Security forces forcibly displaced peasants in the 1980s and 1990s as a tactic to combat PKK insurgency. Founded by its leader Abdullah Öcalan in Diyarbakir province in 1978, the PKK drew its membership and logistical support from the local Kurdish peasantry. In its early years, the PKK mainly fought rival leftist and Kurdish organizations, but in August 1984 it attacked a gendarmerie post in Eruh, Siirt province, part of the mainly Kurdish southeast that had been a closed military zone since the 1920s. As the PKK stepped up its actions, the gendarmerie (soldiers carrying out police duties under the authority of the Interior Ministry) responded with widespread village raids and mass detentions. Detention almost invariably meant torture by beating, electric shocks, and sexual assault, as well as deprivation of food and water. Most of the nearly five hundred detainees who died in Turkey between 1980 and 2000 were villagers under interrogation in police stations and gendarmeries in the southeast. The security forces' repressive methods merely provoked ever larger numbers of disaffected youth to join the PKK, and within a few years the organization had grown to a substantial force, recruiting more than 30,000 between 1984 and 1999.
Turkish security forces failed to distinguish the armed militants they were pursuing from the civilian population they were supposed to be protecting, but whom they knew included people who were supplying and hiding the militants, willingly or unwillingly. The government resorted to a solution used by other states faced with similar adversaries in other parts of the world: they required the local populace to show their loyalty by bearing arms against the insurgents. After 1987, rural communities were expected to put up a sufficient number of men to form a platoon of "provisional village guards," armed, paid, and supervised by the local gendarmerie post. Communities could refuse to join the village guard system, but from then on the security forces would view them as PKK sympathizers. Villages that did opt to join the system were angry when neighboring settlements refused, because this left their flank exposed to PKK attacks. The village guard corps was well armed, but they had no formal chain of command and usually wore no uniforms or means of identification. Where tribal bonds were strong, clan leaders used village guards as a private army to reinforce their local supremacy.
In response, the PKK declared Kurds who joined the village guard system to be traitors. When they caught them, they often executed them. The PKK also carried out massacres of village guards' non-combatant families, including women and children. When the PKK melted away into the mountains after such attacks, the state military's counter-operations routinely started by rounding up the inhabitants of any nearby non-village guard communities and torturing them in order to extract information about PKK movements, and government forces sometimes committed massacres in reprisal for PKK attacks and abuses.
Villagers were faced with a frightening dilemma. They could become village guards and risk PKK attack, or refuse and risk state persecution. Many communities just packed their goods and left for the cities. Those who remained in the countryside found that life became more precarious with every passing month. The gendarmerie enforced food embargos, so families could bring only small quantities of goods from the towns. These supplies dwindled with confiscations as they were brought through a multitude of checkpoints along the road. "Grazing bans" were applied in order to prevent livestock herders from supplying the PKK with intelligence and goods as they moved their cattle and sheep from place to place. Gendarmes brutally interrogated herders they found in distant high pastures and sometimes summarily executed them.
In 1991, the newly elected True Path government of Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel made some gestures toward a constructive resolution of the violence in the southeast and announced that it would "recognize the Kurdish reality." Two massacres of demonstrating civilians at Lice and Kulp late that year, and a series of equally bloody attacks by the PKK, confounded tentative moves toward a more enlightened policy. In 1993 Tansu Çiller succeeded Demirel to become Turkey's first woman prime minister. With no experience of political management and preoccupied with holding together her party and government, she appeared to give the army and police a free hand to deal with the PKK. Security forces decided to summarily execute PKK activists or collaborators without troubling to collect evidence and prosecute them before the courts. The police were implicated in a wave of bombings and political murders in the urban southeast. From 1991 to 1994, street killers targeted Kurdish political leaders, human rights activists, and journalists, killing more than a thousand people.
The resort to outright lawlessness was reflected in the methods of the gendarmes in rural areas. Armed PKK members had been using the guerrilla tactic of swimming "like fishes in the sea of the people," as Mao Zedong had described, and the security forces used the counter-guerrilla tactic of "draining the sea." Rather than simply harass and threaten villagers who refused to join the village guard system, they methodically destroyed recalcitrant settlements.
Helicopters, armored vehicles, troops, and village guards surrounded village after village. They burned 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. There were many "disappearances" and extrajudicial executions. By 1994, more than 3,000 villages had been virtually wiped from the map and more than a quarter of a million peasants had been made homeless. Most of the displacements were from the ten southeastern provinces then under a state of emergency.7
The Turkish government denied 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 tried in vain to move the political and judicial wheels by tireless petitioning and lobbying. On October 26, 1994, Prime Minister Çiller met a delegation of headmen from ten villages in the Ovacık area of Tunceli. They told her that soldiers had burned their villages and that helicopters had supported the operations. But wilful blindness 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."8 Another headman, Mehmet Gürkan, of Akçayurt in Diyarbakır province, forcibly evacuated on July 7, 1994, held a press conference and reported that gendarmes had tortured him to tell television journalists that the PKK had destroyed his village. In fact, he said, security forces had burned Akçayurt. When he returned to the village a month later an eyewitness saw soldiers detain him and take him away in a helicopter. He was never seen again.9
Security forces were destroying villages in remote areas where communications were poor, so many abuses probably went unreported. Local community leaders had little experience of appealing to national or international organizations but one or two lawyers kept the United Nations (U.N.), the European Union (E.U.) and the Council of Europe informed by taking down the complaints of displaced peasants and farmers, many of whom were illiterate and who marked their submissions with a thumbprint, and faxing them abroad. Turkish and foreign nongovernmental organizations were aware of what was going on, but were simultaneously trying to cope with the dramatic rise in extrajudicial executions, "disappearances," and deaths in custody. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported the destruction and lobbied Turkey's colleague governments,10 but international criticism was muted-partly because the violations were taking place against the background of the PKK's insurgency and the abuses committed by PKK members.
Turkish prosecutors and judges played their part in suppressing the story not only by failing to take up villagers' complaints but by unleashing a hail of prosecutions against any newspapers and others that reported the village burning campaign. In April 1994, the Turkish Human Rights Association (HRA) produced a comprehensive survey of the displacement entitled, A Cross-Section of the Burned Villages, but the book was confiscated, and HRA president Akın Birdal was tried under the Anti-Terror Law for "separatist propaganda" at Ankara State Security Court.
The Turkish parliament was slow to respond to the petitions flooding in from displaced villagers. One factor that strongly inhibited parliamentary deputies from taking up the issue was that the press and hawkish politicians were always ready to brand any questioning of the security forces' record as PKK propaganda, tantamount to treason. In April 1995, a Parliamentary Commission on Unsolved Political Killings, which described the village guard system as "an investment in social discord," confirmed that village guards were involved in lawless activities including killing and extortion, but its findings were ignored and the village guard system continued virtually unchanged. Parliament did not directly address the question of internal displacement until the creation of the Commission on Internal Migration on June 3, 1997. The Commission was initially established to deal with the effects of migration to the cities, and it was only with some difficulty that it managed to have its terms of reference extended to cover the abuses in the southeast. On January 14, 1998, the Commission submitted a 170-page report to parliament. The report was diplomatically phrased and carefully balanced in order not to offend official sensibilities, but put the nightmare squarely on the official record. Perhaps most importantly, it extracted from the Emergency Region governor an official figure for the village destruction campaign: 378,335 villagers displaced from 820 villages and 2,345 smaller settlements.11 The report's recommendations have been largely ignored.
7 In 1978 martial law was declared in thirteen southeastern provinces. This was extended to nineteen provinces the following year, and throughout the entire sixty-seven provinces of Turkey after the military coup of September 12, 1980. This was progressively lifted in various provinces until in July 1987 martial law was finally lifted in the southeast, but replaced by state of emergency legislation. In 1990, ten southeastern provinces were under state of emergency. As the conflict waned during the late 1990s, the state of emergency was progressively lifted. Now two provinces (Şırnak and Diyarbakır) are still under emergency legislation, but this is not expected to be renewed when it expires in November 2002. The state of emergency governor has extensive powers to limit freedom of expression, to move civil servants and populations, and to requisition property. The permissible period of police detention is extended in regions under state of emergency, and forces under the control of the state of emergency governor enjoy considerable immunity from prosecution.
11 Report on "Remedies To Be Undertaken On The Basis Of Research Into The Problems Of Citizens Who Have Migrated As A Result Of Evacuation Of Settlements In East And Southeast Anatolia," submitted to the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, January 14, 1998.