A decade ago, when southeast Turkey was in the grip of a vicious internal armed conflict and Turkish soldiers were forcibly clearing villages, Kurdish villagers sent pleas for intervention to the outside world:
In June 2001, Human Rights Watch sought out the two farmers who had written the above appeals. We found that the two men and their families were still unable to return to their homes, in spite of the effective end to the fighting. Instead, they continued to live in overcrowded and difficult circumstances in nearby cities. Their way home remained barred by soldiers and by village guards who had occupied their lands.
According to official figures, 380,000 people were displaced from southeast Turkey during the fifteen-year conflict between government forces and the illegal armed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Nongovernmental organizations estimate the number of displaced, mainly Kurdish villagers, at least a million and a half. Most displaced persons were driven from their homes by government gendarmes and by "village guards"-that is, their own neighbors, whom the government armed and paid to fight the PKK but did little to train or control. This was not an orderly and lawful resettlement program but an arbitrary and violent campaign marked by hundreds of "disappearances" and summary executions. Villagers' homes were torched, their crops destroyed and their livestock destroyed before their eyes.
There has been little fighting since the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK's declaration of a unilateral ceasefire in 1999. The government, faced with the expectation that it should do something for the internally displaced, has announced a series of programs for return and resettlement that sound generous and convincing. But only a trickle of villagers are making their way back. Most remain in the big cities of western Turkey or in towns around the southeast, despite the difficult circumstances of their lives there. Local governors and gendarmerie have forbidden some to return on the grounds that their villages are within restricted military zones. Other villagers are reluctant to make a move because they believe that once they return, the cycle of detention and harassment by government security forces may start again. Some villagers who made tentative expeditions home met soldiers who threatened them and turned them back. Others found that neighboring village guards, in their absence, had taken over their lands, and sometimes their houses too. Displaced villagers are keen to resume their former productive life, but after a decade separated from their livelihoods, they do not have even the small amount of capital they need to buy the necessary equipment, seed, and livestock to start again. New forced displacements occurred as recently as 2001, so villagers dare not run the personal and financial risks of return while it remains possible that the gendarmerie will come and turn them off their lands once again.
The Turkish government has never acknowledged the human rights violations the security forces inflicted on hundreds of thousands of its citizens. The Turkish parliament's Commission on Migration documented the scale of the displacement and placed the main responsibility at the feet of the gendarmerie, but the government ignored most of the recommendations contained in the commission's 1995 report. The European Court of Human Rights put the policy of forced displacement on the international record in a series of judgments finding Turkey guilty of violations of property rights. The plaintiffs in these cases received compensation, but they represent only a tiny minority of victims and even they are still unable to go home. The Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers, in its role as enforcer of court judgments, is responsible for ensuring that the plaintiffs can return to their property, but it has had no more success in this than it has in persuading the Turkish government to implement an effective general return.
Successive Turkish governments have devised various return schemes, but failed to plan or finance them properly. They have also consistently cut the villagers themselves out of the planning process. Consequently, the initiatives have been largely unsuccessful. In June 2001 Human Rights Watch conducted a mission to investigate the latest return scheme: the Village Return and Rehabilitation Project. It proved a frustrating task. The only information available in the public arena is a succession of public statements by politicians and local governors that express a degree of urgency, enthusiasm, and readiness to help that makes a striking contrast with the situation on the ground. Officials are broadcasting statistics, of doubtful provenance, that suggest villagers heading back to their homes in large numbers. The government has advertised this as a state-run rural development and reconstruction project designed to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people, but no officials could show Human Rights Watch anything on paper to describe the aims or methods of the return project. With no special agency to manage it, and no clear budget, the achievements of the Village Return and Rehabilitation Project after more than three years are limited to a feasibility study, as yet unpublished.
In spite of all the obstacles, a few villagers are testing the water. Some commute from the cities to cultivate their crops, and others are replanting and rebuilding while camping under canvas or sleeping in the village mosque. There are also government-financed resettlement projects in villages such as Konalga near Van and Islamköy near Diyarbakır. But these "central villages" seem mainly intended for village guards displaced as a consequence of attacks and killings by the PKK in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Displaced village guards deserve all the support they can get from the government in returning to normal life. But the same is equally true for the much larger group of communities whom the military drove out because they refused to join the village guard corps.
Governors are refusing to give villagers permission to return unless they sign a form in which they relinquish all rights to compensation. The form also contains a declaration that exculpates the state from its criminal responsibility for the displacement. Governors and gendarmerie commanders have not only withheld permission to return from villagers who decline to sign the forms but also insulted and threatened them.
Most displaced villagers are reluctant to seek judicial remedies, since they believe that there is no chance of a result in their favor. They find it extremely difficult to find a foothold for legal action, since the whole process of displacement has been kept off the record. Few villagers have received any documentary evidence to show that they are unable to return to their property. It is a curious paradox that for years the displaced farmers, most of whom are only semi-literate, have been diligently petitioning government and judicial authorities in writing, while the state bureaucracy has preferred to do business by word of mouth. Local governors generally give or withhold permission to return verbally, and thereby avoid committing administrative acts that might subsequently be challenged in court.
Moreover, villagers fear that legal action may simply aggravate the security forces' disfavor and further distance their main goal of reoccupying their homes. The persecution and violence experienced by the few who sought a remedy through the law justifies such trepidation. Armed hostilities are over in the southeast, but those who were internally displaced are still infected with profound fear. Most informants would only speak to Human Rights Watch on condition that their identity would be withheld.
In summary, the Village Return and Rehabilitation Project falls far short of the international standards on the treatment of internally displaced persons embodied in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. There is much pessimistic conjecture as to the motives behind the Village Return and Rehabilitation Project. Many villagers believe that the authorities have decided that they should never return. In 2000 the National Security Council approved a military master plan for the southeast, but the contents of that plan remain secret. Villagers suspect that the Village Return and Rehabilitation Project, if it is ever implemented, will put in place a strategic network of centralized village guard settlements overlooked by large gendarmeries, while the rest of the countryside remains more or less vacant. For the government, such a solution would not only enable easier policing, but would also strike a blow at a section of the Kurdish minority it views as persistently awkward by stranding them in the metropolitan centers where they risk losing their distinct language and culture as they enter their second decade of internal exile.
Human Rights Watch is calling on the Turkish government to give much greater urgency to facilitating the return and resettlement of the hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens who were forced from their homes during the PKK conflict, the majority of them by government troops. In particular, the Turkish government should develop and implement its return projects in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which emphasize the importance of consultation with the internally displaced and access by relevant humanitarian organizations.
The Turkish government has avoided involving expert intergovernmental organizations in the implementation of the current return program. Indeed, the program is so ill-conceived that several major organizations have specifically refused to participate in it. But a sound program would stand a good chance of receiving international funding and expertise. In similar post-conflict situations around the world, and in the nearby Balkans in particular, displaced populations have received considerable material assistance in reconstruction from the European Commission, the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the European Investment Bank and many other donors. The Turkish government's intransigence seems to be the main obstacle between the displaced villagers of the southeast and the international assistance they deserve.
The Turkish government could show its readiness to take a new direction by hosting a forum on return involving representatives of the internally displaced themselves, as well as concerned nongovernmental organizations and international organizations with a specific interest and expertise in displacement, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).