Shaking off the Dust Of a Dirty Little War

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Cracking walnuts on her doorstep in the hilltop village of Dede Agac, Gullu Ates, 53, recalls the morning in 1995 when Cobra helicopters roared up the valley and blasted her stone home into a smoking ruin. The choppers, from the Turkish army, were hunting Kurdish rebels who had just killed 20 soldiers in an ambush. When the aircraft appeared over the brow of the hill, Ates' family fled with their cows to the shelter of the mausoleum, where the entire village had gathered. "We were trapped inside all day," she says, crushing another shell. "There was screaming everywhere. Soldiers went door to door. When they had gone, we left too." Now, after living for seven years in nearby Tuncelli, Ates and a handful of neighbours are back, tending their bees, gathering nuts and apples. "We are very happy," says Ates, adjusting her green beaded headscarf. "This is our home."

Gullu's story is just one example of how things have improved for Turkey's 12 million Kurds since Abdullah Ocalan's rebel army, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (P.K.K.), ended its insurgency three years ago. Hundreds of villages are gradually coming back to life; emergency rule is being lifted, and legislative reforms removing key restrictions on Kurdish culture are set to take effect this fall. Proof of the warmer atmosphere will come in the elections next month when the political party dehap, a cornerstone of Kurdish identity whose previous incarnations were linked by authorities to the P.K.K., is expected to win up to 9% of the national vote — not enough to enter parliament, but better than any Kurdish party has managed before. "Ten years ago, the state said there was no such thing as a Kurd," explains Kutbettin Arzu, an architect and head of the chamber of commerce in the southeastern capital, Diyarbakir. "Now they admit we are here."

The battle between the P.K.K. and Turkish security forces — what the Kurds call the "dirty war" — left some 40,000 dead, razed 3,500 villages and transformed towns like Tuncelli, the old Kurdish stronghold, into a mini-police state, swarming with refugees and undercover security agents. Ali Ozler, a grizzled 50-year-old building contractor, was jailed for three years after two of his brothers joined the P.K.K. "We were always the enemy," he says. Despite lingering suspicions — a pair of cops eye Ozler from a doorway as he sips tea with a journalist — the number of Kurds in southeastern Turkey facing sedition charges and other "crimes by association" has dropped from 10,000 in 1999 to 4,000 last year. "That's huge," says Diyarbakir-based human-rights lawyer Mahmut Vefa. The end of emergency rule, he says, will not only make it more difficult to bring such prosecutions, but easier to bring suit against the police for torture and other human-rights abuses that are still common. This summer the Turkish parliament, under pressure from the European Union, lifted the ban on instruction and broadcasting in the Kurdish language. This reform, which caught even Kurds by surprise, underscores just how bad things were. So long as instruction in Kurdish grammar was outlawed, it never developed fully as a written language. Baki Demirhan, co-owner of the gün TV and Radio station in Diyarbakir, says he is planning the region's first ever talk show, but can't find guests capable of conversing with sufficient nuance. "Even I can't shape a complex political sentence," he says. "We need time for the language to establish itself."

No one knows how long the Kurdish resurgence will last. Next week's elections could bring in a more nationalist leadership that balks at fully implementing reforms. "We hope these good laws aren't put in the hands of bad practitioners," says Demirhan. The bigger worry is war in Iraq, which could trigger a new crackdown by Turkish security forces if an uprising by Iraqi Kurds threatens to spread; that is what happened during the last war in 1991. Kurds are already trying to assuage those concerns. "Nobody wants an independent 'Kurdistan,'" says Vefa, using a term that not long ago could have landed him in jail. "We just want a democratic state and democratic participation." Or in the case of Gullu Ates, a place to call home.