“Watch out for Kurds, they bad. They steal you. Me no like Kurds.” The trucker that gave me a ride is telling me this with an expression of disgust on his face. “They different, bad people.” The unilateral ceasefire declared by the PKK last Saturday is a step in the right direction and gives the impression that after 30 years of conflict, peace might finally be within reach. But sentiments like my hitch’s are numerous amongst the Turkish population. Whilst the western media has been focusing mainly on the dialogue between Turkish Prime-minister Erdogan and imprisoned PKK leader Öcalan, it has been neglecting the opinion of the Turkish population, which has quite a different view on the matter.
Ever since its beginning in 1984, the conflict has caused over 40,000 deaths. Hope however, is gleaming at the horizon. Turkey is adopting a new approach to its Kurdish population (which makes up 20% of the total population), loosening regulation, increasing investments and allowing for example television programs to be in the Kurdish Language. It also started unofficial talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, that had been put in full isolation on an island for 14 years. In turn, the PKK unilaterally declared to cease fire immediately, after Öcalan demanded it so. In the west, these steps were received laudatory and hopes for peace were expressed.
Among the Turkish population however, all this is welcomed rather differently. 30 years of conflict has had its toll on the Turkish society and sympathy for the Kurdish cause is scarce. Most of the people I’ve spoken with were to my surprise against these steps taken by Erdogan. “He is ruining the country, giving it away. You see, if you give in to their (the Kurdish) demands, they won’t stop there, they’ll only ask for more. Negotiating doesn’t work with them, only firm (military) action can be the solution.”
The PKK is still listed by the EU, USA and the UN as a ‘terrorist organization’ and is not perceived differently in Turkey. The Kurds are simply a people, scattered across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Irak. According to some Turkish however, the Kurds and the PKK are simply the same. “99% of them are terrorists”, tells a well-educated man me, whereas a young student nuances that “some of them are good, but most of them just want to fight”. As I got closer to actual Kurdistan, the Turkish opinion shifts to “about 50% of them support the PKK” and eventually “the Kurds are good, they are my friends!”
It appears to me that the sympathy and hate for the Kurds is influenced heavily by the interaction Turks have with them. People living close or in Kurdistan, an thus meeting Kurds in real life more often, will in general have a more positive opinion on Kurds and their situation. Most Turks though only see Kurds in the news or when they are on their military service, battling the PKK. Their opinion is strongly biased and most of the times not very positive. It is these people that pose a severe threat to the peace process, as their opposing ideas cannot be neglected for too long, especially with elections coming up next year.
In Erzerum, central east Turkey, I ran into one demonstration against Kurds. Hundreds of people were waving Turkish flags and shouting angry slogans, which I sadly, due to my lack of knowledge of the Turkish language, could not understand. Later research however learned me that there have been several demonstrations all across Turkey against the current policies and also against Kurds in general. Angry crowds expressed serious disagreement with the government gestures towards the Kurdish population, stating that it will not bring peace any closer. On the contrary, most expect the fighting to commence again on short notice.
Thus, whilst the current evolvements in the peace process have been applauded upon by the international community, they stir heavy emotions on the national level. The war and the lack of interaction has given a lot of Turks a rather negative image of the Kurdish cause and the prospects for peace, making them skeptical at best of current policies. Erdogan would be wise not to neglect these sentiments and instead of nicely presenting his peace efforts to the West, try to convince his own population as well.