Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Behind a Massacre, Ancient Traditions and Volatile Politics

I filed a report today from the small Kurdish village that was the scene of a massacre Monday where 44 people were killed. In the massacre, a group of masked gunmen raided a home where an engagement party was taking place. The horrifying attack, although blamed on a decades-long family feud, is also very much connected to the southeast region's troubled politics. From my report:

An attack by masked gunmen on an engagement party in a small village in southeast Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of 44 people, is being seen as a reflection of both the troubled region's ancient traditions and volatile modern politics.

According to locals in Bilge, a village that sits on a small hilltop about 12 miles from the city of Mardin, there was a decades-long dispute between the attackers' family and the family of the would-be groom. The semi-official Anatolia news agency reported that the masked attackers had wanted the bride-to-be to marry one among their own group of friends or relatives, but that her family would not allow it….

"….Honor is very important in this region, and it's very difficult to change the traditions that deal with honor. They are a very strong part of this society," says Mazhar Bagli, a professor of sociology at Dicle University in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

Experts believe dozens are killed each year in "blood feuds" in rural Turkey. Efforts to stop the feuds' violence have been limited, mostly left to individuals such as Sait Sanli, a former butcher in Diyarbakir who helps broker peace treaties between warring families.

But Professor Bagli says the fact that the families involved were part of the "Village Guards," a well-armed militia set up by the Turkish government in the 1980s to fight the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), meant something more than tradition was to blame for the massacre.

Observers have long criticized the "Village Guard" program, saying it created a violent division in Kurdish society and allowed militia members to use their power to settle scores and even expropriate land.

"[The village guard system] has changed the balance of the society here," Bagli says.

"The problems created by the political situation and the traditions – I think both of them are part of this crime…."

….In Bilge, tractors were busy digging graves in the small cemetery near the entrance to the village. Inside the village, relatives of the murdered individuals and residents of nearby villages gathered near the one-storey house where the killings took. Inside the house, bullet holes riddled the walls.

"This comes from ignorance, nothing else. What's the reason for coming to this point and killing so many people?" said one relative who lives in a neighboring village and who asked not to be named. "How can life come back to normal here?"

You can read the whole article here. Also, take a look at this article from last year if you want to read more about Sait Sanli, the Diyarbakir-based peacemaker.

(Photo - Graves being dug at the cemetery at the entrance to Bilge village, the day after a massacre of 44 people in the village. By Yigal Schleifer)


Amos said...

Hi Yigal,

Very interesting post, as usual. My question: is the Village Guards program a disruptive force in SE Turkish society because it has changed the political dynamics of places such as Bilge? Or is this a "simpler" problem, mainly related to firepower and training provided to people in the village, who then use it on others. Perhaps the two are linked, but I do see a slight difference.

Yigal Schleifer said...

Thanks for the comment, Amos. The village guards have become an unaccountable force in the region, both supported by the government but also above the law. It's a dangerous combination.