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Weary public pleads for end to clan violence in Turkey 28 avril 2011

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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International Herald Tribune, Thursday, April 28, 2011, p. 501

By Susanne Güsten, Istanbul

As the town of Siverek cowered in dread of the next burst of gunfire in an ongoing war between local clans, a group of citizens ventured out into the spring sunshine to say, Stop!

Brandishing a banner that read, « We don’t want to live in the shadow of guns, » several hundred teachers, tradesmen and trade unionists rallied in a town square to demand an end to the violence and to tribal rule of the region.

« We find it intolerable that these blood feuds, and the feudal structures that cause them, continue to exist here in southeastern Anatolia in the 21st century, » the rally’s organizer, Abdulkadir Kak of the local teachers’ union, called over a megaphone to applause from the crowd.

« Mankind is exploring space, but here we are still suffering the problems of a 16th-century feudal society, » Mr. Kak said in a telephone interview after the rally early this month. « People here really want this to change. »

Public challenges to the rule of clans in this part of Turkey are rare. But social and political shifts could herald an end to the power of the tribes in the region and to the system of indirect rule by which Turkish governments of all stripes have quietly upheld the feudal system in the southeast in exchange for the huge blocks of votes the clans command, sociologists say.

In Siverek, a shootout between the Bucak and Acemoglu clans over a land dispute left five dead on April 4, and the district is waiting for the other shoe to drop.

« They are threatening to kill us all, down to the babes in arms, » a member of the Acemoglu clan told the Taraf newspaper, and a member of the Bucak clan said the Acemoglus had made megaphone announcements of their intention to « avenge their blood. »

Such clashes are by no means rare in southeastern Turkey. Though official statistics do not separate tribal violence from general crime, a tally of local press reports suggests that at least 17 people have been killed and 74 wounded this year in clan battles and blood feuds in Urfa Province, to which Siverek belongs. The province has 1.6 million people.

The governor of Van Province, farther east, with a population of one million, told a conference this year that 52 people had been killed in blood feuds there within 18 months.

The latest clash in Siverek was a fairly typical one, according to Yildiz Akpolat, a sociologist at Ataturk University in Erzurum, who conducted extensive research in the field after 44 men, women and children were massacred in a tribal dispute at a wedding in Mardin Province two years ago.

« These feuds are caused by the struggle over land, women, livestock and water as the primary means of production in the feudal structure of this region, » Mr. Akpolat said during an interview last week.

In Siverek, many people have had enough. Support has been pouring in since the rally, the first of its kind in the town, Mr. Kak said. One show of support came from 13 Siverek news Web sites that went on a joint one-day strike last week to protest the blood feuds.

« We are tired of reporting these deaths, » Abdullah Hakan Lale, editor of Siverek Haberleri, or Siverek News, said by telephone, adding that he had lost count of the killings he had reported in his 10 years on the Siverek beat.

Web sites of the participating media remained black on April 13, except for a statement protesting the violence and calling for a weapons ban.

But to Mr. Lale, the coordinator of the protest, the best news in the struggle against feudalism in southeastern Anatolia has just come from Ankara: Clan chiefs may be about to lose their political power base in the capital, which has long enabled them to sustain their hold on the region and to arm their clans.

In a striking departure from tradition that has the southeast buzzing, the governing Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., has bumped several tribal chieftains off or down its ticket for Urfa Province for Turkey’s general election in June and named an outsider, State Minister Faruk Celik from western Turkey, as its front-runner for Parliament, where the clan chiefs have held comfortable sway since the beginning of the republic.

Zulfikar Izol, leader of the powerful Izol tribe of Siverek, was among those bumped from the ticket after serving four terms in Parliament for various parties. Furious, Mr. Izol immediately resigned from the A.K.P. and announced that he would run as an independent candidate.

Several other chieftains also found themselves reduced to running as independents after failing to find a spot on a party ticket.

« I think this is a wonderful thing to happen, » Mr. Lale said. « It’s a real change, because for so long the deputies from Siverek, from Urfa, from southeastern Anatolia have all been clan chiefs. We’ve never been able to elect true representatives of the people here. It’s always been like a monarchy, with parliamentary seats passed down from father to son within a tribe. »

His assertion is borne out by the numbers. Since 1950, which marked the introduction of the multiparty system in Turkey, 85 percent of all Turkish deputies from Urfa have been chiefs or high-ranking members of local tribes, the historian Ahmet Ilyas concluded in a master’s thesis accepted at Konya University in 2009. « Instead of having to convince voters one by one, parties form close links with tribal chieftains and win their tribes’ votes in blocks, which comes cheaper and easier, » Mr. Ilyas wrote in his study, adding that this system in turn strengthened the tribes and thus perpetuated the region’s feudal structures.

Speaking by phone on Monday from Erzurum, where he is preparing a doctoral thesis on the subject, Mr. Ilyas said he was unconvinced by the A.K.P.’s new ticket. He pointed out that the A.K.P. was still fielding two powerful clan chiefs capable of commanding 30,000 to 40,000 clan votes each in Urfa, while little had changed at all on other parties’ tickets.

Still, other experts greeted the A.K.P.’s move as revolutionary.

« This is actually one of the most serious challenges to the region’s political style in the history of the republic, » Ibrahim Ozcosar, director of the social sciences department at Artuklu University in Mardin, told the Aksam newspaper in an interview published last week.

Sevket Okten, director of the sociology department at Harran University in Urfa, agreed that the departure from a solidly tribal ticket « could be a sign of change » and « could have a positive effect. » But Mr. Okten stressed that the dissolution of the feudal society had already begun and that it was happening from the bottom up, not from the top down.

« It is a result of pressure from the grassroots of society, » he said in a telephone interview. « People, especially in the towns, increasingly want to escape from the collective identity and to individualize. »

The big question now is how the voters will react.

While many in Urfa say that the A.K.P. will be routed by tribal chieftains running as independents, Mr. Lale, the Siverek editor, does not think so. « I think people will vote for change, » he said.

Meanwhile, the violence has continued. In the few weeks following the peace rally, one man was shot and critically wounded in a clan-related land dispute in Siverek district. Another battle was fought between feuding clans in the town center, with two handguns, a pump gun, a machine pistol and an assault rifle, according to police reports quoted in the local press.

And the standoff between the Bucak and Acemoglu clans goes on.


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