Kurdish towns under siege in Turkey

Government forces battle Kurdish rebels in country’s southeast

Several Kurdish-populated towns have been subjected to a series of often-deadly military sieges and blockades this year. Photograph: Reuters

Several Kurdish-populated towns have been subjected to a series of often-deadly military sieges and blockades this year. Photograph: Reuters

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The convoy of Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish trucks stuck outside besieged Cizre has been here for six days. Empty egg shells and potato skins litter the highway. In that time, they have listened to distant explosions rock Cizre, where government forces are battling Kurdish rebels. The military blockade before them means they can go no further and for some it strikes close to home.

“Two days ago a tank shell hit the side of my family’s building,” said Nevzat, who’s trying both to make a delivery to Cizre and to reach his family trapped in the town.

“My wife and children are hiding in a basement; I’m here, they’re there,” he says looking beyond the line of military vehicles and soldiers blocking his route. Later, he shows photos of his children holding their hands to their ears, trying to keep out the sound of detonating shells.

Cizre, Nusaybin and several other Kurdish-populated towns in southeast Turkey have been subjected to a series of often-deadly military sieges and blockades this year.

Local youths attached to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group in the eyes of Turkey, Europe and the United States, have dug themselves in across several districts. As of Sunday more than 110 rebels and two security officers have died in the six-day operation.

Petrol bombs

Prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu vowed to “cleanse” the area of militants, who are armed with machine guns and pipe and petrol bombs, by last week sending in 10,000 soldiers and special forces commanded by the country’s top military officer.

Military equipment has been shuttled through the local public airport, which is closed to commercial traffic until Tuesday at the earliest.

“It’s the first time Turkish forces have attacked like this,” said Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Faysal Sariyildiz via phone from Cizre, as the sound of explosions boomed in the background.

“Today I received more than 100 calls from people here asking for help; they have fires in their houses, they’ve had no water for five days.”

The resurgence of violence in southeast Turkey has in part been sparked by the war and a collapse of authority in Syria, just 500 metres south of Cizre.

The families of many youths today fighting Turkish forces in Cizre have seen their businesses crushed as a result of the closing of the border.

However, it was the Turkish government’s decision to prevent volunteer fighters from Cizre from entering the Kurdish-Syrian city of Kobane as it faced obliteration by Isis jihadists in October 2014 that fuelled widespread resentment.

Then, a suicide bombing of Kurdish-focused activists in Suruc that killed 32 people last July tipped Turkey back into war. Pictures of the corpse of Haci Lokman Birlik, a brother-in-law of a HDP deputy from Sirnak, being dragged behind a military vehicle last October added to the simmering rage.

The shaky calm that appeared to end the 30-year war between secessionist Kurds and the state in 2013 has now definitively crumbled.

Despite calls for restraint from prominent Kurdish figures, many Kurds feel the authorities did nothing to prevent the Suruc bombing and other atrocities and have done less, since then, to protect HDP politicians and Kurdish civilians.

In retaliation, a police officer was abducted in Cizre on December 10th allegedly by the PKK’s youth wing, the YDG-H. Militias have prevented tanks from entering Cizre by destroying road entrances and laying roadside bombs while Turkey’s interior minister said the fact that government-owned machinery was used to dig roadblocks indicated officials in the town are colluding with the PKK.

Local residents have criticised the authorities for ordering teaching staff and police out of the region just hours before the operation began last Tuesday. “This means they want to destroy whoever is left,” said HDP deputy Sariyildiz. Now, 43,000 students are without access to school and many missed state exams last week. An hour’s drive west in Nusaybin, where on and off curfews have been in place for months, shops are shuttered despite footpaths teeming with people out for a weekend walk around.

General elections

Ten Kurdish rebels and two civilians were killed here in clashes in November, the same month the HDP won 89 per cent of the vote in general elections. Still, not all in Nusaybin support the militants’ actions.

“There are about 50 armed guys down there, some are from here, some are from the mountain,” said a man sitting a hundred metres from where police vehicles have blocked the rebels in.

“But look around you – all the shops are closed, there’s no normal life now and it’s because of these young guys who have picked up weapons.”

More than 200 members of the security forces and police officers have been killed since July and 1,700 militants and PKK supporters have died.

Back at the military blockade outside Cizre, a young-looking man dressed in civilian clothes whose holstered pistol is displayed prominently has arrived on the scene. He shouts at the truck drivers to move their wagons so that he can drive his military jeep past towards Cizre.

“We’ve been stuck here for six days,” shouts one driver back; the exchange becomes increasing heated.

“That’s not my problem now, move the truck!” shouts back the officer-apparent.

“You see, he’s not from around here,” said the truck driver later, pointing to the jeep as it speeds off. “He’s not Kurdish.”

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