The war between Kurds and Islamists in Syria has rekindled a decades-old vendetta in southeast Turkey, where a sequence of lynchings and assassinations is reminiscent of a bloody past.
In the early 1990s, Kurdish nationalists accused Turkey’s authorities of using local Islamist groups to conduct a campaign of extra-judicial killings, a charge that successive governments denied. Street battles between the Islamists and supporters of the separatist PKK group were widespread at the time.
There have been similar scenes this month, as Kurds rioted in protest at Islamic State’s attack on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, and Turkey’s failure to stop it. About 40 people were killed, and the violence subsided only after the army was sent onto the streets and curfews imposed on major Kurdish cities.
While anti-government protests in the region aren’t unusual, this time the authorities in Ankara weren’t the only target of protesters’ rage. Seyhmus Tanrikulu said members of his Islamic party were “lynched as they distributed meat” to the poor in Diyarbakir, the southeast’s biggest city, for a Muslim holiday. According to Kurdish protest leaders, it was Islamists who started the shooting. Whichever version is true, the Syrian war is stirring old conflicts that destabilized the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey for decades.
“They recognized three of our young friends from their beards and loose pants,” said Tanrikulu, head of the Diyarbakir branch of the Huda-Par party, in an interview in the city. The group has strong links to Turkish Hezbollah, a movement that called for Islamic law in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, and isn’t related to the larger Lebanese group of the same name.
The Islamists were “chased into a building, where they hid in a third floor apartment,” Tanrikulu said. Their pursuers broke down the door and killed them, he said, and at least one body was hurled over the balcony and landed in the street where protesters continued to attack it. That was 16-year-old Yasin Boru, according to Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who confirmed the manner of the youth’s death and said he had called the family to express condolences.
Boru and his friends died on Oct. 7, the night violent protests spread across southeast Turkey. A week later came a different kind of killing. Kadri Bagdu, a 46-year-old distributor of pro-PKK Azadiya Welat newspaper, was shot dead in broad daylight in the city of Adana on Oct. 13. The killer, who was wearing a mask, fired two bullets into the back of Bagdu’s head and neck before speeding away on a motorcycle, according to a police report.
The incident recalled the killings of dozens of Kurdish intellectuals and activists in the 1990s, cases that were never resolved. Hezbollah’s trademark style of execution in those years consisted of a single shot to the head, or a blow to the skull or neck with a machete called a sallama.
Turkish police cracked down on Hezbollah in 2001 after discovering dozens of corpses, some in dungeons and torture chambers and most in the Kurdish southeast, said to be victims of the group. Tanrikulu’s Huda-Par was founded in December 2012 by people linked to Hezbollah, a year after some of the group’s leaders were released from prison.
A week after Bagdu’s death, a Huda-Par member was the target of another killing in the southeast. Fethi Yalcin, 37, was shot dead on Oct. 22 in Bingol province by gunmen in a passing car, according to the party. “We’re not going to give up our right to self-defense,” Hamdullah Tasali, a Huda-Par official, said by phone after the killing of Yalcin.
The risk of a return to the earlier era of violence has been acknowledged by the government. “No one can take us back to the 1990s,” Davutoglu told Al Jazeera Turk on Oct. 15. “We will stand like a castle against those who want to do that.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist-rooted politician who has led Turkey since 2002, has sided with the Huda-Par version of how the Diyarbakir violence began. “They’re attacking our bearded brothers, they’re attacking our women in head scarves,” he said in a televised address on Oct. 11. “They’re attacking our sacred Islamic values.”
Erdogan said he was singling out members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, the strongest Kurdish nationalist movement, which is classified a terrorist group by Turkey, as is Hezbollah. His remarks still helped fuel suspicions that the government is backing Islamists against Kurds, according to Mehmet Kaya, head of the Tigris Communal Research Center, a Kurdish group in Diyarbakir.
Before this month’s clashes, there’d been “an improving dialogue” between nationalists and Islamists in the Kurdish region, Kaya said by phone on Oct. 16. “The latest tensions may inevitably lead to renewed clashes between the PKK and Hezbollah,” he said.
Erdogan has broken taboos in Turkey by seeking a dialogue with the PKK to end a three-decade conflict that has left tens of thousands dead. The battle for Kobani has put that peace process at risk, as PKK leaders threatened to resume fighting if Turkey doesn’t do more to help the Syrian Kurds defending it.
As tensions between the PKK and the government mounted, so did local frictions in Diyarbakir between nationalist and Islamist Kurds. On Oct. 6, Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the main Kurdish party, had called for a public display of Kurdish anger, saying: “Kobani is everywhere.”
The following day one of his political allies, Zubeyde Zumrut, made a broadcast on Diyarbakir-based Gun Radio linking local groups to the Syrian war.
“I said there are 400 Islamist associations in Diyarbakir alone that are training and sending their members as volunteers to Islamic State,” Zumrut said in an Oct. 10 interview. She denied singling out Huda-Par.
Zumrut’s remarks was “pure slander and provocation,” and the violence began two hours after she spoke, said Huda-Par’s Tanrikulu, who says his party doesn’t support Islamic State.
An uneasy calm returned to Diyarbakir after two nights of curfew during which soldiers and armored vehicles lined the main streets. Both the Islamists and nationalist Kurds denied firing on their opponents. Yet, while the army and police were also the targets of protests, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said those who died during the clashes weren’t killed with bullets fired by security forces.
Should the conflict spill into the streets again, Hezbollah will respond to violence with retaliation “in multiples,” the group said in a statement on an Islamist website on Oct. 12.
“I can’t know what Hezbollah will do, but relatives of victims might want vengeance,” Tanrikulu said. He said he’d rejected an offer from the governor’s office to arrange a meeting with local Kurdish parties, because “I have nothing to talk about with people who are attacking us.”