x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A rising wave of ethnic violence

Conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdish rebel group PKK is increasingly being mirrored by clashes between civilians.

Thousands demonstrate against the Kurdish rebel group PKK in Altinova in Turkey's Balikesir province.
Thousands demonstrate against the Kurdish rebel group PKK in Altinova in Turkey's Balikesir province.

ISTANBUL // It started with a harmless quarrel on a street in a provincial town on Turkey's Aegean coast. When it was over, two people were dead, shops owned by Kurds in the town were destroyed, and troops had to be called in to restore peace. Today, the name of the town, Altinova, stands for tensions between Kurds and Turks that have become violent as the conflict in the Kurdish region of the country escalates. "It started in Altinova, but it can grow, like a wave, and affect other parts of the country as well," Nursel Aydogan, a member of the central administration of Turkey's main Kurdish party, the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, said yesterday. "This is not acceptable." As the conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdish rebel group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, escalates with almost daily clashes in south-eastern Anatolia and a rising number of Turkish soldiers being killed, Kurds in other parts of Turkey have felt themselves under pressure. "Somebody has proclaimed us the enemy," Onder Kara, a Kurd from Altinova, told the Turkish daily Milliyet. Since the PKK took up arms against Ankara to fight for Kurdish autonomy in 1984, more than 40,000 people have died in fighting between the rebels and the army. Thousands of villages have been destroyed, and millions of Turkish Kurds fled the war over the past decades and settled in western parts of the country. But events like the one in Altinova make some of them think that their Turkish neighbours would like them to go. "Frankly, they don't want us here," Suleyman Alan, a Kurd in Altinova, told a delegation of the Human Rights Association, or IHD, a Turkish rights group that investigated the riots. Altinova, a town of 11,000 people that few Turks had ever heard of before, became notorious after riots between Turks and Kurds there on Sept 30 left two people dead. According to news reports and statements by authorities, a 23-year-old Turkish man, Oguz Dortkardes, was listening to loud music from the stereo of his parked car in front of an apartment building. When people living in the building, most of whom were Kurds, complained about the noise, a heated discussion ensued, attracting a number of Turks. A Kurdish man, Murat Aksu, ploughed into the crowd with his van, killing Mr Dortkardes and another man. Mr Aksu was arrested. The incident sparked days of unrest and anti-Kurdish protests in the town. Kurdish-owned shops were vandalised, cars were burnt. Police called in reinforcements to protect parts of Altinova with a high Kurdish population. Crowds at the funerals of the two victims chanted "Altinova is ours and will remain ours" and attacked Kurdish shops again. Police arrested several dozen people. Only a few days later, the suspected killing of a Turkish boy by Kurds over the theft of a motorbike triggered similar protests in the southern city of Adana. Reports said the protests went far beyond the actual incident and turned political, with crowds marching with Turkish flags and chanting anti-Kurdish slogans. In Karaculha, near the resort town of Fethiye in Turkey's south-west, security forces blocked about 50 people who were singing anti-Kurdish slogans from entering a part of town known for its large Kurdish population. The events have added to a perception, widespread among the country's 12 million Kurds, that the Turkish government and state institution do not really care about them. "Local authorities did not do enough against the riots," the IHD rights group said in its report about Altinova. Especially the paramilitary units of the Gendarmerie, a security force that has police powers in Turkey's rural areas, "preferred to watch the events", instead of stepping in to help the Kurds whose shops were being destroyed, the IHD said. "If people see a Kurd in a Turkish metropolis, they immediately say: 'He's PKK'," Ms Aydogan of the Kurdish DTP party said about Turkish prejudices against Kurds. She said that in routine police controls in such cities as Istanbul, people whose identity cards showed a town in the Kurdish region as a birthplace were automatically treated as suspicious. "Not all Turkish Kurds are PKK," she said. But pressure and discrimination led many non-supporters of the rebels to embrace their cultural identity as Kurds. The DTP has been accused by Turkey's top prosecutor of being the political arm of the PKK and is facing a ban by the constitutional court in Ankara. Fears of reprisals by Turks have made many Kurds decide against moving out of south-eastern Anatolia to other parts of the country, economist Mustafa Sonmez told Milliyet daily after the Altinova riots. "A tragic culture of lynching is spreading in Turkey, the latest examples of which we have seen in Altinova and Adana," he said. As a result, Kurds were staying in their homes in south-eastern Turkey, despite better chances for well-paid jobs in the more affluent west of the country. "If you talk to people from the south-east, they now say: 'We are poor here, but at least we are safe'," Mr Sonmez said. tseibert@thenational.ae