Trench Warfare in Turkey

In the country’s Kurdish southeast, a quiet war is raging between local residents and the state.

Women flash the victory sign on January 15, 2015 during the funeral of 12-year-old boy Nihat Kazanhan, who was allegedly shot dead by police in the Cizre district of Sirnak on January 14, in Sirnak. Prime Minister Prime Minister Ahmet Davutogu and the interior minister have denied any police involvement regarding the death of the child. AFP PHOTO / ILYAS AKENGIN (Photo credit should read ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images)

CIZRE, Turkey — “So this is peace,” Musa Karahan said, laughing. Behind him, bullet holes stretched across a row of shuttered storefronts, barely visible in the growing darkness.

Sixteen-year-old Musa, huddled under an oversized leather jacket, was supposed to be keeping watch. But he didn’t expect any action at the moment: “It’s too early for any fighting yet,” he said, gesturing toward an earthen barricade that spilled across the street, where a series of ferocious, nocturnal gunbattles have been waged in recent weeks.

CIZRE, Turkey — “So this is peace,” Musa Karahan said, laughing. Behind him, bullet holes stretched across a row of shuttered storefronts, barely visible in the growing darkness.

Sixteen-year-old Musa, huddled under an oversized leather jacket, was supposed to be keeping watch. But he didn’t expect any action at the moment: “It’s too early for any fighting yet,” he said, gesturing toward an earthen barricade that spilled across the street, where a series of ferocious, nocturnal gunbattles have been waged in recent weeks.

This isn’t the formerly besieged Syrian hamlet of Kobani or another Middle Eastern war zone — it’s Cizre, an overwhelmingly Kurdish town situated on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria and Iraq. These battles between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces now threaten to undermine peace talks between Ankara and the PKK’s jailed spiritual leader, Abdullah Ocalan, aimed at ending Turkey’s 30-year Kurdish insurgency.

The bloodshed in Cizre is a testament to the difficulties both sides have faced in burying the conflict after decades of violence. The crisis began in October, when massive protests erupted in the southeast over Ankara’s refusal to aid Kurdish defenders in Kobani, which recently withstood a four-month siege by Islamic State jihadists.

As the army rolled onto the streets to put down the largest Kurdish protests in decades, Cizre residents chose an unprecedented form of defiance: They picked up their shovels and started to dig. Overnight, residents built a crude series of trenches to keep police from entering the city’s largest neighborhoods. Four months later, those barricades still stand, a flashpoint in the deadly standoff between pro-PKK residents, police, and Islamist Kurds. Clashes have so far cost seven lives, four of them children.

Today, the trenches and security crisis remain, despite the Kurds’ declaration of victory in Kobane this week.

Ocalan himself called for calm in Cizre earlier this month, warning his followers not to stoke a conflict that has already taken more than 30,000 lives. But tensions have barely fallen in this city by the Tigris River: On Jan. 14, less than an hour after Ocalan made his appeal, 12-year-old Nihat Kazanhan was fatally shot by unknown gunmen on the city’s outskirts. The week earlier, 14-year-old Umit Kurt had been similarly killed by unknown assailants, just blocks from his family home.

For Cizre residents, the killings are no mystery. They widely blame police for both murders, arguing that just as negotiations heat up between Ankara and Ocalan, Turkey’s severely dysfunctional rule of law is undermining hopes of peace.

“There is no question who did this,” said the teenage Musa, motioning to an armored police vehicle parked just down the street from the roadblock he was manning. Sensing the growing outrage over the violence, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu declared last week that his government was “prepared to do whatever is necessary to restore public safety” in the city.

Standing on the street where his son Umit was murdered two weeks ago, Abdullah Kurt hoped Davutoglu’s words would prove true. “But I absolutely can’t believe him. How could I?” he said.

Kurt speaks with pride about his son, who, in a city blighted by rampant unemployment, had found a job as an apprentice painter. “The family business went bankrupt, so my son quit school, quit playing football with his friends,” he said. “He was our lifeline.”

Emrah Karakus, Umit’s 17-year-old friend and work supervisor, said that Umit took no interest in the political drama playing out around him. He and Umit had left a local construction site behind the barricades on the evening of Jan. 6, walking opposite ways down a dark and narrow street.

The evening was supposed to mark an easing of tensions in Cizre. Earlier in the day, neighborhood residents had refilled a trench that barred entrance to Umit’s neighborhood, a move “that should have helped bring our city back to normal,” said Cizre’s co-mayor, Kadir Kunur.

Less than an hour later, residents say, several armored police vehicles entered the newly opened road, cruising through the neighborhood’s expanse of squat, cinder block houses. Blasts of gunfire and tear gas grenades echoed through the streets, and Karakas turned to see Umit slumped to the ground, motionless, near an intersection.

“Was it the police? Who could have seen? There wasn’t a single light working on our street,” Karakus said.

Nearly three weeks after his killing, neither the police nor Cizre’s regional governor have released a statement on the death. Earlier this month, the city’s attorney general decided to classify any state findings about incident, declining to provide a reason for the decision.

The decision will turn Umit Kurt’s death into “another unsolved murder, in a list that goes back decades,” said Filiz Olmez, a human rights lawyer and the Cizre representative of the Human Rights Association, an Ankara-based NGO focused on Kurdish rights. Since 1988, conflict in the southeast has claimed the lives of over 580 children age 18 or younger, she said.

The violence threatens to harden public opinion on both sides of the conflict during the runup to Turkey’s crucial June parliamentary elections. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared that a historic deal will be struck before year’s end, Ankara is unlikely to grant Kurds major concessions before the vote. Meanwhile, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) will need to clear a 10 percent election threshold if it wants to remain in the legislature.

But it’s far from certain that it will win that crucial number. In the country’s presidential elections last August, the HDP’s candidate secured just 9.76 percent of the vote.

While it registered its candidates as independents in elections past, the HDP declared this month that it will run as a formal party in the June election. If the HDP clears the threshold, it might help push reforms to the constitution alongside the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), winning expanded regional autonomy for the southeast.

Last week, HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas vowed that his party would will continue to “advance the peace process even if it doesn’t win entry to parliament.” Not everyone, however, is so optimistic: Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, worries that an HDP loss could spur the Kurds to set up their own regional parliament — “a unilateral move that would invite serious tension and violence,” he said.

However the election plays out, it is clear that the Syrian crisis next door has thrown up obstacles to peace in Turkey. Ever since militants of the Islamic State laid siege to Kobani in September 2014, Ankara’s refusal to aid the town’s Kurdish defenders has significantly undermined relations with its own Kurdish population. While Turkey’s NATO partners launched airstrikes to aid Kurds fighting to defend the city, Erdogan declared that the city’s PKK-linked fighters were, in Ankara’s eyes, “the same as [the Islamic State].”

Hilal Atahan, who estimates that one in 10 families in Cizre have fighters in the PKK or its affiliated Syrian militia, is just one of the Cizre residents focused on the war next door. When riots erupted in October, “we thought the police would come to arrest anyone who is going to Kobani,” the 55-year-old electrician said. “We had to stop them.”

Atahan grabbed a shovel from his garden, walked to entrance of his street, and began to dig. He patrols the barricades today, unmoved by Erdogan’s decision to allow Iraqi Kurds fighters to enter Kobani in November, or the slow but steady victory Kurds seem to be winning in the besieged city.

The situation in Cizre has been made even more volatile by an intra-Kurdish conflict, pitting PKK sympathizers against a small Islamist faction within the community.

In October, as half of the town barricaded itself behind earthen roadblocks, and residents sympathetic to the PKK organized a neighborhood watch, the roughly 2,500 members of the Huda-Par party in Cizre watched in fear.

“I remember thinking, ‘We are now under siege,’” said Aziz Deniz, the local head of the Islamist party.

Hatred runs deep between his group and the PKK, which says Huda-Par is a political reboot of Hizbullah, a state-backed Islamist militant group (no relation to the Lebanese group Hezbollah) that murdered hundreds of PKK members in the 1990s.

That antagonism exploded during the Kobani protests in October, which began with the murder of six Huda-Par members by PKK sympathizers in the largely Kurdish nearby city of Diyarbakir. Angered by the party’s Islamists roots, protesters accused it both of supporting the Islamic State and allying with Turkish security forces.

In the early-morning hours of Dec. 27, a roaring, eight-hour gunbattle erupted between PKK-affiliated youth and a small Huda-Par neighborhood located just outside Cizre’s earthworks. The battle, which was halted by a late-morning police intervention, cost three PKK supporters and one Huda-Par member their lives.

Both sides accuse the other of launching the attack, though the particulars have been lost amid two weeks of nighttime skirmishes between security forces and guerrillas.

“Who would stop the clashes from happening again?” asked Deniz, who stood outside the bullet-riddled home where his 65-year-old father, Abdullah, was fatally shot during the fighting.

Many in Deniz’s neighborhood say that Huda-Par is seeking to reprise its violent past, and claim it covertly fights alongside the police. Ankara has certainly sought closer ties with the party: After fighting broke out in Cizre in December, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said that Huda-Par was “the oppressed party and a victim.”

It seems unlikely, however, that those closer ties have turned Huda-Par into a state-supported gang. “The truth is, we barely trust the police more than the PKK,” said Deniz, who recalls frantically calling the police for help the night his father was killed. By the time a convoy of armored police vehicles arrived to break up the fighting eight hours after it started, his father had died waiting for an ambulance.

Deniz fears what will happen next, now that the inquiry into the recurring violence is in the government’s hands. If there is no transparent investigation into the killings of Umit and other youth in Cizre, “maybe people will hold us responsible,” Deniz guessed. “If they do, the PKK could attack us, and the fighting would start again.”

As Cizre residents struggle to explain the last month of violence, many have turned to conspiracy theories. The country’s top politicians have indulged them: Last week, President Erdogan declared that the violence has been the work of ally-turned-foe cleric Fetullah Gulen.

“Today we know of the conspiracy that is being worked up in Cizre, and are taking measures accordingly,” Erdogan said.

But it doesn’t take a conspiracy theory to understand that Cizre’s biggest woe isn’t Erdogan’s shadowy foe or the renewed cycle of Kurd-on-Kurd violence, said the Human Rights Association’s Filiz Olmez. Rather, the true enemy of peace in this city is “the long-established impunity of the police, and the reluctance of the state to investigate unsolved murders,” she said.

Nowhere did that seem clearer than from a hilltop on the city’s outskirts, where 12-year-old Nihat Kazanhan was killed on Jan. 14. Yahya Ertener, 16, had seen the boy playing there with his friends just an hour after a delegation of Kurdish politicians read Ocalan’s message urging calm to a crowd of thousands. Ertener, watching from a nearby street corner, claims to have seen a police vehicle approach the boys and fire a tear gas grenade. Next, he heard gunshots.

After the police vehicle departed, Ertener and his friends rushed towards Kazanhan. They flagged down a passing vehicle and sped the injured boy to the hospital. “But we knew it was hopeless,” said Ertener. Gazing back at the hill, he stopped speaking, put his head in his hands, and began to cry.

A ballistics report completed by police shortly after Kazanhan’s death has proven inconclusive. On Jan. 28, a police video of Kazanhan’s killing was leaked to the press: It showed Kazanhan fall to the ground as he stood between a small group of protesters and police who fired tear gas, but did not shed light on the identity or affiliation of his killer.

Authorities have since promised an investigation into the murder. While Prime Minister Davutoglu firmly stated that it was “absolutely out of the question that [Kazanhan] was murdered by a bullet from security officers,” the Interior Ministry promised in a press release last week that police involvement in the killing would not be ruled out.

But Cizre residents struggle to believe the conflict won’t flare up again.

“There’s no way life could return to normal right now,” said Emrah Sakcak, laying out a cocktail of painkillers for his bedridden brother, Celebi, who was wounded by gunfire the night of Umit Kurt’s killing. “Security can’t exist when the people providing it are killing children.”

Frequent gunbattles, frightening police, and power outages that keep this city’s streets menacingly dark: It seems Cizre is the perfect place to get away with anything.

“If you don’t solve that,” said Emrah Sakcak. “How can you have peace?”


Noah Blaser is a journalist based in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter: @nblaser18.