Defiance in Turkey's Kurdish heartland

By James Reynolds
BBC News, Yuksekova, eastern Turkey

image captionImprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan remains an inspirational figure for many Kurds

Twelve-year-old Birhat Ciya and his 10-year-old brother Emrah spend the morning lying on the floor, watching cartoons on television.

They jump up, looking a little guilty, when visitors enter the room.

This is a school day, but the boys' family has decided to keep them at home.

Their school's oath - which children across Turkey are meant to recite every morning - includes the words "I am a Turk".

The Ciya family, who are Kurdish, refuse to say these words. The boys also insist that they be taught in Kurdish, not Turkish.

"We want our own mother language," says Birhat. "They should make our classes in Kurdish - our mother language."

His younger brother nods. The political statements done, the two jostle on the sofa and start to play computer games.

Their younger brother, who appears to disapprove of all visitors, sits outside in the yard and solemnly watches the chickens.

Their mother changes from the cartoon channel to a Kurdish TV station, which broadcasts from Europe.

Surviving son

The boys' grandmother, Naciye Ike, is one of the most well-known Kurdish activists in the town of Yuksekova.

In 1990, her 15-year-old son, Emrah, joined the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK.

image captionBetween 25 million and 30 million Kurds live across the Middle East

Two years later, he was killed. His body has never been found.

In 2003, another son, Ali Ihsan, joined the organisation. He, too, was killed. Naciye has one surviving son, Jihat. She has banned him from signing up, so he now works as an accountant.

"I'm very worried about my grandchildren," she says. "Not only for them, I am worried for everyone. We still want peace [with Turkey], but they ignore us, they don't accept us.

"This is our country. I have always wanted peace but I look at the situation - and maybe I'm wrong - but it's not possible any more. We can't get along. We don't understand each other."

Kurds make up around 15-20% of Turkey's population. In the Middle East as a whole, they number around 25-30 million.

Stateless nation

The Kurds are often described as the world's largest nation without a state. Their heartland is in the mountains of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Iran.

In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdistan Workers Party - or PKK - in Turkey's eastern Kurdish region.

Since then, the PKK's armed conflict with the Turkish state has cost an estimated 30,000 - 40,000 lives.

The PKK says that it no longer wants independence from Turkey.

Instead, it calls for democratic autonomy within the Turkish state. But reduced aims have not been matched by a lessening of violence.

image captionMayor Sedat Tore says the Turkish prime minister's attitude is fuelling the PKK membership

In the past 15 months alone, more than 700 people have been killed.

The PKK has attacked military checkpoints and convoys, carried out bombings and kidnapped civilians.

The Turkish army has attacked the PKK in the movement's mountain strongholds and detained many of the movement's suspected supporters.

This has become the worst period of violence since the capture of Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.

In Yuksekova, hundreds of Kurds march to the town's cemetery to bury a PKK fighter, Orhan Akdohan.

Mourners hold up pictures of their imprisoned leader. The PKK appears to count on plenty of local support, a fact that will make it hard for the Turkish military to defeat the organisation by force alone.

"There have been many deaths in this country," says Serkan Dari, one of the mourners. "And there may be more. That's what the prime minister's language signals."

Some of the town's boys and teenagers wanted to show that they, too, could take on the Turkish state. They put on face masks and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the easiest target they can find - the Gazi primary school.

It teaches in Turkish not Kurdish. After much effort, the boys manage to set fire to a classroom. Turkish police officers in an armoured jeep fire tear gas to break up the young arsonists.

image captionErdogan's government offers Turkey's Kurdish region money and investment but not self-rule

An hour's drive from Yuksekova is the town of Semdinli, which lies close to Turkey's borders with both Iraq and Iran. The town's mayor, Sedat Tore, is from the pro-Kurdish Peace & Development Party (which says it has no ties with the PKK.)

Over a glass of melon juice in the town's main street he talks of his worries about the conflict.

"Whenever [Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan gives numbers on death tolls and says that the Kurdish problem is finished, he sends another 100 young people to the PKK," the mayor says, gesturing to the mountains.

"Maybe he doesn't know it, but we are seeing it here. Every time he says there's no Kurdish problem he devastates hopes of the young people, wipes out their plans for the future and sends them to the PKK front."

The PKK has several thousand fighters. The movement's main base is over the border in northern Iraq, where Iraqi Kurds run their own region.

From northern Iraq, the organisation's acting leader, Murat Karayilan, told a BBC team that the PKK was not ready to stop fighting.

"You mean lay down arms without any conditions?" Mr Karayilan asks. "No, I don't agree with that. There must be a plan that addresses all of our questions.

"Turkey, as a democratic country, should solve the Kurdish problem and then we will abandon our arms. Until the European Union and the United States recognise the existence of the Kurds in the Middle East and until the Kurdish problem is solved, peace, stability and democracy will not progress in the region."

Multi-dimensional approach

But that message does not impress the Turkish heartland in Ankara. Public opinion broadly supports tough measures against Kurdish rebels.

At the end of September, thousands gathered to watch Mr Erdogan address his ruling AK Party congress.

"Our party is the only power in the region that competes against the separatist terror organisation and its branches," Mr Erdogan told the crowd to cheers. "Does this discourage us? No. If one dies, thousands will take their place."

Mr Erdogan's government offers Turkey's Kurdish region money and investment but not self-rule. For a number of years, his administration held peace talks in Oslo with the PKK.

But those negotiations failed and violence has increased.

"We are fighting against terrorist groups, terrorist actions in a very multi-dimensional approach," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tells the BBC.

"Security measures are one of them. But the rest will continue to be implemented in Turkey - democratic and economic development as the main political instruments for the future of Turkey."

But promises of development will not tempt PKK rebels down from the mountains.

The Turkish state may rule its Kurdish region but, around the Kurdish town of Yuksekova, Turkey's soldiers have to drive in armoured jeeps.

They wear their ammunition belts across their chests - where everyone can see them.

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