An Earthquake Exposes Turk-Kurd Fault Lines, but Can It Heal Them?

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Osman Orsal / Reuters

Earthquake survivors survey the damage in the town of Ercis, Turkey, on Oct. 28, 2011

A window for peace is often more of a slight crack, fleeting and ephemeral, here one minute, gone the next. If there was any solace following Sunday's devastating 7.2 earthquake in Van, a desperately poor region in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, it appeared — for a moment — to offer just that. The quake, in which more than 500 people have been confirmed dead and tens of thousands left homeless, came as Turkish-Kurdish tensions flared in the wake of an attack that killed 24 Turkish soldiers last week. Turkey subsequently launched its biggest cross-border operation in a decade in pursuit of Kurdish separatist guerrillas based in the mountains of north Iraq.

Hours after the quake, on Facebook, Twitter and via SMS campaigns, millions of people across the country began organizing aid shipments and donation drives for Van. One journalist's Twitter offer of a spare room for quake survivors — #MyHouseisYourHouseVan — became a nationwide cause, with 20,000 people signing up their homes that day. For the first time ever, rival Turkish TV stations united for a special broadcast, One Heart for Van, raising $35.5 million.

"Despite all the counter propaganda and inflated nationalism, people are expressing a desire and will to live together. This disaster has presented us an opportunity for peace that we can't afford to lose," says Sezgin Tanrikulu, deputy chairman of the opposition People's Republican Party.

But a darker undercurrent of knee-jerk nationalism — both Turkish and Kurdish — emerged too. A newscaster on Turkey's popular Haberturk TV caused an outcry when she said backhandedly, "Even though this earthquake happened in Van, in the east of the country, we're still sorry." She apologized shortly afterward, saying it was a slip of the tongue. "That kind of nationalism was latent before, now people are saying it out loud," says Mustafa Gundogdu, of the Kurdish Human Rights Project in London. "The point is that it reflects a deeper social malaise: Turks and Kurds have come to a breaking point."

The initial goodwill was quickly dampened by reports of aid boxes arriving packed with sticks, stones and Turkish flags. On Twitter, some said the quake was "divine retribution" for the deaths of Turkish soldiers. "We are quite literally at the last exit before the bridge when it comes to resolving the Kurdish question," says Tanrikulu. "People are becoming increasingly polarized."

Meanwhile, Kurdish and Turkish politicians sparred over the rescue effort. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the pro-Kurdish BDP, which governs much of the southeast, of not doing its part. "Those who are there to throw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police and army are nowhere to be seen during a disaster," he said. In turn, the BDP was quick to accuse the government of bias against its constituents. "Politics, and I am part of it, can't seem to move beyond internal power struggles," says Tanrikulu. "It drags the country along without addressing people's real problems."

Erdogan has done more than previous governments to address Turkey's festering Kurdish conflict, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives since the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) first took up arms for Kurdish self-rule in 1984. In keeping with European Union–mandated reforms, he eased bans on Kurdish language and media and spoke for the first time of "our Kurdish problem." As he trimmed back the powerful military's influence, hopes were that a peaceful end to the conflict might be at hand.

Instead it has worsened in recent months — against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, the PKK has stepped up its violent campaign and Erdogan has become more hard-line. The continued deaths of young conscripts has fueled Turkish nationalism, while the Kurdish nationalist movement too has evolved, buoyed by the emergence of a largely autonomous Kurdish region in north Iraq that is prospering.

Reports recently emerged that Erdogan had appointed negotiators to hold peace talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan — under the eye of unnamed Western observers. But those talks failed — for reasons as yet unknown. "We want a democratic, dialogue-based solution to this problem," senior PKK commander Murat Karayilan said on Thursday, according to the Firat News Agency, though he did not offer a ceasefire. "Negotiations with our leader [Ocalan] should continue."

Meanwhile, in Van on Friday, Erdogan's ministers finally met with BDP deputies to discuss postquake relief efforts. All emerged cautiously positive. "All the problems stem from a lack of dialogue," said Leyla Zana, a Kurdish MP. Ironically, Turkey is not a stranger to the power of goodwill to bring about difficult political change. A devastating earthquake in western Turkey in 1999, followed by one in Greece, unleashed an outpouring of mutual aid that laid the ground for eventual political rapprochement and ended decades of intense hostility between the two countries. There may still be hope for Turkish relations with the Kurds.