ISTANBUL, Turkey — A helicopter circled over Istanbul’s Tarlabashi neighborhood as rows of riot police swept through its winding lanes, trooping under the sagging century old apartment facades. Away from the din of traffic, men could be heard shouting along the narrow lanes.
The massive police action was to suppress a demonstration by Turkey’s voluble Kurdish minority marking the anniversary of the arrest of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the armed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PKK).
Central Istanbul’s Tarlabashi district used to be largely Greek. But in recent years the Greeks were replaced by another minority judged equally problematic by the Turkish state: Kurds.
The Kurdish population makes up about 20 percent of Turkey’s total population of 74 million and they have been pressing for more rights since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, sometimes using violence.
Although the 14 million Kurds have been engaged in a decades-long struggle for more cultural and social rights, not all Kurds support Ocalan.
“I hate Ocalan,” said Serma Cihangir, a Kurdish housewife staring out of her house at the helicopter hovering over a Tarlabashi flashpoint. “My sister’s son (a soldier in the Turkish army) was killed by the PKK.”
Today, Tarlabashi is a run-down ghetto for Kurds, gypsies and others deemed undesirable, such as African immigrants, heroin dealers and brothels full of transvestites. An armored personnel vehicle guards Tarlabashi’s police station and its officers rarely enter Istanbul’s most dangerous neighborhood. The locals encourage this; they like to keep trouble within the tribe.
“What’s going on?” a foreigner asked a group of stone-faced men clustered outside the police station watching columns of riot police disappear into Tarlabashi’s alleys. “Nothing,” they replied after casting a long look at the outsider. “Maneuvers.”
It was 15 February, eleven years since the day when Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was bundled into the trunk of a Turkish intelligence car in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and flown back to face Turkish justice. On the anniversary, the police banned a demonstration by the Kurdish BDP (Peace and Development Party). A sit-in by some 200 marchers deteriorated into stone-throwing.
“They didn’t give us a chance to march so we sat and protested, made a press announcement,” said Shamel Altan, a Turkish activist working with left-wing parties. “The police told us the reason for the ban was because of Ocalan [the anniversary of his arrest]."
Tensions between the Turkish state and its Kurdish minority have increased since December, when the government’s much-trumpeted European Union-mandated dialogue with the Kurds, dubbed the "acilim" (opening), faltered. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan expanded Kurdish cultural rights, launching Turkey’s first Kurdish-language state television channel and exhibiting greater tolerance of Kurdish spoken at official events.
But tensions are mounting as Kurds demand more concessions and the security situation worsens in the Kurdish-majority provinces in neighboring Iran and Iraq.
A spate of deadly attacks by the banned PKK against Turkish Army outposts in southeastern Turkey has spurred debate over whether government reforms are being read as concessions. In December, the Supreme Court banned Turkey’s only parliamentary Kurdish party, which was immediately reinvented as the BDP. With some 1,500 activists arrested since last year and a fresh round of arrests last week, the “Kurdish Spring” is wilting.
“There is a hegemonic struggle now happening between the army and the AKP over the Kurds,” said Shamel Altan, a veteran Turkish activist currently working with a coalition of leftist parties that look sympathetically upon the Kurdish cause.
Turkey’s army has traditionally protected the secular state from external threats but has recently been weakened by a number of embarrassing revelations that the religiously conservative government charges were coup attempts nipped in the bud.
After the threat of political Islam, the army considers the Kurdish issue to pose the greatest challenge to the secular Turkish state. Since the PKK launched an armed campaign against Ankara in 1984 as part of a quest to establish an independent Kurdish state, more than 40,000 people have lost their lives, according to the BBC.
The PKK is banned and labelled a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union who charge it has mounted hundreds of guerrilla attacks and has been involved in drug smuggling.
The ongoing crisis is fed by inter-Kurdish rivalries over the rights of some 3 million to 4 million Kurds who fled their villages during the most violent years in the 1990s. Kurdish pro-government militias created to fight the PKK’s dominance of the countryside now refuse to relinquish lands seized from fellow-villagers forced to flee, according to a study by the Southeastern Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association.
Not only did the government’s struggle with the PKK empty hundreds of Turkish villages in the 1990s, but the current low-level warfare threatens to spill over anew.
“They’re trying to push people to the mountains,” said Selim Sadak, the mayor of a city in Turkey’s Kurdish majority southeast who was one of a number of mayors arrested in December. “Mountains are not the Kurds’ choices, but they want to live together and peacefully.”
Sadak was one of several hundred people marching at a January demonstration in Istanbul. The protest was led by a row of women wearing plastic handcuffs to protest the arrest of 60 people accused of cooperating with the PKK.
“You can’t have a guerrilla war without having support and the PKK has thousands of militants in the mountains whom the state is incapable of destroying,” said a Turkish politician who preferred not to give his name due to the sensitivity of the Kurdish issue. “If they had the chance to destroy them, believe me they wouldn’t be talking about the Kurdish question.”