When the Turkish government lifted its ban on the letter “w,” it seemed like a breakthrough.
After decades of repression of Kurdish ethnic identity and a deadly war with separatist rebels, the government has made moves toward democratic reform in recent years, part of Turkey’s bid to improve its chances of joining the European Union.
Letters that appear in the Kurdish alphabet but not the Turkish one were no longer banned from print. Emergency military rule was lifted. The death penalty was abolished. Arrests and reports of torture declined.
But the tide began to turn, many Kurds say, even before violent clashes between police and Kurdish protesters in late March left 13 civilians dead in the region’s worst violence in more than a decade.
“Being Kurdish means you are a terrorist. That is how Turks see us,” said Cemal Ceylan, 24, an unemployed Kurd with a third-grade education. He spoke over small glasses of tea at a coffeehouse in this rough city in southeast Turkey, his bitterness echoed by the young men around him.
Few of the men had jobs, they said as they slammed domino-like tiles against a metal table, absorbed in a game that helps them while away their empty afternoons. Most live in cramped apartments in the slums that ring Diyarbakir.
The city has seen its population more than double in the last 15 years with the influx of rural Kurds, driven from their homes by the government’s war with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, or by military reprisals. Youths have been reared on stories of the flight, memories of burning villages and decades of abuse and repression.
“There is a high percentage who have always felt themselves to be harassed and isolated. No money, no land, no luck,” said Reyhan Yalcindag, an official with the local Human Rights Assn. “People are reliving the trauma of the ‘90s and wondering now if it will be the same.”
Their anger exploded in the March protests. The resulting violence, and a renewed campaign by the separatist guerrillas, is testing the Turkish government’s commitment to reform.
A moderate Muslim nation, U.S. ally and member of NATO, Turkey has pledged greater democracy and respect for human rights to meet EU standards. But a rising tide of Turkish nationalism and the growing influence of Islamic conservatives in government have jeopardized the reforms and the EU bid.
The Kurdish question is widely seen as an important barometer for Turkey’s performance. Eight months ago, Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to this city and gave a landmark speech, acknowledging past “mistakes” committed by Turkish authorities against the Kurdish minority.
But after the March clashes, which left an elderly man and four children dead, Erdogan vowed to crush Kurdish protests, warning darkly that Turkish security forces would “intervene against the pawns of terrorism, no matter if they are children or women.”
By most accounts, there was provocation on all sides and plenty of blame to go around. What is clear is the sense that the region has lost ground and hurtled backward.
Erdogan now refuses to talk to politicians from legally recognized Kurdish parties, and his government plans to toughen a terrorism law in ways that some fear will impinge on civil liberties.
In April, a veteran researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, in southeast Turkey to investigate claims of police abuse against Kurds, was detained by police and deported. Authorities contended that the researcher, a British national, did not have the proper visa, even though it was the same type of document he had used in 20 years of human rights work in Turkey.
Days later, a Turkish prosecutor investigating the role of the military in fomenting unrest in Kurdish areas was fired after he issued an indictment implicating one of the army’s top commanders.
“In the end, those who do not want calm in the region, who want conflict, they have been successful,” said Diyarbakir’s Kurdish mayor, Osman Baydemir. “The target was the Kurds, but also the EU reform process, the government democratization, the return to civilian life.”
Baydemir said he was deeply disillusioned by the reversals and saw a powder keg of discontent in the city he governed, primed to explode again -- or to swell the ranks of the guerrillas.
Angry, dejected young men languish at dozens of ragged coffeehouses throughout the slums like the one where Ceylan and others played cards, smoked and swapped rumors. They vary on whether they want an independent Kurdish state -- a subversive goal, as far as Ankara is concerned -- or simply more recognition of their heritage. To Ankara’s horror, some see the Kurds in neighboring Iraq, who enjoy relative autonomy, as a model and future partner.
“I have a car and a job,” said Mehmet Sirin, 22, a butcher and one of the few who work. “I pay taxes to the government. But when it comes to my language, it’s nonexistent. Why deny my identity when I pay taxes?”
An estimated 14 million Kurds live in Turkey, roughly 20% of its population. Successive Turkish governments for generations have stamped down any expression of ethnic pride as a way to prevent the spread of separatist aspirations.
A crucial turning point came in 1999, with the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the top commander of PKK separatists. From his jail cell, Ocalan ordered his followers to stop fighting. The PKK declared a cease-fire in a war that had claimed more than 30,000 lives since 1984, and most guerrillas retreated across the border into northern Iraq.
Peace prevailed, Kurdish-dominated cities were allowed to elect their own mayors, and the government in 2002 lifted a state of emergency that had been in place for 15 years. With an eye on joining the EU, Turkey finally allowed limited public use of the Kurdish language, including brief television broadcasts.
“I can finally use the ‘w,’ ” Kurdish newspaper publisher Arif Aslan said. He continues to publish his newspaper, in the nearby city of Batman, in the Turkish language, because he would lose advertisers if he published in Kurdish, he said, and few Kurds actually read Kurdish. But he now freely prints the odd Kurdish-language headline, recently wishing his audience Happy New Year in their language.
But benefits have been slow to trickle down to ordinary Kurds. And some reforms have been so restricted that they raise questions about the sincerity of Turkish authorities in granting them.
After amending the Turkish Constitution, Kurdish-language teaching was finally permitted, but only in private schools that were financially out of reach to most Kurds.
Late last year, Kurdish-language broadcasts were permitted on state television, but only in 45-minute allotments up to five times a week. The broadcasts must contain Turkish-language subtitles, and children’s programming is prohibited. Most Kurds prefer Kurdish-language programs beamed in from Europe and Iraq on satellite TV.
“These were big steps for Turkey but very small ones for us,” said Cemal Dogan, general manager of a new private Kurdish-language TV and radio network that went on the air in March after jumping through a long series of bureaucratic hoops.
Dogan must follow a strict menu of programming. News and agricultural reports are in; children’s cartoons and anything that smacks of teaching the language are out.
Some Kurdish politicians argue that this period presented an opportunity to disarm the guerrillas once and for all by offering an amnesty.
But the Erdogan government remained adamantly opposed to amnesty.
As an Islamist, Erdogan can ill afford to take measures that would anger the military, already mistrustful of his government. The army, which regards itself as the custodian of modern Turkey’s secular system, has ousted governments four times in four decades.
In 2004, the PKK suspended its cease-fire, and gradually sporadic skirmishes resumed in Turkey’s southeastern hills. An offshoot of the PKK, calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, is threatening foreign tourists who frequent Turkey’s popular resorts and quaint cities.
Many in Turkey believe the escalation in violence can be blamed on both the PKK and the shadowy actions of disgruntled military operatives, who oppose Turkey’s EU bid because the required reforms not only give cultural rights to the Kurds but also trim the powers of the traditionally all-powerful army. (By the same token, the PKK opposes EU admission because making Turkey a better place for Kurds undermines their goals of an independent state.)
As evidence of rogue operations, people here point to an incident last November in the southeastern town of Semdinli. Three Turkish intelligence agents were caught planting a bomb in a bookstore owned by a Kurdish nationalist. When a crowd ran the trio down, they found a carload of guns and a hit list of local Kurds.
The state prosecutor investigating the incident, Ferhat Sarikaya, was fired by the Justice Ministry after he implicated the army’s No. 2 commander, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, in the alleged establishment of secret death squads. Buyukanit emphatically denied the accusation.
The recent developments have led some diplomats and analysts to conclude that the Erdogan government is souring on the goal of joining the EU. A less welcoming Europe, at the same time, has placed additional demands on Turkey, which further frustrates and discourages Ankara.
It appears that for a lot of senior Turkish government officials, a European diplomat said, “the EU project is over.”