We were headed for a district notorious for incidents of terror, violence, illegal protests and closed shutters. Our intention was to closely observe how people in Yüksekova really think, feel and live, alongside the incidents that occupy TV screens and newspaper columns practically every other day.
We were mostly shocked, in the negative sense, by what we found there. Our first impression was surprise at the geography of the place. Yüksekova is surrounded by mountains, nourished by pure rivers and green uplands. Most of the surrounding mountains are higher than 3,000 meters and are home to glacial lakes. Yüksekova itself is situated on a plain as high as 2,000 meters. We had almost no idea what we would find when we hit the road for from Van to Yüksekova, a district in the eastern Hakkari province. We were headed for a district notorious for incidents of terror, violence, illegal protests and closed shutters. Our intention was to closely observe how people in Yüksekova really think, feel and live, alongside the incidents that occupy TV screens and newspaper columns practically every other day. We were mostly shocked, in the negative sense, by what we found there. Our first impression was surprise at the geography of the place. Yüksekova is surrounded by mountains, nourished by pure rivers and green uplands. Most of the surrounding mountains are higher than 3,000 meters and are home to glacial lakes. Yüksekova itself is situated on a plain as high as 2,000 meters. Its neighbors are Van’s Başkale district to the north, Iran to the east, Iraq to the south and Hakkari’s capital to the west. The district is home to more than 100,000 people.
Traveling through Yüksekova, we notice luxurious cars in need of urgent maintenance driving on the roads. Most of the cars carry number plates from Ankara or İstanbul rather than Hakkari. One resident explained it this way: “When we travel to western cities, people despise us due to the number plates belonging to eastern cities. Therefore we prefer to carry the plates of Ankara or İstanbul.”
According to some, the luxurious cars in poor and underdeveloped Yüksekova are thanks to fortunes made in drug trafficking. Yüksekova was once a transit point for illegal drugs coming from Afghanistan and Iran to be sent onwards to Europe and Russia. According to rumor, many people made huge fortunes by assisting the drug barons, and some of them later left Yüksekova for big Turkish cities. Currently hundreds of people are imprisoned in Hakkari Prison on charges of drug trafficking, and official records estimate that around 2,000 people are addicted to drugs in the area. Addiction is an open wound for Hakkari; there are few opportunities for treatment and rehabilitation.
Means of existence: smuggling
As we tour the streets, we form an impression of the levels of unemployment in Yüksekova. We see dozens of children and young men sitting on the pavements, selling smuggled cigarettes. People seem willing to talk to us when we tell them we are journalists. They complain that the biggest problem they face is unemployment. But when we want to talk about acts of terrorism in the region they become uncomfortable. They say they feel trapped between the state and the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Most of them tell us their region needs peace and stability.
The main means of existence in Yüksekova is smuggling. Many types of goods are smuggled inside the district from Iran. Among them are tea, cigarettes, oil, rice and sugar. People living in Yüksekova prefer to purchase smuggled goods because they are much cheaper.
One person interviewed by us, Ali K., told us people would starve to death if they did not sell smuggled goods because they have no other way of making a living. “We feel as if we are living smuggled lives. We would starve if we do not sell those [smuggled] goods. I do not have a profession and I am uneducated. There are six people at my home whom I have to look after. What else can I do?” he said. Other than smuggling, people earn their living through commercial activities, but most shop owners complain that economic conditions are not good because they are often forced to close their doors during illegal protests organized by PKK supporters against the government. One shop owner said he was not allowed to open his shop for around 100 days last year. “Shop owners do not have any chance to say ‘no’ if they are ordered to close their shutters. Some shop owners challenged protesters [who are PKK supporters] and then we all witnessed what happened to them. Now we cannot take the same risk,” he told us. If a shop owner refuses to shut down his business during the protests, his shop is usually attacked with Molotov cocktails or hand grenades by protesters.
1990s still a nightmare for locals
One major problem in Yüksekova is the bitter memories that linger from the 1990s and continue to haunt locals today. The 1990s saw the height of Turkey’s struggle with PKK terrorism, during which the Turkish military tried to resolve the problem through violent and anti-democratic measures. Back then many villages in the eastern and southeastern provinces were evacuated for security reasons. Many people were killed, and their perpetrators were never caught. Locals say almost every man who was born in Yüksekova in the 1970s and 1980s had trouble with police or military officers in the 1990s. They were reportedly beaten and even tortured in police custody. Now they have difficulty in trusting security forces.
Under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in recent years security forces have adopted relatively peaceful and democratic methods in fighting terrorism, but locals in Yüksekova still hesitate to trust the police and military. As we continue to talk to Yüksekova residents, we hear tales of the bitter times they went through in the past. Residents say at least one person in every family in their district fell victim to an act of terror. Some were killed by the Turkish military during clashes as members of the terrorist PKK, some by terrorist groups after refusing to cooperate with them against the military.
Locals are worried that their children will go to the mountains to join the PKK one day. Children as young as 13 have become PKK members, and according to locals 40 percent of those who go to the mountains are female. Many young people are reputed to join the PKK to “become heroes.” For others, becoming a member of the terrorist organization is a way to “escape unemployment.” Bodies of terrorists killed on the mountains in the military’s counterterrorism operations are brought to Yüksekova and buried in elaborate funeral ceremonies with the attendance of huge crowds.
Children become politicized at a very early age here. Seeing us walking in the streets with cameras in our hands, children pose for the cameras with a “V” sign and start chanting PKK slogans. For most of them, throwing stones at police officers during illegal protests is like a game. Every year dozens of young children are taken into custody across Turkey for participation in illegal demonstrations and for attacking security forces with stones.
There are around 32,000 students in Yüksekova. Most of the schools were built in 2005. The district needs more schools, but even more urgently it needs teachers. Teachers who are appointed to Yüksekova are said to hope for appointment to another place once they arrive in the district due to poor conditions here. They are required to stay at least five years in the district before being transferred to another location, but they usually find alternative ways for re-appointment before the five years are over.
A modern hospital was built in Yüksekova around two years ago by order of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The hospital is one of the few things that puts a smile on the faces of locals in the district. People are happy to be treated with modern methods at the hospital. In addition, the construction of an airport in the area is still under way, and the government plans to complete it by 2013, although the PKK is engaged in efforts to force the government to suspend construction. Many construction machines have been set on fire by the terrorist group. In addition, the PKK has spread rumors that the government is planning to use the airport for warplanes that will hit PKK camps in northern Iraq. Some people believe the rumors and say they are against the completion of the airport.
Although educational activities have long been neglected in Yüksekova, there are ongoing efforts to increase the level of education in the district. The private Yüksekova College is like a shining star in the region. The school has 195 students and is mostly attended by children of civil servants and military and police officers.