Turkey's Imperfect Peace
PIOTR ZALEWSKI is an Istanbul-based writer for Time, Foreign Policy, and the Financial Times, among others. Follow him on Twitter @p_zalewski.See more by this author
Hakkari, a mountainous town tucked into Turkey’s southeastern corner, has seen some of the worst of three decades of fighting between Turkish troops and rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Few are the families there that do not bear the scars of war, and the Akkis family is no exception.
On a chilly spring morning earlier this year, Ali Akkis, a 43-year-old Kurdish construction worker, sat down beside his wife and his mother in a small apartment on the outskirts of town, a Turkish armed vehicle parked down the street, and began to talk of his brothers. One of them, Yakup, joined the PKK in 1989, earning the codename Kawa, after an ancient folk hero revered by the Kurds. He was 14. A year later, he was shot dead in a firefight with Turkish soldiers in a field near the Iraqi border. “He was killed in the fall, but it was only a few months later, in winter, that one of the villagers found him and buried him,” Ali said. To this day, the area where his body lies is under the control of state-paid paramilitaries, the so-called village guards. “We can’t even visit his grave.”
Ali’s other brother, Aydin, traumatized since early childhood by Yakup’s death, joined the PKK in 2002, also at age 14. He, too, asked to be known to his commanders as Kawa. In 2008, the Turkish government captured, tried, and sentenced him to 36 years in prison on charges of extortion and membership in a terrorist group (Turkey, the United States, and the European Union consider the PKK as such). “He was never a soldier,” Ali insisted. “He was more like an accountant.” At the end of last year, when hundreds of PKK prisoners staged a hunger strike to protest their leader Abdullah Ocalan’s solitary confinement in an island jail on the Marmara Sea, Aydin joined in. “He held out for 58 days,” said Ali.
Ali himself had come within a hair’s breadth of joining his younger brother in prison. His offense, he said, was to have shown up at a press conference held by a Kurdish party, in which the speakers used the honorific prefix “Sayin,” meaning “his honor,” when referring to Ocalan. Tried on charges of terrorist propaganda, Ali was sentenced to three years of probation.
Ali’s wife and mother looked on blankly as Ali talked. Neither spoke more than a few words of Turkish. The language of Hakkari, particularly among the older women who married early, stayed home, and never attended school, was Kurdish.