The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is going ahead with the much-heralded peace process that it hopes will end the terrorist war waged by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the past three and a half decades while questions remain about the fate of a huge army of village guards who have been recruited to fight the Kurdish militants along with the Turkish army.
In 1985, the village guards system was set up through a special law whereby villagers were recruited to assist the Turkish military in its fight against the militants in eastern and southeastern Turkey, where the PKK launched its terrorism campaign in 1984. Today, there are at least 59,000 armed village guards on the government payroll and an additional 23,000 volunteers who are also armed and have special privileges, according to Interior Ministry statistics. Along with family members of the guards, Interior Ministry sources estimate 500,000 people benefit from the village guards system.
Most of the village guards are of Kurdish origin, which has created a blood feud between them and the PKK. In the early stages of the terrorist campaign, the PKK had raided several villages known to house village guards, killing women and children. Most of these attacks occurred between 1990 and 1994. On June 11, 1990, PKK militants attacked the Cevrimli village in the southeastern Sirnak province, killing 27 people, including seven women and 12 children.
Similar PKK attacks continued in several eastern and southeastern villages, where women and children were gunned down by PKK militants.
The last major attack was in October 1993, when militants raided villages in the southeastern provinces of Hakkari, Siirt and Batman, killing 35 people, including women and children. The killings earned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan the nickname “baby killer” among conservative Turks.
The villages belonged to village guards
During the same period, the Turkish military evacuated and burned down hundreds of villages in the region to prevent PKK militants from seeking refuge in the settlements or getting logistics support from villagers. The Turkish Human Rights Association said around 1,200 villages were destroyed during that period and stated that an undetermined number of villages among these were also destroyed by the village guards as reprisals for the killings of their family members, and some even by the PKK as a warning to villagers who cooperated with the military.
The village guards were used by the Turkish government not only as scouts or to track down PKK bands, but were also deployed in firefights. So the village guards were armed to the teeth and were given privileges to roam in the area like security forces and take the law into their own hands, which created resentment in the region, especially among those who had sympathies for the PKK.
So there is clearly a wedge between the village guards and the PKK, which could cause serious complications if and when the PKK lays down its arms, withdraws from mountain hideouts from Turkey to northern Iraq and once peace is achieved former PKK militants are allowed to return to their homes in Turkey within the scope of a rehabilitation process.
Village guards are already anxious about what will become of them and their families once former PKK militants return to their homes as the final step of the peace process. In a banner headline on April 8, 2013, mass circulation daily Hurriyet highlighted the problem quoting the village guards as saying, “So what if they [PKK militants] come back and shoot us?” Hurriyet wrote the village guards are concerned that they and their families will be the target of a blood vendetta once the PKK problem is solved.
Adnan Durak, a leader of the village guards in the Tepealti village near the township of Nusaybin in the southeastern province of Nusaybin, told the mass circulation daily that if the PKK lays down its arms some village guards will become direct targets. Durak was quoted as saying, “The whole affair may turn into a blood feud. The man’s son has been killed in the mountains [in a terrorist hideout by soldiers and village guards]. We will come face-to-face with him at the village square. I cannot visit each and everyone of them and beg for forgiveness.”
Another leader of the village guards in the Balaban village near Nusaybin, identified as Yusuf Badur, said, “Police and soldiers are a passing phase. They come and go. But we are here and we will have to face the people. We are natives of these lands. There are several families who have lost their children [PKK militants] in the mountains [in firefights]. Everyone knows us. Immigrating to other parts of the country is no solution.”
But the source of local resentment against village guards is not only because many families have lost their PKK militant children in firefights with soldiers and guards in the mountains. In some areas, the village guards have grown into an arrogant body of armed people who have imposed their will on the locals thanks to the state's backing. The Erdogan government launched a process of “returning home,” encouraging Kurdish citizens forced out of their villages by the military to go back to their native places.
However, in some areas village guards and their families had already settled there and prevented the natives from returning to their homes. That, too, is a source of deep resentment, the Human Rights Association of Turkey (IHD) has repeatedly stressed in its reports.
According to the Interior Ministry and IHD, at least 5,000 village guards have faced legal action on charges of aiding terrorists, kidnapping, causing material damage and being involved in smuggling since 1985. Another source of criticism among human rights groups and politicians has been that the village guards system has been counterproductive.
Despite this, the reality remains. There are at least 80,000 armed men and nearly 420,000 dependents, mostly of Kurdish origin, who have to be disarmed and given a new and secure life.
Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Deputy Mehmet Metiner, from the southeastern province of Adiyaman, says the state is aware of the problem and the public security department is working on a plan to address the issue. He refused to give any details but said the village guards may be recruited as civil servants, and thus they will continue to receive an income. Interior Ministry officials refused to comment.
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Deputy Sirri Sakik, from the southeastern province of Mus, says there is a real problem and doubts if the government has addressed the issue at all. “We cannot discuss such issues because even addressing such a problem can be taken as an attempt to hurt the ongoing peace process,” he told Al-Monitor.
What is clear is that the issue is not simply to disarm armed people and give them a new source of income but how to prevent a new war in eastern and southeastern Turkey. It is an issue that puts Kurds of the PKK against the Kurds who in some form or other cooperated with the Turkish state in the fight against terrorism.
İlnur Cevik served as the editor-in-chief of the Turkish Daily News, which later became the Hurriyet Daily News, between 1983 and 2004. He also published The New Anatolian, and currently hosts a news program "Echoes From the World" on Turkish TV Channel A.