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.
On September 30, several months after I visited the Akkis family, Turkey’s enduringly popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took to the airwaves to announce a set of proposals intended, among other things, to provide the country’s large Kurdish minority (12–15 million people) with new cultural and linguistic rights. The government, he said, planned to introduce education in Kurdish in private schools, to restore the original Kurdish names of Turkified villages and provinces, and to scrap a nationalist pledge of allegiance that all primary school students must recite -- “My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence. … Happy is the one who says I am a Turk.” Ankara would also look into ways of lowering the election threshold for political parties from ten to five percent, paving the way for the Kurds’ main political grouping, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which routinely polls at around six to seven percent of the vote, to enter parliament. (Until now, Kurdish candidates have circumvented the threshold by running as independents.)
The other objective of these reforms, even if Erdogan did not spell it out (so as to escape the impression that he was yielding anything to an outlawed group), was to ensure that the window for a historic peace deal between the PKK and the government did not snap shut.
Since the PKK insurgency began in 1984, the Kurdish conflict has represented the biggest impediment to Turkey’s democratic development. Having claimed the lives of some 40,000 people, including soldiers, militants and civilians, the fighting has stymied economic growth, jeopardized Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU, and regularly poisoned relations with neighboring countries.
Over the course of the war, some things have changed. The rebels no longer demand a separate Kurdish state but rather partial autonomy and new cultural freedoms. The Turkish government, which once went so far as to deny that the Kurds even existed, has become much more open to their demands, particularly during the reign of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has held power since 2002.
Yet some things have remained the same. The PKK and mainstream Kurdish nationalists have yet to definitively renounce violence. In the summer of 2012, emboldened by their gains in neighboring Syria, the rebels launched a series of major offensives around Hakkari, engaging the Turkish army in open combat for weeks. By several estimates, more than a hundred people died in the fighting. Erdogan’s government, meanwhile, loathe to alienate its nationalist base, has repeatedly shied away from important democratic reforms, reverting to symbolic, piecemeal solutions, air strikes against PKK bases in northern Iraq, and police crackdowns against Kurdish activists at home.
The result has been yet another round of mutual recriminations, increasing mistrust, and runaway violence. Between June 2011 and March 2013, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, the Kurdish conflict claimed a total of at least 928 lives -- including at least 304 security forces, police, and village guards, 533 militants, and 91 civilians -- a level of bloodshed unseen since the 1990s.
The sides, however, reached a breakthrough earlier this year. On March 21, Ocalan, after months of negotiations with Turkish officials -- the first time he had been allowed to take center stage in the peace process -- announced a ceasefire. “Let the guns fall silent and let ideas speak,” he wrote in a statement, ordering the rebels to begin withdrawing from Turkey.
Although the ceasefire has held, the peace process has since begun to show signs of strain. Erdogan, expected to reciprocate for the PKK’s withdrawal by offering the Kurds additional rights and some measure of local rule, prevaricated for months, instead attending to the anti-government protests that swept through Turkey during the summer. In early September, a PKK leader announced that the rebels’ withdrawal had been suspended, and that the ceasefire now hung by a thread. Erdogan retorted that the withdrawal had not been conducted in good faith to begin with, claiming that 80–90 percent of the militants had still not left Turkey.
The question now on everyone’s mind is whether the September 30 reforms will be enough to keep the wobbling peace process from derailing completely. Most Kurdish politicians are miffed. They say that the new package, which also contains a number of laws unrelated to the Kurdish issue, such as a regulation lifting the ban on the Islamic headscarf in state institutions, is little more than an attempt to shore up the AKP’s conservative base ahead of next year’s local and presidential elections. “This is no ‘democracy package,’” the BDP’s co-chair, Gultan Kisanak, told Turkish reporters, citing the term Erdogan used to brand the reforms. “It’s an election package.”
To the BDP and its constituency, what matters most is not what the government’s package contains but what it conspicuously leaves out. This includes Kurdish education in public schools, constitutional amendments redefining Turkish citizenship, partial amnesty for PKK fighters, and changes to sweeping counterterrorism laws that allow the police and the courts to jail thousands of Kurdish activists. Kurds may have welcomed Erdogan’s promise to consider lowering the ten percent threshold, but they want to see immediate action, not further deliberation.
Still, the changes ought to be enough to keep the peace process moving for now. “The time might not yet be right for something like mother-language education, but it should be possible a few years down the line,” says Vahap Coskun, a professor at Dicle University in Diyarbakir. “The Kurds do not think the reforms are sufficient, but the process will go on.” Hugh Pope, the International Crisis Group’s Turkey director, explains, “I don’t think any side wants to start fighting again. With the election period coming up, the government is keen to keep the security situation calm.” The same goes for the PKK, he says. “The talks are its best chance for international legitimacy.”
Ocalan himself seems to agree. In a number of statements made to Kurdish politicians and relatives who visited him in prison over the past week, the PKK’s leader dismissed the new reforms as irrelevant but held out hope for the peace process. “Deep negotiations have to be started without a further loss of time,” he said. “These negotiations have to be meaningful and have to produce results.”
W IS FOR VICTORY
Turkey’s Kurds appear to be following Ocalan’s lead: biding their time, retaining their faith in dialogue, and hoping that more reforms are not too far in the offing. So, too, are the Akkis.
Fourteen years ago, Ali Akkis’ wife gave birth to a baby boy. To honor his slain brother’s memory, Ali decided to name the newborn Kawa, after Yakup’s nom de guerre. There was only one problem. The letters “W,” “Q,” and “X,” all of which figure in the Kurdish alphabet, had been banned from the Turkish one since the late 1920s. At a local government office, where Ali went to register his son’s name, he hit a brick wall. “You couldn’t find any other name?” the man in charge had barked at him. Ali would not be dissuaded. After more arguing, he and the public official finally found a way to sidestep the ban. To his family, the boy would be Kawa. To the Turkish state, he would be known as Kavva.