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Turks Let Kurdish Forests Burn

SIRNAK, Turkey, Jul 13 2010 (IPS) - The Turkish General Directorate of Forestry claims to devote the bulk of its resources to combating forest fires, but it is passively observing the Turkish army ignite forested areas in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern region.

Smoke rises from the fire on Cudi mountain. Credit: Sirnak Municipality

Smoke rises from the fire on Cudi mountain. Credit: Sirnak Municipality

Residents of Ikizce and Toptepe, Kurdish villages in Sirnak province not far from the Iraqi border, tell IPS that they’re facing economic disaster and possibly displacement as Turkish soldiers set fire to their forests and crops.

“The fire started when soldiers from the military base near Ikizce indiscriminately launched missiles into wooded areas in Cudi mountain,” shepherd Cem Guney explains. “Soldiers helped us subdue the flames the first day, but since then they’ve done nothing.”

“We’re sinking as time goes on,” Ikizce village elder Baver Senlik tells IPS. “Everyday it spreads, grows, becomes more problematic,” he says. The forest fire has been burning more than a week now.

The Turkish army, which is armed by the U.S. and some European countries, claims that the inferno started following clashes between them and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the leftist insurgency which demands greater rights and freedoms for Kurds. Villagers dispute this, saying there’s actually no fighting in the area.

Villagers add that with the exception of 2009, such fires have occurred in the same way and at roughly the same time every year for the last eight years. They suggest that the military consciously uses forest fires as a tool of policy. Such reports are frequently made of villages like Ikizce and Toptepe, which were emptied when the war was at its height in the 1990s but have been gradually repopulated in recent years.

Whatever its causes, there’s no doubt that the forest fire is pushing impoverished locals into greater hardship.

Most villages in Sirnak province depend heavily on animal husbandry for income, and Ikizce and Toptepe are no different. The forest fire has scorched most of the grazing areas used by livestock breeders, causing serious problems for the local economy.

“Nothing’s left — no trees, no shrubs,” Toptepe elder and shepherd Sivan Aslan says. “Everything’s been burned, so we’ll be forced to buy feed for our animals.” He adds that the villages have also lost scores of fruit trees to the fire, which he estimates will end up costing every household in the area between 1,000 and 1,500 euros this year.

Local villagers additionally complain that the Turkish military arbitrarily blocks shepherds’ access to highland pastures on security grounds, further compounding their difficulties. Ikizce residents, for example, are forced to bring their animals down from the pastures every day before evening prayers, while inhabitants of Toptepe, who use much of the same land and live only a few minutes away, are free to leave their animals out at night.

“There haven’t been clashes around here for several years, but soldiers prevent us from accessing our grazing lands,” Senlik says. “Fighting was most severe in the late 1980s, but even then we could graze our animals comfortably.”

The punishing combination of annual fires and grazing prohibitions has brought the livestock economy in Ikizce to the point of collapse. Senlik says that his village used to have at least 15,000 heads of livestock, whereas a population of 400 people now subsists on 1,000 heads.

“We have no source of income aside from animal husbandry. When we can’t rear our cattle, we remain hungry and can’t send our children to school,” Senlik tells IPS. “We’re thinking of leaving the village because we can’t get by like this. When you add everything up, it seems like they’re trying to displace us.”

On Jul. 3, one day after the forest fire began, Sirnak municipality sent a delegation of elected officials to inspect and try to subdue the fire. Soldiers reportedly launched missiles at an area 200 metres away from the delegation, causing the fire to spread to areas it had not previously reached.

“When there’s a fire in western Turkey, the government suppresses it with all available means, including helicopters,” Sirnak mayor Ramazan Uysal, who participated in the excursion and is a member of the leftist and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), tells IPS. “When we try to suppress fires here, they launch artillery at us.”

Leaders from Ikizce and Toptepe have explained their grievances to many public authorities, including the military, provincial governorship, agricultural and forestry ministries. Despite this, the government has done nothing to subdue the fire, and the inferno has become too large to be tamed without the aid of helicopters, village chiefs say.

“The directorate of forestry affairs sent a few people, who came here, looked around, and did nothing,” Guney explains. “Why doesn’t anyone help us? This inaction shows that (Kurds) are not counted as equal citizens in this country.”

One Friday evening two weeks before the current fire in Cudi mountain began, Taybet Inan went to water her wheat field near Sirnak town. “Shortly thereafter, a helicopter lowered over my head and launched two incendiary projectiles into my field,” she tells IPS. “My relatives and I put out the flames quickly, but the losses amounted to about 250 euros.” That is a significant amount of money in a region where half the population lives beneath the poverty line.

“There are no clashes around there. I don’t know why they did it. Maybe for fun,” she says.

Similar incidents occur in other parts of Kurdish southeastern Turkey. An investigation conducted by local human rights groups into forest fires that occurred in three villages near Hasankeyf, a town which may be left underwater if construction plans for a nearby dam are implemented, concluded that the fires began in areas close to military bases, were not caused by clashes, resulted in the destruction of thousands of fruit trees, and that soldiers took no initiative to suppress them.

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