Background Briefing


During the 1980s and 1990s, as part of its counterinsurgency effort, Turkish government security forces forcibly emptied an estimated 3,000 villages in southeastern Turkey. Official figures state that 378,335 villagers were displaced during this process, though the actual figure is probably much higher.5 The inhabitants of these villages were mainly Kurdish peasants and farmers, who were caught between the Turkish military forces on the one side and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) on the other. Their displacement not only left them homeless, but deprived them of access to their lands and livestock and of their livelihoods.

The village destruction program, as this counter-insurgency effort was known, was intended to prevent the PKK from recruiting from the villages and using them for logistical support. Local gendarmerie (soldiers who police rural areas) required village populations to enroll in the “provisional village guards” who were armed, paid, and supervised by the local gendarmerie post. Villagers were confronted with an impossible dilemma: If they became village guards they were likely to be attacked by the PKK, but if they refused village guard service then the gendarmes would forcibly, unlawfully, and often violently, evacuate and destroy their settlement.

As Human Rights Watch has reported previously,

Evacuations were unlawful and violent. Security forces would surround a village using helicopters, armored vehicles, troops, and village guards, and burn stored produce, agricultural equipment, crops, orchards, forests, and livestock. They set fire to houses, often giving the inhabitants no opportunity to retrieve their possessions. During the course of such operations, security forces frequently abused and humiliated villagers, stole their property and cash, and ill-treated or tortured them before herding them onto the roads and away from their former homes. The operations were marked by scores of “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions. By the mid-1990s, more than 3,000 villages had been virtually wiped from the map, and, according to official figures, 378,335 Kurdish villagers had been displaced and left homeless.6

Throughout the 1990s the Turkish government refused to acknowledge that evacuations and expulsions were happening at all, and lied to cover up security forces’ abuses. One or two politicians spoke out against village destruction, at the cost of damaging their own political careers, but parliament failed to halt the conflagration. Internally displaced people desperately lobbied local and national politicians. On October 26, 1994, Prime Minister Tansu Çiller met a delegation of muhtars (village headmen) from Tunceli province. They told her that soldiers had burned their villages and that helicopters had supported the operations. But total denial was now official policy. The prime minister told them: “Even if I saw with my own eyes that the state had burned a village, I would not believe it. Do not think that every helicopter you see is ours. It could be a PKK helicopter. It could also be a Russian, Afghan, or Armenian helicopter.”7 Another muhtar, Mehmet Gürkan, of Akçayurt, in Diyarbakır province, stated on national television that security forces had burned his village in July 1994. When he returned to the village a month later an eye-witness saw soldiers detain him and take him away in a helicopter. He was never seen again.8 The judiciary made every effort to suppress news of the operations. In April 1994 the Turkish Human Rights Association (HRA) published A Cross-Section of the Burned Villages, a 250-page document on human rights violations in the emergency region, focusing in particular on the destruction of villages. The book was confiscated and Akın Birdal, national president, and two other HRA officials were prosecuted at Ankara State Security Court on charges of “separatist propaganda” under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law.

News of the displacement was largely suppressed, but the consequent influx of Kurds into the cities of western Turkey provoked questions and protests. In 1995 a parliamentary inquiry into internal migration was initiated, and in 1996 the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Akdivar and others v. Turkey that the government’s security forces had unlawfully destroyed houses, and that the local judiciary, far from investigating the violation, had assisted in a cover-up.

By the late 1990s displacements slowed to a stop either as a result of international and domestic attention to the problem, or because, by then, most of the non-village guard communities had been moved out.

In order to fend off criticism, the government launched a few initiatives for the return of the displaced, all badly conceived and starved of political commitment and funds.9 By 2000, despite official statistics and claims to the contrary, there had been virtually no returns at all. But international interest in Turkey’s displaced had increased, and the international community had become much more effective in pressing for change especially once the EU had recognized Turkey as a candidate member at the end of 1999 and moved towards opening full accession negotiations, a step conditioned on fulfillment of a program of human rights reforms.10

In November 2002 the then special representative of the UN secretary-general on internal displacement, Francis Deng, reported on a visit to Turkey and recommended, among other measures, that displaced villagers should be compensated.11

In May 2003 the EU revised its Accession Partnership with Turkey to include a requirement that “the return of internally displaced persons to their original settlements should be supported and speeded up.”12 In June 2004 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) urged the government to “move from a dialogue to a formal partnership with UN agencies to work for a return in safety and dignity of those internally displaced by the conflict in the 1990s” and to enact provisions for compensating the displaced.13

In response to the growing calls for an effective policy toward the internally displaced, the Turkish government passed the Law on Compensation for Damage Arising from Terror and Combating Terror (Law 5233) on July 17, 2004. The law went into effect on July 27, 2004, and regulations for implementing the law were published in the Official Gazette on October 20, 2004.

The Compensation Law offered the possibility of full compensation for material losses arising from displacement—potentially a powerful and effective mechanism for restitution. It also provided a potential mechanism to begin the process of reconciliation and to underscore the government’s goodwill toward a group of citizens who had been quite appallingly treated by state officials, as well as, in some cases, by illegal armed groups.

What is more, adequate compensation could also provide real practical choices for displaced people either to return to the village or make new lives in the cities. Villagers confront a variety of obstacles to return, ranging from occupations and violence by neighboring village guards14 to landmines and lack of infrastructure—most destroyed villages have no electricity, reliable water supply, or a school.15 But many villagers say that it is chiefly the financial cost of return that makes it a practical impossibility. Even before their displacement this population was among Turkey’s poorest. The violent displacements left them homeless and unemployed, and in addition they suffered greatly from a decade of marginalization in a turbulent economy struck by repeated economic crises. Returning villagers would have to transport their family and belongings back to the southeast, reconstruct their homes—now no more than piles of stones covered with brambles—buy stock and equipment, clear farmland, replant crops and trees, and get through the first year or two before they could re-establish a stream of income and produce. All this would require a major outlay of funds, which most of the displaced simply do not have. Reasonable compensation for the destruction of property, loss of income, and the costs of the past decade in rent would help make return feasible.

6 See Human Rights Watch, “Still critical”: Prospects in 2005 for Internally Displaced Kurds in Turkey, vol. 17, no. 2(D), March 2005,

7 Cumhuriyet (Republic), October 28, 1994.

8 See Amnesty International report Policy of Denial, February 1995, p 3.

9 For a survey of such initiatives up to 1996, see: Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, “Turkey’s failed policy to aid the forcibly displaced in the southeast,” A Human Rights Watch report, vol. 8, no. 9 (D), June 1996. For an evaluation of later initiatives, including the Return to Village and Rehabilitation Project, see Human Rights Watch, “Displaced and Disregarded: Turkey’s Failing Village Return Program,” A Human Rights Watch report, vol. 14, no. 7 (D), October 2002, and Human Rights Watch “Still critical - Prospects in 2005 for Internally Displaced Kurds in Turkey,” March 2005.

10 The opening of accession negotiations was decided by the European Council on December 16, 2004, to begin on October 3, 2005. For Human Rights Watch’s assessment of the state of human rights in Turkey at the time of the decision on accession negotiations, see A Crossroads for Human Rights? Human Rights Watch’s key concerns on Turkey for 2005, December 2004,

11 Report of the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on internally displaced persons, Mr. Francis Deng, submitted pursuant to Commission on Human Rights resolution 2002/56, E/CN.4/2003/86/Add.2, November 27, 2002.

12 European Commission, Turkey: 2003 Accession Partnership, May 19, 2003, Priorities (2003/2004).

13 Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Resolution 1380 (2004), adopted June 22, 2004, 23.viii.

14 Since 2002 village guards have killed at least 13 unarmed villagers.

15 See Human Rights Watch, Displaced And Disregarded: Turkey's Failing Village Return Program, vol. 14, no. 7(D), October 2002,; and “Still critical.”