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Last Updated: Friday, 4 August 2006, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Local guards divide Turkish Kurds
By Meriel Beattie
BBC News, Sason, Turkey

Village Guards in south-eastern Turkey
The Village Guards remain a controversial force
With the mountain rain dripping inside the collar of his ill-fitting camouflage jacket, Sefik Tiryaki is in an uncomfortable position.

He is a Village Guard, part of a controversial militia force which patrols the rocky, treeless hillsides of south-eastern Turkey.

For decades, this region has been the battle ground in fighting between armed Kurdish separatists from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish military.

Over the years at least 30,000 people are thought to have died in the conflict and hundreds of thousands of mainly Kurdish villagers forced to abandon their homes.

State police force

Like Sefik, most Village Guards are themselves Kurds, armed by the state to police other Kurds. Set up originally as a temporary militia group 22 years ago, the Village Guards are still operating, with more than 58,000 members.

map
We would like more money, and we'd like to have social security
Sefik Tiryaki, Village Guard

It is a system which has long been criticised by human rights organisations for exacerbating mistrust and ethnic divisions in an already troubled region.

Despised as traitors by many other Kurds, the Village Guards' relationship with the state is also ambiguous, with a lower standard of equipment, pay and benefits than the Turkish military or police.

"We would like more money, and we'd like to have social security," Sefik said, cradling his ageing Kalashnikov rifle outside his damp, windowless hut on a mountain road.

"We are no different from civil servants, but we get much less. We were always waiting for an improvement, but no one has done anything so far."

Loyal to Ankara

What village guards do have, on a local level at least - is power. And they are wary of any process - including EU accession - which might take it away.

Tablet showing Village Guards killed in clashes
The Village Guards honour their comrades killed in battle
In his upstairs headquarters, overlooking the mountain town of Sason, the local Village Guard commander, Mahsum Batu sits at a polished desk festooned with Turkish flags. On the wall beside him is a large marble tablet engraved with the words "Our Martyrs".

Glazed onto it are the passport size photos of some of the 41 local Village Guards killed in service, many in clashes with the PKK.

"During the mid 90s there were about 50 terrorists in each region, but today, not even a bird can fly round here without us knowing about it," Mr Batu says. "I am not in favour of joining the EU, "he adds.

"I would like to make it clear to them that no terrorist organisation is ever going to get even a small piece of this land. I took up this gun to defend my nation, my family and my honour."

Among the tribal Kurdish communities of the south-east, there are families, even entire villages which, like Mr Batu, are fiercely loyal to the Turkish state and firmly oppose any kind of Kurdish autonomy.

Opposition

But not all Village Guards share this kind of patriotism.

Kurdish village guard
The Village Guards operate in difficult mountainous terrain

Away from the watchful gaze of anyone in uniform, a former Village Guard, who does not want to be named, told me what happened 13 years ago, when fighting broke out between the military and the PKK in the hills around his village.

"It happens because people are pressured into it," said the former Village Guard, who now collects paper from city-dwellers' rubbish bins to make a living.

"The military came and said that if we did not join the Village Guards, then we would have to evacuate the whole village. They would not allow our village to remain without a Village Guard."

"I think [the system] should be abolished. It makes everything worse. At the end of the day, Village Guards are Kurds. And who are the others we're fighting? They are Kurds, too."

"The Kurds have been deceived. And they're mixed up in a conflict with other Kurds."

Over the last 20 years there have been numerous allegations of Village Guards abusing their position, seizing for themselves the choice properties in evacuated villages and threatening, even killing, Kurdish villagers who try to return.

The international organisation Human Rights Watch has called Village Guards "a corrupt and corrupting system".

Local obstacle

The European Commission, in a recent report on Turkey's progress towards EU accession, has described it as one of the major outstanding obstacles to villagers being able to return home safely. UN officials have also expressed concern.

"What I see is that at least Village Guards are perceived as an obstacle, and even perceptions are important when it comes to return" said Walter Kalin, UN Special Rapporteur for Internally Displaced Persons, on a trip to Turkey earlier this year.

"I think it will be important for the government to take these fears seriously and to take the steps necessary to remove the obstacle."

Just what the Turkish government intends to do about the Village Guards is unclear. No new guards have been recruited for the last six years. There have recently been proposals for improved pay and conditions.

But plans for a commission to oversee the disarming and disbanding of the militia seem to have come to nothing.

Thanks to a new compensation law, some of the displaced Kurdish villagers are slowly starting to return to the mountains to try to rebuild their homes and their communities.

But many of these returnees are still resentful of those fellow Kurds who chose to work for the state security forces.

And without any state provision for their future, their reintegration or their long-term safety, the Village Guards may end up having the most to lose.


SEE ALSO
Long jail terms for Kurd attack
19 Jun 06 |  Europe
Turkey's long road to the EU
13 Jun 06 |  Europe
Police on trial for Kurd attack
04 May 06 |  Europe
Payment woes mar Kurds' return
31 Mar 06 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
26 Jul 06 |  Country profiles

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