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Turkey's 'village guards' tired of conflict

SIIRT, April 19 (AFP) - Dressed in military fatigues, his Kalashnikov leaned against a wall, Mahsun Alan sips tea at a watch post on a steep hill, keeping a sharp eye on a road snaking between rugged mountains.

The 44-year-old is among thousands of poor Kurdish villagers who have volunteered -- often grudgingly -- to help the Turkish army fight fellow Kurds of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), only to find themselves caught in the middle of a bloody, long-lasting conflict.

"It is quiet these days," Alan said, noting however that the arrival of spring, when the snow melts, marks the start of the fighting season, with PKK rebels moving in from bases in Iraq, and the Turkish military bringing in reinforcements.

With two comrades, Alan is responsible for surveillance on a road near Siirt, in Turkey's mainly-Kurdish southeast where the PKK insurgency has claimed more than 45,000 lives since 1984.

Their tiny concrete shelter, overlooking a valley cut by the Carpiran river, doubles as their home away from home. Tea is always at hand and sleeping bags serve as cushions during the day.

The conflict has sharply divided Kurds in the region, where tribal tradition persists and whole communities respect the decision of clan leaders.

Several hamlets have enrolled collectively in the so-called "village guard" supporting the Turkish armed forces -- while others have seen their men join the PKK.

Since 1985, Ankara has employed about 60,000 Kurds to secure remote settlements and serve as scouts in anti-PKK operations.

"Sometimes they send soldiers from Izmir with no idea about the region," remarked one of Alan's colleagues, referring to a Turkish port city on the Aegean Sea that is clear on the other side of the country.

The army may be grateful for their services. But the militia has come under harsh criticism for acting outside the law, and human rights groups have mounted calls for its abolition.

Many Kurds, who either fled their villages or were forced out by the military at the peak of the PKK insurgency in the 1990s, found their homes occupied by the militiamen when they returned.

"The village guards are helping the army. For us, they are traitors," said Garip Yilmaz, 39, who abandoned his farm in 1994 to settle in Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeastern Turkey.

Dozens of village guards have been implicated in serious crimes, abusing their right to carry arms by using them to settle blood feuds or engage in drug-trafficking and abductions.

For Baki Aksoy, provincial head of Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party in Diyarbakir, the existing system is "unacceptable."

"The state should employ them, as forest guards for instance, but that will not be possible as long as the PKK is active," he said.

For many Kurds, joining the militia was not a voluntary choice, but a fiat imposed by the realities of war.

"We had no other choice. We were caught between the PKK and the army. One night it was the PKK who harrassed us, the other night it was the army," said Ishan Kuzu, 40, as he stood on watch with nine other village guards on a road near Silvan town.

"The PKK, the army and the Hizbullah ruined my life," said another, also blaming a local Islamist group that targeted the PKK in the 1990s and is believed to have been tolerated by the state.

Kuzu pleaded for peace with an emotional reminder that Turks and Kurds fought together in the defence of the homeland during World War I.

"People are tired of war. What we want is a united country... We went to war together at Gallipoli. The only difference is that we are Kurds," he said.

Others however are not so ready for reconciliation.

"The PKK burned down thousands of villages. The PKK always said 'you are either with us or you go,'" grumbled Saban Kahraman, 48, former commander of a village guard unit and now the manager of his own security firm.

Seated under a portrait of republican Turkey's founder Ataturk in his office in Van, Kahraman conceded to living under the protection of private bodyguards -- the apparent cost of past services for the Turkish army. (By Michel Sailhan/ AFP)

MySinchew 2010.04.19



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