The deep crater in the road has been filled up with loose earth. Shreds of metal and car tires and a pair of tattered shoes on a rock are all that signal the tragedy that took place on this dirt road 18 kilometers from Batman on Aug. 1.
A car carrying brothers Salih, Sadi and Sofi Özdemir, members of the Raman community, as well as lawyer Sedat Özevin, former head of the Batman Bar Association, was blown up by a powerful anti-tank mine, killing its four occupants. Three armed assailants had carefully laid a trap in the oil field, setting a well alight after tying up the guards on duty. Were they Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants expecting soldiers or policemen to venture off the main road that links Batman to Hasankeyf to extinguish the flames? A week later, another mine killed three soldiers in Mardin province. Or was the lethal explosion an attempt by rogue provocateurs to raise tensions, this time by driving a wedge between a clan traditionally close to the Kurdish cause and the Kurdish party?
The PKK has denied responsibility. For now, the various explanations offered by locals remain mere speculation. But whoever was behind the ambush, the untimely deaths of these well-respected civilians has caused shock waves throughout the region and given renewed vigor to calls for an end to the violence.
At the Özdemir house, the brothers have been laid to rest in the courtyard. Salih Özdemir was a former parliamentary candidate for the now defunct Kurdish party HEP [People’s Labor Party], and his brother Sadi a prominent human rights activist, was former head of the Human Rights Association in Batman. Their 45 year-old younger brother Sofi, a Danish citizen living in Germany, was on a two-week visit to his homeland at the time of his death. Thousands of people including the local governor and State Minister Hüseyin Çelik as well as the top echelon of the [Peace and Democracy Party] BDP have turned up since the tragedy to pay their respects.
Dozens of men sit under a large tent where the victims male relatives, calm and dignified but with faces deeply etched with pain, receive condolences. Women are gathered inside the house. Some of them read the Quran. Tears flow freely as they recount the fateful events of that night.
“We were sitting on the balcony around 10 pm when Salih noticed the fire,” explains the victims’ distraught sister Sultan Özdemir. “My brothers and Sedat (Özevin) gathered a few shovels and cut branches before setting off to extinguish it. Twenty days earlier an electrical wire has set fire to the dry grasses. They thought a similar event had happened. They told us to alert the fire department in Batman.”
Locals pray at the funerals of brothers Salih, Sadi and Sofi Özdemir, members of the Raman community in Batman who were killed in a mine explosion on Aug. 1.
In another village belonging to the clan, a few kilometers down the road, shots fired by the attackers had been heard, sending a clear warning that the fire was probably not accidental. But in the absence of a GSM transmitter in the area, the message could not be relayed to the four men travelling to their deaths. A short while later, a powerful explosion shattered their vehicle, sending it high enough to knock off electricity lines and plunge the nearby hamlets into darkness.
The victims’ families, struggling to deal with the sudden deaths, refuse to indulge in speculation about who might be behind the ambush, but the event is being extensively discussed across the region.
The Southeast is currently deeply divided. Hard-line Kurds, frustrated by what they see as the government’s unwillingness to engage fully with BDP, dismiss the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) democratic initiative as mere talk and favor a boycott of the upcoming referendum. “From the beginning, the AK Party wasn’t sincere. They started operations and arrests at the same time,” believes Nijad Yaruk, BDP head for Diyarbakir province. “The real goal was to eliminate the Kurdish political movement. There is nothing for the Kurds in the constitutional package.”
Moderates, on the other hand, acknowledge the flaws in the government’s plan but they nevertheless see it as a step forward. As Turkey’s political circumstances evolve, they believe Kurds have more to gain from political action than from armed confrontation.
“The democratic opening was a beginning, but the government didn’t have enough information or enough courage to talk to the right interlocutors,” explains Sezgin Tanrıkulu, former head of the Diyarbakır Bar Association. “But what the prime minister has said about the Kurdish issue is now in the state archives, you can find his words on Google. There is a memory that cannot be erased and will have political consequences. At least from now on, the bar will be set higher.”
But all agree that the arrests of some 1,600 people in the past 18 months, in what the authorities say is a crackdown on [Kurdish Communities Union] KCK, an urban wing of the PKK, has had a very negative impact on the local mood, eclipsing the government’s efforts and boosting support for the defiant BDP.
Prominent politicians, such as the outspoken Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir, are among those facing charges. Over a hundred defendants, including several Kurdish mayors and the head of the Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association, Muharrem Erbay, have been detained for months awaiting trial.
“This is the first government that has officially rejected the assimilation policies of the past,” defends AK Party Diyarbakir deputy Abdurrahman Kurt, who complains about the BDP’s “lynch culture.” “Compared to other governments, it has done far more on the Kurdish issue so far but it is the one the BDP is most hostile to.”
As the number of arrests and the death toll from clashes and ambushes rise, so does the level of anger across Turkey. Recent incidents have fuelled fears of more ethnic riots, spurred by radicals bent on fanning the flames and destabilizing the country ahead of the referendum on constitutional amendments to be held on Sept. 12.
Although the AK Party failed to conquer Diyarbakir Municipality in March 2009 as it had hoped, it is perceived as a serious rival by the BDP, which partly explains while its supporters vent their frustration against the ruling party rather than the armed forces.
In spite of the threat posed by the rapidly decreasing trust between Turks and Kurds, a lasting solution is still within reach. The rising violence, many moderate Kurds believe, is partly linked to the bigger struggle taking place in the country, as the elected government asserts its control over state institutions.
“Those who want the war to continue have formed a strong front,” says lawyer Tanrıkulu. “But more information is coming out, and it won’t remain secret for long.” Advocates of political action are getting more vocal, demanding an end to violence on both sides. The PKK’s monopoly on the Kurdish discourse is being challenged as more people demand the right to discuss a political solution freely.
As Turkey continues to confront its past, many in the region hope that investigations will eventually expand beyond Ergenekon to examine the devastating consequences of past policies, including thousands of unsolved assassinations. So far, only one officer, Col. Cemal Temizöz, has been charged in connection with atrocities committed in the Southeast. More Kurds are also wondering if the “deep state” might have a pendant on their side, deliberately shedding blood to rack up tension.
For all its flamboyant rhetoric, the BDP is clear about not wanting a separate state. Party supporters and officials stress that they take issue with state policies but not with the Turkish people. What Kurds across the political spectrum demand is a new Constitution that will recognize their identity, give them the right to receive education in their language and allow them to express their views freely.
The referendum could mark a turning point, encouraging the government to take bolder steps toward the Kurds. Few “no” votes are expected to emerge from the region on Sept. 12: Kurdish voters will either stay at home or turn up to support the reforms. “If the ‘yes’ doesn’t win, the future will be entirely blocked,” warns Sahismail Bedirhanoğlu, chairman of Günsiad, the Southeastern Anatolia Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. “We need a ‘yes’ vote to open the way for a new Constitution.” For the time being, the BDP maintains its decision to boycott the vote, but as more people in the region express their desire to have their vote counted, there is a slim hope that it could yet soften its position. The coming weeks are fraught with danger, but they also offer the prospect of more positive change as new political balances emerge.