x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Turkish Kurds settle feuds with an AK-47

More than 40 killed since Kurdish rebels began withdrawing in May from Kurd-dominated south-east Turkey after 30 years of fighting.

ISTANBUL // It started out as a simple land dispute.

Two Kurdish families, the Ustuns and the Ers, both claimed ownership of a wheat field nestled between the villages of Baskoy and Karatepe deep in Turkey's Kurdish region.

"One side said: 'We have the title deed.' And the other side said: 'No, we have it,'" said Hanifi Das, the leader of Baskoy village.

One evening last month, the families met in the field. According to news accounts, men on both sides brought out AK-47 assault rifles and started shooting each other.

Eight Ustun men were killed, and four members of the Er family were wounded. "Nothing like this has happened around here before," said Mr Das.

The deadly row is part of a new pattern of violence in the country's south-eastern Anatolia region, awash with firearms after nearly 30 years of guerrilla war. The number of blood feuds is rising just as Kurdish rebels have withdrawn from the region as part of efforts to end their conflict with the Turkish government, which has killed more than 40,000 since in began in 1984.

Following a call by their jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), started their retreat from Turkey to bases in northern Iraq in early May. The move is the result of negotiations between Ocalan and the Turkish government.

Since the withdrawal began, more than 40 people, including the eight Ustun family members near Baskoy, have been killed in family feuds and other violence, according to news reports of more than half a dozen cases.

Salih Akyurek, an analyst at the Wise Men Centre for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Istanbul and Ankara, said one of the reasons for the rising violence was score-settling between supporters and foes of the PKK.

"As the PKK is withdrawing, the Turkish armed forces have moved into passive positions in order not to disturb the process," Mr Akyurek said. "That is changing the balance of power in the region."

Mr Akyurek said PKK members were trying to melt into the local population, which caused friction because of the presence of the village guards, a pro-government Kurdish militia that has been fighting the PKK on Ankara's side.

Mr Das said the four Er family members were later arrested and are in prison awaiting trial. He said the two families did not even live in the area, but owned property there and had argued about the field before.

In another case last month, eight people were killed in Hazro, a small town about 20 kilometres north of the disputed wheat field, when one family accused another of coercing two of its sons into joining the PKK.

Rustem Erkan, a sociologist at Dicle University in the city of Diyarbakir, said blood feuds had always been a part of life in the Kurdish area but had decreased in recent years.

"The whole energy of the region went in to the Kurdish problem, while other problems were pushed into the background," Mr Erkan was quoted as saying by the DHA news agency. In addition, the presence of the PKK in the region had a dampening effect, he said.

Since the ceasefire, "those problems have started to come to the forefront again", Mr Erkan said. "While life in rural areas has been revitalised, the old problems have started to reappear as the PKK and the security forces draw back."

Also, the long insurgency has left many firearms in the hands of people in the region, Mr Erkan said. There are almost 50,000 village guards in south-eastern Anatolia, many of them with assault rifles.

Kurdish politicians in Turkey say the resurfacing violence in the south-east is a worrying trend.

"Whatever the reasons, we do not want people to solve their problems by shooting at each other instead of by talking and dialogue," said Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Kurdish Party for Peace and Democracy.

tseibert@thenational.ae