Kurdish families fighting : Armed feuds increase in the southeast following PKK withdrawal

By Nurhak Yilmaz for SES Türkiye in Diyarbakir — 27/09/13 – Social conflicts that were suppressed during the army-PKK conflict are resurfacing in the wake of the ceasefire, with violent confrontations between families becoming more frequent in the southeast. Dozens of people were killed in land disputes and blood feuds this summer. Earlier this month, five people were gunned down in front of Mardin prison as they went to visit relatives.

The southeast is no stranger to such incidents, but local experts and civil society leaders say the problems have become aggravated since the PKK’s withdrawal to northern Iraq. They say social and economic precautions are needed.

Rustem Erkan, head of the sociology department at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University, attributed the uptick in feuds to changes in the countryside. Feuds decreased with migration to cities and a drop in the value of land caused by the war. Thanks to the peace process, people are moving back to their villages, and competition for resources is increasing. “Old hostilities have started to re-emerge as rural life has revived during the peace process. Fields are recovering their value, some dams are under construction, and as a result, new issues of expropriation and undefined property relations and so on are propping up, triggering all this,” Erkan told SES Türkiye.

Erkan added that personal disputes have started to take the place of political ones.

“There’s also the withdrawal. When there’s a dominant problem hanging over societal issues, and everything is read through that prism, peoples’ mental world and daily lives are devoted heavily to the Kurdish issue, other issues become second or third in importance. Now these old problems are coming back with the peace process.”

Diyarbakir Bar Association chairman Tahir Elci agreed that “these types of social problems are emerging in connection to the changing political atmosphere,” adding: “Conflicts that were frozen 15-20 years ago with village evacuations are escalating as returns or at least preparations for returns to villages have started.” Some local residents say the PKK’s withdrawal has created a vacuum of authority in the countryside. For decades, guerrillas were the only source of authority in otherwise lawless areas deep in the mountains. With their departure, some are taking the law into their own hands.  “The PKK was one of the rare actors in the region who could stop these things. Citizens don’t feel secure in mountains where there are no guerrillas,” Mesut Celik, head of the Diyarbakir chamber of mechanical engineers, told SES Türkiye. “PKK guerrillas intervened in these sorts of societal issues. They blocked them and tried to prevent people from turning their guns on each other.”

Civil society groups are concerned about the rise in armed confrontations between families, though it has not weakened the public’s strong support for the peace process. Analysts interviewed by SES Türkiye highlighted the importance of establishing more orderly property relations in the countryside and preparing citizens for changing social conditions.

“Social precautions need to be taken. Silencing of guns isn’t enough for a permanent peace,” Elci said. “It could be legal, psychological, or educational. Society’s mindset needs to be ready for this process.”

Celik said local leaders and civil society groups are working hard to address the problems they believe they will face in the coming years. “A solution will take time. All the arguments are changing. In the past everyone’s discourse was that people shouldn’t die, and that blood shouldn’t shed. Now we need to talk about social life, and our responsibilities to people and each other,” he said. “NGOs are now searching for this formula.”

It would also take time for citizens to develop trust for official institutions, Celik said.

“This needs to be clearly stated: whatever the reasons may be, there is little trust in the state’s justice and bureaucracy. The state has established a legal system that aims to protect itself from citizens, from the outside, from everything it doesn’t like,” he said.

“Instead, we’re faced with alternative forms of justice in the region. In the past, most of these issues were settled in the mosque, but we can say that the PKK’s justice mechanism has played a serious role in the last 20 years.” In a recent statement, agriculture minister Mehdi Eker denied that state policies have anything to do with the increase in family conflicts. “These incidents are totally connected to culture and, unfortunately, people picking up arms. People can’t control their anger. Those incidents happened during Ramadan, and when it was hot,” he said.

“Second of all, there’s a problem of automatic weapons. Most of these incidents involve automatic weapons. The region is suitable for getting armed. The talk of security and the rest is just an excuse for other things.”

Calling the current social order “unsustainable,” Erkan agreed that a more formalised system of justice is needed to establish rule of law in the countryside. “If a member of a tribe doesn’t retaliate when he or his land is attacked, it creates the impression that he’ll submit and let himself be walked over, as in state politics. This is how blood feuds start,” he said.”A structure that encourages people to solve their own problems emerges from uncertainty over land ownership, the shaky state of land surveys, and the violence that underlies current property relations.” For Erkan, the solution is “a change in the region’s relations of production, that is, introducing rural people to [more stable forms of] production.”