Turks Living in the Shadow of Iraq

By CHRISTOPHER DELISO

YUKSEKOVA, Turkey, Oct. 11, 2002 (UPI) — It is a confusing mix of thatched-roof huts and garish modern apartments, a town where sports cars compete with roaming chickens and cows for the dust-strewn road. In the farthest reaches of Turkey, nestled snugly between Iran and Iraq, is Yuksekova, unpretentious center of drug and weapons smuggling for the region’s Kurdish clans.

From the Iranian border alone, Turkish police made 53 arrests and seized over a ton of heroin, hashish and morphine last year, according to Necip Capraz, editor of Yuksekova’s only newspaper.

The Turkish government, eager to avoid further ethnic confrontations, would like to show the Kurds that citizenship has its benefits. To this end, a brand-new complex, complete with indoor and outdoor swimming pool, billiards hall restaurant and bar, is under construction. Local children cavort in the recently completed pool, while well-dressed businessmen dine upstairs.

However, the complex has invited controversy. Locals hardened by years of Ankara’s neglect can’t believe this beneficence is genuine. “After the war, the government gave only 300 bricks per family to rebuild our houses, so how can we understand that this is really for us?” one Yuksekova man told United Press International, referring to the decade of conflict between the Turkish army and separaist Kurds that ended in 1999.

Some are even convinced that the complex will ultimately be for the entertainment of American soldiers who they say will be coming to attack Iraq. To support this idea, they point out that the town is ideally situated for ground penetration of Iraq. Recently, major international corporations like Bosch were called in to widen significantly a two-mile segment of the road out of town.

“Three years ago, a Turkish army cargo plane landed there,” said one local, who wished to remain anonymous. “With this enlargement, and the new turnaround loop they’ve created, there is plenty of room for military planes to land.”

At first glance Yuksekova — with its dirt roads, crater-like potholes, ragged children and wandering livestock — would seem to exemplify the economically depressed Kurdish southeast. This is an illusion. Even the humblest of hovels can conceal a fortune.

Many Yuksekovans enriched by the illicit border trade have kept things discreet, choosing to keep their lavish houses in Istanbul and other far-away cities. “Everybody’s rich here,” cracked one local law-enforcement official. “Go up to someone and say, ‘Your house in Istanbul’s on fire!’ And they’ll reply, ‘My God! Which one?”

Yet some are more conspicuous — as the increasing number of gaudily colored high-rise apartments attest.

Political borders matter little to the smugglers, but also to the clan-based Kurdish society as a whole. Many families in Yuksekova have relatives in nearby Iraq and Iran. When clan members arrive from Iraq, they receive a warm welcome on the Turkish side.

“Many of their relatives now own hotels in (the Istanbul neighborhood of) Aksaray. From there, they can get overseas — mostly to Spain or Italy,” said one local Kurd. “When they come from Iraq, either they arrange it beforehand, or just meet up when they get to Turkey — either way, they’re not lonely when they cross.”

The rugged, mountainous terrain separating the two countries is ideal for both smuggling and simply crossing from one country to the other. The Kurds, and especially shepherds, tend to know the network of goat paths which connect Iraq and Turkey.

The Turkish government has much to fear from a war on Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds would like to create an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, and Ankara fears lest the spirit prove infectious. The two most important Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, Mas’ud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal Talibani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have recently put aside their differences and pledged to cooperate.

It will be hard, however, to convince the Turkish Kurds to participate. They are wary of the government’s heavy military presence. Further, since the arrest of rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, much of the fire has gone out of the separatist movement. Locals claim that most of the insurgents who fought for the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, but now known as KADEK, have left Turkey and regrouped on the Iraqi border with Turkey and Iran, something confirmed by well-informed Iraqi Kurds.

Ironically, the peace that has brought governmental largesse to Yuksekova has proved unfortunate for some cross-border businessmen. One itinerant shepherd and former gunrunner encountered on the Hakkari-Sirnak road claimed that his business had been killed by peace. The war, he says brightly, may bring it back.