Feature: Turks Reinforce Border with Iraq

By CHRISTOPHER DELISO

CUKURCA, Turkey, Oct. 10, 2002 (UPI) — Just over a mile from Iraq, in the little town of Cukurca, the sound of Western pop music and the click of billiard balls provide a pleasant distraction from the potential menace just over the next mountain ridge.

If war against Iraq begins, more ominous sounds may well be heard in this place — the “teacher’s house,” a recreation center and boarding house on the outskirts of town. At least once in their career all Turkish teachers are required to spend time working in the poor, predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey. Tennis, shooting pool and music at the “teacher’s house” provide their only entertainment in this barren border region.

The authorities know that, given the choice, few teachers would come to this depressed, rural area. Hence the enforced commitment to educating Kurds. This is part of a general policy of appeasement, one which has also involved reconstruction of houses destroyed in the decade of ethnic conflict between Ankara and Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

The Kurdish uprising — which the Turkish government calls a terrorist campaign — subsided only with the capture in 1999 of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Marxist separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK. In over a decade of fighting, more than 30,000 people died.

There is a tougher side of appeasement, however. The all-powerful Turkish army is not taking any chances with the impact of an Iraq war. The military buildup is now approaching wartime levels — though an uneasy peace holds in border towns like Cukurca.

Fears linger amongst officials in far away Ankara who know that Kurdish clan loyalties stretch beyond state boundaries.

On the other side of the mountains are the Iraqi Kurds, potential allies of the United States in the war against Saddam Hussein.

The war is likely to be fought many miles to the south. Yet should Iraqi Kurds seize the opportunity of a U.S. invasion of Iraq to carve out an independent state in northern Iraq, the Turkish government is wary of a renewed wave of separatism in their own country.

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said earlier this week that Turkey would not tolerate an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

In the rugged, mountainous region separating Turkey and Iraq, the actual border is often hard to find. Both sides can stray across the line without even knowing it.

The area has been called “a miniature Afghanistan.” For the PKK, it was a perfect theater for guerrilla warfare. Nowadays, the area is eerily silent, but for the rushing of the River Zap and the roar of the occasional car.

Tiny villages dot the winding mountain road from Hakkari to Cizre. At over 10 army checkpoints along the way, traffic is stopped and sometimes searched. From strategic mountaintop positions, heavily armed soldiers scan the horizon for trouble from PKK fighters who have taken refuge on the Iraqi side of the border. Helicopters patrol close to the ground, while at night high ridges are lit up by the glow of searchlights.

Despite the enhanced security, the Turkish-Iraqi border crossing near Silopi remains open — theoretically. The army doesn’t allow anyone without a visa and special permission within one mile of the border. In any case, there is little of interest. According to one local, “the only real traffic is big commercial trucks.”

At Baghdad’s initiative, work on a second border crossing had begun, near Cukurca, at Uzumlu village. But the mayor of Cukurca, Mehmet Kanar, told United Press International that “work has stopped … they are waiting to see what happens.”

This prevalent bunker mentality means that visitors are strongly discouraged. “The army and police try to make travel as difficult as they can,” said one local hotelier. “Occasionally, we do get some tourists — but they never come back again.”

In the town of Sirnak, the arrival of this foreign reporter caused consternation. In the Turkish army, where discipline is everything, young soldiers at the checkpoints are afraid to make a decision on their own. The problem was soon handed over to a Turkish security official. “What are you doing here?” said the serious, and unfailingly polite agent. “Don’t you know the war is going to start very soon?”

Whether or not the Iraqi Kurds make trouble for Turkey, it seems clear that Turkish Kurds will not. Since 1999, life has gradually returned to normal, and even if they dislike the oppressive military presence, most Kurds surveyed by UPI want peace.

“It happened in thousands of villages that the PKK would come and demand food from the people,” said one Kurd. “If they gave it, the army would get mad. But also, many Kurds were killed by the PKK for not helping.”

Few people wanted to speak about these issues, or about the effects of a war on Iraq. Some expressed fear that, as with the 1991 Gulf War, they will be beset with refugees.

When the United States allowed Saddam Hussein to reconquer large parts of the Iraqi North that the Kurds had seized in 1991, some half-million people fled to the frontier with Turkey, creating a serious problem for Ankara that lead to the creation of a safe haven for the Kurds protected today by U.S. and British warplanes. Others championed either peace or retribution against Saddam on moral grounds — but were unwilling to say more.

This reticence is easily understood. For the Kurds, the enduring legacy of war is an unhappy one. Both the Turkish government and remnants of the PKK have informers amongst the local Kurdish population. In a nebulous world of spies, revolutionaries and alternative soldiers, the average Kurd can trust only those closest to himself or herself.

“You have people who’ve been friends their whole lives,” said one young Kurd in Sirnak. “And they are afraid to talk about these things, even amongst themselves. Nobody knows if their neighbor might be working for one of the sides.”