Kurdish teens drawn to rebels’ ranks; new generation fills PKK ranks
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — At least 150 teenagers from this city in southeastern Turkey have joined the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the past year, illustrating a magnetic pull that many of their elders find baffling.
Since the jailing of Kurdish nationalist leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the central government in Ankara has taken major steps to address Kurdish grievances. Their region is now free of military law; the use of Kurdish names has been legalized; Kurdish-language broadcasting is permitted for one hour a day; and, for the first time in a decade, Kurdish nationalists are represented in parliament.
The Turkish military, meanwhile, has waged a highly successful battle against the PKK — as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is referred to by its Kurdish acronym — at least in tactical terms. As many as 75 PKK members have died since militants attacked a Turkish platoon on Oct. 21, killing 12 soldiers and capturing eight — all of whom were released over the Nov. 3-4 weekend.
President Bush added to the pressure on the rebel group on Nov. 5, promising Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington that the U. S. will offer intelligence and other help in battling the PKK.
“The PKK is a terrorist organization. They’re an enemy of Turkey; they’re an enemy of Iraq; and they’re an enemy of the United States,” Mr. Bush said at a press conference after talks with Mr. Erdogan.
Nevertheless, as Turkey’s No. 2 general conceded recently, Turkey has been “unsuccessful” in dissuading a new generation of Kurds from joining the militant organization.
Military intelligence last year revealed that 40 percent of the estimated reported 3,000 Kurdish militants in northern Iraq had joined since the start of a PKK cease-fire, which began in 1999 and lasted five years.
In Diyarbakir, locals say at least 150 teenagers enlisted this year. In Yuksekova, a city of 100,000, six have joined in the past month.
In towns and villages across the region, the story is told in photos on the walls of homes like that of Irfan Gur, a slender man whose face is wrinkled from years of sun and locally grown tobacco.
There is a picture of his father, long dead, the top of his portrait covered in lace in accord with local tradition. Lace also covers the features of a much younger man, Mr. Gur’s son, a PKK militant who died fighting the Turkish army in 1994.
Mr. Gur points to another photograph. “My youngest son,” he said. “He went to join the group in July. I haven’t heard from him since.”
Many Kurds say they are surprised by the PKK’s continued ability to attract recruits, especially since the rebels dropped their separatist demands to call instead for “democratic confederalism” — a concept that few Kurds understand.
Part of the explanation can be found outside Mr. Gur’s front door.
A decade ago, his neighborhood consisted of fields sloping down to a river. Now it’s a slum, streets full of grubby children, some barefooted, leaping over open sewers and piles of rubbish.
Places like this exist throughout southeastern Turkey, filled with villagers forced from their homes by Turkish security forces during the 1990s.
Diyarbakir’s population, 350,000 a decade ago, is now nearly 1.5 million. Ninety percent of the families in some districts live below the poverty line.
“What future do these children have?” one local journalist asked. “Crime, the PKK, radical Islam.”
Locals say it was poverty and a sense of neglect, rather than organized PKK activity, that drove a recent riot in Diyarbakir, in which 11 persons, mainly children, were fatally shot by security forces.
Poverty, though, is not a prob- lem unique to southeastern Turkey. What makes it explosive here is the frustration that has grown since PKK leader Ocalan was captured in 1999.
Despite the steps by Ankara to ease restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture, nationalists point to a flood of criminal investigations against Kurdish politicians since elections in July. The latest came two weeks ago in response to calls for a revision of Turkey’s unitary structure.
When four policemen shot a 12year-old boy 10 times in the back at close range in 2005, on the other hand, a court described it as “self-defense” and freed the policemen.
Nothing irks Kurds more than what they see as the partiality of the Turkish press and television. When a TV reporter enthusiastically described a recent military attack that killed 30 PKK fighters, student Semdin Dumankaya complained, “He makes it sound like a [soccer] match.”