Healing Poisoned Souls in Turkey Peace Process Raises Hopes of End to Kurdish Conflict

Twenty-five years and 40,000 deaths after the PKK began its struggle against the Turkish army, there is now a historic opportunity to end the conflict. But there are fears Turkish ultranationalists and Kurdish hardliners may try to sabotage the peace process.

An oppressive heat hangs over the Makhmur refugee camp in northern Iraq. A light sandstorm has darkened the sky and emptied the narrow streets. A tall young Kurdish woman with gaunt facial features, who calls herself Kewzer, is sitting in the cool interior of a mud hut. A dignified man wearing Turkish trousers and a black-and-white headscarf is sitting next to her. The two are watching a satellite television program from their old homeland. It's a Turkish program.

It is Tuesday of last week, and a speech given by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being broadcast live from the parliament building in Ankara. "Turks and Kurds are brothers," the man on the screen declares. "We finally want to resolve our differences. Our mothers have shed too many tears." Kewzer frowns. "Nothing but propaganda," says the 28-year-old. "We've heard this sort of thing too many times already." The old Kurdish man agrees. "The Turks are under international pressure, and that's why they are making new promises to us. But they won't keep them. They've never kept their promises."

For the refugees in northern Iraq, who have spent their entire lives viewing the Turkish state as their enemy, it is hard to believe the developments currently unfolding hundreds of kilometers away in Ankara. Recently, Turkish officials there have not only begun talking about, but are also talking with, the Kurds. Even Turkey's public enemy No. 1, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has weighed in on an increasingly effective peace process.

'Our Souls Are Poisoned'

The shift has yet to reach Makhmur, a forlorn Iraqi desert city between Mosul and Kirkuk, with little to offer besides drilling towers and scorpions. The refugee camp on the city's outskirts is home to 12,000 Turkish Kurds. Few people in Europe have ever heard of Makhmur, but in Turkey the camp is a mark of shame, the symbol of a conflict between ethnic Kurds and Turks that has gone unresolved for decades.

Those who have ended up here -- like Kewzer -- are bitter foes of the Turkish state. Fourteen years ago, Kewzer left the city on the Turkish-Iraqi border where she had grown up, a stronghold of the banned PKK. Tanks rolled through the streets while soldiers stormed into houses and arrested PKK sympathizers. The war between the Kurdish separatist movement and the Turkish army, which claimed about 40,000 lives between 1984 and 2009, had reached its climax. Kurdish writer Yasar Kemal described the period as a time in which all sense of humanity became rotten. "Our souls are poisoned," he wrote.

Kewzer fled with her family to the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, where Turkish fighter jets shelled Kurdish positions until a few months ago. The refugee camps were also forced to relocate several times. In 1998, Kewzer arrived in Makhmur, which at the time was still controlled by the forces of then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Kewzer has only ever truly trusted one man, whose portrait she, like most residents of Makhmur, has hanging on her wall, and whose likeness the refugees have pasted onto their house doors or wear on their wrist watches: Abdullah Öcalan, affectionately nicknamed "Apo" by his supporters.

Renouncing Violence

These overt sympathies for Öcalan have earned Makhmur the reputation of being a training camp for the PKK. The Turkish intelligence agency MIT describes the refugee camp as a hotbed of terror. Yielding to Turkish pressure, American and Iraqi security forces searched the camp for weapons in 2007, but found nothing.

"Makhmur is not a terrorist camp, but a perfectly normally refugee camp, which is supervised by the United Nations," says Barzan Sayeed Kaka, an Iraqi Kurd and the mayor of Makhmur. But the Iraqi Kurds' solidarity with their brothers and sisters from the north has its limits. They have refused to grant the Turkish refugees Iraqi citizenship. To avoid jeopardizing the new rapprochement between Iraq and Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds want to see the refugees return to their homeland as soon as possible. This is precisely the issue now being discussed in Ankara, where the Turkish government is preparing a plan to safely bring the Kurdish refugees back to Turkey, as well as to reward with an amnesty those PKK members who renounce violence.

Although the residents of Makhmur find it hard to believe that actions will follow Erdogan's solemn words of reconciliation, the signs of a change in policy are clearer than ever before.

At the beginning of the year, the Turkish prime minister launched TRT6, a government-run television station that broadcasts its programs in the Kurdish language. In February, Turkish investigators began, at the government's behest, to search for the bodies of murdered Kurds  in southeastern Turkey, in an effort to finally clear up the killings of PKK sympathizers in massacres that took place many years ago.

The Man from Imrali

In March, Turkish President Abdullah Gül made headlines when, during a flight to Iraq, he uttered the word "Kurdistan" -- an act normally considered a punishable offence in Turkey. And in May he went a step further by pointing to what he called a "historic opportunity" to resolve the Kurdish problem.

And then, two weeks ago, probably the most significant step took place: a meeting between Erdogan and Ahmet Türk, the chairman of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party. For years, Erdogan had refused to meet with politicians aligned with the PKK. "Our hopes for peace have grown after this conversation," the prime minister said afterwards.

Until now, snubbing the DTP in public was as much a part of Turkish political etiquette as the iron rule of never mentioning Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan by name. And when the talk did turn to Turkey's most prominent prisoner, officials preferred to refer to him as the man from Imrali, the prison island near Istanbul where Öcalan is the only inmate. News from Imrali has a particularly explosive effect on Turks and Kurds alike. Reports last year that the PKK leader was being tortured sent tens of thousands of Kurdish youths into the streets in southeastern Turkey.

The most recent news from the island is also likely to trigger strong reactions. According to his attorneys, Öcalan will unveil a plan this week to solve the Kurdish question. The timing is carefully chosen. Twenty-five years after his organization's first attack on Turkish military installations and the beginning of the armed conflict, his attorneys announced, the PKK leader's only remaining wish is to make peace. Offers have also emerged from the Kandil Mountains, where the skeptical refugees live. Murat Karayilan, the commander of the roughly 2,500 PKK fighters still in action, has decided to pursue peace. "It is time to end the war," he says.

Sabotaging Rapprochement

The movement taking shape on the Kurdish question can be felt across the entire political spectrum in Turkey. Ertugrul Özkök, the editor-in-chief of the pro-military, mass-circulation newspaper Hürriyet, praises "Apo's" new policy as being a helpful step toward ending the Kurdish conflict. Even the army has refrained from criticizing the government's efforts to ease tensions.

Erdogan's concern that the man from Imrali, of all people, could steal the show, was probably the deciding factor in prompting his administration to push for rapid reforms.

The next steps would be downright revolutionary for a country that has spent decades trying to homogenize its population: "Turkicized" villages could get their Kurdish names back, Kurdish language courses could be expanded, and even the article in the Turkish constitution that defines all citizens as "Turks" could be amended.

The resistance to the changes is coming from the expected corners, namely the MHP, an extremist right-wing opposition party, and other nationalists who castigate Erdogan's plan for the Kurds as "traitorous." Kurdish hardliners unwilling to abandon their old enmities are also resistant. Meanwhile, there are those in Ankara who fear that a single serious terrorist attack could sabotage the painstakingly crafted rapprochement.

But if the peace process does prevail, even the skeptics in Makhmur could be won over.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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