Kurdish Children Carry the Burden of Conflict in Diyarbakir

When Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Diyarbakir, the main city in the country’s ethnic-Kurdish east this week, he offered a bright future: a 30,000-capacity stadium, new hospitals, highways, riverside recreational areas and other projects.

But the numerous groups of young boys who roam the streets here, skirmishing, begging and selling anything from flowers to rosaries suggest that the city and even more the region face big social and economic problems for years to come.

Diyarbakir continues to live in the shadow of an almost three decades long armed conflict between the Kurdish separatist group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and Turkey’s security forces. The PKK campaigns for autonomy, rather than independence now, but Erdogan’s claim on the campaign trail that the Kurds no longer have a problem doesn’t fit the facts on the ground.

Over 1,600 semi-abandoned boys of Diyarbakir have long ago become a tool in this conflict, chanting slogans supporting the PKK in violent demonstrations, hardly knowing what those slogans mean, and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. During the first four months of this year, over 350 children under 18 years of age were arrested in violent pro-PKK demonstrations and funerals of PKK members killed in battle. Of those, 116 remain detained, accused of making propaganda for an illegal organization and causing damage.

While Erdogan addressed a big rally in the town center, police and youths skirmished in the streets nearby. After a loud explosion, a boy aged no more than 8 years old stuck his head into an Internet café to say in a matter of fact way, “sounds like a bomb.” He is already an expert.

The clashes would have been a lot worse, according to the city governorate, but police confiscated a stash of dozens of Molotov cocktails ready for use just before the event.

“They put stones in children’s hands. They are hiding behind the children and ask for your votes,” Erdogan told the crowd, apparently referring to Kurdish politicians of the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP. The party is Mr. Erdogan’s main rivals in the region. The BDP has denied mobilizing kids.

According to Mazhar Bagli, a sociology professor at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University, the city’s street kids are the children of Kurdish parents who flocked to the cities after their villages were destroyed by Turkish security forces in the 1990s, the years when fighting was fiercest. He believes the actual number of these children is much higher than the municipality’s 1,600 estimate.

The families who left the villages usually have six to seven children, whom they see as an economic asset just as in the rural culture where they come from, Bagli says. Arriving in the city, most of those kids’ fathers couldn’t get jobs. Only the children work. They have homes and often go to primary school (not further), but most of the time they run wild in the streets.

“A small boy told me once that he stayed out in the streets till 3 a.m., because he had lost the 20 liras (less than 13 dollars). ‘I can’t go home without money,’ the boy said,” said Kadir Guger, the head of Diyarbakir Municipality’s Department for Children.

According to state statistics, the unemployment rate in Diyarbakir is 20.6%, almost double the 11.5% national average. Other studies say the rate is much higher, and that over half of the city is unemployed.

Wall Street Journal (blog)

June 3, 2011


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