It was here in the sub-district of Semdinli that Kurdish separatists declared war on the Turkish state on 15 August 1984—exactly twenty-eight years ago next week. The province has since become a PKK stronghold, the sort of place where soldiers and policemen leave their bases only on missions, and children pelt passing armored cars with stones while their grannies mumble endearments.
For the past two weeks, this event has been in the news again (in a manner of speaking) amid rumors of some of the fiercest and most sustained fighting in over a decade. The fighting began on 24 July, when the PKK set up a roadblock on the main road connecting Semdinli to the rest of Turkey, and the Turkish army responded. Locals say there has been no let-up since: there have been frequent helicopters, columns of armored cars coming in from the north, machine gun fire, and PKK rocket-launches. The inhabitants of at least four villages south of Semdinli have abandoned their houses for the relative safety of the district center. “No villages have been emptied,” local officials say.
Reporting on the fighting in the Turkish media has been minimal. “I know what is going on, but I will not tell you,” the Turkish foreign minister told reporters. A couple of days earlier, the Prime Minister scolded governing party deputies cheeky enough to express concern about military casualties: “Where are you getting your information from, the PKK?” The answer is probably yes: the PKK media has been having a field day. Fifteen Turkish soldiers have been killed, but there have been no “martyrs” (i.e. PKK dead), and the state has lost control, said the Firat News Agency as early as 28 July, its language exactly that of two and a half decades of Turkish media propaganda.
In the absence of hard news, Turkish newspapers have been filled with speculation. Many argue that the PKK has abandoned its old hit-and-run guerrilla tactics for an effort to occupy land. They link the purported tactical change to developments elsewhere: the growing petro-chemical clout of Iraqi Kurds (who signed yet another oil extraction deal on 31 July, this time with Total); the growing Syrian Kurdish clamor for autonomy. “Everywhere you look, the Kurds have the wind behind them,” opined one analyst.
Yet when you take a step back, this bout of violence looks deeply futile. For years this Kurdish war has been nothing but a phony war, minions dying by the score while the big men on both sides beat their chests and growl. PKK commanders have boasted in recent days of extending their campaigns beyond Semdinli to the whole of the southern mountain region, but their power to take on the Turkish army is far from what it used to be. Abandoning guerrilla tactics—if that is their plan—is just bravado that will cost lives. And what are they fighting for anyway? One Semdinli friend of mine asked me that very question the last time I was there. What are they fighting for, he asked, “For Kurdish language courses at state schools? To be able to give their villages back their old Kurdish names? To improve Turkish democracy?” With the news in today’s Turkish papers that the PKK has repeated its call for “democratic autonomy,” the question retains its freshness.