On September 30 simmering ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds in the town of Altinova in the western province of Balikesir erupted into violence as stores, automobiles, homes, and workplaces belonging to ethnic Kurds were attacked after a Kurdish youth drove a truck into a group of ethnic Turks, killing two and seriously injuring six others.
Over the last 20 years, millions of ethnic Kurds have migrated from their traditional homelands in eastern Turkey to towns and cities in the west of the country. During the 1990s, the flow was accelerated by the forced evacuation by the Turkish security forces of more than 3,500 Kurdish villages in an attempt to deny the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) access to food and shelter. The result has been a noticeable change in the demographic profile of the towns and cities of western Turkey. For example, around four million of Istanbul’s estimated population of fourteen million are now believed to be of Kurdish origin, effectively making it the largest Kurdish city in the world.
Despite several years of impressive macroeconomic growth, the Turkish economy has failed to create enough jobs to keep pace with the increase in the country’s population. Most Kurdish migrants to western Turkey are unskilled and so desperate to find employment that they are prepared to work for very low wages. As a result, most of the lowest paying jobs, particularly day labor in the fields and on construction sites, are now done by Kurds; often to the intense resentment of unemployed local Turkish youths.
The growth in the number of Kurds in western Turkey has been accompanied by, and to a large extent has contributed to, an increase in cultural confidence. Unlike 15 or 20 years ago, it is now very common to hear Kurdish being spoken on the streets of the cities of western Turkey. As a result, the changing demographic structure has become not only more visible but more audible; often exacerbating a sense of being under siege among the Turkish inhabitants of western Turkey, few of whom have ever ventured further east than Ankara.
During the 1990s, when the first PKK insurgency was at its height, there were remarkably few instances of communal violence between Turks and Kurds. In recent years, however, there have been worrying signs of an increase in ethnic tension. In the fall of 2007, after nearly 40 Turkish soldiers were killed by the PKK in less than a month, Turkish youths staged a series of attacks on ethnic Kurds living in towns and cities in western Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) reacted swiftly, issuing a string of statements condemning the attacks; but the latest incident in Altinova suggests that the tensions were only temporarily suppressed, not resolved.
Local people in Altinova told journalists that tension between Turkish and Kurdish youths is nothing new. Most of it has taken the form of mutual verbal abuse, although a Kurdish-owned store was burned down in a racist attack in early September (Milliyet, October 1). However, on the afternoon of September 30, the first day of the three-day religious holiday of Eid ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a car with loud music playing and driven by an 23-year-old ethnic Turk named Oguz Dortkardes, pulled up outside an Internet café in Altinova. A Kurdish family living in an apartment above the Internet café told Dortkardes to turn the music down. He refused and an argument broke out. The news reached a group of ethnic Turkish youths in a nearby cafe, who immediately flocked to support Dortkardes. In response, a handful of Kurdish youths got into a pickup and apparently aiming at Dortkardes drove it into the group outside the Internet cafe. Dortkardes was killed instantly. Another of those outside the café, the 31-year-old Ezel Kircali, died later in the hospital from his injuries. When news of the deaths broke, ethnic Turkish youths rampaged through Altinova, attacking Kurdish-owned stores, automobiles, homes, and workplaces. Three hundred members of the police and gendarmerie had to be dispatched from the nearby cities of Balikesir and Bursa before order could be restored (Milliyet, Vatan, Radikal, October 2).
There was further violence following Dortkardes’s funeral on October 1. Despite heavy security, a mob of 2,000 mourners chanting “Altinova is ours and ours it will remain” trashed another 10 workplaces belonging to ethnic Kurds (Dogan Haber Ajansi, October 2).
There is little doubt that the majority of both ethnic Turks and Kurds were appalled by the violence, but a recent court decision will have done little to convince the country’s Kurds that the authorities are doing everything possible to prevent anti-Kurdish racism. In October 2007, after and increase and peak of attacks by the PKK, Isin Ersen, a columnist with the local newspaper Bolu Express, wrote an article calling on Turks to murder one person from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) for every member of the Turkish security forces killed by the PKK (www.boluexpress.com). Under the Turkish Penal Code, inciting a crime through the media is itself a criminal offence. Yet, extraordinarily, the Public Prosecutor in Bolu declined to press charges against Ersen (see EDM, July 22). On October 1 the Serious Crimes Court in the nearby city of Duzce dismissed an appeal by the DTP’s lawyers and ruled that the original decision not to prosecute Ersen was correct. The judge explained that calling for the murder of Kurds fell within the scope of freedom of speech (Radikal, Milliyet, October 2). No one doubts what the judicial consequences would be if a Kurdish journalist ever called for the killing of Turks.