Cizre, Turkey – The streets here are almost desolate, except for the armored personnel carriers that patrol this war-wrecked Kurdish city. The few children who have recently returned or withstood two and a half months of curfew and intense fighting kick around a ball, while their parents salvage the remnants of their homes, scorched black and blown apart by intense shelling. Pavement ripped up by tank tracks is pocked with craters where Kurdish rebels detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against their enemy. Pain and suffering are etched on the faces of survivors, who now live under the close surveillance of an invading army.
This is not Syria, nor is it Iraq. It is Turkey, America’s NATO partner, now in the throes of a rapidly expanding war against its Kurdish population in the country’s southeast. Lazar Simeonov and I are the first foreign journalists to pass through the ring of steel that surrounds Cizre since Turkish government forces started a military campaign last year to crush an uprising by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Checkpoints surrounding the city prevent access to almost everyone but local residents, and police thoroughly search anyone entering. We observe heavily armed special forces as they search a pregnant woman trying to leave the city. She looks agonized and helpless, reclining on a stretcher, as the troops order her husband and young children out of the emergency ambulance for pat-downs as they sift through medical equipment in search of weapons.
Hundreds of civilians were killed before the military assault ended on February 11. Human-rights groups say government forces have carried out massacres of civilians and extrajudicial killings. However, according a Cankız Çevik, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (an Ankara-based organization that is recognized by Amnesty International, the Council of Europe, the Red Cross, and the UN for its documentation of human-rights violations and support for survivors of torture across Turkey), gathering accurate information has been hampered by the Turkish government. She says her organization’s forensic specialists have been denied access to autopsies and blocked from the city, which remains under curfew.
Cizre and the old city of Diyarbakir—the de facto capital of Turkish Kurdistan—have seen the most severe fighting in an urban rebellion that has spread across what Kurds call northern Kurdistan. It’s a homeland the Turkish government refuses to recognize. Nor does it guarantee national minority status for an ethnic group that makes up some 20 percent of the country’s population, concentrated in the southeast but also a large minority in Istanbul.
According to PKK fighters and commanders that The Nation spoke to behind barricades in the embattled city of Nuysabin, on Turkey’s border with Syria, it was the government’s unwillingness to accept national minority rights during peace negotiations nine months ago that led to the collapse of talks. They say this new war—the latest phase in a three-decade conflict—will expand, and they vow that the PKK will move its guerrillas into eastern, Kurdish-majority cities in the coming months while also bringing the war to the country’s major metropolises, like Istanbul.