Winner, Project Censored’s Top Ten Stories
By Kevin McKiernan
March/April 1999 pp. 26-37 (vol. 55, no. 02) © 1999
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Behind army lines in the Turkish province of Siirt, scores
of frightened refugees were on the run. They were Kurdish
families, fleeing a village that had recently been burned
by the Turkish army. When I caught up to them, they were
fording the Tigris River, guiding a long line of donkeys
laden with refrigerators and other goods.
In the village, most of the houses were in ashes. Only
a handful of residents had returned to scavenge some of
their belongings. The local mayor told me that an army
commander, accompanied by a group of government-armed
village guards, had arrived and given residents 24 hours
to get out of town. Some quickly dug holes in the outlying
fields to bury valuables; others just gathered up what
they could carry and abandoned the rest.
I walked through the rubble, taking pictures. The destruction
was fresh, maybe a couple of days old, and some of it
was still smoldering. I heard an army helicopter overhead.
It was American-made, a Sikorsky Black Hawk, the type
the Turkish army uses to land troops in the villages.
But it was high in the air, on a different mission. I
finished my work and moved on.
Roots run deep
At 25 million, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their
own state. With a similar language, religion, and culture, the Kurds have lived
for thousands of years in an area that is now part of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria,
and the former Soviet Union. Today, the 15 million Kurds who live in Turkey constitute
about 25 percent of that country's population.
After World War I, Kurds hoped to create a homeland from the wreckage of the
Ottoman Empire, but those dreams vanished with the birth of the Turkish Republic
in 1923. Riding a wave of nationalism, Mustafa Kemal--known as Ataturk, "the
Father of the Turks"--imposed a single identity on the multicultural population
of Turkmans, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, and others. Most minorities were forcibly
assimilated; everyone became a Turk. (The Kurds were called "Mountain Turks" until
after the Gulf War in 1991.)
In the first 25 years of the Turkish Republic there were dozens of Kurdish uprisings.
All were crushed, but discontent continued. In 1984, a Marxist-led group called
the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, began an armed struggle against the government.
The war in Turkey represents the single largest use of U.S. weapons anywhere
in the world by non-U.S. forces, according to Bill Hartung of the World Policy
Institute. "I can think of no instance since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon
in 1982," he said, "where American weaponry has been put to this concentrated
a use." In 15 years of fighting in Turkey nearly 40,000 lives have been
lost, more than in the conflicts on the West Bank and in Northern Ireland combined.
The two million refugees produced by the war in Kurdistan are roughly the number
of homeless created by the widely reported war in Bosnia, where U.S. weapons
were not a factor. In contrast, 75 percent of the Turkish arsenal was made in
the United States, according to estimates.
Despite these statistics, the civil strife in Turkey has received comparatively
little coverage in the U.S. media. Television news rarely mentions the Kurds,
unless the story relates to the Iraqi Kurds. It is almost as though there are
two sets of Kurds--the Kurds in Iraq, who seem to be viewed as the "good" Kurds
because they oppose Saddam, and the Kurds in Turkey, who are "bad" because
they oppose a U.S. ally. It doesn't seem to matter that there are four times
as many Kurds in Turkey, or that both populations have suffered repression from
their respective governments.
Until 1991, Kurdish music and language, dress, associations,
and newspapers were banned by the Turkish government.
After the Gulf War, Kurdish printing was legalized,
but in the intervening years numerous Kurdish newspaper
offices have been bombed and closed. More than a dozen
Kurdish journalists, as well as numerous politicians
and activists, have been killed by death squads (human
rights groups list more that 4,000 extra judicial killings
during the period). Despite 15 years of fighting the
PKK, Turkey today has no POWs; most rebels, according
to the government, have been "captured dead."
But there are large numbers of civilian Kurds in Turkish
prisons where, according to organizations like Amnesty
International, the use of torture is routine.
Kurdish TV and radio are still illegal in Turkey, although the government has
promised to soften the ban. The Kurdish language still may not be taught in schools
or used by merchants on storefronts or in advertising. It is illegal in Turkey
for parents to give their child a Kurdish name.
Shepherds and soldiers
In June 1995, the army commander from the city of Mardin informed residents of
the village of Alimlikoy--called Bilalya by the Kurds--that they would have to
go on the payroll of the state as village guards. The villagers were reluctant
to become guards because that would put them in the middle of the war with the
PKK rebels. They were shepherds who spent long, isolated hours in the mountains
with their flocks; they feared that if they accepted weapons from the government,
they would become targets for the guerrillas. The Turkish officer gave them two
weeks to think about it. When no answer was forthcoming, he arrested the "muhtar," or
village elder. The shepherd who walked me into Alimlikoy--overland, around the
blockaded road--told me the muhtar had been kept in jail for several days. He
had been beaten, according to the shepherd, "but not badly."
On the day the muhtar was released, which was shortly before my arrival, the
villagers hired trucks to haul away household goods and as much of the ripening
harvest of lentils and barley as they could carry. I arrived in time to see some
of the harvests, piled in heaps by the side of the road. The Kurds were pouring
salvaged grain into plastic bags, which they hoped to sell at the market. On
a hillside, a giant sign read: "Happy is He Who Can Call Himself a Turk."
Back in Alimlikoy, I asked the shepherd why he hadn't just agreed to become a
guard. "Why would we?" he asked. "We have our fields and our animals.
We have an income.
Besides," he said with some emphasis, "why should we try to do a job
that not even the state can accomplish?"
U.S. arms and human rights
Since 1980 the United States has sold or given Turkey--a NATO ally--$15 billion
worth of weapons. In the last decade the Turkish army has leveled, burned, or
forcibly evacuated more than 3,000 Kurdish villages. That is roughly three-quarters
the number of Kurdish settlements destroyed in Iraq in the 1980s during Saddam
Hussein's infamous "Anfal" campaign, when the West was arming Iraq
and turning a blind eye to widespread human rights violations.
Most of the destruction in Turkey took place between 1992 and 1995, during the
Clinton administration's first term. In 1995 the administration acknowledged
that American arms had been used by the Turkish government in domestic military
operations "during which human rights abuses have occurred." In a report
ordered by Congress, the State Department admitted that the abuses included the
use of U.S. Cobra helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and F-16 fighter bombers.
In some instances, critics say, entire Kurdish villages were obliterated from
The administration conceded that the Turkish policy had forced more than two
million Kurds from their homes. Some of the villages were evacuated and burned,
bombed, or shelled by government forces to deprive the PKK of a "logistical
base of operations," according to the State Department report, while others
were targeted because their inhabitants refused to join the "village guards," a
brutal military tactic--patterned on the Vietnam-era "model villages" program--that
requires civilian Kurds to fight Kurdish guerrillas.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group, said the State Department
had issued only "half conclusions" in its report, so as to avoid offending
the Turkish government. Human Rights Watch, which has also criticized the PKK
rebels for serious rights violations, said the U.S.-supplied Turkish army was "responsible
for the majority of forced evacuation and destruction of villages."
In a 1998 interview, John Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human
rights, defended U.S. arms deliveries to Turkey. Shattuck, a one-time professor
at Harvard and a former member of the advisory board at Amnesty International,
said that although abuses against Kurds were "a matter of grave concern" to
the United States, Turkey's human rights record was improving. And in any case,
he added, "I don't think the United States is responsible for Turkey's internal
Some members of Congress strongly disagree. Cong. Cynthia McKinney, a Democrat
from Georgia, believes that human rights, democracy, and nonaggression criteria
should be applied before American weapons are sold or given to countries like
Turkey. "If they are going to be our ally and they are also going to receive
our weapons," McKinney said, "the least that we can do is to suggest
to them that they not use the weapons against their own people." McKinney
led the fight in 1997 for a code of conduct, which would have mandated congressional
review of such transfers. The code, which was opposed by the White House, passed
in the House but did not receive adequate support in the Senate, where it died
in conference committee.
Last September the code was reintroduced with 80 co-sponsors in the House, but
the session adjourned before a vote could be taken. Congress did pass a less
comprehensive measure, an amendment introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont
Democrat, which prohibits U.S. military aid to foreign security units that the
State Department has found to have "committed gross violations of human
rights." The so-called "Leahy Amendment" also bars funding for
military training programs if a member of a unit has been found to have committed "gross
human rights violations."
Many Europeans are also uneasy with Turkey's current policies. Turkey has been
angling for admission to the European Union for years, but the EU, citing the
lack of freedom of expression, the jailing and torture of dissidents, and the
state of emergency in Kurdish areas, has locked the door. The Kurdish problem,
according to Hugo Paeman, the EU's ambassador to the United States, "is
only a reflection of the fact that we don't have the type of government [in Turkey]
which we would feel comfortable with within the European Union."
Paeman, a Belgian, said it was difficult for the EU to negotiate in good faith
with the civilian government in Ankara when the army generals behind the scenes
held the real power. "Do you feel that you are actually not talking to the
people who are running Turkey?" I asked him. "Up to a certain point,
yes," he responded.
In view of that, I asked, is Turkish democracy merely a façade? Ambassador
Paeman paused to make eye contact with his aide, a Danish official, before answering. "One
can say that," he replied.
Feeding the spirit
When I met Ali in 1996, he was drinking tea and playing cards in Midyat, one
of dozens of Kurdish towns overflowing with refugees. Ali and his wife and nine
kids had all fled Shehkir, a farming village known for its sweet cherries. Long
ago the Turks had changed the name of the place to Kocasirt, which is how it
appeared on the map. But Ali, like others who had lived there, still called it
Having agreed to take me to the village, Ali drove gingerly down a hill toward
his old home, carefully scanning the rock-studded road for signs of surface digging.
He said the army often mines access to abandoned Kurdish villages. The week before,
on the road to another vacated settlement, a man and a woman were badly injured
when a land mine exploded under their donkey. "I have seen President Clinton
on television," he told me in a trusting tone. "I don't think he would
permit these bad things to happen if he knew about them."
Ali said that in the summer of 1994, 16 army tanks rolled through his village
searching for Kurdish guerrillas. Some of the tanks had rubber wheels, like the
kind the Germans sell to Turkey; the others were track vehicles, like the M-48
and M-60 tanks made in the United States.
Even though no rebels were found, the soldiers returned a few months later and
delivered an ultimatum to the people: Become village guards or abandon your homes.
The 70-year-old muhtar insisted the villagers had never fed or otherwise assisted
the rebels; they just wanted to grow their crops. He told the soldiers that the
people chose to be left alone. It was the wrong choice.
A few nights later, the muhtar was dragged from his home and shot. The townspeople
still refused to take arms from the government. Instead, they gathered their
furniture and household belongings and moved away.
Whatever Kocasirt had been before, it was now a collection of deserted, burned,
and dynamited houses. It was a ghost town, except for the cemetery. There we
encountered an old woman who had just returned to the village by foot. She was
wailing softly and sprinkling red cherries on a tombstone. She said she was "feeding
the spirit" of her dead brother. My guide recognized her: She was the sister
of the muhtar. Reaching for a weed in the overgrown graveyard, the woman made
a sweeping motion with one hand. "They just plucked him like a flower," she
The Washington-Ankara alliance
Because of its strategic location in the Middle East, between the Balkans and
the southern republics of the former Soviet Union, Turkey has served as a major
U.S. ally for more than 50 years. The low point in the alliance came in 1974,
when in response to the invasion of northern Cyprus by Turkey's U.S.-equipped
armed forces, Congress placed a total embargo on U.S. arms transfers to Turkey.
The invasion, which has been condemned by numerous U.N. resolutions, might have
permanently altered the U.S.-Turkish relationship--had it not been for the fall
of the U.S.-backed regime in Iran in 1979.
For the United States, a decades-old strategy in the Gulf collapsed with the
demise of the Shah. Not only was its Cold War containment strategy threatened,
the United States now regarded Islam, stretching from North Africa through the
Gulf to southwest Asia, as the single biggest threat to U.S. interests in the
region. Turkey, like Israel and Egypt, would form the cornerstone of the new
policy to contain Iran and the further spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
Good relations between the United States and Turkey weathered a 1980 coup, in
which Turkish army generals overthrew the country's democratically elected leaders.
(Almost 20 years later the army's power over the constitution and other Turkish
laws is unquestioned.) Within months of the coup, the United States and Turkey
signed the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement, a treaty which gave the
United States the right to locate military bases in Turkey, which borders both
Iran and Iraq, in exchange for a promise to modernize Turkey's armed forces.
The agreement proved vital to U.S. strategy against Saddam Hussein in the Gulf
War. The Allies flew hundreds of bombing missions against Iraqi targets from
Turkish air space. The Turks also agreed to shut down the Iraqi pipeline where
it entered Turkey's southeast border. That decision, made at considerable cost
to Turkish interests, was key to the post-war embargo of Iraq.
Turkey's value to U.S. policy-makers today is more than just its proximity to
Iran and Iraq or the perceived need to contain the spread of Islam. There is
also the issue of petroleum. The Caspian Sea to the east is thought to contain
more than 100 billion barrels of oil. Capturing the deposits is a mammoth project,
the stakes are high, and the parties play hardball. The agreement signed by a
consortium of global companies to recover the oil represents the most lucrative
contract of any kind in the twentieth century.
No one yet knows how the crude oil will be transported to the West, but the United
States is pushing for a pipeline to be built through Turkey to the Mediterranean
Sea. Amoco and British Petroleum, the largest companies in the consortium, want
to build a shorter pipeline through Georgia and then ship the oil by tanker through
the Black Sea. But both companies are currently involved in other projects in
Turkey, and Turkey has threatened to revoke their operating permits if they fail
to support the Turkish route for Caspian oil. As it turns out, such a route would
pass through the center of Kurdistan. Kurdish guerrillas, who already have blown
up sections of the Iraqi pipeline and Turkish oil fields in the southeast, have
vowed to block the project.
Kurds v. Kurds
In 1994, when I last visited Gorumlu--a settlement tucked into the base of a
mountain on the Turkish side of the Iraqi border--the village showed signs of
support for the rebels, and the area was often the scene of firefights with the
army. But today the local Kurds are on the government payroll. The village guards
in Gorumlu had joined the widespread program of rural pacification, the army
strategy introduced in 1985. In this area the guards were especially valuable
because they knew the PKK trails along the border; they had served as scouts
for soldiers in several incursions into Iraq in search of rebel base camps.
Because of their decision, the villagers were able to keep their homes. The state
was giving them weapons, bullets, U.S.-made Motorola radios, and a salary of
$250 a month--far more than they could make as farmers. With their help, the
Turkish army had driven the guerrillas deep into the mountains, and clashes in
the village had become less frequent. But Gorumlu's switchover was not without
The PKK, many of whose local members had been recruited from Gorumlu, views both
the guards and their families as Turkish collaborators, and claims that both
are legitimate military targets. Soon after one army incursion into nearby Iraq,
the guerrillas launched a coordinated attack against the village and the nearby
army garrison, resulting in civilian deaths.
During the battle, the army commander told me he had intercepted a radio transmission,
which he said came from a PKK superior, urging his fighters to "hit the
little mice as well as the big mice." According to the Turkish officer and
several villagers, four children were killed and several adults were injured
when the PKK threw a grenade through a window of one of the houses. For its part,
the PKK has denied responsibility for the attack, blaming instead the Kontra
Gerilla--death squads they say are linked to the Turkish security forces.
Buyers and suppliers
Today, the United States has several intelligence-gathering posts in Turkey,
including a radar installation in Mardin, a largely Kurdish city. The Mardin
facility was built by gm Hughes of El Segundo, California, the parent company
of Delco Systems. The radar site is said to be capable of "seeing" deep
into Iraq, Iran, and south central Asia.
NATO has major installations in Turkey, the most prominent of which is at Incirlik,
near the city of Adana. U.S. intelligence planes, including the giant AWACS,
take off daily from Incirlik for flights over northern Iraq, monitoring traffic
both in Iraq and Iran. U.S. F-15s and F-16s, as well as British aircraft, make
regular sorties into northern Iraq, patrolling the "no-fly" zone for
violations by Saddam Hussein's air force.
Turkey's war with the Kurds draws on weaponry from dozens of American companies,
including McDonnell Douglas, General Dynamics, Hughes, Boeing, Raytheon, and
Bell Textron. Kurdish refugees driven into northern Iraq from destroyed villages
in Turkey rarely know any English, but in recounting the rocketing of their settlements,
they regularly use the words "Cobra" and "Sikorsky," the
U.S.-made helicopters used to clear Kurdish villages.
The "King Cobra," the gunship produced by Bell Textron in Texas, is
a strong contender for a new Turkish arms contract worth almost $4 billion. In
1997 the State Department granted market licenses to Bell and to Boeing Aircraft
for attack helicopters (Boeing makes the "Apache" gunship), but future
sales by either company could be delayed if human rights concerns are raised
again in Congress. In 1996 Turkey canceled the purchase of 10 Super Cobra helicopters
when Congress delayed that deal to consider whether Turkey was using the Cobra
against Kurdish civilians. If that happens again, Turkey could buy attack helicopters
from France or could turn to a version of the weapon built jointly by Russia
and Israel, without strings attached. In fact, the burgeoning relationship between
Ankara and Jerusalem--which includes Israeli upgrades of Turkey's F-4, F-5, and
F-16 fighters; the development of medium-range missiles; and the conduct of joint
military exercises--has increasingly allowed Turkey to circumvent U.S. and European
The giant helicopter sale is one of two prospective U.S. arms transfers that
have generated strong opposition from human rights groups. The other is a $45
million sale by av Technologies in Michigan for 140 armored personnel carriers
(APCs) to Turkey. Turkey already has an estimated 2,800 U.S.-made APCs (most
of which were made in California by FMC--the Food Machinery Corporation).
The new APCs are intended for use by Turkey's "anti-terror" police
units. Amnesty International USA conducted a three-year study on these police
groups, which it sent to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in an effort to
block the transfer. The report provides examples of identified "anti-terror" units
torturing children, sexually assaulting prisoners, using electric shock torture,
beating, burning, and the near-drowning of suspects, as well as other gross violations.
Among 280 victims of the "anti-terror" units mentioned in the report
were "infants, children, and the elderly." But last December, despite
such evidence, the State Department OK'd the arms deal. Because of the recently
enacted Leahy Amendment, some restrictions were placed on the use of U.S. loans
for APCs destined for areas of conflict, but the export license for all 140 vehicles
to the "anti-terror" police was approved.
That was consistent with past practices, in which arms deals involving Turkey
have moved along expeditiously. In 1992 and 1993 the Pentagon quietly facilitated
a mammoth military shipment to Turkey at no cost. According to the U.N. arms
registry, the U.S. government turned over 1,509 tanks, 54 fighter planes, and
28 heavily armed attack helicopters to Turkey. The weapons were slated for reduction
after the Cold War under a 1990 treaty on conventional forces in Europe. Instead
of scrapping them, the United States simply gave them away. There was no congressional
oversight or public debate about the transfer, nor was there much question about
the purpose of the unprecedented arms shipment. As Jane's Defence Weekly revealed
as early as 1993, "a high proportion of defense equipment supplied to Turkey
is being used in operations against the PKK."
Military assistance to Turkey has even included the use of American soldiers.
Last year, according to the Washington Post, a special operations team authorized
by the Joint Combined Exchange Training Act, a little-known law passed by Congress,
conducted its first mission to Turkey. The U.S. team was sent to train the Turkish
Mountain Commandos, "a unit whose chief function is to fight Kurdish guerrillas."
Turkey also benefits from the International Military Education and Training program,
a Pentagon program funded through the foreign aid budget. From 1984, when the
PKK's uprising began, to 1997, about 2,500 Turkish officers received training.
Bill Hartung of the World Policy Institute says that much of the training of
the Turkish military focuses on how to use weapons already purchased from American
companies. Hartung estimates U.S. taxpayers have already paid "tens of millions
of dollars" to train Turkish forces to fight the Kurds.
Çizre has been "cleaned," the Turkish policeman said proudly.
And in one sense he was right. The largely Kurdish town of 25,000, located about
miles north of the Iraqi border, was firmly under the control of the Turkish
When I was there in 1994, Çizre was a hotbed of PKK resistance. That memory
was still fresh as I rented my old room at the ratty Kadioglu, where an intermittently
lit sign said "Turistik Hotel." The room had an outdoor balcony, which
overlooked the sign, and from there I used to watch the exchange of tracer fire
after dark, the surreal streams of yellow lighting up the intersection below.
In 1992, during "Newroz," the Kurdish new year, the Turkish army shot
and killed a photojournalist near the Kadioglu. Since my last visit, someone
had repaired the concrete balcony by my room, patching over the bullet-pocked
The reception clerk told me he was getting tired of it all--tired of the war
and tired of all the unpaid tasks he was forced to perform. He was still cooperative
with the police, and he had no use for the rebels. But, like many accommodating
Kurds, he was growing progressively alienated. It was true that the guerrillas
had been driven into the tops of the mountains, their logistical base disrupted
by deforestation and the widespread destruction of villages. But the government
seemed to be losing the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Kurds.
The hotel clerk complained that he had to inform the police of all movements
by reporters: "When you get up, when you go out, and when you return. It's
incredible," he said. "We have to telephone three different places
each time: the Army, MIT (military intelligence), and the regular police. Why
can't we just call one place, and let them handle the rest?" What he really
wanted was a sort of clearinghouse for the surveillance of the press, and we
got to joking about it. In jest, I asked him to notify the police that I had
used a hotel toilet at 6 a.m. that day, and again at 7:30.
He smiled, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes. "What can we do?" he
Internationalizing the conflict
The case of PKK leader Abdullah Oçalan has raised the profile of the Kurds
in recent months. Oçalan--widely known as Apo--was arrested in November
1998 in the Rome airport after arriving from Moscow. After a decade of directing
PKK activities from Damascus, Oçalan and other PKK officials had been
expelled from Syria a month earlier when Turkish troops began massing on the
border, threatening to escalate a long-running political feud between Turkey
Turkish officials were jubilant when Oçalan was detained, but their euphoria
soon turned to outrage. The Kurdish leader, whom the government charged with "tens
of thousands of murders" in the 15-year-old uprising, would have faced execution
if returned to Turkey. But the Italian constitution bars extradition to countries
where the death penalty is in force. Within days Italy announced it would not
extradite, and Oçalan was released.
Turkish politicians unleashed a firestorm of protest. Across Turkey the police
reacted by staging raids on the offices of HADEP, the legal Kurdish party. More
than 3,000 HADEP members were jailed within a few days. According to human rights
groups, a number of party members were subjected to torture; two died in custody.
In Istanbul, the nation's top business lobbies urged a total boycott of Italian
goods (Italy ranks as the world's second largest exporter to Turkey). But the
European Union immediately threatened Turkey with economic sanctions if it followed
through with the boycott.
Turkey's harsh attacks on EU-member Italy seemed especially inflammatory, considering
Turkey's persistent efforts to be accepted for membership in the EU. But the
Oçalan affair was shaping up to be the nastiest row in memory between
NATO members, and the dispute was widening.
Massimo D'Alema, Italy's prime minister, called on the Kurdish leader to renounce
violence, a minimum requirement to be considered for political asylum. Oçalan
responded by saying: "I am ready to do my part to halt terrorism." He
called for a political solution to the war, a demand that Turkey had repeatedly
rejected. The disavowal of violence was welcomed by D'Alema, but the Italian
leader further angered Turkey by declaring that the struggle of the Kurdish people
was an ancient and complex problem that could not be regarded solely in the context
The PKK leader likened his cause to that of the PLO, the IRA, and Basque separatists,
movements that sought to make a transition from warfare to diplomacy. He asserted
that he had come to Italy to launch the political phase of the Kurdish struggle.
Meanwhile, 40,000 Kurds from across Europe gathered in Germany to demonstrate
on Oçalan's behalf.
Others condemned the Kurdish leader. Human Rights Watch, which had repeatedly
attacked Turkey for abuses against the Kurds, sent a letter to D'Alema charging
Oçalan's PKK with massacres in Turkey's southeast, primarily in the early
1990s. The majority of the victims were village guards and their families and
Turkish teachers who were targeted by the guerrillas as state collaborators.
Opposing extradition to Turkey, Human Rights Watch called instead for Oçalan
to be tried under international law in Italy or another EU country.
In January, Oçalan left Italy of his own accord, reportedly aboard an
Italian secret service airplane to Moscow, from which he transited to an undisclosed
location. His brief appearance on the European stage--and the diplomatic tornado
it whipped up--had received more publicity in two months than he or the PKK had
generated in 15 years of guerrilla warfare. But it was increasingly clear that
he would not be awarded political asylum and, with relations deteriorating with
Turkey, Italy warned Oçalan that if he stayed in the country, he might
be brought to trial on terror charges. Ironically, such a trial could also have
been Turkey's worst nightmare if it had exposed state terror as well as rebel
terror and if it had sparked an international review of the long-standing civil
war in that country.
Until now, Turkey has been able to ignore Western demands for dialogue with the
Kurds. The brutal scorched earth campaign in the southeast has been a military
success. The deforestation and village burnings have been accomplished with little
press attention, a minimum of public debate, and no censure from the United Nations.
And the PKK, though still a force to be reckoned with, recently has been beset
by internal conflicts and beleaguered by defections. Oçalan's arrest,
in Turkey's eyes, could have finished the rebels once and for all. But now his
fate, the "Kurdish question," and Turkey's suitability as a member
of the European Union have once again been postponed.
In early February, two months in advance of the increasingly important national
elections, Turkey took steps to ban the HADEP party. Officials said that some
members of HADEP, which has more than 3,000 registered members, had shown sympathy
for the guerrillas by participating in hunger strikes and other non-violent activity
following Oçalan's arrest in Rome.
HADEP represents the Kurds' only potential interlocutor with the government other
than the rebels. The bid to outlaw the party, which would deny the Kurds any
representation in the Turkish parliament, startled the United States and its
allies, alienated moderate Kurds, and further undermined the country's fragile
For all the military assistance the United States has provided its ally over
the years, Turkey remains politically unstable. The ruling coalition in Ankara
recently collapsed in a corruption-related scandal, and the Islamic party, the
scourge of the Turkish army, is stronger today than at any time in history. While
still a minority party, it is widely expected to win the national elections this
spring. The country is unstable economically as well, and inflation is rampant,
a reflection of the fact that $100 billion has been spent, just since 1991, to
defeat the rebels.
On the surface, very little seems to have changed. The
government still has 300,000 security forces in the
southeast, and Apo is underground once again. Notwithstanding
recent events, the battleground has yet to shift from
the Turkish-Iraqi mountains to the political salons
of the Continent. Turkey still boasts the largest army
in NATO (after the United States), but the path to diplomatic
acceptance in Europe--despite dogged U.S. efforts--will
be clouded by the Kurds for some time to come.
March/April 1999 pp. 26-37 (vol. 55,
no. 02) © 1999 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists