Who saved the governor?

‘Look’, says C., one of the people I went to Uludere with this week, pointing to the side of the road. ‘That’s where the governor ran down to, remember?’ I do remember; I saw the footage. The governor of the Uludere district came to the Gülyazi and Roboski villages to console the families of the victims, but he was, to say the least, not very welcome. Villagers attacked him with stones and their fists, and afterwards he needed to go to hospital for a check up. What happened exactly?

If you believe Turkish papers, the attackers were incited by Kurdish politicians, in particular BDP MP Hasip Kaplan. He had warned AKP politicians not to come to Uludere because it wouldn’t be safe. Several columnists and politicians became very angry with him, saying he was threatening people. That is also what hit the headlines.

I asked C. and others how the governor got away. ‘Hasip Kaplan took the megaphone and told people to stop the attack’, they answered. They pointed out where the governor was, and where Kaplan stood when he took the megaphone.

Provocateurs

I read an interview with the governor in, I think, Radikal, in which he stated that the people who attacked him came from other villages, and that he was sure there was nobody from Gülyazi or Roboski among them. ‘I know everybody in these villages’, he was quoted as saying. None of the villagers confirmed this to me. ‘Of course he has to say they came from other villages. He can’t say the villagers themselves didn’t want him here. He would make us look bad, and we don’t know if we could keep our children from attacking him the next time he shows himself.’ “Can he show himself again anyway?”, I ask. Not for a long time, they state. They add that’s not a big loss: ‘He has never done anything for us anyway.’

So when you read Turkish papers, what you assume happened is this: the governor came to console the victims’ families, a Kurdish politician incited the people against this government representative, and then ‘provocateurs’ from other villages came to make trouble. A picture that totally fits the prejudice that people have against Kurds and Kurdish politicians. How different the picture gets once you also hear the story from the other side.

During the day we hear that several villagers have been arrested, including family members of the victims. For what? For attacking the governor, based on TV footage. Adding everything up, it sounds to me like the people I talked to were right and the governor lied about the attackers coming from other villages. He was saved by Hasip Kaplan, and by telling a lie he hoped to save himself from future attacks.

Ilker Basbug last ‘old fashioned’ Turkish army leader

DIYARBAKIR – Ilker Basbug was the last Turkish army leader who belonged to the ‘old guard’ of Turkish army leaders. He commanded the second biggest army in NATO from 2008 to 2010, and clashed several times with the AKP government of Prime Minister Erdogan. 

Basbug (68) was detained on Friday as a suspect in a coup plot against the government. He allegedly approved the setting up of dozens of websites spreading propaganda against the government and groups related to the government. The sites were supposedly part of plans to overthrow the government. The ‘website case’ is part of the wider Ergenekon probe, an investigation that has been dragging on for years now, and which led to the arrest and imprisonment of dozens of army officers (some of them retired).

Ilker Basbug supported the investigation into Ergenekon, but criticized it too. For example he didn’t approve of accused military personnel being tried by civilian courts. He also claimed that the Ergenekon probe was a smear campaign against the army, and that he would never tolerate coup plans.

After Basbug there was a definite break with the strong political power of the army: his successor Kosaner stepped down last summer in a conflict with the government. Kosaner was replaced by a general who was fully approved of by the government.

Basbug, who was partly educated abroad and also served NATO, started his career in the early sixties, a time when the first of a series of coups was staged. The army took power in Turkey in 1960, 1971 and 1980, and forced a government to step down in 1997. In short, he made a career in the decades when the army was still considered the most powerful institution in the country. That shaped the general.

It is in Basbug’s military blood that he considers the army as protector of Turkish secularism, in which religious life is controlled by the state to prevent it from becoming too influential. Governing party AKP has its roots in the political-Islamic movement in Turkey, and for that reason is automatically distrusted by the army.

Basbug said in court that it is ‘tragi-comic’ that ‘somebody who has led one of the most powerful armies in the world is being accused of establishing and leading a terrorist organisation’. The charge hurts: ‘The accusations touch my honour as a general who always honourably served his country and state.’

He went for a computer

(I went to Gülyazi this week, one of the villages in the Uludere district where 35 villagers got killed in an airstrike of the Turkish army. Read this news agency article I wrote about it here, and a blog post here.)

In the old days, says one of the smugglers, there were no stones at the border. Now there are, every hundred metres. On one side is written IRAQ, on the other side TURKEY. These stones, he says, mean nothing to us. This, he says, is just all our land, the land of our ancestors.

It’s about six kilometres walk from Gülyazi to a village on the other side of the border. A two hours walk over rugged mountainous terrain, climbing and descending. They call the villagers on the other side of the stones beforehand and tell them what is needed. Sugar, petrol, tea, cigarettes. Then they set off. It’s smuggling, of course, and they know it, but to them it hardly feels like doing something illegal. They just get cheap stuff from close by, some of the smugglers even have family over the border. Then back in Turkey, they sell the goods and earn some money. It’s been done like that for generations, it’s just a very normal part of life.

When I ask if they also smuggle weapons, they sigh. No, of course not. That’s not part of life for these smugglers. They don’t do anything illegal – well, not illegal in that way. They are not connected to the PKK. The PKK also never ever uses the trails the smugglers use, because everybody knows there are too many soldiers around. The first PKK camps, they say, are around 100 kilometres away. They smuggle daily goods that everybody needs, no guns. And I have no reason not to believe them.

Study

Then I talk to a 19 year old boy, and I realize even more how totally normal the smuggling is in the life of many villagers along the border. He is studying tourism at the university in Gaziantep and goes smuggling during his holidays. To contribute to the family income, and to pay for his studies. His younger brother was killed in the bombing, but that doesn’t stop him from crossing the border again for smuggling. He needs the money, and smuggling is the way. When we visit the graves of the victims, the 19 year old takes me to one of them to show me a note left on it. It says: ‘He went for a computer’. With smuggling, you can earn 50 lira a night, and if you want to save money for a computer, smuggling is the way.

I think back to when I was a teenager. I earned some extra money by delivering papers every Wednesday after school, and during my studies at journalism academy I earned some money in a supermarket and by writing for a local newspaper. What the boys and young men in Gülyazi do is as normal for them as my supermarket job was for me. The difference is: for them, it’s out of pure necessity to go earn some money, and they don’t have safer job options to turn to.

The village guards of Uludere

This week, I went to Gülyazi, one of the villages in the Uludere district where 35 citizens were killed by the Turkish air force. I talked to families of the victims, and to young smugglers. I’d like to share my findings on two subjects in blog posts: village guards, and smuggling as a totally normal part of life.

Read more on the village guards below, and click here for the blog post about smuggling.

 

Most of the victims of the Uludere killings belonged to the same extended family, with the surname Encü. Soon it was claimed that they were a ‘kurucu family’, meaning there were supposedly several korucu, or ‘village guards’, in the family.

Village guards are Kurdish villagers employed and armed by the state, who help the state in the fight against the PKK. The system was introduced in the eighties, after the PKK started its violent campaign in 1984. The state thought it was a good idea to have auxiliary forces who knew the landscape, the people and the language of the area.

Often people were forced to become village guards. They were given a ‘choice’: either you become a village guard, or we burn your house and kick you out of the village. Many people refused and left their village, some were killed for refusing, and others gave in and started working for the state. There are many village guards. To give you an idea: Gülyazi has 500 to 600 inhabitants (and 25 of the victims came from here, so that’s about 5% of the population), and with about 6000 people in surrounding villages, they share one muhtar, a state-employed village head. In this area of 6000 people, there are 27 village guards, so every village has a few.

Traitors

The PKK considers the village guards traitors and has killed several of them, and you still hear of village guards becoming victims of PKK attacks. The korucu are often involved in all kinds of illegal activities, from extrajudicial killings to disappearances and drug trafficking. The whole system got severely out of hand and is under debate – read some more about that in a previous blog post.

That the Encü family was known for being village guards puzzled me while watching and reading the news about the Uludere killings. The funeral for the 35 victims was huge, and hundreds of people came from all over the region to attend it. The anger and pain among Kurds is immense. I somehow couldn’t reconcile that with some of the victims being korucu family members. I thought the korucu families were somewhat outside the rest of the Kurdish community, that they were even seen by some as traitors, but now I saw a very different picture.

Labels

I talked about it with the victims’ families, including some members of the Encü family. They said that when such a tragedy hits the community, it’s not important if you are a village guard or not. The community just comes together. But they also suggested it’s not considered an important matter anyway if you are from a korucu family or not. Everybody struggles to make a living, and being a korucu is one way. So I asked if it is possible to be a village guard and at the same time in your heart be a PKK supporter. I didn’t really get an answer. Or, to be more precise: the answer was that these kinds of labels have nothing to do with the everyday realities of life in a village near the south-eastern border. ‘We are all Kurds’, one man said, ‘and the truth is: no Kurd wants to kill another Kurd’.

That didn’t satisfy me. There must be more to it. More than I could figure out in just two days. I will return to Uludere a few times in the near future and try to find out more, also about other questions and matters I am curious about. In the meantime, if you have any knowledge to share on this subject, the comment section is open! 

Uludere victims’ families don’t want compensation

GÜLYAZI – The families of the 34 boys and young men killed last week in a bombing by the Turkish air force, will not consider accepting the compensation the Turkish government is offering them. Prime Minister Erdogan announced on Tuesday that within a few days he would pay the families of the men, who were smuggling across the Iraqi border when the bombing started.. Zahide Encü, who lost her 15 year old son: ‘First they bomb my son to pieces and then they offer money? We don’t want money; we want to know what happened.’

The mourning period isn’t over yet in the village of Gülyazi, where 25 of the 34 killed boys and men come from. The other nine are from the nearby village of Roboski, also in the district of Uludere. One of the smugglers was severely injured and is in hospital – he is already counted among the dead. One man survived.

The Turkish government wants to pay 20,000 Turkish Lira (about 8,000 euros) per person killed. Survivor Servet Encü (35): ‘The government knows the people are poor here. That’s why they think they can make things good again with a bag of money. But that’s not how it works. I’d rather eat grass than accept money from this government.’

Zahide Encü (45, photo) has six children, including two sons. The oldest, now 26, stepped on a landmine while gathering wood eight years ago and can no longer contribute to the family income. Now the youngest, Aslan, is dead too. ‘How will we make a living now? I don’t know. No, I didn’t consider for one second accepting Erdogan’s money. I trust in God to help us.’

The villagers say that they will not accept an investigation into what happened from any party in Turkey. A human rights commission of the European Union should lead an investigation, they say. But they don’t think the Turkish government would give permission for such an independent inquiry.

What exactly happened last week remains a mystery. The Turkish government for now is calling it an ‘accident’ and has promised a thorough investigation, but the villagers won’t buy it. Survivor Servet Encü: ‘Everybody knew there was smuggling going on, including the police and security forces. The village head even got a phone call from the commander whenever air or ground operations were planned, and then we wouldn’t go out. The month before was so quiet on the route that we went again with bigger groups and with more donkeys. And then suddenly on the way back all roads were closed and the bombing started.’

Donkey

From smuggling a family can earn a monthly income of 600 to 700 lira, which is enough to survisve on in a village. There is hardly any other work: large parts of the province are restricted military areas, or there are landmines which make herding cattle impossible. There are no factories. Children help earn the family income – so, starting at age 13 or 14, the children also join the smuggling.

Ironically enough the age that kids start smuggling has gone down. Eight year old Sinan will go for he first time next week, when the mourning period is over, in place of his brother Sivan (13), who was among those killed. Two hours to cross over the boarder, two hours back, will he be able to manage that? Sinan: ‘On the way to the border I can ride a donkey.’