Under the watchful gaze of Turkish soldiers, men and women marched by the thousands along tumbledown streets, trailing behind an ambulance bearing the remains of a Kurdish militant ripped apart by mortar fire.
“Our fallen warriors will never die,” the crowd chanted with the same mixture of grief, defiance and anger that has marked similar funerals across Turkey’s Kurdish heartland in recent weeks.
More than 340 Kurdish fighters have been killed in Turkey since the start last month of a government offensive against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency. The fighting has unraveled a truce struck two years ago, and threatens to scuttle a larger peace process aimed at reconciliation between ethnic Turks and the country’s large and restive Kurdish minority.
Almost 60 Turkish security personnel have died in the last five weeks, according to government figures, as Kurdish fighters retaliate for airstrikes on their mountain hideouts with roadside bombings and ambushes. An army captain was killed in Sirnak province late Friday as insurgents attacked a military outpost with rockets and machine guns.
During the twilight funeral procession Wednesday in Hakkari, a Kurd-dominated city tucked deep in the mountains of the southeast, entire families stood on balconies and made victory signs. The procession snaked its way toward a small cemetery perched on a barren outcrop.
Elsewhere in Turkey, PKK fighters are reviled as terrorists, and the United States and the European Union designate the group as a terrorist organization. But though many Kurds are angry with the PKK for bringing down on them the government’s wrath, dead fighters are nonetheless saluted as fallen heroes.
“The murderer is [President] Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” said Cesur Bodan, 22, who had a picture of the dead man pinned to his shirt. “He started this war.”
Most of the airstrikes have targeted PKK training camps and bases in neighboring Iraq, but Kurdish civilians in Turkey have become enmeshed in the fighting as the police and army seal off whole villages. Attack helicopters prowl the skies.
Violence has displaced thousands of Kurdish civilians, notably in towns of Siimdinli and Shapatan near the border with Iraq. Monitoring and aid groups say the displaced are camping out in fields and villages until they believe it is safe to return home.
“We are seeing numerous rights violations by the authorities,” said Tayyup Canan, an investigator with the Human Rights Assn., a group that tracks abuses by the government and armed groups. He said those included arbitrary arrests, forced evictions, torture, summary executions and humiliation.
As in most modern upheavals, passions on both sides are fueled by images circulating on social media. Among Kurds, there was outrage over photos that purported to show a dead female PKK fighter, her corpse stripped naked and surrounded by police.
In Hakkari, the mourners drifted between tombs, making their way uphill into an area of the cemetery reserved for fighters. Smartphones illuminated the darkening terrain. Cigarettes flared orange.
Men carried the coffin, covered with fabric in the red, green and yellow of the Kurdish flag. The smell of death hung heavy: The Kurdish fighter, 20-year-old Engin Gok, had been killed in shelling a week earlier, activists said, but logistical issues prevented a swift funeral.
Until the 2012 cease-fire declared by the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the group had waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state that claimed about 40,000 lives. But the peace process was strained by the government’s refusal last year to offer support to the Kurdish town of Kobani just across the border in Syria when it was menaced by Islamic State militants.
The siege was finally broken by Kurdish fighters backed by withering airstrikes from the U.S.-led military coalition confronting the group. Turkey only recently moved to aid the coalition, at the same time launching its offensive against the PKK.
The fighting in the Kurdish southeast carries strong political overtones. Erdogan indicated Friday that early elections would be held in November — a “repeat” of a vote in June in which the president’s ruling party lost its parliamentary majority, largely due to inroads by a pro-Kurd party.
Some view the conflict as a cynical attempt by Erdogan to delegitimize the Kurds politically and pull in nationalist voters.
“We had peace,” said one elderly mourner in Hakkari, who gave only his first name, Mehmet. “We are shedding blood for one man’s ambitions.”
At the fighter’s graveside, relatives heaped soil onto the coffin. An imam recited Koran verses. Then the crowd dispersed, drifting along the poorly lighted streets and past a Turkish military installation.
Johnson is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.