CIZRE (AFP) – Curfews, street barricades and armed police everywhere: the unrest in Turkey’s mainly-Kurdish southeast is likely to have an impact on the upcoming election but it also risks spelling a defeat for democracy.
Nestled near the border with Syria and Iraq, the city of Cizre became a symbol of the bloody conflict after violent clashes between Turkish security forces and the youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) last month.
The government said that up to 32 Kurdish militants were killed during the nine-day curfew imposed on the city, but human rights associations said 21 of of them were civilians in an assault which terrified residents and transformed this city of 120,000 people into a warzone.
Among the victims was Zeynep Taskin, an 18-year-old mother who was cut down by a sniper’s bullet as she stood on her doorstep, her nine-month-old baby Berxwedan in her arms. Her mother-in-law Masallah, who rushed to her aid, was also killed.
“Here is the only weapon his mother was carrying,” Masallah’s husband Ahmet said, pointing to the wounded infant.
The region has become a thorn in the side for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
His ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority for the first time in over a decade in June’s inconclusive election, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) celebrated historic results.
The state says the rebels are coercing people here into supporting them, and on Tuesday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu threatened legal action against anyone pressuring voters ahead of the fresh ballot on November 1.
– ‘Whatever it takes’ –
Critics say the crackdown on the PKK is intended to scare people into either voting for AKP or avoiding the polls entirely.
“They shoot at every door… they don’t differentiate at all,” truck driver Ahmet said, his voice hoarse as he showed the bullet holes in the front of his building.
“I didn’t see the sniper with my own eyes but we know state forces control the area. Those who shot were from the state… they are the terrorists,” he said.
Those who have taken up arms to fight special Turkish riot police in the streets of Cizre agree.
“We’ve done nothing but defend ourselves,” insists Siphan, a masked 28-year-old who belongs to the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), the militant youth wing of the PKK.
The group, which he says has about 100 members in Cirze, erected barricades and dug trenches at the entrance to the Nur neighbourhood in the hope of preventing the special forces from getting in.
“They arrest us for the smallest thing, our houses are searched, I don’t want this cruelty anymore,” he said.
“We are ready to do whatever it takes to put a stop to it.”
The government insists its use of force has been to quash fledgling “uprisings” in several towns in the area.
“We are facing an operation which aims to spread the war conducted by the armed (Kurdish) groups from rural areas to towns,” Davutoglu said recently.
– Scare tactics –
Locals in Cizre speak of the panic and suffering of ordinary residents living behind sand bag barriers, with a lack of food and water, problems getting medical care and intermittent power cuts.
“Of course, no state can accept entire neighbourhoods in several cities being beyond its authority,” said Vahap Coskun, rights professor at Dicle University.
“But the measures taken in reaction to protests and PKK provocations are largely against human rights,” he said.
The HDP has accused the government of sabotage after the town’s popular pro-Kurd mayor was suspended in September for spreading alleged “terrorist propaganda”.
Nusirevan Elci, head of the bar, said the government had learned from its electoral defeat in June and that its strategy was clear.
“The authorities are trying to scare people so they won’t vote. They could even cancel the ballot here under false security pretences,” he said.
“It’s easy to kill, it’s much harder to make peace”.