It is not unheard of for the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to attack schools, students and teachers, but the group has stepped up its attacks on educational facilities over the last month, burning more than 20 schools in southeastern provinces and kidnapping six students from a Hakkari school just this past week.
Experts say there are a number of factors behind the PKK’s escalating violence against schools.
Last week, PKK militants set more than 20 schools on fire, throwing Molotov cocktails at schools in Hakkari, Şırnak and Van. In Diyarbakır, a group of ski mask-clad PKK terrorists threw a sound bomb and Molotov cocktail into the teacher’s lounge, injuring two teachers and a 12th grader. On the same day, in Şırnak’s İdil district, eight schools were the targets of similar attacks, with some children sustaining injuries. In Yüksekova, Hakkari, pro-PKK demonstrators set 11 schools on fires. Parents in Yüksekova protested in front of the Gazi and Cumhuriyet elementary schools, as this week’s attacks marked the third time they have been attacked.
The PKK burned down container schools built by UNICEF for children who were victims of last year’s earthquakes in Van. Two containers being used as classrooms were destroyed. Civil society and public opinion leaders in Van released messages strongly condemning the attacks, which in fact target young children.
Ayman Abulban, the Turkey representative for UNICEF, said they strongly condemned the attack on the UNICEF container classrooms. “We are against all attacks on schools. Nobody has the right to target schools or children. We hope that such incidents will not be repeated again.”
On Wednesday, the PKK kidnapped six teachers from a primary school in an Iğdır village, with teary-eyed elementary school students witnessing the entire affair. The villagers resisted the abduction, which didn’t stop the militants but did compel them to release the teachers unharmed one hour after the abduction.
But why is the PKK targeting schools and teachers? In fact, it is not an entirely new development. The PKK has consistently said that it sees educational institutions as an instrument of assimilation, and damaging schools, according to the group, promotes its demand for kurdish-language education in predominantly Kurdish provinces. Last year, the PKK threw a Molotov cocktail into a dormitory in Cizre with many students inside. One student was critically injured and came close to death, while several others suffered severe burns. Terror experts note that the PKK wants to send the message that it has the power to shut down schools if it wants to.
Another factor behind the PKK’s attacks is the physical fact that schools are an easy target. They are not guarded by police or military officers, and they are also ideal places to spread panic after an attack.
Furthermore, there is a strategic reason, in line with the PKK’s authoritarian and militaristic mentality. The PKK wants to make the Kurdish question only about itself, suppressing the diversity of Turkey’s Kurdish community and preventing different segments from participating in politics. Escalating violence this way, the PKK seeks to intimidate and stop action by all Kurds.
Journalist and writer Ümit Fırat, a Kurdish intellectual, said he had warned that the PKK might attack schools at the beginning of the school year to attract attention to itself. “This is because in August Duran Kalkan, who is in charge of the PKK’s military wing, made a statement pressuring [Southeast] locals not to send their children to school or to the military. This pressure meant children should join the PKK instead of going to school. What is going on today is the continuation of that pressure. Even going to school is seen as going against the PKK. Now they are saying Kurds shouldn’t send their children to school, that those who do are traitors. In this way, it is trying to rupture the link the Kurds have to the state system, to make them dependent on it. It is trying to increase its power [over Kurds].”
Strategists also note that the general increase in the use of violence by the PKK serves illegal groupings within the state -- commonly called the deep state -- which were very powerful in Turkey until the recent past, as well as the authoritarian regimes of Iran and Syria. The PKK has long been a matter of contention between Turkey and Syria, and the group has become an important partner to the Bashar al-Assad regime since the escalation of violence in Syria.
School burning and public outrage
Kurdish leaders of public opinion as well as civil society representatives have strongly condemned the PKK, with all of them saying attacking schools or students is unacceptable, no matter what one’s cause might be.
Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Diyarbakır deputy Mehmet Hamzaoğulları said he found the attacks impossible to understand. “Attacks on students and teachers are beyond the limits of reason and logic. Why anyone would want to stop Kurdish children from getting an education I don’t understand.” He said the locals were too intimidated to stand against the PKK.
Echoing Hamzaoğulları’s view that stopping Kurdish children from pursuing an education defies logic, Kurdish politician İbrahim Güçlü said: “Even in wars, one doesn’t attack civilian facilities such as schools and hospitals. By attacking schools the PKK is doing the highest extent of damage to the Kurdish people. The PKK had staged such attacks before. Up until a few years ago, the PKK defended [teaching Kurdish] as an elective course. Now that it is an elective course, the PKK is strongly against it. They are forcing people to stop allowing children to pick Kurdish as an elective course. This obviously shows that the PKK is not concerned with the issues of Kurds’ national rights, the right to Kurdish language education, and that it is only concerned with maintaining its own hegemony and dominance and not letting its sphere of influence narrow.”
Güçlü said the PKK sees every positive step towards extending more rights to the Kurds as a threat against its own existence. “They gave the exact same response when [Kurdish language state TV channel] TRT 6 started broadcasting, or when developments occurred such as Kurdish language and literature departments opening up in universities, and local Kurdish language television stations opening.”
“The PKK has lost its mind; it is experiencing both social and psychological insanity. Fatal and brutal [attacks] against schools, teachers and students are a crime against humanity, a violation of human rights and freedoms that doesn’t have anything to do with the acquisition of Kurdish rights and freedoms, that work against the acquisition of Kurdish rights and freedoms,” Güçlü stated.
Educators in the region are distraught over the situation. Yunus Memiş, head of the Diyarbakır branch of the education professionals’ union Eğitim Bir Sen, said: “The Kurdish people will not let the PKK intimidate and wear out teachers. You cannot talk about humanity where you have violence. Those who stage these attacks should come to their senses. Children will not be pushed into ignorance; the Kurdish people will stand against that.” Memiş said attacking schools only worked towards the enslavement of Kurds.
“It is nothing but barbarity to try to burn innocent children and teachers in schools,” said Bülent Serdar, the head of the Diyarbakır branch of the human rights association Özgür-Der.
Local business associations have also delivered various messages condemning the recent attacks. Diyarbakır Mercantile Exchange President Fahrettin Akyıl said: “I have no words in the face of this violence. What is a person without an education good for? If you burn down schools, massacre teachers, what kind of a world will you be living in?” He described the recent attacks as the “mother of all wrongs.” did.