ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Paramilitary Kurdish forces in Turkey, long armed and funded by the state to defend against rural attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), remain suspicious the rebels are honest about ending their armed conflict.
But they vow to back the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, if the rebels heed his recent call to disarm, ending a three-decade armed struggle that has claimed 70,000 lives nationwide.
If peace prevails, say the paramilitaries who act as “village guards” against PKK attacks and number in the tens of thousands, their work will be done.
“Carrying weapons is insane once peace is established,” said Sadik Banak, a village fighter for 25 years, from the Kilaban area of Turkey’s Kurdish-populated southeastern regions.
“if true peace and democracy are achieved then let the blood of our martyrs be a sacrifice for our country," said Banak, who took up arms after 12 fellow villagers were “unjustly” killed by PKK rebels.
“We have both spilled each others’ blood,” he confessed, adding that villagers had no choice but to fight against “PKK oppression.”
In a message on the Kurdish New Year last month from his cell on Turkey’s Imrali island Ocalan, who has been engaged in indirect peace talks with Ankara since January, called on his estimated 5,000 fighters to disarm.
He said this was the start of a new “political struggle,” and called on the guerillas to resort across the border to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, where the rebels operate their own bases in the Qandil Mountains.
"When peace is achieved paramilitary forces will not be needed because these forces were formed out of necessity to fight against PKK injustice,” said.
Kenan Sahitoglu, one of the fighters in the city of Siirt in southeastern Turkey, who lost his mother and 10 fellow villagers in a PKK raid.
“I believe the duty of the paramilitary is nearing its end,” said Sahitoglu, who is also head of the Paramilitary Association, and known for his hatred of the PKK.
No one disagrees that the rural fighters should disarm, including the paramilitaries themselves.
“The government will make a fatal mistake if it prolongs this system after peace is achieved,” said Banak, the fighter from Kilaban.
Although there has been no official word on what would happen to the rural guards if peace prevails, media reports and official sources say the government is examining how to abolish the force, which officially numbers 46,000 but which other estimates place at around 75,000 men.
There is no love lost between the village forces and the PKK: The rebels are accused of extortion, drug-trafficking and other mafia-style tactics in the countryside to raise funds; the paramilitaries share blame in crimes from kidnapping and drugs, to looting in the guise of PKK rebels.
The paramilitaries regard the guerrillas as criminals and murderers, and in turn are seen as fellow Kurds who have turned traitors and work for the Turkish government, which the guerrillas have been fighting for recognition of the Kurdish language and other basic rights.
Though they welcome peace, the village fighters are worried about losing livelihoods: They have formed the Paramilitary Association Federation to collectively push for jobs, compensation or both.
"We have been fighting for 20 years against the saboteurs of economic development and social stability,” said Ali Haydar, a fighter and association leader in the city of Bingol in Turkish Kurdistan, who said he did not trust the PKK or its promises.
"We abhor bloodshed, but let me be clear: I don't believe that the PKK is sincere,” Haydar said, adding that he would still follow orders and disarm if there was real peace.
“The government needs to satisfy the village forces,” said Sahitoglu, the fighter from Siirt, cautioning that Ankara must look after the fighters if it does not want to replace one set of enemies with another.
“It must acknowledge the rights of those individuals who have fought terrorism in the mountains for many years. If the government pardons the PKK and ignores the rights of the paramilitary forces, then it will lose the support of 50,000 paramilitary members by pleasing 5,000 PKK members,” he warned.
“The paramilitary members should become contract soldiers,” he said.
Bahaddin Aktug, mayor of the Kurdish town of Basa and a founder of the region’s village forces, believes, "It is time to prevent spilling the blood of the poor. When peace is achieved, there will be no need for the village forces.
“Shame on them if they do not back peace," he said.