As Turkey's students head back to class, many fear escalating violence

Millions of students in Turkey are set to return to school Sept. 28, and their families are deeply concerned that the students will be in danger if clashes worsen between the government and PKK.

al-monitor A high-school student wearing a Guy Fawkes mask takes part in a protest against the education policies of the dominant Justice and Development Party, as a police vehicle is seen in the background, Istanbul, Feb. 13, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.
Metin Gurcan

Metin Gurcan


Topics covered

ydg-h, universities, turkish democracy, sirnak, pkk, kurds in turkey, education, ankara

Sep 23, 2015

Turkey's universities and secondary schools, which went on summer vacation in June, are scheduled to reopen Sept. 28. However, growing violence is raising doubt about whether the 5.5 million university students and close to 10 million secondary school students will be resuming studies.

School originally was scheduled to start Sept. 14. The government delayed the opening for two weeks until after the Eid al-Adha religious holidays. Although government officials said the delay was designed to encourage domestic tourism, it wasn’t difficult to grasp the real reason for the decision: escalating violence.

According to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK), in 22 unstable provinces, there are about 600,000 university and 1 million secondary school students.

People familiar with Turkey's modern political history know that students returning to school, especially at universities, can be a significant factor in clashes. With the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), the armed youth wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in urban areas, recruiting 13- and 14-year-olds, this year the mobilization of secondary school students will also play a part in the level of violence.

Millions of families are concerned the clashes could spread to university campuses and even secondary school grounds. Naturally, the families most worried are the ones in the restless southeast. Mustafa A., a businessman from Silopi who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said it will be impossible to open the schools Sept. 28 in places such as Cizre, Silopi, Sirnak and Hakkari, where clashes have become the norm. Mustafa A. said most of the teachers who were on vacation have not returned because of the violence. He added, “Some say they won’t come back, making families wonder what to do for their children.” Mustafa A. said he has a son and four nephews who are school-age. With the approaching winter and shorter days, families are going to want their children home before dark. ”Even if teachers come back and schools are opened, the families will want their children to come home before darkness. That, too, will affect education,” he added.

Mustafa A. noted that the state has lost its control of some neighborhoods in Cizre and Silopi and will not allow schools to reopen in those areas, which the YDG-H has declared “liberated zones.”

E. A., a high-school girl in Sirnak, said she is a good student, but wants to get out of the province because of the clashes. She said, “In high schools, even in some middle schools, the PKK’s armed youth groups are well-organized. They extort money from students and even from teachers. School principals have to obey them. Outside the schools, you are under state pressure.” She said her father owns a shop in Sirnak, but her family can’t cope with these pressures anymore and is thinking of leaving for Europe with the Syrian refugees.

K. S., another high-school girl in Sirnak, said, “Thank God, my family is well-to-do. They were able to register me at a school in Mersin and [I will] stay with my aunt. I know that hundreds of students have transferred to schools in other cities.”

It is doubtful that Sirnak University, with 3,000 students right in the middle of the combat zone, will reopen. Third-year management student I.Z. said students from western provinces are not planning to return and students from the university region are afraid to go to class. She said, “Both the state and the PKK have strong intelligence presences in the area. When police summon a student, within the hour he is called on by the PKK to ask why he had to go to the police. How can you talk of sensible education in this environment?”

Turkey’s growing political polarization and societal tensions arising from continuing violence also seriously affect universities in the west of the country. Sinan K., a senior at Ankara Gazi University, said, “If there is going to be a civil war in Turkey, it will start from universities.” He explained his haunting prediction: “The only place where Turkish and Kurdish youths come together in western Turkey is the universities. The PKK is now organized in universities all over the country under groups called Patriotic Front or Student Collectives. Opposing them are the nationalist Turkish students. We are hearing of reports of serious clashes in the offing, especially at Istanbul University and Marmara University of Istanbul, in Ankara’s Middle East Technical, Hacettepe [University] and Ankara University, and at Izmir’s Aegean and 9 September universities.”

University students in Ankara and Istanbul warned Al-Monitor that tensions at universities are higher than ever before because of ongoing clashes and deaths. Turkish nationalist students are particularly restless. The PKK is strong in some departments of universities. It is planning boycotts of classes and exams and other civil disobedience actions; these will naturally add to the possibility of clashes.

Security is weak at most universities, the students said. Private security services in universities are inadequate in numbers and qualifications. When clashes break out, universities are reluctant to call in the police, to avoid reports in the news media. They are not entirely wrong, as the riot police are too tough and intolerant. Their attempts to handle incidents using tough countermeasures tend to backfire.

Of course the approaching elections contribute to political tensions in universities. Further PKK attacks in the southeast may prompt reactions against Kurdish students in western universities.

In a nutshell, continuing clashes in Turkey are expected to seriously affect education in the country, further increasing the social costs of violence. People in tension zones appear to be angry both with the state and the PKK for tampering with their right to education.

If clashes seriously spread to universities, it may well be time to wonder whether Turkey is indeed taking a step toward civil war.

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