How war on the Kurds put guns in the wrong hands

Background: "Family feud that turned wedding into bloodbath" - Turkish leaders condemn 'tradition' that led to the village massacre of 44 people who had gathered to celebrate marriage
Commentary by Nicholas Birch
May 2009

For Mazhar Bagli, a sociologist who specialises in Kurdish tribes, the wedding-day massacre in Bilge is a sign of how traditional structures have been dangerously unbalanced by a separatist war. Look closely at the details of the 1990s feud that pitted the two branches of the Celebi family against each other, and you begin to understand what he means.

Family tensions began at the height of the war, which erupted in 1984 when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the state, with the aim of obtaining their own homeland. Ankara began drafting thousands of local Kurds into militias, known as the Village Guards, in the hope that they would help state security forces fight the rebels. Villagers didn't often have much of a choice: either you join up, or you leave your homes, the state told them.

One branch of the Celebi family joined up eagerly, not so much out of a sense of patriotism, rather in the knowledge that the guns and ammunition on offer from the state would give it the upper hand over its rivals. Members of the other branch were reportedly more unwilling to register for duty, but they followed suit shortly afterwards, so as not to be left behind. For a decade or more, the two families, armed to the teeth, put on a show of unity, going out together on operations against the PKK. But when unhappiness about Cemil Celebi's choice of a groom for his daughter relit old enmities, they were more than ready to act.

There are tens of thousands of state-sponsored village guards throughout Turkey's south-east. Human rights groups have long criticised the premise of creating peace and order by pumping weapons into the region.

Mr Bagli said Turkey's government must respond to Monday's bloodbath by opening an investigation into a system that permits men armed with nothing more than a primary school certificate and an oath of loyalty to tout Kalashnikovs at will. Rustem Erkan, another sociologist, said the Bilge massacre had left the whole country with blood on its hands. "I didn't think this could possibly happen in Turkey. It is as though Turkey has become Iraq."

Disbanding the militias will not that easy, especially with local economies falling on hard times. Five years ago, there were 70,000 village militiamen; since then, up to 27,000 newcomers have joined the ranks. "There are entire villages in the south-east where being a village guard is the only way of subsistence," Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, told Reuters. And the system has naturally attracted those with less than perfect motives. A 1995 Turkish parliamentary report described it as an "investment in social discord", and confirmed militia involvement in extortion, property theft and evictions. There may, however, be some hope of change. In March, prosecutors arrested a militia chief believed to have avenged the murder of his brother and father by ordering a killing spree in the town of Cizre – a sign, at least, of a some willingness to bring some of the worst criminals to justice.

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