On September 29, 12 male villagers were massacred close to the village of Besagac, near Turkey’s border with Iran, by what is believed to have been a unit of the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The killing came the day after Turkey and Iraq signed an agreement to implement a series of measures against the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq. However, few of the measures are expected to have any significant impact. The Iraqi delegation refused to include a clause that would have allowed Turkish forces to enter northern Iraq in hot pursuit of PKK militants fleeing across the border (see EDM, September 28).
The Turkish media were unanimous in attributing the Iraqi refusal to include the hot pursuit clause not to the government in Baghdad, but to the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north of the country (Hurriyet, Sabah, Milliyet, Zaman, Radikal, September 29). Iraqi Kurdish officials have long warned that they would oppose any agreement that would allow the Turkish military to enter northern Iraq.
“The Kurdish parliament will not permit any violation of the borders of the region of Kurdistan,” said Kemal Kerkuki, the deputy speaker of the Kurdish assembly in Arbil (Hurriyet, October 1).
But the Besagac massacre represents the largest death toll in any single operation since the PKK launched the second phase of its insurgency in June 2004. Relatives of the slain said that they were among 14 men returning to their village from working on a water supply network when their minibus was ambushed by what are believed to have been PKK militants. The full details of the killing are still unclear. However, photographs of the minibus published in the Turkish press would appear to confirm reports that, after being forced to stop and get out of the vehicle, the passengers were sprayed with semi-automatic rifle fire. The two survivors were both wounded, one critically (Dogan News Agency, September 30).
Seven of the dead men were members of the pro-state militia known in Turkish as “Village Guards,” which has led to speculation that the assailants received intelligence that the minibus would be passing along the route where it was ambushed.
The Village Guards have been one of the most controversial instruments used by the Turkish state in its war against the PKK. Currently numbering around 60,000, the Village Guards are levied from the local rural population. Their lack of military training is usually offset by their local knowledge, particularly of the mountainous terrain in southeast Turkey, and their language skills in a predominantly Kurdish-speaking area. Although they are theoretically all volunteers, in conversation with this Jamestown correspondent, the Village Guards have frequently complained that they are left with little choice. In the most underdeveloped region of Turkey, where a large proportion of the population depends on subsistence farming, being a Village Guard is often one of the few ways of earning a wage. If they refuse to volunteer, the security forces are liable to regard the villagers as being PKK sympathizers. But if they join the Village Guards, then both they and their families automatically became targets for the PKK.
There have also been numerous, well-documented cases of human rights violations by the Village Guards and several occasions when some of them have used their weapons – and the expectation of de facto immunity from prosecution by the Turkish state – to settle age-old vendettas and tribal feuds.
It is also likely that, even though the evidence in the latest incident points strongly to the PKK, many of the people in the region will refuse to accept that the organization was responsible and point to the Turkish state’s long record of staging provocations that have then be blamed on the PKK.
By coincidence, a few weeks before the Besagac massacre, Erdal Sarizeybek, a retired gendarmerie colonel, published his memoirs entitled I Was Betrayed. Sarizeybek spent over a decade fighting the PKK during the first stage of its insurgency. Much of his book is devoted to complaining that the political leadership in Turkey failed to act decisively against the PKK’s foreign supporters; particularly Iran, which during the 1990s allowed PKK units to establish bases on its territory that were used to launch operations against targets inside Turkey.
But Sarizeybek also describes how the gendarmerie would sometimes strafe targets in towns in southeast Turkey and blame the attack on the PKK. They would then call the local population to a mass meeting, point to the destruction caused by the alleged “PKK attack” and demand the local people cooperate with the security forces in order to prevent any more such incidents (Erdal Sarizeybek, “Ihaneti Gordum,” Pozitif Yayinlari, September 2007).