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Among smugglers, partisans and bombers


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

KurdishMedia.com (Translated)


Among Smugglers, Partisans, and Bombers: Through the wilds of Kurdistan to the beginning of spring. Observations in the Turkish/Iranian/Iraqi border region.

By Nick Brauns

The commander of the Turkish military police, the “Jandarma”, receives us at the checkpoint on the road from Van to Hakkari with the bearing of a colonial officer: “What do you want in Hakkari? Only terrorists and barbarians live there. You should go to Antalya; that’s the place for tourists.”

The province of Hakkari, in the Iranian/Iraqi border region, is the poorhouse of Turkey. 7,121 square kilometers in size, and 266,061 inhabitants. A tourist guide from the newspaper “Milliyet” says “The Hakkari region is the most mountainous and desolate corner of our country.

It is surrounding by impassable mountains, without roads. The mountains that enclose the area on all sides reach a height of up to 4,000 meters. (…) In many places, the valleys turn into narrow gorges. Even in summer, not even motorcycles can reach the tiny settlements and villages.”

In the autumn of 2005, a series of bomb explosions shook Hakkari. The center for the attacks was Semdinli, the most remote town in Turkey, by the Iranian border. First, on 1 September, World Peace Day, a hand grenade was thrown. Two months later, 100 kilograms of explosive concealed in a truck detonate in front of a shopping passage. A crater in the street, and the ruins of the building, still attest to the force of the explosion, which injured 23 people. Then, on 9 November, a hand grenade was tossed into the “Umut” [“Hope”] bookshop, located only a few meters from the devastated shopping center. One customer was killed, and 15 other people injured.

The special aspect this time: Passers-by were able to apprehend the fleeing perpetrators. Their identity documents showed them to be non-commissioned officers of the military intelligence service. Additionally, a turncoat from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was also captured. In their getaway car were found, in addition to weapons and attack plans, a list with the names of 105 people who ostensibly supported the outlawed PKK. At the very top, marked in red, was written “Seferi Yilmaz” -- the owner of the bookshop.

A revolt then broke out in Semdinli, Hakkari, Yuksekova, and other Kurdish towns. Barricades were set up, armored personnel carriers were attacked with Molotov cocktails, and a police station was stormed. Police shot into the crowds and killed a number of people. The largest demonstration, with up to 80,000 participants, took place in the town of Yuksekova. The building façade of the Zagros Shopping Center still shows bullet-holes from the slaughter. The legend “Zagros”, the Kurdish name of a mountain range, has in the meantime been removed on the direction of the military.

In this corner of Turkey, the young people, in particular, have nothing more to lose. “We’ve had it with school” they answer to questions as to what they’re doing with themselves. And they go on: “We support Abdullah Ocalan.” They claim they would sacrifice their lives for the PKK leader, incarcerated on the Imrali prison island, and see “Apo”, who was abducted from Kenya in an intelligence agencies’ plot in 1999, as their synonym for a better life.

In the Hope Bookshop

The trip from Yuksekova to Semdinli leads for several kilometers over a broad, absolutely straight road. The roadway was at one time a secret landing strip for the United States in the second Gulf War in the beginning of the 1990s. Washington wants to reactivate it for an attack against Iran. This depends, in the final analysis, on Turkey.

The vibrant town of Semdinli lies in the midst of high, snow-covered mountains. Some of its residents have, through smuggling, come to prosperity. Men in baggy pants with cloths tied around their heads stand around leaning on off-the-road pickup trucks or fan themselves with commercial documents. A white car follows us slowly. No strangers ever escape the notice of the military intelligence service.

The “Umut” bookshop leas in a passage on the main street. Yilmaz, the bookshop owner on the hit-list of the secret service people, is happy when he hears that we write for a Marxist daily newspaper. The 43-year-old man explains that he has been a socialist since the age of 15. He joined the PKK as far back as 1977. He explains that “You can’t fight fascists without force.” At that time, the organization was almost unknown. “The people here in Kurdistan were uneducated, and couldn’t read. Lenin had the newspaper “Iskra” [“The Spark”]; the PKK went to the villages in order to raise people’s consciousness.”

The armed uprising of the PKK began on 15 August 1984, when guerrilla units attacked the Kurdish towns of Eruh and Semdinli. In Semdinli they shot up the Turkish military guard post with machine guns and rockets. Several soldiers and officers were killed and wounded. When the guerrillas then passed out leaflets in the coffeehouses and hung up banners with slogans and martyrs of the PKK, Yilmaz, then 21, was with them. Shortly thereafter, a captured comrade, under torture, informed on him. Yilmaz was captured and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in the notorious military prison of Diyarbakir.

When he was finally freed in the year 2000, he opened the “Umut” bookshop. Today he doesn’t have to educate people any longer with a gun in his hand. The young people from Semdinli and the surrounding villages come into his bookstore. “Selling books is not important. The important thing is that the young people read and learn.” In the selection available are both non-fiction and novels in Turkish and in Kurdish, as well as books on Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, the Russian Revolution, and the Iraq War. And also lots of Russian literature. Tolstoi and Chernichevski are among Yilmaz’s favorite authors.

“We will light up Turkey starting from Semdinli” – this was the ambitious motto of this years Newroz festival, celebrating the Kurdish New Year of 21 March. But in Semdinli, the military banned the festival. Instead, with great participation both by the population and by several mayors from the Kurdish “Democratic Society Party” (DTP), the renovated “Umut” bookstore was re-opened. The re-opening was made possible by donations of books from booksellers and socialist writers such as Ragip Zarakolu. Osman Baydemir, the Metropolitan Mayor of the city of Diyarbakir, commented that “Sometime a book can change a person’s entire life. Perhaps a bookseller will now change the future of Turkey.”

In the bookshop hang copies of the attack plans seized from the perpetrators. And in the display window one can see books spattered with blood and damaged by fire. Upon our departure, Yilmaz quotes from Heinrich Heine: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

Smugglers’ Paths

I meet Mesut and Hamit in the taxi to the Turkish-Iranian border post at Esendere. They are on a shopping trip. Their shopping list includes digital cameras, DVD-players, and computer equipment. In Iran, they will buy the hi-tech goods cheaply, and then bring them into Turkey on horseback over hidden paths. Smuggling from Iraq is also lucrative, ever since the USA set up a customs-free zone there. A mule costs 2,000 euros. Entire villages have pooled their money in order to buy themselves a few horses. In just a few years, poor peasants have reached prosperity via these hidden paths.

Shortly before the border, the taxi turns off into a farmyard. Here flourishes the black market. A boy fills the tank with cheap gasoline from large canisters. The fuel came over the border on horseback earlier, and I think of the movie “A Time for Drunken Horses”. The Iranian-Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi portrayed in this film, which won the “Golden Camera” prize, the touching fate of orphan children who hire themselves out to accompany the heavily laden pack animals.

The border gate at Esendere offers contrasts: Pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, and of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran, hang opposite one another. Yet there prevails a rather friendly atmosphere between the Turkish border guards and their Iranian counterparts dressed in green uniforms with gold buttons. Everyone here profits from the smuggling. Within visual range of the checkpoints men load sacks full of sugar, tea, and tobacco into a shed. And in the bazaar in Yuksekova, soldiers pay with cartons of cigarettes.

But it is not only gasoline, sugar, and digital technology that is smuggled in the Iranian/Iraqi/Turkish border region, but harder goods as well. Amid the hilly landscape with its poor peasant villages stand ostentatious, garishly colored villas. They belong to the big-time dealers, grown rich from the drugs path out of Afghanistan, which leads through Iran into Turkey. If peace should return to the region and the military presence be reduced, fear some war profiteers, the lucrative business would suffer. This consideration may constitute a possible motive for the bombings in Semdinli.


From Yuksekova to Sirnak lie less than 300 kilometers. Yet the minibus takes almost ten hours for this distance. This is due not to the boulders that have to be moved from the road by excavating equipment, or the snowdrifts up to three meters high all along the road. We were stopped eleven times at checkpoints. We fill sorry for the Kurds traveling with us; they have to wait while our travel documents are copied out longhand each time. Soldiers searched through our baggage several times. On the walls of the guardposts hang the photographs of wanted guerrilla fighters and the Turkish People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front. The large number of young women among the wanted is noteworthy.

Particularly aggressive are the soldiers at the Serbest barracks, located in the midst of snow-decked mountains. In the mid-1990s, the guerrillas had attacked this barracks and killed more than 20 soldiers. Machine-pistol ready to fire, an officer from Istanbul lectured us that there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey, but only a terrorist problem.

Village Guards

Over and over again we see collections of great piles of stones along the road. These had once been villages. Because their inhabitants had been suspected of supporting the PKK, they were driven out and their houses leveled to the ground. The driver of the “dolmus” (shared taxi) turns the cassette-player up – a song against the “Village Guards”. These armed men were at one time put into the fight against the guerrillas by the large landowners and the state. In the newly constructed houses with tin roofs there now live only such Kurdish militia men and their families. Many of them are themselves people who have been driven out of their previous villages. First their livelihoods were taken from them, and then the state bought the desperate men. 400 Liras (around 260 euros) of monthly salary amount to a fortune in this area.

Army landrovers pass by. Beside soldiers sit also Village Guards with the traditional Kurdish “pushi”, like the Palestinian scarf. Yet it seems that there has been a change in thinking among many of the men who have been put into action against their own people.
Two men who invite us for tea tell us “We are ashamed to be Village Guards.” They take the money from the state, but for the past six years have not taken part in any military operations.

Almost half of the approximately 8,000 Village Guards in Hakkari would vote for the Kurdish Parties DEHAP [Democratic People’s Party] or DTP, according to Hasan Ciftci, of the local DTP committee in the area.

“Don’t be deceived; on the outside, I’m a Village Guard, but at heart I’m a Kurd.” The man with the prominent hooked nose, who appeared to have appeared out of nowhere, wears traditionally green baggy pants. His glance sweeps to the ridges of the nearby chain of peaks. Up there on the Turkish/Iraqi border, which runs right through Kurdistan, patrol “peshmergas” [Kurdish irregular fighters] of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is a co-ruler in occupied Iraq. The Barzani tribe, of the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Mas’ud Barzani, numbers among the winners of the US war against Iraq. The man tells his story. He is a smuggler. In order not to be driven away from his land, he had to agree to become a Village Guard.

Now he regularly visits the camp of the PKK that is only a short distance on the other side of the border. Naturally, the Turkish military is also aware of the camp. Yet out of fear of the United States, it does not attack it.

The road runs in places for a few meters in Iraqi territory. At one checkpoint on the Habur River stands a white station-wagon. In its rear, explains a soldier, there had been 25 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. A Kurdish “agha” (feudal landowner) wanted to smuggle these weapons into Iraq in order to arm his private army. Things went awry because his contact man in the Gendarmerie was not at the checkpoint. The car was confiscated, but its owner was set free.

The closer we come to the town of Sirnak, the more massive becomes the military presence. In the 1990s, there was a liberated zone, controlled by the guerrillas, here in the Besta region. Yet by using modern night-vision equipment and driving out the local population, the army succeeded in retaking the area. But Sirnak still has strategic significance for the guerrillas. Coming out of their camps in Northern Iraq, the PKK fighters have to pass through a narrow area from the Cudi Mountains into the Gabar Mountains.

At a checkpoint in Uludere we see eight-wheeled armored personnel carriers. They are just coming back from an “operation” against the guerrillas, explains the commander. “All from Germany” notes the commander proudly, in terms of the origin of the vehicles. The German government has always denied that armored vehicles provided by Germany are utilized, contrary to the agreements, against the Kurdish population.

Poison Gas Attack

In late March, the guerrillas’ main headquarters reported a poison gas attack by the Turkish military. A PKK camp in the mountains of Mus was reported to have been attacked. 14 fighters were killed. The funeral processions for these guerrillas mobilized tens of thousands of mourners in Diyarbakir and other cities. Police opened fire. Just as in the early 1990s, people are now using the word “serhildan”. This is the Kurdish for “revolt”.

Translated from German by KurdishMedia.com; originally published in “Junge Welt”, 15 April 2006. Original German text available at http://www.nadir.org/nadir/initiativ/isku/AKTUELL/2006/15/097.htm


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