New kids on the block

New kids on the block

The debate on children leaving their homes to join the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is still very much alive in Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is challenging the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to bring them back, but the co-chairs of the BDP and its sister party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş and Ertuğrul Kürkçü, refused to take the claims seriously.

So what is really happening there?

Since the beginning of the peace talks between PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and Turkish intelligence, there has been a relative period of calm in the southeast. There were sporadic attacks on military convoys but very few incidents of serious threats were reported. That was basically due to the blackout of mainstream media coverage of the happenings in and around the Şırnak and Hakkari area.

A peace initiative formed by women called “Women for Peace” visited the Kandil mountains last summer and talked to female guerillas about the future of the process. Nimet Tanrıkulu, a peace activist and a good friend of mine, had observed in July 2013 that even then, there were teenagers coming to Kandil, partly out of curiosity but mainly to feel the prestige of being a part of the Kurdish guerilla movement.

During a visit to Arbil two years ago, while interviewing the chairman of Rojava’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), Muslim Salih, I met a young student from Hakkari in a hotel lobby. He had showed me his brand-new iPhone. “It is nicer here,” he said. “Much nicer than Hakkari. I bought a cheaper phone, there are girls, movie theaters. Maybe I can study here.”

This young man’s simple pleasures about life had defined most of what is missing in the Kurdish area now. For more than a year, the peace talks have been taken for granted by the majority of the Turkish population and the political actors in Ankara. Now a heated summer is coming. The peace dividend has not been realized in the region. Except for the construction boom, there are very few attractions and career prospects for young people.

According to the latest Turkish Intelligence Organization (MİT) reports, more than 300 teenagers have left their homes to join the ranks of the PKK since the beginning of the peace talks, most of them may even be adults now. Among young girls, the main reason is to avoid forced marriages. The “Women for Peace” initiative has also noted the increase in domestic violence cases in the southeast since the withdrawal of PKK guerillas from the mountains. Among young boys, the motive was to be able to come back with a full amnesty and name recognition inside the PKK to get a political or economic position.

So the heated debate comes back with a full question. Can these youngsters that fled their homes for the mountains be considered adults? Can they make their own political decisions? Or were they forced into a possible armed conflict? No matter when they come back, they will be the defining factor in the peace process.

The BDP is claiming that Ankara and MİT are pushing the families that started sit-ins to bring their kids back. Even if these claims are true, Turkey’s biggest Kurdish political movement must invite other parties for mediation. The “Women for Peace” initiative for example, is going to Diyarbakır this weekend to seek a solution to the crisis. Sources in the region predict that if the government does not accelerate the peace talks, there is a high possibility of civil resistance if not more organized urban violence.

As long as the Turkish state and the Kurds do not come to a full reconciliation, the mountains will remain as an option for the kids of the southeast. Not always to fight, but always to escape.