Turkey’s biggest Kurdish-majority city, Diyarbakır—designated the “heart of Kurdistan” by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—has witnessed hundreds of pro-PKK rallies over the course of the three-decade Kurdish conflict, many of which turn into violent clashes with security forces. But this time, the city is making headlines for slightly different reasons: dozens of women gathering in front of the municipality building calling on the PKK to return their abducted children.
The sit-in signifies a significant split among Kurds in terms of who they see as representing their interests. The protests mark a small, but important, challenge to the PKK’s dominance in the region and their role in the Kurdish peace process that began in late 2012.
The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and its sister party, the Peoples' Democracy Party (HDP), are the official representatives of Kurds in the country, and the Turkish government initiated negotiations with the PKK through these political parties. HDP officials, however, denied that the children were kidnapped and claimed that they went to PKK hideouts in northern Iraq out of their own free will, saying that the party is not a “children-rescuing institution.” These statements angered Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who reminded the BDP and HDP of incidents in the past when Kurdish politicians negotiated the release of public servants kidnapped by the PKK, telling them: “You know their addresses very well. You know where everything is extremely well. You will go, take and come back.” Despite expectations that the parties would arrange the release of the children, they stuck by their pro-PKK stance, and BDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş even accused the families of accepting money from the Turkish intelligence agency to hold their sit-in.
The abrupt outcry by the Kurdish mothers is not the only new challenge facing the PKK. The Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par), founded in late 2012, also threatens their authority. The PKK—which was founded on Marxist ideology—reacted with aggression to the arrival of this new contender for Kurdish hearts and minds. According to Turkish media reports, the PKK recently shot dead a Hüda-Par member and kidnapped a high-ranking official in the party.
The pro-Kurdish Rights and Freedoms Party (Hak-Par) have also criticized the PKK’s actions during the peace process. Hak-Par’s deputy chairman, Reşit Dolu, recently slammed the PKK for the abductions, saying: “If there is supposedly an ongoing peace process, and if the PKK is not going to fight, why is the PKK abducting these children? There are rumors that these children are being sent to Syria to fight in support of the Assad regime against the opposition. Most of these abducted children are not of legal age. So, they should be returned to their families as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, the PKK’s youth branch started blocking highways in the southeast to protest the construction of more gendarmerie posts in the region. Last week, security units were attacked when they tried re-opening the roads to traffic and five Turkish gendarmes were wounded in the clashes.
The ongoing tensions have raised doubts over the success of the peace deal. Perhaps in an attempt to ease these doubts, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, told a HDP delegation that the “peace process has reached a new stage.” Many political analysts believe that Erdoğan is sincere in his efforts to reach a deal. He has, after all, put his political career on the line by negotiating with a group the state considers to be terrorists. The nearly two-year truce has increased public faith in a peace deal many thought impossible. The Kurdish mothers speaking out for the first time over abductions that have been ongoing for years is perhaps one of the fruits of this process, which appears to be moving toward the diversification of representation for the Kurds.
Erdoğan, who will run for the presidency unless something unexpected happens, is seeking Kurdish support in the August elections. The HDP and BDP are playing it smart in demanding the government act on some of its promises before the elections.
Erdoğan’s government has taken some unimaginable steps on the Kurdish issue during its twelve years in power. It should not pull back now from the dream of bringing peace to Turkey by bringing democratic values to the region and making Kurds feel safe and at home. The alternative is authoritarian tutelage that will come and shake its iron fist at the Kurds, who will not be treated any different by the PKK.
The recent incidents in the southeast should only highlight the urgent need for a lasting solution to the conflict. The abduction of children and roadside ambushes are just some of the warning signs of what the failure of the peace process would look like.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.