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Last Updated: Friday, 19 November, 2004, 15:37 GMT
Turkish journey: A town called Trouble
The BBC's Istanbul correspondent Jonny Dymond is exploring Turkish life across the vast country as it lobbies the European Union to open membership talks.

He sent the fifth of a series of reports from the Kurdish town of Tunceli.

It's coming up to midnight and I'm writing this in the coach station of the city of Erzincan, a city nudging into the deep east of Turkey.

Tunceli has always been a by-word for trouble
Since there were a few hours to kill before the bus to Kars, I went out for a bowl of soup and a kebab. When I came back I found my book of the moment - Orhan Pamuk's 'Snow' - sitting on top of the luggage I'd left in the small office of the bus company.

I'd left the book on the bus from Tunceli and they had found it, turned round after they'd left Erzincan, found out which bus company I was travelling on with and left it with them. How good is that? How can any country so full of kind and generous people be excluded from the EU?

My nerves are a little ragged from the three-and-a-half-hour journey from Tunceli. I think my scrawled notes sum it up: rocks, rocks in the road - wild dogs nudged aside - curving and curling and twisting - white line ignored - uphill keeps the speed down thank god - farewell to asphalt - bus groans on road.

For about 45 minutes, maybe an hour, of the journey we were driving not on what most people know as a road, but on rocks, pebbles and dirt. The state had at some stage forgotten that it was meant to provide a half-safe road for its citizens and left them to traverse a pitted track instead.

Tunceli, one resident said to me, is doubly discriminated against - once because it is Alawite, and then again because it is Kurdish
The bus driver comments, without prompting: "To be an EU member, first they have to mend this road."

When asked why the road was left in this challenging state, he says: "Because it is the road to Tunceli".

Tunceli (pronounced Tuhn-jeli) has, for pretty much as long as the Republic existed, meant trouble:

  • In 1937, when it was known as Dersim, the state's response to a riot/revolt left upwards of 30,000 dead

  • Here in the 1990s Kurdish paramilitary group the PKK pressed the Republic hardest, with up to 2,000 men and women in the mountains launching constant attacks leading to brutal reprisals

  • The majority of the attacks from Kongra-Gel, the re-named PKK, have occurred here in recent months.

At first sight, all this is a little surprising, because the town doesn't look like much. In fact, it looks like nothing more than your normal Turkish town in the middle of nowhere - lots of tea shops full of unemployed men, a barber shaving customers, food shops, kitchen appliance shops.

There are, I noticed, a fair number of shops selling alcohol for a place so far into the conservative east. And then I noticed the really big difference; the women, nearly all of them, don't wear headscarves.

This is because Tunceli is an Alawite town; 15-20% of Turkey is Alawite (rather than Sunni) Muslim. Alawites (also known as Alevis) take a more relaxed view of religion than Sunnis.

Security checks

The man they worship, Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, was slain in a mosque, so they don't pray in them. Alcohol is not prohibited, and Alawite women don't cover their heads.

In fact, Alawite women seem to lead a much more prominent place in Tunceli society than anywhere else in the east; they sit in cafes together or with other men, walk around dressed in smart business suits and generally behave in a, well, Western manner. It is a world away from the separate tables of the city of Konya.

Homes in Tunceli
The Turkish state does not recognise the Alawites, despite their support
Alawites don't have it easy; the Turkish state, of which they are fervent supporters, doesn't recognise them. The liras they pay in taxes help fund Sunni mosques and Sunni imams, not their own places of worship. And they complain that none of the senior jobs in government or the military come their way, even at a provincial level.

Tunceli, one resident said to me, is doubly discriminated against; once because it is Alawite, and then again because it is Kurdish.

The oppressive security apparatus of the 1990s has gone. There was only one checkpoint on the way into town.

And as I went up into the mountains to take a look at village life, a sign at another checkpoint read: "These checks are for your security. We are sorry to keep you waiting. For complaints call the numbers below."

After the phone numbers, the sign wished travellers a good journey. Those villagers driven from their homes at gunpoint in the 1990s must wonder which planet they are on.

A smile and a nice road sign is one thing. The reality is something a little different. I was politely turned back from the village I wanted to visit, Geyiksuyu, by the gendarmes. They told me I needed the governor's permission.

Red tape

I accepted this dubious piece of rule-creation and went back to the governor's office. Where had I come from? I was asked. Where was I going? What was I doing? What did I want to talk to the villagers about?

Munzur mountains, in which PKK paramilitaries live and hide
Kurdish paramilitaries live and hide in the Munzur mountains
I had to understand, I was told, that the need for permission was for my own security. What, after all, might happen if I got into trouble in the mountains and they didn't know where I was?

It didn't quite tally with the gendarme commander's comment at Geyiksuyu that I could come in but I couldn't take pictures. But time was pressing and I wasn't going to start making comments about the rule of law and a free press.

Back at the village there was another half hour of time wasting in the gendarme office as bits of paper from the governor's office were photocopied for no apparent reason. I chatted, in a one-sided kind of way, with the gendarme assigned to make sure that I didn't pinch paperclips from the commander's office.

How many gendarmes were there at the base, I asked. Ah, he said, if I told you, I'd have to kill you. Or words to that effect.

I told him, for no apparent reason apart from boredom, that the military's PR was lousy and that if they opened the door to journalists a little bit, they might get a slightly better press than at the moment. It couldn't, I tried to reason, be worse.

He wasn't impressed with my sophistry. With extra pieces of paper in my hands - to be returned at the end of my visit, on pain of something or another - I was escorted out of the building.

As I left I saw a 'martyr's' poster - photographs of soldiers killed during the Kurdish insurrection, nice looking kids in uniform, striking slightly ludicrous macho poses or smiling shyly at the camera. Around 7,000 were killed in the battle with the PKK. Another story, for another day, if - and it's a mighty big 'if' - I can get past the blizzard of permission slips.


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