ISTANBUL // While Turkey's politicians are talking about new steps to end the Kurdish conflict that has ravaged the south-east of the country for the last 25 years, Zeynep Yalcin and Kumri Bilgi, two grieving women from opposing fronts in the war-torn region, have done something that may turn out to be much more important: they have cried together.
Mrs Yalcin lost her son Burhan two years ago, when he was killed as a soldier in a clash between his unit and fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. Mrs Bilgi is the mother of Harfiye Bilgi, a member of the PKK who died in a clash between the rebels and the military in February. In a highly symbolic meeting at the weekend, the families came together and the two women embraced each other and wept, media reported. "We have suffered greatly," Mrs Bilgi said. "We don't want to go through that kind of pain again. We want neither soldiers nor PKK members to be killed."
Yusuf Yalcin, the father of Burhan, told journalists that the family had been mourning for his son since the day he died. "Our hearts were broken," he said. "We want that no mother's and no father's heart be broken in future." The messages of reconciliation and peace reflected a new attitude in Turkey towards the Kurdish conflict. After two and a half decades of fighting, there is a sense in government circles in Ankara as well as in wide parts of society and the media that the time has come to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution.
"Let us not stick our head in the sand," the President, Abdullah Gul, who is credited with starting the current debate about the Kurdish issue, told journalists travelling with him to the Kurdish region last weekend, media reported yesterday. "It is Turkey's most important issue today," Mr Gul said in reference to the Kurdish problem. The meeting between the Yalcin and Bilgi families was arranged by a delegation from the provincial parliament in Sirnak province, a region heavily hit by the fighting that broke out when the PKK took up arms for Kurdish autonomy in 1984. Since then, an estimated 40,000 people have died. Many of those killed are Kurds. Thousands of Kurds have died during their mandatory military service in the Turkish army, much like Burhan.
Hopes for a peaceful solution to the conflict received a boost last week when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, met Ahmet Turk, the leader of Turkey's main Kurdish party, the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, for talks about the issue. Mr Erdogan's government has said it is working on a comprehensive plan to address the Kurdish issue. News reports say the plan is likely to include further steps to remove obstacles for the public use of the Kurdish language and an end to existing time limitations for Kurdish broadcasts by private television and radio stations. Public investment programmes to create jobs in the impoverished Kurdish region and improved amnesty regulations for PKK members are also on the cards.
Flanked by the two mothers, the local DTP representative Leyla Birlik told journalists the conflict could not be solved by an end to armed clashes alone. "It is a problem that contains political, cultural, economic, social and psychological dimensions." In a similar meeting, members of an association representing relatives of soldiers killed by the PKK visited a women's organisation that comprises mothers of dead PKK fighters.
At the meeting in Diyarbakir, the main city of Turkey's Kurdish region, the mothers of the PKK fighters gave white headscarves to the visitors, in a sign of peace. In Turkey, soldiers killed in battle are officially called "martyrs" and are given a state funeral, while dead PKK fighters are branded "terrorists". But media reports about the meetings of the mothers stressed that both sides had suffered greatly in the war. "A message of peace from mothers of martyrs and of PKK members," the newspaper Hurriyet said in a headline.
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is expected to publish a "road map" to end the Kurdish conflict from his prison cell on or around August 15, the anniversary of the first armed attack of his rebels in 1984. The government does not recognise the PKK leader as an interlocutor, but Mr Erdogan's meeting with Mr Turk showed that Ankara was willing to listen to what representatives of the Kurds have to say. For nationalists in Turkey's parliament, however, the government is going much too far. The right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, said top representatives of the state were bowing to PKK demands and allowing national unity to be destroyed. "They will divide this nation into 36 different ethnic groups," said Oktay Vural, a leading MHP member.
Plans to reinstate Kurdish names of towns and villages in the south-east have also drawn fire. Criticising Mr Gul for using the original Kurdish name "Norsin" for the south-eastern district of Guroymak he visited last weekend, the MHP leader Devlet Bahceli asked whether the president planned to erect road signs saying "Constantinople" around Istanbul. For more than a thousand years, the Greek name Constantinople was used for the city on the Bosphorus before the Turkish name Istanbul was officially introduced in 1930.