Massacre in the mountains
The "friendly fire" killing of Kurdish civilians by Turkish warplanes has raised disturbing questions about Turkey's new hardline Kurdish policy, Gareth Jenkins reports
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People look at bodies lying on the ground after Turkey's air force attacks across the border in Iraq, killing 35 civilians, near the Turkish village of Ortasu in Sirnak
On 28 December, Turkish F-16 warplanes killed 35 Kurdish civilians in a bombing raid in the mountains close to the town of Uludere, a few kilometres from the Turkish-Iraqi border. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) later released a statement claiming that the dead were smugglers who had been mistakenly identified as militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). But the ease with which the deadly air raid was ordered has raised disturbing questions, particularly as it came amid a government crackdown on Kurdish nationalists which had prompted critics to claim that the AKP had begun to regard all Kurds as actual or potential terrorists.
Since it first launched its insurgency in 1984, the PKK has traditionally scaled back its military operations in the mountains of the southeast Turkey during the winter months. The heavy snow makes movements of militants highly vulnerable to aerial reconnaissance. PKK units have either withdrawn to northern Iraq or taken refuge in winter hideouts and tried to keep their movements to a minimum. The PKK lacks specialist winter warfare equipment and has no record of staging a major attack in the mountains during the winter.
At around 6:30pm, a Turkish unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) spotted a group of around 40 individuals accompanied by heavily-laden mules making their way through a mountain pass into Turkey. The harsh terrain and decades of government neglect have meant that the region is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped in Turkey. Local people have long sought to supplement their meagre incomes by smuggling goods into Turkey from Iraq, particularly diesel fuel and contraband cigarettes. Nevertheless, Turkish intelligence analysts decided that group was composed of PKK militants trying to infiltrate into Turkey in preparation for an attack on military bases in the area.
Shortly after 9:30pm, Turkish F-16 warplanes launched a series of devastating bombing raids against the group, killing 35 of them. All of the dead came from three villages. Most were teenage boys. It was the largest civilian death toll in a Turkish military operation since the launch of the PKK's insurgency in 1984.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the Turkish government issued a statement expressing its regret at the deaths and claiming that the attack had been an honest mistake. But such statements did little to assuage the outpouring of Kurdish anger. Thousands of Kurds took to the streets to protest the air raid. When the kaymakam Naif Yavuz, the highest ranking state official in Uludere, went to visit the families of the slain to offer his condolences, he was attacked by an angry mob. Although he narrowly escaped being lynched, he was so badly injured that he had to be hospitalised.
The deaths in Uludere came amid an intense campaign which has seen thousands of Kurds arrested over the last six months on charges of belonging to the PKK. They include hundreds of journalists, lawyers, academics and members of NGOs who appear to be guilty of nothing more than sympathy for Kurdish demands for greater cultural and political rights. For many Kurds, the massacre at Uludere has come as further proof of what they regard as a policy of indiscriminate suppression and, in the mountains, a determination to shoot first and ask questions later. These suspicions appeared to be validated by a statement by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc on 2 January. After expressing his sadness at the deaths of so many innocent civilians, Arinc tried to reduce the government's responsibility for the massacre claiming that the aerial bombing had only been ordered after the group had "failed to heed a warning artillery bombardment". How the group was supposed to understand that the artillery bombardment was only a "warning" and not an attempt to kill them or how -- in darkness in the middle of the mountain snow -- they were supposed to have responded, Arinc did not say.
What is clear is that the massacre will have strengthened those in the Kurdish nationalist movement who claim that, since abandoning a short-lived attempt to address the Kurdish problem through dialogue, the AKP is now bent on eradicating the Kurdish problem rather than resolving it. The killings will also have strengthened elements within the Kurdish nationalist movement, such as the PKK, who argue that the only way that Kurds are ever going to win their rights is by responding to state violence with violence of their own. The PKK has already called on Turkey's Kurds to rise up against the central government and vowed to escalate its campaign of violence as soon as the winter snows begin to melt.
More disturbing for the AKP is that more moderate Kurdish nationalists are beginning to lose hope. Despite the mass arrests and the continuing military operations in southeast Turkey, publicly at least the AKP has continued to insist that Turks and Kurds are brothers who can coexist in peace and harmony within a single, unitary state. But the number of Kurds who believe such rhetoric is declining fast.
Ahmet Turk, the co-chair of the Democratic Societies Congress (DTK), an umbrella organisation for different Kurdish groups and NGOs, is known as one of the most prominent members of the moderate wing of the Kurdish nationalist movement. But even he is now close to despair, describing the AKP's policies towards the Kurds as "genocidal".
"Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said that 2012 would be a year of brotherhood," said Turk. "But what kind of brotherhood bombs its own people?"