Civilians in the crossfire: Turkey's fight against the PKK

In Iraqi Kurdistan, civilians count the cost of Turkey's fight against the PKK
4 min read
25 February, 2021
In-depth: Turkey has relaunched military operations in northern Iraq to target PKK fighters. Sofia Nitti reports from the autonomous Kurdistan region, where civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict.
Turkish military operations against the PKK have had a devastating impact on civilians. [Getty]
For two weeks, Shahin hasn't said a word. The six-year-old boy avoids all eye contact, his mouth agape in shock. "Since our village was bombed, he has been traumatised," explains his father, Xalla Min. 

"It was terrible. The warplanes struck four times: first three missiles, then two, then two more, and one missile at the end. There were injuries, everyone was terrified. The walls of our houses are cracked and the windows exploded". 

Perched in the mountains of the Pishdar district, on the north-eastern border of Iraqi Kurdistan, the village of Shené had until then been spared from Turkish strikes, which were concentrated further north in the Qandil mountains and in the west in the Gara region.

But in early February, shelling resumed all along the border, up until the frontier with Iran. Turkey has been intervening in Iraqi Kurdistan for more than forty years to overpower the 5,000 or so fighters of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), who are hiding in the mountainous border area to launch attacks on security and civilian targets in Turkish territory.

This is an internal conflict between Turkey and the PKK. They have to settle this in Turkey, not in our home

Considered a terrorist group by Turkey and its Western allies, including the EU, the United States and NATO, the PKK is campaigning for an independent Kurdish state

"This is an internal conflict between Turkey and the PKK. They have to settle this in Turkey, not in our home," insists the exhausted mayor of the Pishdar district, Bakir Baiz, which is home to some of the most affected villages. "It has made our region and our people totally unstable; psychologically, economically and socially. In one day, a strike can destroy an entire season's harvest." 

Read more: Unpaid salaries and corruption fuel public
anger in Iraqi Kurdistan

The municipal authorities are trying their best to keep children in school, helped by international organisations. Teachers like Awat Osman have agreed to continue teaching on a voluntary basis.

"These bombings have had a great impact on our students. Any noise makes them jump, sometimes a door slams and they are terrified. They have trouble concentrating and sometimes we can't calm them down. So, we can only send them back to their families if they are too distracted or on edge," Awat says. 

But in these mountain villages, only a quarter of the families now remain. The others have fled to the town of Qaladze in the valley. Here, Kak Hamadamin recounts the multiple displacements that he, his wife and their four children have undergone since 2019.

"At the beginning we decided not to leave, because we believed that the strikes would have been an isolated event. But that night our village was targeted 27 times. We were first evacuated to tents and then to this house. We had to sell our animals at a very low price, and here in town everything costs a lot more," he laments. "The government did not help us, when we abandoned our village and when we tried to return," insists the 50-year-old.

It has made our region and our people totally unstable; psychologically, economically and socially. In one day, a strike can destroy an entire season's harvest

Contacted several times, the KRG's Interior Ministry declined to answer The New Arab's questions. While complaining about the lack of support, residents also blame the government for allowing the Turkish military presence in KRG territory. 

"But this is not true, the KRG clearly condemns this presence," Miran Bakir, a spokesperson for the Peshmerga Ministry, the Kurdish armed forces in the KRG, told TNA. The military has recorded 206 air violations and 385 Turkish strikes in 2019, in addition to 20 armed confrontations on land. There were 570 Turkish strikes in the KRG in 2020 and 44 for the first two months of 2021. "We ask the PKK to return to its lands, and to wage their battles there," Bakir insisted. 

Read more: How should Turkey's military presence in
northern Syria be assessed?

"We are on our land," Zagros Hiwa says, one of the spokesmen for the PKK. In the mountains where he is hiding, the militiaman explains his links with the people of Iraqi Kurdistan. "We are observing all the rules and taking all measures to ensure that civilians are not targeted by Turkish technologies. We defend the rights of the Kurdish people at all costs," he says. 

"If I can be absolutely honest, I like the PKK but they still have to stay away from the villages," admits Kak Hamadamin. The guerrilla war between the PKK and Turkey has already claimed more than 40,000 lives.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, at least 500 villages are currently under the threat of bombardment and the population is increasingly suffering from being collateral victims in these clashes.

Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq. Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti