asked rights campaigner Raci Bilici, who was trying to make himself heard over the rumble of a military helicopter flying low across the sky.

The ancient walls of Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Turkey's Kurdish separatist movement, loomed overhead as Bilici traced the mass grave of 29 murdered political prisoners that were found here just one year ago. "So much has changed for the better, but this is still a city where nobody wants to know what is buried under their feet."

Hemmed in by military bases and patrolled by rock-battered armored cars, Diyarbakir is supposed to be a city moving toward peace. This week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a reform package aimed at expanding rights for the country's 15-million Kurds, billing the measure as a step toward ending a 30-year ethnic conflict that has taken at least 40,000 lives and devastated the country's southeast. 

The reform, he declared on Monday, will legalize Kurdish-language education in private, though not public, schools. It will provide state funding for smaller -- read Kurdish -- political parties and lift a ban on the letters q, w, and x -- letters essential to Kurdish that Ankara "banished from the alphabet" in the 1920s. The reform will meanwhile do away with the before-school oath "I am a Turk, I am hard working," which generations of Kurds were forced to recite during primary school. Critically, Erdogan also promised a parliamentary debate on changing an "election threshold" that hinders Kurdish participation in the national legislature.

Those steps seemed far from an open hand in Diyarbakir, where residents who had gathered to watch the reform announcement on TV cleared out of cafes and restaurants in anger, widely decrying the reforms as "empty." "Who has the money for private school?" asked father of six, Omer Koroglu. He said native tongue education -- a long-standing demand of Kurds -- would remain unaffordable for most residents in the widely impoverished city. Many dismissed hints of inclusive electoral laws as a promise undelivered, while others noted that Kurdish names and letters are already widely in use throughout the southeast.

Kurds had expected more, especially after a historic cease-fire was brokered earlier this year between Ankara and Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish Workers' Parky (PKK). After a bloody summer of fighting in 2012, Ocalan ordered the withdrawal of the PKK to its base in northern Iraq, securing implicit promises from Ankara that it would make reforms to help steer the conflict to a resolution.

Both sides want an end to three decades of fighting. Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said that even if the PKK was dissatisfied with the pace of reforms, "neither side wants to be the one who starts shooting again." Erdogan hinted at future reforms in his speech this week, though Ulgen warned that advancing reforms piecemeal will see "the Kurdish side getting frustrated and weary."

Frustration goes hand in hand with anguished memories for residents of Turkey's southeast, where the government depopulated and razed over 4,000 villages in the 1990s, both sides deliberately abducted and murdered civilians, and thousands of victims were hastily buried in unmarked graves across the region.

Ankara's security policy in the southeast is another pervasive source of distrust, and many in Diyarbakir this week expected a softening of internationally criticized terror laws that permit arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions. Many had also expected the release of some political prisoners held by Ankara for years without charge.

"If you want to understand the power of the state," offered Raci Bilici, head of the Diyarbakir Rights Association (IHD) "you should be asking me about my brother." Bilici's brother has been missing since he joined the PKK in the 1990s, and last month, the government published his name on a list of guerillas that declassified military documents confirm were killed a decade ago. The tragedy, said Bilici, is that "his and thousands of other bodies could be located in 24 hours" if the government questioned the police and military officials that once fought the PKK and used brutal counter guerrilla tactics against Kurdish civilians. But that would require the state to exhume evidence of the very extra-judicial killings committed in its name -- when the 29 murdered prisoners were found by chance in Diyarbakir last year, they were found beneath the trash dump of a former police station. There is little doubt they were murdered by government forces. "If I ask someone from the government if they know the location of my brother's body, they'll say it is classified," he said, growing glassy-eyed. "That's how the power of the state hangs on you."   

Security policies similarly strengthen perceptions of state impunity. "If the terror are in place we'll never be equal citizens. Imagine sitting in a jail cell for months, knowing you could suddenly be sentenced to 10 years in prison," said Dicle University student Bedri Oguz, who was arrested at a demonstration and detained for six months without a charge filed against him. "Then one day, they simply said 'you can go.' Someone can always exercise power over our lives." Current terror laws allow police to equate attendance at political rallies with membership in a terrorist organization, a policy that is "totally divorced from democratic law," said sociologist at Bogazici University Nazan Ustundag.

Arrests aimed at stemming a government investigation into the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), a PKK-affiliated organization, have also targeted scores of journalists, academics, and politicians. In many cases, arrests have paralyzed local politics. Local administrators, who already complain of having little power over Ankara-appointed regional governors, complain of being arrested and replaced with government-appointed officials. "It makes residents jaded about trusting the political process at all," said Abdullah Demirbas, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) mayor of Diyarbakir's historic center. While serving as mayor in 2007, Demirbas was arrested for publishing municipal announcements in Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian, and Assyrian alongside Turkish, and jailed for five months.

Softening security policies or making otherwise conciliatory gestures to Kurds is risky business for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, however, because it relies on the country's nationalist voting bloc for much of its support. "The government will almost certainly not be making major reforms in five months before the next presidential elections," said Ulgen. "Ankara knows that no side wants to be the one who shoots first. It has time to stay away from fast-paced reforms in order to keep voters satisfied."

Bolder reforms will be needed to win over Rami Sarioglu, a cafe-going pensioner in Diyarbakir who said his faith in the current government was lost two years ago, when Turkish warplanes killed 35 Kurdish civilians near the village of Uludere on the Iraqi border. Turkey's government apologized for the strike in early summer the following year, but has maintained that it mistook the villagers for members of the PKK. Kurds widely believe the government attacked the villagers deliberately. "They wanted to say, we can still hit you," said Sarioglu.

The government missed one landmark chance to win Kurd's trust earlier this year, argued Ayla Demirci, whose husband was abducted during an army raid on her village in 1996. Recently, the government sentenced hundreds of military officers to jail for an alleged plot to forcibly remove the AKP from power. But many of those same officers also served in the southeast during the years of forced disappearances and state terrorism. "They had the right people on trial, and they didn't try to get answers about what they did to us. They didn't even try to give us justice," Ayla said.

The same could be said about the reform package, said university student Bedri. Drafted by AKP officials behind closed doors, "it wasn't something Kurds had a say in," he said. "We were supposed to watch the TV to see how much democracy we won. That isn't democracy."

Standing in the shade of Diyarbakir's hulking medieval walls, rights campaigner Bilici suggested that, weary of war Turkey's Kurds have just one option left: continue to peaceably advocate for their rights. "The state could help us, maybe they won't," he said. "Either way, I want to find my brother."

Noah Blaser @nblaser18 is a journalist based in Istanbul, Turkey.

MEHMET ENGIN/AFP/Getty Images

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