Plight of the Kurds forced off their land

February 11th, 2009 - 11:16 am ICT by IANS  

Somewhat conveniently separated by the multi-laned Tarlabasi Boulevard is the Beyoglu that foreign tourists rarely see, a district where live many Kurdish people forced to flee there homes in south-east Turkey, either because of poverty or because they left their villages through direct force or out of fear for their lives.

Estimates vary, but around 4,000 villages in south-east Turkey were “emptied” in the 1980s and 1990s, with around one million people forced to leave their homes and farms during fighting between the Turkish armed forces and the separatist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

More than 35,000 people have been killed, mainly Kurdish civilians, since the PKK began its war for independence or autonomy for the south-east.

“From a distance Istanbul seems very large and also very beautiful,” says Ahmed Akan, a Kurd from the south-eastern city of Midyat, who moved to the seedier side of Beyoglu in 2004.

“I was shocked when I came here. I saw thieves and crime and drugs… drugs everywhere,” says Akan, who survives through picking up construction work and selling pre-paid mobile phone cards on the streets.

It was a different sort of shock from which he lived through in the early 1990s.

“I have seen it with my own eyes, people killed or kidnapped. It was like a war against the Kurds,” says Akan who describes the period as a “time of force”.

The Turkish military were destroying villages in an attempt to stop PKK fighters from using them for shelter. In many cases, state-employed village guards, themselves Kurdish, were settled in these now abandoned villages.

Since the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan fighting between the separatists and the Turkish military fell drastically, enough for the government to lift emergency rule in the region and to institute a “return to the village” programme which envisaged giving aid to those who wanted to return to their homes.

Large numbers have returned to their homes but still live in extreme poverty. According to a study by Hacettepe University, some 88.5 percent of returnees have received no state help.

“The government has failed,” says Nuri Yalman, a parliamentarian from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) that has wide support in the southeast. “What needs to be done is obvious. Returnees need interest-free credit, they need construction materials to rebuild their homes, they need livestock and they need training.”

A greater problem for some is that their villages have been taken over by village guards employed by the state to fight the PKK.

“In my own region of Mus, people have been killed by village guards who have taken over their village,” Yalman says. Yalman also argues that the state is also not doing anything for those villagers who sold their then useless land, whether out of fear or extreme poverty, and who now have no land to return to.

The state must also help those who cannot or do not want to return to their villages, says Yalman. “Training, rental help, reduced utilities fees. These are all needed for what is a very poor region. In addition state employees such as teachers, doctors and the police should all receive bonuses for working in the south-east.”

It isn’t just poverty that has to be solved - the Kurdish problem itself must be solved if the region is to catch up to prosperous western Turkey, says Yalman.

In the streets of the seedier side of Beyoglu, Akan says Kurds have no problems with Turks: “We want our rights; language, culture, identity. That’s all. But there will be no peace until the Kurdish question is answered.”

Yahya Akman, a deputy for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) argues that the present government is making the sort of reforms that have been ignored by previous governments.

Citing reforms such as allowing private Kurdish-language courses, continued investment in infrastructure projects and the recent opening of a state Kurdish-language television channel, Akman says the situation is getting better.

“If we continue to lay the foundations then the problems, including that of the continued activities of the PKK, then the Kurdish problem will be solved,” says Akman.

In the meantime Akan will continue to eke out a living in the mega-city of Istanbul, dreaming of home and hoping the economic crisis doesn’t hit too hard.

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