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Comparison - Kosovo Albanians and Turkish Kurds

European Bureau
Friday, June 11, 1999

Ankara -- They've been evicted from their homes by soldiers, often at gunpoint, seen their villages burned and been forced to leave their native region. In some cases, they've been the victims of massacres and disappearances.

These aren't Kosovo Albanians -- they are Kurds from southeastern Turkey. Estimates are that between one million and two million Kurds have been expelled from their homes and about 4,000 villages destroyed or evacuated during the Turkish government's 15-year war against the Kurdistan People's Party (PKK).

"It's just like Kosovo," said James Ron, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and a consultant to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based lobby group that has studied the treatment of civilians in both disputes. "The Kurds are not being stripped of their citizenship but they are stripped of everything else. They can't go back to their homes and rebuild."

The Turkish government insists that it is fighting an insurgency movement that threatens the country's unity and has led to more than 30,000 deaths. Authorities argue that it's a purely internal matter and none of the outside world's business.

"The rhetoric is identical to that of [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic but they [the Turks] get away with it because they're an important NATO member," Mr. Ron said.

The treason trial of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, which began May 31 on a prison island south of Istanbul, has brought the Kurdish problem back into focus. Yet the emphasis here has been solely on the brutality and atrocities attributed to the PKK and nothing has been said in the court or the press about the military's harsh reaction to the rebellion and the effects of its actions on the civilian population.

B. Firat Dayankili, a member of parliament representing Turkey's Democratic Left Party, a member of the ruling coalition, declines to even speak about a Kurdish problem.

"We call it the southeast problem," he said. "We don't separate any ethnicity in Turkey in our hearts and minds."

Asked about the thousands of villages that critics say have been destroyed by Turkish military forces, Mr. Dayankili said: "There might have been some evacuation of some villages for security reasons. The area is harsh geographically with little settlements distributed over a wide area and it's difficult to protect them.

"The villagers have been relocated in other parts of southeastern Turkey. . . . It's done in the interests of the people living there to provide them with better security and more services."

Turkey is a unitary state that brooks no claims for minority status by any group. Speaking Kurdish was illegal until 1991 and the language still cannot be legally taught in schools or broadcast on radio or television.

Mr. Ron, who spent more than three months studying the treatment of Kurds in the southeast in 1995, says that the outside world has chosen to ignore the actions of Turkish authorities in fighting the PKK.

"Relations between Turkey and the European Union have been very tense but they've escaped the blanket sanctions that the Serbs have received," said Mr. Ron, who recently returned from Albania, where he saw firsthand the flood of refugees from Kosovo. "Yet their record is very similar. If you do Kosovo, you have to do Turkey. Otherwise, you've got a double standard."

The situation in southeastern Turkey can be compared to that in Kosovo before the start of NATO bombings, when Serb forces engaged in actions against the Kosovo Liberation Army, which the Serbs said aimed to shatter the territorial integrity of Serbia.

In pursuing the war against the KLA, the Serbs burned villages and allegedly committed massacres, leading to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people.

In Turkey, the pattern was not very different. Although the PKK began its insurgency in the 1980s, it wasn't until the end of the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf and the subsequent weakening hold of Iraq on its Kurdish region that a serious threat was posed by the PKK in southeastern Turkey.

In 1992, Turkish authorities launched a major counteroffensive against the guerrillas, at first by moving into cities such as Cizre and Sirnak near the Iraqi border. "They just blasted away at the cities," forcing thousands to flee, Mr. Ron said. The army then moved into the countryside.

To flush out the PKK guerrillas from the hilltops, the military decided that all villages above a certain altitude would be emptied, particularly because many villagers were believed sympathetic to the rebels. It was a process U.S. forces have seen firsthand from aircraft overflying southeastern Turkey on missions into Iraq on a regular basis.

"They'd drive into a village and tell people to up and move, sometimes within a few days, but sometimes within six hours," Mr. Ron said. "When they didn't move, they'd burn the villages."

Many of the villagers left the region, moving west to major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, where they live in shantytowns.

Essential to the Turkish military's strategy against the PKK has been the village-guard program, where villagers who agreed to fight the PKK were given weapons, Human Rights Watch says.

Those who resisted joining up were often forced out of their homes, the group adds. But those who joined the village guards were under threat from the PKK, who targeted them as collaborators with the enemy.

Unlike the Kosovo Albanians, 800,000 of whom who have been expelled to other countries, the Kurds remain within Turkey and they admittedly haven't been subjected to the same level of brutality. But Human Rights Watch has chronicled massacres and Mr. Ron says that mass expulsion is viewed as an atrocity in and of itself.

"We do see a pattern of sexual abuse, rape, et cetera," he said. "The worst [perpetrators] in this respect are the special teams coming from the ministry of police."

Although the level of fighting in the southeast has declined and the PKK is believed to have been weakened substantially by Mr. Ocalan's arrest, nobody is predicting a quick end to the conflict.

Mr. Ron is convinced that Turkey has been able to escape international condemnation because of its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its strategic importance at the gateway to the Middle East and as a neighbour of Iraq, Iran and the former Soviet Union.

"Turkey is much more important than Serbia," he said. "Serbia doesn't matter."

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