Turkey Pulse

Animals among victims of southeast Turkey clashes

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Article Summary
Thousands of birds and domestic animals are among the victims of ongoing clashes between security forces and Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey, where animal rights activists risk death coming to the rescue.

Boom! Boom! Boom! The crash of artillery fire rarely features in the vocabulary of a parrot, but that is the only sound Heval, a once-loquacious African gray parrot, emits these days. Heval, whose name means “comrade” in Kurdish, was marooned in the heart of Diyarbakir's historic Sur district during three months of bloody clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish youths fighting for the urban guerrilla arm of the ethno-nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“Heval was stuck in Sur for 10 days with no food or water. I was unable to rescue him because of the uninterrupted curfew,” the parrot’s owner, Aladdin Kilic, told Al-Monitor in an interview at his “breakfast salon” in Diyarbakir’s Yenisehir district. “By the time I got to him, he had almost perished from hunger and dehydration. He was picking at his own feathers in a state of extreme stress.” Kilic feeds Heval a pistachio pinched between his own lips before adding, “My boy is on antidepressants now.”

Heval seems to be on the mend. But other creatures were not so lucky. The conflict has reduced parts of Sur and other neighborhoods in the mainly Kurdish southeast to blackened, bullet-riddled ruins.

“It's impossible to keep an accurate count, but hundreds of cats, dogs and numerous species of birds have either died or been wounded since round-the-clock curfews were imposed [over Sur] in early December,” said Sevgi Ekmekciler, deputy director of Haytap, one of Turkey’s top animal rights groups.

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Ekmekciler told Al-Monitor that many of the animals were killed in the crossfire between security forces and the armed youths who barricaded themselves in the narrow alleyways snaking through the district. Other pets simply starved to death because owners who fled the violence were not permitted to re-enter Sur. Kilic said pigeon fanciers, who kept the age-old tradition alive in Sur, were among the worst hit, losing scores of their most prized birds.

Ekmekciler and fellow animal lovers continue to scour the streets of Sur daily for wounded animals trapped under the debris. At the peak of the violence, undeterred by the bullets whizzing above them, her team would bully and plead their way through police barriers to feed and rescue the animals, including a donkey and a bowl full of goldfish.

The latest bout of violence between the security forces and the PKK was sparked when the youths — who call themselves the Civil Defense Units, or YPS (formerly the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement) — declared “autonomy” in a sprinkling of boroughs across the mainly Kurdish southeast.

They grossly miscalculated just how tough the government response would be. Paramilitary forces backed by attack helicopters, armored vehicles and even tanks laid siege to Sur and similarly rebellious neighborhoods to flush the fighters out.

The propaganda war waged by both sides makes it hard to assess the precise human casualty toll. But according to the latest tally by the International Crisis Group, at least nine civilians and around 60 members each of the YPS and the security forces died between Dec. 12 and March 9 in Diyarbakir.

Animals — be they domestic pets, livestock or birds — took the heaviest toll, but few noticed.

Animal rights remain a somewhat alien concept in the deeply conservative Kurdish region, where many Kurds adhere to the Shafi'i sect of Sunni Islam, which spurns contact with animals and especially with dogs. But awareness is growing along with pet ownership, notes Ekmekciler. Pet shops are springing up in middle-class neighborhoods.

In late 2012, pressured by Ekmekciler and fellow activists, Osman Baydemir, the former metropolitan mayor of Diyarbakir, set up a sprawling shelter for animals, complete with ambulances and a clinic on the edge of town. “Many were asking why we would spend millions of liras on animals when so many of our people are living in poverty, but a society that cannot be compassionate about animals cannot be compassionate about their fellow humans,” Baydemir told Al-Monitor in an interview. Baydemir even allowed himself to be photographed petting an Anatolian Shepherd puppy.

His message seems to be getting through. “We managed to save 80 cats and 20 dogs, including a husky and a terrier,” Ekmekciler said. Many were sent for treatment in Istanbul, where they eventually found new homes. But locals in Diyarbakir also adopted, especially cats. Meanwhile, a campaign to raise funds for dog and cat food for Sur and other afflicted areas has elicited an extraordinary response. “We bought 2 tons of food with the donations so far,” she said.

Ekmekciler speculated that, since the prevailing climate of government repression equates sympathy for human victims of the Kurdish conflict with “terrorism,” many people might be finding it “safer” to reach out to animals instead.

The town of Cizre on the Iraqi border was the scene of some of the worst violence. More than 200 civilians, including women and children, reportedly died. Faysal Sariyildiz, a lawmaker for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, said animals were intentionally targeted. Similar stories emerged from Silvan, another township in Diyarbakir where the YPS rose up. An advocacy group called the Animal Rights Initiative said dozens of cats and dogs were gunned down.

Back in Sur, a semblance of normalcy is beginning to return. Shops are slowly reopening and housewives are recovering their haggling skills. Still, plainclothes police officers continue to patrol the area. Some of the inner streets where a handful of YPS corpses are said to be rotting remain off-limits. Dingy canvas drapes still hang across streets demarcating the no-go area, presumably to mask the scale of the destruction. Immune to such strictures, a skinny, blotched tabby darts in.

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Found in: turkish-kurdish relations, terrorism, sur, pkk, diyarbakir, curfew, animal rights

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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