Village Guards on the Frontline of Turkey’s War on Terrorism

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 35

The Village Guard system is one of the key aspects of Turkish security polices in the nation’s ethnic-Kurdish southeast. In response to the growing power of the Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK), the state has resorted to increasingly complex and aggressive counterterrorism strategies. In order to attract local people to its side in 1985, the state launched a new initiative to buy off the local Kurdish tribes. The carrot that the state offered was the Gecici Koy Koruculugu (GKK) system, i.e., the temporary village guard system. This policy was meant to discourage the tribes from lending their support to the PKK by employing them as a local security force. Members of tribes were put on the state’s payroll as village guards and received salaries and health insurance benefits from the state, though these, like their equipment, met a lower standard than that implemented for the military or state police.

As a frontline unit exposed to regular contact with PKK militants, a number of village guards have lost their lives in fighting with the Kurdish separatist movement in the last two months. On August 2, five Village Guards were killed in Sirak province (Anadolu Ajansi, August 2); on August 26, five GKK members were killed in Bitlis province (Anadolu Ajansi, August 27; Today’s Zaman, August 27); on August 29, one Village Guard was killed by a mine hit by a military convoy in Hakkari province (Vatan, August 29). A land mine planted by the PKK in Semdinli (Hakkari province) killed three Village Guards during a major security operation near the Iraqi border on September 7 (Hurriyet, September 7).

Introducing a Local Security Force to the Southeast Provinces

The Village Guards are essentially a reactivation of earlier local defense forces created in 1924 to repel raids by local bandits in the lawless period that followed the Turkish War of Independence. These in turn had their roots in the Kurdish Hamidiye regiments formed by the Ottomans during World War One, initially to defend against Armenian guerrilla attacks. In the campaign against the PKK, the village guards’ intimate knowledge of local terrain, ability to speak local Kurdish dialects and familiarity with local groups and individuals have proven invaluable to the Gendarmerie and Armed Forces.

In the countryside of the Kurdish region, the temporary village guard system has become the main source of income since 1985. The GKK system was initiated to protect rural villages against terror attacks. Article 74 in the Koy Kanunu (Village Law) regulates the GKK system: “The GKK shall be formed if there is an increasing threat to villagers’ life and properties. If such a threat looms, based on the local governor’s suggestion and Ministry of Interior’s approval, the necessary number of GKK shall be appointed.” [1] Temporary Village Guards work under the supervision of regional Gendarmerie commanders.

The GKK system was introduced to 22 provinces in 1985. To supplement this program, a “voluntary village guard” system was added in 13 more provinces in 1993. The difference between the two programs is that, while the temporary village guards receive monthly salary and health benefits, the voluntary village guards do not receive a salary but are entitled to health compensation and benefits. As of 2005, it was estimated that a total of 58,511 Temporary Village Guards and 12,279 Voluntary Village Guards were employed by the state (cnnturk.com, September 27, 2005).

To undermine the state’s efforts, the PKK gave up its Marxist-based opposition to the tribal system and instead sought ways to cooperate with them. The PKK’s new strategy aimed to obtain the tribes’ support if possible. If they failed in this goal, they sought to convince them not to cooperate with the state. For instance, Zubeyr Aydar and Leyla Zana, two former Kurdish parliamentarians, asked Sedat Bucak, the leader of the Bucak tribe, to allow PKK activities in Siverek and Hilvan, where his tribe resides.[2] Because Sedat Bucak rejected this request, the PKK asked the Bucak tribe to pay a “tax,” which triggered a long and bloody fight between the tribe and the PKK.[3] The state, on the other hand, armed the Bucak and other tribes, which eventually stood with the state. In an interview, Korkut Eken, a former general and advisor to the General Directorate of Turkish National Police, told a reporter, “We [the state] had given 4 to 5 thousands arms to tribes. In the fight against the PKK, the invaluable help provided by the Jirki, Bucak, Babatlar and Kamil Aga tribes is unforgettable.” [4]

In this violent armed struggle between the PKK and the central government and its Kurdish supporters, scholar Martin van Bruinessen makes an interesting observation – many leading families had some members in government service while others were active in the PKK; “The apparent split of tribes or their leading families into pro and anti-government factions is not always the reflection of a serious conflict dividing the family, however. In some cases it appears to be the consequence of a deliberate decision not to put all one’s eggs into one basket — a time-honored strategy of elite families everywhere.” [5]

Economic Impact

This competition between the PKK and the state changed the economic structure by shifting the major economic activities in the largely rural southeast from livestock husbandry and farming to the village guard system. Because accurate figures or studies on the economic impact of the GKK system are not available, estimating its economic significance is difficult. The economic attractiveness of this job, however, was reflected during a recent recruitment drive – 9,000 people, including high-school graduate women, applied for 350 vacancies in voluntary village guard positions in Hakkari province (Bugun, May 19, 2007).

In order to be employed as a village guard, there are few requirements other than age restrictions and the usual background checks. Tribal affiliation is one of the most important elements during the background checks for two reasons. First, because tribes exert political influence on the local branches of the ruling parties and maintain good relations with the state bureaucracy, they can throw their weight behind their members during the recruitment process. Second, because background checks are the key determinant in hiring decisions, by nature, those without connection to the PKK terror organization are potential candidates for the job. At this point, once again, tribal connections play a crucial role in that they are generally divided into two categories: those who support the PKK, and those who support the state. Because of this division, the tribes that allied with the state have been the major beneficiaries of the village guard system.

Through this policy, the state was able to win over the cooperation of the tribes. The state, thus, has managed to undermine the PKK’s recruitment basis as well as establishing local alliances against the PKK. The support of the state, on the other hand, strengthened the role of tribes in the Kurdish society throughout the 1990s. Most village guards are fiercely loyal to the Turkish state and firmly oppose any kind of Kurdish autonomy. Others, however, have complained of coercion in their recruitment (Reuters, November 14, 2007).

Given their often precarious position as stalwarts of state authority in a region known for militant separatism, there are often fears in the military about the long-term loyalty of the village guards, which may account for their substandard government-issued weapons. General Osman Pamukoglu, who directed military operations in Hakkari province in 1993-95, described problems in the use of village guards he regarded as undisciplined and poorly educated:

“They were scared that PKK militants were going to take revenge on them one day. As the authority of the PKK strengthened in the region, they went further away from the authority of the state. Either because of fear or belief, some of them were covertly supporting the PKK with their state-issued guns and salary. That was not enough; they were participating in the operations of the PKK against the state.”[6]

Human Rights Concerns

The negative side of the system is that the GKK has long been criticized by human rights organizations for deepening mistrust and ethnic divisions in an already troubled region. Many village guards have been accused of abusing their authority to seize the property of villagers who have been forcibly evacuated from their villages. The lack of title deeds or other documentation regarding property ownership in the region has exacerbated this situation.

The European Commission, in a recent report on Turkey’s progress towards EU accession, has described the village guard system as one of the major outstanding obstacles to villagers being able to return home safely. UN officials such as the UN Special Rapporteur for Internally Displaced Persons have raised concerns: “What I see is that at least Village Guards are perceived as an obstacle, and even perceptions are important when it comes to return. I think it will be important for the government to take these fears seriously and to take the steps necessary to remove the obstacle” (BBC News, August 4, 2006). Many village guards oppose Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, feeling that such efforts might compromise their current status.

The new compensation law, which aims to compensate material losses caused by the intense terror fights in the region, has inspired some displaced Kurdish villagers to slowly begin returning to their villages to reestablish their lives, but many of these returnees are still resentful of those fellow Kurds who choose to work for state security forces.

Notes:

1. Village Law, (Koy Kanunu), Kanun no. 442, March 18, 1924; Revision, March 26, 1985, Article 74.

2. Ankara State Security Court ruling on the Democratic Labor Party, Ankara, December 8, 1994 pp.112-113.

3. Kutlu Savas, Basbakanlık Teftis Kurulu Başkanlıgı Susurluk Raporu, (Prime Minister’s Office, Susurluk Incident Investigation Report), Ankara, August 13, 1997.

4. Saygi Ozturk, Devletin Derinliklerinde, Umit Yayincilik, Ankara, 2002.

5. Martin van Bruinessen, “Kurds, States and Tribes,” Paper presented at the conference “Tribes and Powers in the Middle East”, London, SOAS, Birkbeck College and Iraqi Cultural Forum, January 23-24, 1999.

http://www.let.uu.nl/~Martin.vanBruinessen/personal/publications/Kurds,%20states,%20tribes.htm.

6. Osman Pamukoglu, Unutulanlar Dısında Yeni Birsey Yok: Hakkari ve Kuzey Irak Daglarında Askerler, Istanbul, 2003.