Government forces drove thousands of rural farming communities out of their villages in southeast Turkey in the 1990s as part of a scorched earth policy against the illegal armed PKK. The evictions were unlawful and violent. Villagers homes were torched, and their crops and livestock destroyed. Security forces killed or disappeared scores of villagers. The Turkish army moved out any inhabitants who refused to join the paramilitary village guards, armed and paid by the government to fight the PKK. A smaller number of communities that did join the village guards were forced to leave under the pressure of relentless PKK attacks. Most of the survivors fled to towns and cities throughout the country, where they have spent the last decade living in poverty and overcrowded conditions.
The stark facts of the original displacement are periodically restated in the form of judgments at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against the Turkish government for the destruction of homes, crops, and livestock, extrajudicial execution, and disappearances committed by soldiers during the clearances. In February 2004, for example, the ECHR found that Turkish soldiers who had burned down the village of Çaylarbaşı, near Lice in Diyarbakır province, and destroyed villagers belongings and livestock, were also responsible for the disappearance of Ikram and Servet Ipek, inhabitants of the village.
Since 1995, in response to domestic and international criticism, the Turkish government has launched a string of projects supposedly to assist return: central villages, model villages, the Return to Village Program, the Return to Village and Rehabilitation Project. These ventures were so badly conceived, underfunded, and lacking in genuine political will that it appears they were mainly intended to deflect criticism rather than provide homes and protection. The centerpiece of the Return to Village and Rehabilitation Project announced in 1999 was a feasibility project for reconstruction of a representative village in each of twelve provinces that had been under a state of emergency. This survey was supposed to form the basis for a major (later) push on return. The report was unavailable to the public until 2004 when it was followed not by an expansion of the return effort but, as shown below, by plans for another survey.
Human Rights Watchs report Displaced and DisregardedTurkeys failing village return program, published in October 2002, provides a full survey of the original displacement, the problems of the displaced, and the governments unconvincing return schemes, together with comprehensive recommendations about how to establish a program in line with the main human rights standardsthe U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
Not much has changed for the displaced in the two years since that report was published. The government claims that 94,029 displaced persons returned to their homes in the southeast between June 2000 and December 2003, but as with earlier such claims, the government provided no details about the settlements to which returns had been made, nor did it give any information about whether it provided reconstruction assistance, which would have enabled observers to corroborate and evaluate the governments claims. Nongovernmental organizations working in the field state that to their knowledge returns continue to be slow and to receive little governmental support.