Kids in southeast Turkey: smuggling to survive

SMUGGLING – At the end of December 35 people lost their lives in a bombardment by the Turkish army. Seventeen of them were less than 18 years old. They were smugglers, who brought diesel and sugar from Iraq to Turkey. There is a war going on in the area between Turkey and the PKK, a forbidden Kurdish movement. That makes the smuggling risky. Why do these kids smuggle, if it is so dangerous?

Seyvan (11) has already joined the smugglers once on their trip to Iraq. First three hours through rugged mountains to cross the border, then three hours back. ‘It was very difficult’, he says. ‘Luckily on the way up I was allowed to ride a donkey. On the way back that was not possible, because then the donkeys are loaded with goods.’

Semire (16) and her brother Seyvan (11)

He didn’t want to go again for some time, but now that so many boys and young men have died, everything is different and he has no choice. His 13 year old brother Bedran was one of the boys that died in the bombing. Seyvan: ‘Now I am the oldest boy at home. If I don’t go smuggling, we won’t have enough money to live on.’

Smuggling is an absolute necessity for survival in parts of southeast Turkey. The area is inhabited by Kurds, a minority that does not have the same rights in Turkey as ethnic Turks. Thirty years ago the armed Kurdish group PKK started a violent campaign against the state. Ever since then there has been war between the PKK and the Turkish army, especially in the mountains around the border with Iraq.

Because of the fighting, other means to earn a living have disappeared. People can’t go to their fields anymore, because large areas of the land have been declared a military exclusion zone. Herding sheep is dangerous: there are land mines in the area. Companies don’t want to invest in the southeast because it’s not safe enough, so there are no factories either.

Özer (19)

From smuggling you can earn around 700 lira per month, and that’s just enough to make a living in a village. Children join in the smuggling starting at about thirteen years old to make up the 700 lira family income, and sometimes a bit extra for schoolbooks, or a laptop. Özer (19) often went smuggling when he was between 13 and 15 years old. Now he is studying tourism in a city in the region. ‘But in my holidays I still go smuggling’, he says. ‘If I don’t go, my parents won’t have enough money to pay for my studies.’

It’s always scary, he says, to go into the mountains. ‘You can be shot at by soldiers. They know we smuggle and they allow it because they know we have no other source of income, but sometimes they shoot anyway. Luckily never anything happened to me.’

In a few more days the official mourning will be over and the smuggling will start again. Sinan is only eight years old but he will go too. He doesn’t have a father anymore, and his 13 year old brother Sivan died in the bombing. It is now his responsibility to provide for his family. He is very quiet, and only shrugs his shoulders when he is asked if he is scared. What can he say? He has no choice, there is no other work.

Semire at the grave of her brother Bedran (13)

Just outside the village is the graveyard of Gülyazi. All the graves of men and boys who died are in one field. It looks very colourful: there are cloths over the grave stones in the Kurdish colours green, red and yellow, and orange, pink, red and yellow plastic flowers have been stuck into the ground. The names of the dead are painted on the grave stones: the real stones haven’t been made yet. The graveyard looks out over the beautiful snowy mountains where the drama happened.

Semire (16), sister of Seyvan, sits down at the grave of her little brother Bedran. ‘I am so sad that Seyvan has to go smuggling now’, she says. ‘I would prefer to go in his place, I’m older. But smuggling is work for boys, not for girls.’

Semire helps her mother with housekeeping. Because of a lack of money she had to quit school. ‘I remember what Bedran said when they went off smuggling late in the afternoon; he would return home around 11 at night. I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, I heard people crying and I saw that Bedran wasn’t there. Then I immediately knew he wouldn’t come home again.’

2 replies
  1. Hevallo Azad
    Hevallo Azad says:

    In the photos they don’t look like ‘smugglers’ just as Kurds in PKK don’t look like ‘terrorists’!

    These words should be challenged as they are purely labels to put people off supporting a legitimate struggle of a people brutally suppressed for merely demanding justice and rights!

    So called ‘smuggling’ is just trade for you or I!

    This article humanises past the labels!

    I wish there were more!

  2. Candide
    Candide says:

    @Hevallo Azad : I ask you once again could you please define what do you mean by “brutally suppressed for merely demanding justice and rights” ? What is lacking ? I don’t say nothing is lacking but want to hear from you explicitly so we can see how strong your expressions are…

    Dear Frederike take your time and have a journey to other areas of Turkey. You will find interesting people doing interesting things for living. Nothing bound to specifically being Kurdish. Mostly related to economics.

    And I definitely suggest you to watch a Yılmaz Güney movie : “Hudutların Kanunu (1966)”. You can have a clue of role of landlords in economical & social problems. Then you may like to read about politics in Turkey between 1940-1960 and what happened to those landlords… You might already did that but it is just my small input on subject.


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