‘People speak of revenge’: Kurdish AKP officials fear Diyarbakir attacks
DIYARBAKIR, Turkey - As soon as he began working for Turkey’s ruling party eight years ago, Deryan Aktert's family started to worry incessantly about him. Even as a minor official with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Dicle, a small town about an hour’s drive from the provincial capital of Diyarbakir, he was in a risky position.
Becoming head of the AKP's local branch two years ago put him firmly in the crosshairs of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting an armed insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.
In a meeting arranged by the AKP, Middle East Eye was invited into the family home, a sparse affair with two cows in the front yard. Kneeling on the floor of the sitting room in baggy blue floral-print trousers and a black headscarf, his eldest daughter, poised 26-year-old Nazli, explained the growing pressure and threats Aktert faced from the PKK. It began when he first started work for the AKP but intensifed when he became its local chairman.
“We constantly worried about him,” she said.
On 10 October, those concerns proved well-founded. Late that evening, a team of PKK members arrived at the small petrol station he owned on a highway outside the town. The 51-year-old father of five was shot dead.
The killing was the latest in a spate of assassinations of AKP officials claimed by the PKK in what the Turkish prime minster, Binali Yildirim, has described as a “heinous” new phase in the battle since the collapse of the peace process involving the government and the PKK last summer.
Since the beginning of this September alone, at least seven party officials have been killed. The PKK says the killings are “punishment” for the state’s repressive policies. The AKP says that the militant group simply cannot tolerate any rivals.
The gruesome spate of assassinations is also a reminder of the fact that, while its support has been heavily eroded, the ruling AKP does exist in Turkey’s majority Kurdish southeast. Its senior cadre are Kurds. They speak Kurdish. And the historical narrative they tell up until 2002, when the AKP won central-government power, is often barely distinguishable from that of their opponents in the Kurdish movement.
Mehdi Eker is an AKP MP who grew up in rural Diyarbakir and worked at the Istanbul municipality when a certain Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now the nation’s president, was mayor of the city.
He had a lucky escape in September. Local media reported that suspected PKK militants planted 640kg of explosives in his family cemetery the day before he was due to pay a visit. It was only thanks to a farmer who discovered the detonation cable that the plot was foiled.
Eker is scathing about the policies of past governments towards the estimated 14 to 20 million ethnic Kurds in Turkey.
Though he does not mention him by name, he places much of the blame for the Kurdish problem on the shoulders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, who imposed both strict secularism and a rigid nationalism centred on the notion of being a “Turk”.
The problems started, Eker said, with the creation of Turkey as a nation state. “The new system, the new philosophy of Turkey, rejected the Kurdish identity.” At the mention of Ataturk’s famous motto - “How happy is he who says: I am a Turk” - Eker rolled his eyes.
He detailed the “many mistakes” the state made with handling the PKK in the 1990s. It was a time marred by killings carried out by unknown assailants, and entire villages being burned to flush out their inhabitants and stem support for militants. “The PKK took advantage.”
Muhammed Dara Akar, now provincial chairman of the AKP in Diyarbakir, has a family history that is intimately bound up in that same Kurdish struggle. Akar's grandfather, Sheikh Said, led a major rebellion after the foundation of the Turkish republic. In 1925, he was hanged.
Having grown up in a religious, socially conservative Muslim family, Akar said that he and his relatives suffered twice over at the hands of the state: they were not just Kurds, but also religious ones. After the 1980 coup, his father and uncle were imprisoned. His father lost his job with the state. Aged 17, Akar was imprisoned for 40 days and suffered harsh treatment at the hand of his interrogators. A decade later, in 1998, he was again held and tortured.
Akar said he did not turn to the PKK because, as a religious man, he could not support violence. But he knew plenty of others who could. Three of his cousins “went to the mountains,” a common euphemism for joining the PKK.
A period of hope
By the accounts of these AKP members, everything changed in 2002, when the Islamist AKP swept into power in Ankara. The new government ploughed money into the southeast, long Turkey's poorest region, building roads, hospitals and a new airport.
The party’s outlook also resonated with pious Kurds, whose beliefs are often at odds with the Marxist-inspired PKK and the left-wing liberal sections of the Kurdish political opposition.
In 2005 Erdogan, then prime minster, addressed a crowd in Diyarbakir and declared: “The Kurdish problem is my problem.” The party introduced a series of radical language and culture reforms, including permitting Kurdish-language TV and radio, and entered into a series of talks with the PKK. In 2013 it struck a ceasefire with the group, bringing fresh hope of a resolution to the conflict.
Opponents, however, say that oppressive tactics continued to be used to stifle political and social dissent during this period, even as culture reforms took hold.
But even most critics agree that the AKP went further than any of its predecessors. The party was rewarded at the ballot box, with support reaching its peak in 2007. That year the AKP won 41 percent of the vote in Diyarbakir province. In some other majority Kurdish areas its share was even higher.
The ceasefire collapses
Then, in July 2015, the ceasefire unravelled. The region was plunged back into the worst period of violence it had seen since the 1990s. More than 2,200 people, including 354 civilians, have died as a result since.
Unlike previous times, however, the fighting came to the cities, where PKK-linked youths entrenched themselves in urban centres and declared them autonomous zones.
The army and police moved in. Curfews were imposed. Thousands were forced from their homes. Entire urban centres were flattened and many face a controversial redevelopment plan put forward by the government.
Erdogan declared that anyone deemed to be supporting the PKK would be deemed a terrorist. The rise of the left-wing, staunchly pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has stunted the AKP's power in parliament. Accusing the party of being the PKK’s political extension, the government has put its MPs under under heavy pressure.
This crackdown has only intensified since the imposition of a state of emergency after the coup attempt that rocked Turkey in July.
‘There are no human rights violations’
But Akar, the AKP's chairman in Diyarbakir, dismisses the notion that his party could be repeating the mistakes of the past.
“There are no human rights violations,” he says. “This country has a free press. It has very strong human rights. Very strong public institutions and parliament… In the 1990s, there was no democracy, no free press. That was the old Turkey. This is the new Turkey.”
Nurcan Baysal, a Kurdish activist and author, is scathing about such proclamations. “I think they know what is happening,” she said. “But there is no democracy in the AKP. People prefer not to talk, or prefer not to talk about the reality.”
Eker, the AKP MP, speaks of the link between previous state actions and popular support for the PKK. But now, he insisted, the tie between the PKK and the public no longer exists.
“The PKK does not represent and is not rooted in the Kurds and the Kurdish population,” he said.
In Diyarbakir, where the red, yellow and green colours of the PKK are a common sight, many beg to differ.
Though the AKP’s vote share in Diyarbakir has plunged amid heightened tensions and the rise of the HDP, there are still Kurdish voters who support the party.
Outside her father’s shop in a narrow street in the city’s old walled Sur district, large parts of which were recently destroyed in fighting between the PKK and state forces, a 31-year-old woman who asked not to be named said she supports Erdogan.
She praised the higher living standards under the AKP. Even though her home is now marked for demolition under the government’s redevelopment plan, she is unwilling to apportion blame on either side.
Most of all, she said, she just wants to feel safe - and the best hope for that is the AKP. “These days we are frightened to go out after 8pm,” she said. “We just want stability. I wish the peace process would resume.”
For now, that prospect seems far away. Erdogan, who is reliant on nationalist MPs and voters to fulfil his political ambitions, has vowed to crush the PKK once and for all.
Some officials will privately admit that a military solution is impossible. They concede that peace talks will have to resume eventually. The worry, though, is that both the government and the PKK are deepening divisions, making this a dim possibility.
‘People speak of revenge’
On the one hand, almost-daily killings of soldiers and policemen by the PKK stoke anger among the general public, and the spate of AKP assassinations has upset the ruling party and its supporters.
Government critics say that the heavy crackdown on Kurdish civil society and opposition politicians is also deepening rifts.
“It is building a lot of hate,” said Baysal, the Kurdish activist. “People speak of revenge.”
Perched on a small stool in a narrow Sur alleyway, watching a nearby bulldozer send up clouds of dust, one man who asked not to be named said: “He was a human being. He had kids. It is wrong to kill someone like that.”