Turkey is in shock, once again, as it mourns the victims of the Gaziantep explosion, many of them children. The prime minister, most of his Cabinet and the country’s top military commanders turned up in force for the funerals. But watching them all lined up in prayer, I wondered if, as they reflected on the lives needlessly lost, members of the government also paused for a few seconds to question if they could have done more to prevent this tragedy.
The Gaziantep blast is only the latest in a series of violent incidents that have significantly increased the death toll in recent weeks. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) denies responsibility -- rightly or wrongly, time may tell. But whether or not it was involved in this attack, particularly horrendous because it was aimed at civilians, it is evident that the organization has embarked on a new campaign of violence. Every day brings news of soldiers and militants killed in clashes.
At the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, US President George W. Bush famously banned the media from showing coffins returning from the front and dead soldiers were often brought back to the US in the middle of the night. As the toll mounted, Bush feared public opinion would blame his administration for the deaths.
In Turkey, nearly 30 years after the start of the Kurdish conflict, this government, like its predecessors, does not fear such reactions. The funerals of soldiers and civilians whose deaths are attributed to the PKK are widely publicized events generating much emotion, attended by high level officials and broadcast repeatedly on television.
Mourning the victims and paying respect to them is a fine gesture, but it needs to be followed by actions that can address the situation. A few years ago, shortly after the Dağlıca attack, I attended the opening of a school in Adıyaman province that had been hastily renamed in memory of one of the soldiers recently killed. Speeches were made, the education minister shook the hands of the dead soldier’s still shell-shocked relatives, photos were taken and the media caravan moved on, leaving behind a bereft family wondering why their son had died, and perhaps feeling slightly used.
What is disturbing is that the Kurdish issue, a complex problem with multiple dimensions, has been framed so squarely as a “PKK” or “terrorism” problem that elected politicians, who are after all responsible for maintaining peace in the country, appear to see no link between state policies, past and present, and the recurring violence. The nationalist narrative, which puts the blame solely on an organization that many in this country perceive as having appeared out of nowhere, for no reason, is sufficiently well-entrenched that most people barely notice the politicians’ failure to end this conflict and restore peace.
Much as we abhor the PKK’s ruthless methods, the reality is that the organization is still influential among many Kurds, even as they deplore the human cost of the conflict and yearn for peace. Their region remains largely underdeveloped and they would, after all, be the main beneficiaries of a more peaceful environment.
Given that militants, according to a study published last year by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), only live on average 7.2 years after they head for the mountains and only have a life expectancy of 26.3 years, isn’t it time for politicians to ask why so many Kurdish teenagers still find what is, literally, a dead-end career choice more attractive than anything the state can offer them or, more to the point, fails to offer them? Unless Turkish politicians examine the problem from a different angle, try to understand why the organization still holds sway in the region and figure out what they can do to win over their Kurdish citizens and encourage them to sever this tie, this country is likely to suffer more violence and social tension. What experience has shown is that military means and waves of arrest, an approach tried in the past and resurrected by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), won’t do the trick. Furthermore, time is not on Turkey’s side: The turmoil in its vicinity is creating new opportunities for Kurds to unite, making the problem ever more intractable.
President Abdullah Gül has stated that the PKK was, without a doubt, behind the Gaziantep attack. He may well be right, even if other alternatives need to be considered. When policies have failed for nearly 30 years to restore peace and casualties continue to mount, no one can afford to hold on to certainties. It is perhaps time for politicians and decision-makers on all sides, including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to search deep in their souls, question what has gone so wrong and find new and creative ways to get the country by this impasse.