May 4, 2009. Mardin province, southeast Turkey. A young couple is getting ready for their engagement ceremony in the village of Bilge (Zanqirt in Kurdish). The night starts with joy but the mood changes as armed men burst in, killing forty-four people. In the aftermath, villagers had to flee to other cities. The Turkish government immediately called it an honor killing, but human rights organizations claimed that the atrocity was a result of Turkey’s village guard system. A court confirmed the latter’s conclusions, but shed little light on the state-sponsored militia system, leaving questions surrounding its origin and function unanswered.
While the Kurdish question in Turkey dates back to the nineteenth century and the Ottoman Empire, the armed struggle of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is comparatively new. Formed as a Marxist–Leninist organization, the PKK launched its first insurgent operation in 1984 in the Siirt province’s Eruh district, killing one soldier and injuring six soldiers and three civilians. The PKK managed to recruit rebels from various predominantly Kurdish cities in southeast Turkey and launched a guerilla war against the Turkish military.
The PKK’s challenge was also a clear indication of the failure of Turkey’s sixty-year-old effort to centralize rule in the southeast. However, the Turkish state had built alliances with local Kurdish tribal leaders, particularly because of the Kurdish revolts in the early history of the republic. Despite this unofficial but mutually beneficial relationship, the PKK was able to spread and a Kurdish insurgency was able to grow. In response, the Turkish state created the village guard system in 1985 as a mostly Kurdish paramilitary force based on security and territorial control concerns. This system could be established in any village based on a request from the village headman and approval from the regional governor.
The village guard system is still active today, numbering around 70,000 guards, although the exact number is difficult to estimate as many are unpaid volunteers. As part of the ongoing Turkish–Kurdish peace process, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) proposed a bill in April to abolish the village guard system altogether. The abolition of the system looks likely to be a highly controversial issue during the ongoing negotiations, with huge numbers of guards still stationed in the southeast, an ongoing efforts by the government to recruit more. The PKK’s recent statements reveal that fighting might resume if the AKP government does not announce the new democratization package by September 1.
Some of the consequences of the village guard system included the forced migration of at least 1 million Kurds, the burning and evacuation of hundreds of villages, mass killings and the disappearance of thousands, and the intensification of the already violent conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK. Of course, not everybody was directly forced to migrate or to evacuate their villages, but thousands felt threatened enough to flee to either to urban city centers or to western parts of Turkey. The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey reported that the village guard system has become a fundamental tool of state repression and village guards have committed gross human rights violations. It should be noted that not all human rights violations were motivated by security concerns: sometimes, the village guard system was used as a cover to settle personal and tribal vendettas because the state provided immunity and newspapers would not report such violations.
Little is known about how the village guard system functions because the Turkish state either repressed scholars interested in this topic, threatening their security, or village guards refused to talk with any outsiders for security and employment reasons. However, there is a clear logic behind the system.
In a guerilla war, it is notoriously difficult to distinguish friend from foe, and the use of indiscriminate violence is all but certain to swell the level of insurgency faced by outside forces. Therefore, the best solution is to use locals to aid and assist an outside army in identifying the enemy and provide detailed geographical information. This is the function the village guard system has provided to the Turkish army.
Co-opting Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, both as paramilitaries and sources of information, enabled the Turkish military to identify pro-PKK and pro-Turkish state villagers, making it easier to establish control in contested zones by forcing civilians to leave their villages. The rationale is clear: Kurdish villagers speak and understand Kurdish and know the region they live in better than the Turkish military. While this was clearly a useful system for the Turkish military, joining the village guards was considered treason among the Kurdish community, making its benefits more dubious for the guards themselves.
After identifying the villages and villagers that supported the PKK, the Turkish military was also able to negotiate defections of local leaders to the government’s side. However, while some volunteered to become village guards to take advantage of legal protection and economic benefits, others were forced to collaborate. Those who rejected such offers either lost their lives and family members, or had to migrate to western cities. Yet death and physical violence were not the only tools the Turkish state used. Many villages were either burned or evacuated as part of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy, so that PKK insurgents would not get any support or be able to hide in these villages. The same carrot and stick strategy was also used by the PKK, which killed many village guards. The village guards sometimes became the victims of both sides, but ultimately a monster was created that did not hesitate to pursue its own interests—even if it meant violent confrontation with either side.
Today, the guards fear for their economic security and personal safety as peace may bring an end to the system. Many of the guards have expressed worries over retribution from fellow Kurds and of being left out in the cold by the Turkish state. At the moment they remain in limbo, not knowing what will happen to them if peace succeeds.