Turkey: War on Three Fronts

My journey through the country that fights with its Kurdish minority, Gulenist coup-plotters and Daesh lunatics.

Enter Kurdistan

You drive on one of the brand new Turkish highways. Without warning a huge hole in the middle of the road appears. It isn’t an accident, someone destroyed the road on purpose. You know that this is an area populated by the Kurds, but the fights should be happening in the south. So what is this?

“It can be PKK (People’s Party of Kurdistan) trying to stop the military from using the road. It can also be military trying to stop PKK from using the road,” tells me my Mehmet, a guy who hosted me in Van, one of the bigger Kurdish cities.

Holes don’t appear on highways on their own.

I use the steep sidetrack and get to the other side of this road obstruction. I saw many more later. Driver of a van grabs a shovel and evens the terrain so they can pass. There is tension in the air: what if we are watched by the people who dug out the hole? What if they don’t want us to continue the travel? And what lies ahead?

What do you do if there isn’t any road? Dig one for yourself!

Terrorists and freedom fighters

Eastern and southern Turkey have majority Kurdish population. A hundred years ago this area was called Western Armenia and was largely populated by Armenians. After 1915. genocide which was perpetrated by both Turkish and Kurdish forces there aren’t Armenians left. But ever since this area is in a constant state of conflict.

UK’s foreign ministry map of dangerous areas. The eastern part is not marked and is the most dangerous according to the people I talked with.

Actually until 1991, Turkish state didn’t even recognize that the Kurds exist. They called them Mountain Turks and many people were arrested and imprisoned for just mentioning the word “Kurd” or speaking in Kurdish language. Nowadays when you pass Kurdish areas, you face military checkpoints every 50km, with anxious young soldiers pointing rifles at you, checking your luggage and identity. Since people say I look a bit Turkish (or Kurdish), soldiers usually don’t understand that I’m a foreigner and think I’m messing with them when I just sit there with a confused smile.

Police is nowhere to be seen in Kurdish areas. Only Gendarmerie, an army branch.

Besides a few shake-downs everything goes fine. But one can imagine how living here and not having freedom to move, to assemble, to speak can increase your aversion to the state and increase the sympathy for the rebels who fight for autonomy. These rebels are overwhelmingly fighting under the banner of PKK (Kurdistan’s Workers Party), but there are also some smaller and more radical groups. PKK during its many decades changed strategy and tactics many times, from classical terrorist targeting of civilians to more military-like targeting of government’s assets and forces.

One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. While many Kurds have a positive opinion of PKK, it is on the list of terrorist organizations in the US and the EU. However, Switzerland, China, Russia and Egypt (to name just a few) don’t regard it as a terrorist organization.

Personally, my experience with the Kurds is the best one I had on this journey. Maybe it’s because of the isolation, maybe because of the tradition, but I couldn’t fill the fuel at a gas station without workers offering me tea; I wasn’t allowed to pay for food while being hosted by couchsurfers. And people would open up to me quite fast and start talking about their problems.

Except once. Over tea, a gas-station worker quite rudely refused to answer my questions on why the road was blocked. A few minutes later he apologized and said he couldn’t have talked because the member of secret police had been there and he would face problems had he openly discussed anything related to the conflict with me.

According to the news reports this country is at war. And not just one.

Death of social networks

A few days before I was supposed to pass Gaziantep, a suicide bomber killed dozens of civilians in a Kurdish wedding. This was Daesh (also known as ISIS). You probably know more than enough about this group of fanatics who are increasingly winning the propaganda war for hearts and minds of the Muslim youth, so I won’t describe them further.

In response Turkey sent ground troops into Syria, supposedly to fight Daesh. The very next day it bombed Kurdish forces as well. There is now a war triangle in which Turks, Kurds and Daesh fight each other to death, but sometimes also (inadvertently?) collaborating against the third party (e.g. Turkey selling weapons to Daesh or bombing Kurds that are about to overrun Daesh). All this reminds me of the chaos in Bosnia in the 90s, except this time there are more weapons, more superpowers and more civilians involved. The fighting is also more complicated because of its transboundary nature - all three sides conducted actions in Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

As a tourist you see that the country is in turmoil when you face a typical #FirstWorldProblem: your social networks stop working. You realize they are blocked. My Turkish friends tell me that the government is sometimes using this very blunt approach to prevent some vital military information from spreading on social networks, but also to stop viral content critical of the government. In any case — no Facebook, no Twitter for a day — perhaps it’s really not that bad after all.

Picking fruit for peanuts

And as I’m traveling through Anatolian countryside, I see some of the casualties of war. Syrian refugees live in official or unofficial camps around the country. There is still a big fuss and angst about accepting a mere one million refugees to the EU. Turkey on its own currently holds around three million and has signed a treaty that it would accept more refugees that are returned from Europe.

Refugees are forced to beg on the street. In my experience Turkish people tend to be much nicer and give money more often to the beggars than westerners.

Things are not great for refugees living here. They are forced to stay in camps or to pick fruit or do other manual labor for extremely low wages. If they are lucky. There have been reports of Turkey mass-deporting thousands back to Syria and of shooting the ones who try to cross the border. But Europe decided that Turkey is safe enough to return thousands back here. Simply amazing.

A makeshift camp for refugees working in the fields

Too many conflicts? Wait, there are more!

Besides the three-way bloody conflict in the south-east, other hostilities exist in present-day Turkey. Because of the alleged coup-attempt, Gülenists (supporters or people related to Fethullah Gülen, a famous preacher) are thrown into prisons and purged from their positions. And they were in all spheres of society: from the government, to courts, hospitals, media, schools, universities.

Another conflict is with Turkish liberal minority, people who want Turkey to adopt more western values, LGBT rights, protect public spaces, curb corruption. A few years back protests were started as against planned urban development of Gezi park in central Istanbul. They evolved in huge anti-government protests (at times two million people strong) that were violently suppressed. Although their opposition to the government is currently less vocal (since there are so many other issues the country is facing), these people remain extremely critical of government.

Two days after the attempted coup, on a huge pro-democracy, pro-government rally, president Erdogan said that his government would build military barracks in Gezi park. Of course, this question is completely unrelated to the coup-attempt, but Erdogan wanted to use the moment to show the liberals that he hasn’t forgotten their opposition to him.

15-year old kid, Berkin Elvan, was killed by the police in the attempt to stop the liberal protests and he became a symbol of anti-establishment struggle for liberals in Turkey. You can find pictures of him in liberal venues.

To conclude: although Turkey incredibly developed its infrastructure in the past decades and achieved great economic growth, it faces many difficult challenges. I’m not completely sure that the country knows the direction it wants to take in relation with its own population, on the international scene and in relation with its neighbours. We should hope it finds it soon.