Bomb attack opens old wounds in Turkey’s southeast

A bomb attack that killed seven forestry workers and wounded 10 more in the Kulp district of southeast Turkey this month has brought back memories of the bitter fighting between Kurdish militants and security forces backed by loyalist Kurdish militia that gripped the area in the 1990s.

The bombing has opened old wounds in Kulp, a town of 37,000 people that has suffered from decades of conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Locals say the attack this month bear similarities to events in the 1990s, a particularly violent decade in the Kurdish conflict marked by assassinations, disappearances and destruction of villages that has come to be known as the period of the dirty war. 

Kulp’s thick forests make them an ideal hiding place for PKK militants, and thus a battleground with security forces. The district saw its share of forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, which many blame on security forces, aided by the village guards, a loyalist Kurdish militia set up to counter the PKK. 

Kulp has a large number of village guards. Established in 1985 to protect loyal villages, the guards were soon using their local knowledge to help the armed forces fight the PKK in the mountains. Abuses abounded as many village guards used their weapons and powers to settle local scores.

Efforts to cut down the forests in Kulp have taken on an added dimension with locals saying tenders are granted to pro-government companies, or to the local village guardsmen. But, they say, many people will not carry out the work, despite the high unemployment rate, because of fear of PKK reprisals.

One village guard, Melik Yıldız, was killed in a PKK attack in Kulp district last year. His brother had won a tender for forestry work in the woods where the attack took place. PKK militants are said to have left a written warning to others to stop cutting down trees.

Turkey’s pro-government media was quick to blame the bomb latest attack on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that ran the Kulp municipality. Press reports said a municipal vehicle had been spotted in the area shortly before an improvised explosive device went off. The vehicle was used to plant the explosive that killed the workers, the reports said.

The central government took this as a cue to take action against the HDP municipality, arresting co-mayors Mehmet Fatih Taş and Fatma Ay, and three more HDP officials. The mayors have been replaced by government-appointed administrators.

The HDP officials deny involvement in the attack and say GPS devices installed on all municipal vehicles should prove they had not been used to plant the explosives. They also pointed out, the driver of the vehicle in question had not been arrested and said that cast doubt on the accusations.

The PKK has remained silent about the incident and the people of Kulp are divided about who was responsible. 

Many blamed the PKK and defended the government’s decision to appoint administrators.

“They’re sending money to the PKK. The HDP municipalities fully collaborate with the PKK. The government appointees are here now and will serve the public. At least they won’t place booby traps on the roads,” one man said.

He said the PKK had not claimed responsibility because it was civilians who had been killed.

But just as many people see the bombing as a plot to wrest control of the district from the HDP. 

“They sacrificed seven people so they could place a government appointee over the municipality. The state knows the mayors had nothing to do with the bombing,” one villager said.