In Kurdish areas of Turkey, fear and destruction have returned as facts of life after government offensives leveled parts of rebellious cities. And a barrage of terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and Kurdish groups is changing people’s sense of personal safety. This is the fourth part in the State of Emergency series, in which our correspondent takes us behind the scenes of today’s Turkey, a nation in crisis.
‘We’re Trapped Between Two Forces’
You’re looking at what I saw this month as I drove into the heart of Sirnak, once a busy provincial capital in southeastern Turkey. Government tanks rolled in last year to crush a Kurdish uprising here and in several other places, leaving little behind — some of these city centers are practically ghost towns, and the Kurds who still live here seem haunted, too.
Just a few years ago, after securing a truce with Kurdish separatists, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed destined to become the leader who finally put a halt to decades of bloodshed here. But the negotiations broke down in 2015, and Mr. Erdogan now presides over the resumption of one of the country’s most traumatic wars.
It is hard to reach this part of Turkey, near the Syrian and Iraqi borders, at all these days, as the area is still under lockdown. There are now seven government checkpoints between Sirnak and the closest airport. When I reached the third, at the entrance to a town called Cizre, my passport was confiscated and I was questioned for an hour. Who am I? What am I doing here?
“You are crazy,” the senior officer concluded. “This place is very dangerous.”
He rolled up his sleeve to show the scar he carries after one attack here by the P.K.K., the Kurdish separatist group that encouraged last year’s uprisings in this region and is widely listed as a terrorist organization. He said he pined for his placid hometown, far away on the shores of the Mediterranean. “Psychologically, this is very difficult,” he said before finally letting me go.
As I left Cizre, I passed the basements where dozens of Kurds burned to death in unclear circumstances during a government raid in February 2016.
Just before dusk, I arrived at a village on the outskirts of Sirnak. The mayor here was recently arrested and replaced by a state “trustee,” one of more than 80 elected Kurds who have recently been replaced by government edict.
Unlike in Sirnak or Cizre, tanks did not fire on the village last year, or destroy its houses. As a result, it became a shelter for some of the estimated 500,000 people displaced by last year’s fighting. After sunset, and amid a power failure, I met with one family.
The father, a 53-year-old janitor, said they were from Sirnak. When the rebellion began in late 2015, he, his wife and their eight children fled to a different city. But their new landlord later needed their apartment for his own displaced family, so they moved to this village. Fearing that both the security forces and Kurdish militants might harass them if the family were identified, they asked me not to use their names.
For months they lived in a shed, sleeping next to chickens and cows, before a neighbor found them a cleaner place to stay. In the meantime, their home in Sirnak was destroyed, along with much of the city center.
As we spoke, the power came back on, allowing their youngest daughter to do her homework. “This room is for everything,” her mother said. “Studying, sleeping, eating.”
They say they resent both the insurgents, who prolonged a fight they were never going to win, and the state, which left three of their relatives buried in the Sirnak rubble. “We’re trapped between two forces,” the mother said.
“Our lives are the lives of refugees,” the father added. “We’re just waiting.”