Flow of refugees forces Turkey to face problems with own restive Kurds

April 22, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

CIZRE, Turkey -- The Turkish army captain from Istanbul leaned back in his chair and downed another gulp of warm beer. It was a sunny afternoon at the Isikveren refugee camp, deep in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey.

"Have you ever traveled to a foreign country?" someone asked.

The captain frowned slightly and tipped back his cap. "Just this one," he said.

Despite Turkish reluctance, the arrival here of hundreds of thousands of predominantly Kurdish refugees fleeing northern Iraq on the mountainous border is forcing Turks to begin considering the Kurdish dilemma.

Until now, Turkish officials and the country's military, legal, judicial, and political systems have been mostly reluctant to recognize the existence of the Kurds as a separate people, let alone consider Kurdish vulnerability a question they ought to concern themselves with.

For years, Turkish President Turgut Ozal has denied the existence of Kurds as people, calling them instead "mountain Turks."

Now, Turkish officials refer to the displaced, mostly Kurdish refugees, as "northern Iraqi people." Calling them Kurds would, by implication, link their fates with Kurds here. To call them refugees would mean granting them rights under international conventions, including the freedom to travel freely within the host country.

And that is something the Turkish military fears may open the door to links between Kurdish separatists from the two countries.

From the start, said one consular official based in southern Turkey, Turkey has seen the Iraq refugee crisis through a different lens than that used by the rest of the world. In New York, London and Paris, hundreds of thousands of hungry, thirsty refugees would seem a humanitarian problem. Here they were regarded as mostly a potential threat.

That explains, in part, the Turkish doublespeak at the start of the refugee crisis: Insisting that Turkey could not handle the problem alone, but then placing obstacles before international relief agencies that arrived here with planeloads of food, medical supplies and good intentions.

It also explains the difficulties Turkish officials at first gave local Kurdish aid committees throughout southeastern Turkey, which have become the backbone of this country's relief effort.

Some observers here believe that the Iraqi Pesh Mergas, or guerrilla fighters, who challenged Saddam Hussein have somehow emboldened Kurds here.

An anti-Saddam Hussein demonstration in Diyarbakir, Turkey, last Sunday saw protesters going further than ever before, carrying the Kurdish green, red and yellow flag, and chanting "Apo!" -- nickname of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK.

"Let's say Kurdistan!" called speaker after speaker, oblivious to the Turkish security service cameras conspicuously filming from balconies overlooking the square.

In earlier days, just wearing the flag's colors was sufficient to land a Kurd in jail. And just a week earlier a similar anti-Iraq protest was banned altogether.

But the enmity is still burning. Last week's demonstration ended with one police car set ablaze, at least two demonstrators shot dead by police, according to witnesses, and a couple of van-loads of protesters arrested.

For now there are no signs that the animosity between the Turkish military and the estimated 15 million Kurds of southern Turkey has been eased at all by the refugee crisis.

Each night here, the sound of gunfire seems swallowed in the mountainside. It is either from clashes between Kurdish guerrillas and Turkish soldiers, or from jittery Turkish troops firing at a shadow in the night or a fugitive animal.

Last Wednesday night in Shirnak a gunfire exchange ended with what sounded like an artillery blast at the police station.

Information about these conflicts is hard to come by here. The Turkish press does not regularly report on the fighting between the Kurds and the Turks and a new law being proposed would require all such stories to be cleared by military censors.

Turkey has relaxed somewhat its ban on the use of the Kurdish language here, though its policy appears unclear.

While it has lifted the ban on speaking Kurdish in private, last March Feqi Huseyn Sagnac, a Kurdish carpenter, was arrested for writing a book on Kurdish grammar.

"It [removing the ban] is only allowing what people are doing privately anyway," said Baki Karad Eniz, a Turkish journalist at the Ulke weekly newspaper here.

"We took. They didn't give," said Hasim Guzel, of the same paper.

Even so, the debate over freeing the use of Kurdish met with some resistance in the Turkish parliament, notably from within Mr. Ozal's own Motherland Party.

Other proposed legal changes that lift limits on freedom of speech and the press, diplomats said, simply transfer the

restrictions under a newer "anti-terrorism" law that imposes stiff penalties for writing contrary to the Turkish government's "interests." But what those interests may be are never spelled out.

Though the Turkish reaction to the Iraqi Kurdish crisis has been marked by a concern for domestic instability, Ankara's haste to rid itself of the Kurdish refugee problem may deal it one of the grand ironies of history -- if the protective zone leads to an eventual Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq.

Kurds here are expecting the Kurdish guerrillas of northern Iraq to continue fighting, even as the U.S.-led multinational coalition establishes a protective force around relief operations.

One 52-year-old Turkish Kurd from outside Diyarbakir grew excited at the earlier Kurdish successes in northern Iraq last month. "Maybe I'll go live there," he said. "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime."

The same man, last Sunday, stood beneath police cameras at the Diyarbakir demonstration. He had never been one to protest before.

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