ELMABACHE, Turkey -- A slow breeze steals through the deserted village and stirs the smell of arson. The Turkish soldiers burned every third or fourth house last month, the villagers said. Three of the peasants were shot. Anyone who resisted was beaten.
The hundred families were given four hours to leave. They were )) warned not to return.
Elmabache is one town of many in southeastern Turkey where a brutal war between the Turkish government and Kurdish guerrillas they call terrorists has turned the pastoral countryside into a place of ghostly villages, a place of murder and fear.
While Western countries mostly ignore it, the conflict has grown more fearsome. More than 5,400 already have died this year, the highest annual toll in a decade. Those who have not fled are too frightened to speak of it.
Their whole life seems defined by fear. Few people go outside after dark. Villagers are reluctant to talk to reporters. They refuse to give their names, certain trouble would follow. Traffic is slowed by military checkpoints that turn back foreigners and other strangers.
"We can say nothing, or we will be taken away. We cannot even say a stone is a stone," says one villager, refusing to acknowledge a burned and deserted village within sight of his house.
The proportions of the Turkish government's 10-year war against its separatist-minded Kurdish minority are staggering: By government and private accounts, more than 1,400 villages have been razed or evacuated, 13,000 people have died, and 2 million residents have fled the conflict and become internal refugees.
The violence knows few bounds. Kurdish guerrillas have killed nearly 100 schoolteachers, and often execute whole families suspected of collaboration with the government. The government engages in widespread torture and political oppression, according to human rights accounts.
At least 100 journalists and writers are in prison. More than 1,200 human rights workers, lawyers, journalists and trade union officials have disappeared mysteriously, allegedly at the hands of right-wing death squads.
The United States, which acts in the name of human rights elsewhere, has applied minimal pressure on Turkey, a key NATO ally that receives more U.S. foreign aid than any country except Israel and Egypt.
U.S. warplanes take off daily from Turkish bases to patrol a "no-fly" zone over neighboring Iraq to protect Kurdish villages from attack by Iraqi forces. But at the same time, U.S.-equipped Turkish forces and airplanes make identical attacks on Kurdish villages inside Turkey.
"We blame the Americans and the European countries," says a Kurd in Diyarbakir. "Americans give Turkey helicopters. Americans give guns and bullets and Cobras and Phantoms."
The conflict is one of ancient ethnic pride. There are 20 million Kurds. Mostly Muslims, the rough mountain tribesmen have historically been caught in the struggles of the countries they inhabit: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, each of which has suppressed them. They have never had a country of their own.
Until recently, for the 12 million Kurds in Turkey, it was illegal to speak Kurdish, a fundamentally Iranian language. The government tried to stamp out their culture in the name of a unified, modern Turkey.
The result was a backlash that flared in 1984 with attacks by the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Turkish acronym PKK. From elusive camps in the mountains, the PKK wages a guerrilla war that has survived yearly onslaughts by government troops.
By some estimates, the government has about a quarter-million soldiers -- nearly half its army -- in eastern Turkey trying to eradicate the PKK. A huge area of 10 provinces is under emergency rule, run by the military with increasing harshness.
Caught in the middle are the Kurdish villagers. The army pressures them to become "Village Guards," armed to fight against the guerrillas. If they refuse, they may be killed or forced from their village. If they accept, they become targets of the PKK.
"We are scared. What can I do?" laments one villager. "Most people have no choice but to be a guard. They are forced. But if we agree to be guards, the PKK will kill us. We have no options."
Unel Erkan is the "super governor" of southeast Turkey. At his huge office in Diyarbakir, he blandly denies reports of what is happening in his domain. The flight of peasants is exaggerated, he says. Evacuated villages? "This is all propaganda." Burned towns? "The terrorist organization burns them."
Torture? "In my country, there is nothing called torture. It's a crime." Besides, he adds, "Who says it? Would a terrorist say he was treated grandly in prison?"
The offices in his headquarters contain posters of gruesome murders committed by the PKK. More than 128 teachers have been killed since 1985, most by the PKK alleging that they were agents of the state. In 1994 alone, the PKK killed 200 Village Guards and 900 civilians, the government claims.