Last Sunday, thousands of teachers working in Cizre and Silopi were ordered by the Ministry of Education to leave immediately and attend “in-house training” in their hometowns. With the arrival of 10,000 troops backed by tanks, 36 commanders and a newly reinstated curfew, it quickly became apparent that Ankara was preparing for a large-scale offensive to finally root out what the Turkish government deems “PKK terrorists.” The Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, made such an operation clear when he insisted that “All terror elements will be cleansed. If need be neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street, house by house.”
This is not the first time Cizre and Silopi have faced a severe crackdowns on their civil freedoms. In September, an 8-day curfew was imposed on the town of Cizre, during which 24 civilians were killed. Tahir Elçi, the prominent Kurdish human rights lawyer who was brutally murdered on the streets of Diyarbakir, wrote a detailed report listing the human rights violations committed by Turkey’s security forces in the town. Ankara continuously asserted that only “PKK terrorists” were killed. But the reality is that the Turkish military pursues a policy of shoot on site for anyone found breaking the curfew. Just like the last curfew, many citizens risk stepping out onto the streets at their own peril. When an injured resident needs to go to the hospital, citizens hold up white flags as a precaution against the military’s gunfire. Access to health services has been extremely limited by these curfews and ongoing conflict.
Since the 16th September, over 52 curfews have been declared according to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, affecting nearly 1.3 million citizens. The co-chair of the HDP, Figen Yüksekdağ, claimed that of those affected, over 200,000 have been forcibly displaced and 83 civilians have been killed.
Part of the reason the State has imposed curfews so frequently is because of the activity of the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (the YDG-H), who operate as the urban youth wing of the PKK. A relatively new group within the Kurdish Movement, the YDG-H have declared various neighbourhoods across the south-east as autonomous from the state, which they defend by building trenches and using rusty Kalashnikovs.
The urban strategy which the YDG-H adopts is a new form of resistance within the Kurdish movement. Having fought the Turkish state for over 30 years, the PKK have always relied upon the mountains to protect themselves; knowing that they have a natural advantage over the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) due to their knowledge of the terrain. During the 90s, known to be the worst decade in this 30-year war, PKK militants rarely ventured into the urban areas. Simultaneously, villages thought to be supporting PKK militants were forcibly evicted, with some reportedly set fire to or destroyed, by Turkey’s armed forces, leading many to migrate to the bigger cities. The larger towns of Van and Diyarbakır in the south-east swelled as a result.
The YDG-H is mainly made up of young Kurds who experienced the brutality of the war in the 90s as children. Frustrated by the failures of the peace talk, they took up arms. Clearly with a certain level of support from the more hardened PKK militants, they began to work within the urban areas in which they resided. Many Turkish Kurds joined the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, during the Kobane siege, when the Kurds successfully resisted a 5 month siege from the Islamic State. Upon returning to Turkey, some reportedly joined the YDG-H, giving valuable urban warfare experience to the organisation.
The declarations of autonomy by the YDG-H are in line with the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader who has been incarcerated in Turkish jail since 1999. However, since the clashes escalated between the state and the Kurdish militants, there has been a steady stream of migration from these “autonomous” neighbourhoods. Such a retreat of life in these areas can be seen as a threat to the very philosophy of autonomy that Öcalan himself envisions.
Ankara’s determined position to “cleanse” Cizre “house by house” shows their desire to enact a crushing defeat on this new, urban resistance. After their surprise majority victory at the November elections, it appears that Ankara wants to inflict a crushing victory against the PKK (and plausibly the HDP, whose challenge to AKP single-party rule during the June elections caused substantial difficulties for the AKP). Knowing the strength of the Turkish army, it is a victory they will likely win. The PKK (and the YDG-H) appear to have made a fundamental mistake in dragging Kurdish civilians living in these areas into a conflict which has cost many lives.
However, whilst the actions of the YDG-H may well prove to be foolhardy, Ankara’s response must be held to account. In all the areas of YDG-H activity, which is where curfews have been imposed, the HDP party won more than 90% seats. Such an outright majority shows the illegitimacy of the Turkish government, a reality which cannot be changed at the barrel of a gun. In fact, such a militaristic approach to quelling resistance in Kurdish areas will likely polarise these Kurds further away from Ankara, making peace an even more distant possibility.
One teacher who was told to stop teaching in Cizre, Serhat Uğur- co-chair of educator’s union Eğitim Sen in Şırnak, was adamant that such a strategy would ultimately fail. “I’m a state employee, but in these circumstances I refuse to obey them,” he explained over the phone, “even if they kill one million of us Kurds, we still won’t obey them.”