[This article was initially published on susam-sokak.fr, on March 29, 2014]
By simply adding a few sentences to an almost obsolete law, the Özal government instilled into Turkish society paramilitary troops, whose status is unclear and whose numbers are uncertain. This is a central problem for Turkey.
December 1996. The village guards of Güleçoba have just got their weapons (Milliyet, December 7, 1996)
The law on the villages, of March 18, 1924, is revealing of the situation in Anatolia just after the establishment of the Republic (1923), when the country had endured a twelve-years lasting war, a genocide, the expulsion of the Orthodox population, and the arrival, from the Balkans, of a new population, Muslim but not Turkish-speaking, in sum, a complete destructuration of the Anatolian society, which suddenly found itself, strictly speaking, disoriented.
According to chapter 8 of the law, every village must have at least one "guard" or "protector" (korucu), and, beyond 1,000 inhabitants, an additional one for every 500 people. The guards, aged 22 to 60 old, must be from the village. They are proposed by the village council, approved by the muhtar (mayor), and by the district administrator (kaymakam). They must be of “good morals”, and not involved in the village's disputes or vendettas if the case.
Their mission is the defense of the village against “the looters and bandits”, for which they are provided a war weapon (art. 78). If necessary, they can be assisted by one or several volunteers, themselves armed. The law guarantees them the same protection as in the case of the gendarmes.
The law precisely states under which circumstances a guard can shoot (art. 77): 1) when his own life, or another villager's life, is under menace; 2) to stop an outlaw fleeing; 3) to stop a detainee escaping. In any case, the fire must be preceded with a warning shot.
Thus, a korucu isn't a mere rural warden; although a non-professional policeman, he is given by the state its functions of legal violence. In fact, at the beginning of the republic, gangs are roaming everywhere: common criminals, opponents to Mustafa Kemal, Islamists, then Kurdish opponents, or Kurdish Islamists movements... In order to ensure security, hunting rifles are not enough.
During the 80s, due to the serious aggravation of the Kurdish conflict, Prime Minister Turgut Özal had decided to reactivate the village guards system, in the legal frame of the 1924 law. Simply, some dispositions were annexed in 1985 to article 77 of the law, allowing the recruitment of “provisional guards” (geçici korucu) in eight, and later thirteen provinces under state of emergency (OHAL). They had to be in a “sufficient number”, without other precision, within a theoretical limit of 40,000 men, with a possibility of locally increasing the squads up to 50%. But the korucu headcount considerably varies as, actually, from 1996 on, “village guards” were installed out of the OHAL, in “sensitive” provinces like the eastern Black Sea coast where the PKK had then sought to implement.
At the end of 1996, under a significant title (“They are not protectors, but a bunch of criminals”), the leftist daily Radikal estimated the number of the guards to be 76,906, both in the OHAL and in 29 other “sensitive” provinces (Radikal, November 27, 1996). Of them, 14,872 were then “provisional volunteers” according to the 1924 law. Without surprise, the best-endowed provinces were Van (8,000 men), Sırnak (7,430), and Hakkari (7,302). Though the data provided by the media generally are less precise, estimates are between 50 and 75,000 men, at least until 2009 (Sabah, May 9, 2009). Besides, the korucu are not the only persons armed by the state or with its approbation: from Autumn 1996 on, the license to carry weapons is given to every civil servant if requested (Sabah, October 16, 1996). Moreover, the state has provided weapons to any tribal leader who makes the request (interview of Salim Ensarioglu, state minister in charge of the South-East, Türkiye, April 20, 1997). That's a lot of people: Hamit Bozarslan estimates the number, around 2004, at 100,000 men (Bozarslan, 2004: 74). In other words, for nearly a century, the existence of the korucu system has contributed to the diffusion throughout the country of a great number of war weapons, and to the reinforcement of a warlike, macho, and violent mentality.
Recruitment fueled by poverty
Armed and paid by the state, the village guards remain directed by the local civil administration but are under the command of the gendarmerie. The administration neither specifies the mission to be entrusted to the protectors, nor the terms of their military training. The gendarmerie just investigates the conformity of the candidates' profiles, to prevent, theoretically, the recruitment of men who are linked to tribal or family rivalries, or vendetta cases. Families and tribes, however, precisely seek to place their men, with the aim of settling their accounts under the cover of the village guards system. As soon as 1995, these practices were reported by the Parliamentary Commission in charge of unsolved murders (TBMM Faili Meçhul Raporu 1995: 45).
During the years following Turgut Özal's initiative, the state had not shown any concern about military training. Answering in 1997 a written question from a member of Parliament, the minister of Interior Meral Aksener made the promise of framing by the state, but it was not acted. The level of military training, be it superficial or commando-like, is in the hand of the officers of the local gendarmerie, and in proportion to the might of the local chiefs (korucubası), some of whom being, at the end of the 90s, at the head of hundreds of men.
In an article published in November 1996 in daily Cumhuriyet, Miyase Ilknur pointed the effects of the system on social life (Cumhuriyet, November 17, 1996). She describes the village guards as the terror's main beneficiaries. They have an interest in the conflict long-lasting since the southeastern provinces are miserable: agriculture and livestock farming have been wiped out by the war, the state of emergency, and the curfews restrain transport and trade, while unemployment affects almost everyone. For example, in the Mush province, the poorest in the country, 40% of the population is unemployed; almost half of the 487 schools are closed, a large part of the population is undergoing forced emigration. The average annual per capita income is $654, and the population is growing by 20% annually. Nearly half are illiterate. There are only eight industrial enterprises, of which only one, a sugar factory, is in operation. The whole infrastructure, especially in the health sector, is clearly insufficient (Milliyet, October 11, 1997). Under such conditions, how can one not be attracted by a status close to that of a civil servant, regular emoluments, and the authority and prestige conferred by the possession of a war weapon?
From October 1996 on, the guards' families benefit from social insurance and access to free health care provided by the military health service, wherever they dwell. Very often, they are given gardens and fields “abandoned” by villagers forced to migrate. Thus, the village guards are materially attached to the cause they are supposed to defend. Most of them have an interest in the troubles going on indefinitely (Cumhuriyet, September 23, 1997).
The guards theoretically are volunteers, but, in the frame of a civil war, a civilian is always summoned to chose his camp. Here, the PKK or the state. All kinds of pressures, including the gendarmerie's, are exerted on the villagers to push them into the ranks of the guards. In the frame of a panel organized by the NGO Mazlum-Der in Diyarbakır in 2014, a villager from Roboski, whose son was killed while a massacre was perpetrated by the army on December 28, 2011, has explained: “In 1993, colonel Ferit gathered the villagers in the gendarmerie's courtyard, and claimed for volunteers in order to create a korucu team. Our village had just been destroyed and our cattle slaughtered. We had to accept. We were forty, and twenty to thirty of us accepted” (bianet.org, February 1, 2014).
The pressure also comes from the tribes, even increased by political clientelism and poverty. For their part, the villagers hope, often wrongly, that the presence of korucu among them will reduce the burden of war. To understand, it is important to know that PKK fighters often requisite and extort food and supplies. Consequently, then, the villagers are charged with "assistance to terrorists”. The korucu themselves abuse their power and prestige, but this is often seen as a lesser evil. At the end of July 1996, Sabah investigates among families who have experienced successive displacements: one of them fled Turkey two years earlier to take refuge in the PKK's camp of Atrus, in Iraq; there, he saw "the reality of the PKK"; he had to undergo military training ("the apprenticeship of terrorism", as the journalist writes). He fled then with his family, who were taken in, on the Turkish side, in a refugee camp near Siirt. The family's dearest wish now was to return to the village: "If necessary, says the refugee, we will even accept to be village guards” (Sabah, July 30, 1996). In this report, which is obviously part of the army's propaganda, anything is possibly false; nevertheless, it depicts the tribulations, miseries, and weariness that can lead to the acceptance of an undesired, scabrous situation, but, nevertheless, providing status and benefits.
By 1996, about three thousand villages had been evacuated, often destroyed, mostly by the army. For the population, the desire to return to their homes is strong, even when their houses have been razed to the ground. But the return to the village must be authorized by the army, to the condition, precisely, of accepting the presence of korucu, or of enlisting. For example, the people of Yavrucak, a village located between Van and Hakkari, at an altitude of 8,000 feet, were summoned by the PKK to choose their side. They refused, reports Milliyet, and had to flee. Later, the authorities allowed them to return, but they had to accept the presence of 42 korucu, which means that their village has become a real stronghold and that it was therefore at risk of being the target of an attack (Milliyet, July 18, 1996).
The "protected" villages are flagged by a Turkish flag waving on the highest building or a nearby peak as if they were taken from the enemy. Villages that refuse to provide protectors are stigmatized as traitors and exposed to the distrust and hostility of the "security forces", even to destruction. Their inhabitants, suspected of "supporting terrorism", are under permanent pressure, endure physical or psychological harm, and often have no other choice than fleeing to a shantytown (gecekondu) in a large city, where people of the region, or of the tribe, have gathered, and where they will face the same imposed choices and will find, anyway, the same cleavages, tribal and/or political stigmatization and ostracism, the same conflicts and dangers. Therefore, it is difficult to refuse to enter the korucu platoons. This encourages duplicity and, in fact, as a 1995 parliamentary report points out, many korucu provide aid and assistance to the rebels while receiving weapons and a salary from the state.
The “village guards” and the tribal society
Quite inevitably, the existence of the korucu system has strengthened the tribal structure of the southeastern Anatolian society, and, concomitantly, has considerably improved the profits of the state-supporting tribes. In the case of adhesion to the guards' system, the tribe's chief (reis), who alone decides for all, receives and distributes the weapons and the wages. De facto, he is recognized by the state as an official authority. The tribes' engagements may become the source of never-ending intertribal conflicts, and, very often, under the guise of the struggle against the rebellion, two tribes can fight each other for territory issues or for the control of traffic.
The governor (vali) of Siverek, interviewed by a journalist, was very clear: those who don't take the guns [against the PKK] are against the state (Radikal, November 22, 1996). Two tribes, the Baskıl and the Arabi, traditionally shared the region of Dargeçit (province of Mardin). In 1996, the former refused to enter the korucu system and, consequently, had, as a whole, to evacuate the region (Cumhuriyet, November 15, 1996). Let us remember the case of the Medina tribe, which, because of the pressure of the rival tribe and of the state, had to migrate to a shantytown of Diyarbakır (Sabah, January 6, 1997). Conversely, the Bucak tribe, fixed around Siverek and made famous by the Susurluk scandal, increased its might thanks to its support to the state's policy against the rebellion (link https://susam-sokak-in-english.over-blog.com/2020/11/tribes-2).
Commonly, the belonging to a tribe is in pace with the affiliation to a political party, often the extreme-rightist and racist MHP, which made the struggle against the PKK his favorite topic; or, during the 90s, the conservative True Path Party (DYP), of which Sedat Bucak, chief of the Bucak tribe, was a deputy when the Susurluk scandal blew. The local leaders of the MHP then were often at the head of korucu militias and at the same time tribal chiefs. In Midyat, east of Mardin, the chief of the Çelebi tribe, Süleyman Çelebi, had at his orders 1500 village guards. These warlords usually grab a part of their men's salaries, as the 1995 parliamentary report also points out: for a tribal chief, this is far more profitable than the latifundiary property. The money collected is a resource that can be invested in arms or drug trafficking. The wealth of the tribe is then multiplied, while the violence generated by trafficking is added to that of war. Thus, the system of "protection" has been an important factor in the survival of tribalism in the southeast, maintaining a fertile ground for militarism and violence, and, thus, for the extreme right. Therefore, until the rise of the HDP party during the 2000s, too many people had no interest in or desire for the Kurdish question to be solved.
It is frightening to see how dangerous weapons of war are entrusted to men who have no experience of weapons or combat. For example, in a photo published by Sabah in June 1996, ten men in civilian clothes, but all armed with Kalashnikovs, proudly pose in front of ruined houses. The caption reads: "The citizens who have returned to the village have their finger on the trigger in anticipation of a PKK attack: 'The enemy will never set foot here again', they say”. In newspapers such as Milliyet, Hürriyet, or Sabah, the editors don't keep any distance from the topic, and, besides, the topic is always dealt with in prose which seems official, with the words that an army press officer might use. As they are rarely credited, the pictures probably are provided by the "security forces", along with an appropriate commentary, seeming to be an official communiqué. Thus, from Sabah to Türkiye through Zaman, the language, whether iconic or textual, is identical, and only the leftist newspaper Radikal tries, sometimes, to escape this control by distilling in the captions an ounce of criticism or irony.
In a photo published in Türkiye in February 1997, entitled "The PKK will not pass", about 15 village guards are lined up along a road, armed with Kalashnikovs, in a wintery mountain landscape; they bear no distinctive markings. Among them stands even a child. According to the text, "The villagers have chosen protectors from their own to defend themselves against the secessionist danger. They will not let the PKK through. The security of the roads and the hunt for terrorists has been entrusted to the villagers who are armed to the teeth. But they complain about the lack of media interest...” The man in the foreground, cigarette in mouth, wearing a coat, stands like a Western character. He has turned three-quarters to the photographer, occupying a good part of the image field. The men as a whole do not show any sense of holding or discipline.
Other striking examples come from the Pontic regions, where, in 1996-97, there were fears of an extension of the Kurdish conflict as the PKK sought to expand its bases and link up with local far-left groups. Thus, in the autumn of 1997, the kaymakam (sub-prefect) of Aybastı (county of Ordu) ordered the evacuation of 180 isolated farmhouses in the mountain pastures and distributed 250 automatic weapons to the volunteer protectors of the villages of Aybastı, Mesudiye, Gölköy. The word used is indeed "distribution" and there is no precision on the criteria. Do the officials have lists of authorized persons, according to their military training, political or tribal affiliation? The information appears in Milliyet on September 4 and in Cumhuriyet on September 23. The difference in date reveals that the newspapers are not reporting a specific event, but rather responding more or less obediently to an official request. The unsigned photographs of the "distribution" in the village of Aybastı were provided to the press, presumably by the official services; they serve as an iconic representation of the broader event, the militarization of the Pontic region, the strengthening of the army presence, the establishment of "special team" detachments (özel tim) and the multiplication of village guards. In the photographs, the kaymakam himself poses with a Kalashnikov and pretends to aim at an imaginary enemy. Other civilians proudly do the same.
During the Autumn of 1997, other photographs of a fairly common type show young men with guns walking along the paths, looking like simple hunters. They are villagers from areas with a strong Alevi component who have been given shotguns: "In the region", says one comment, "the PKK is trying to create tension between Alevis and Sunnis. But everyone is ready, with a gun in his hand, to defend his village. With the Alevis, we have always lived as brothers. Tell them that they can trust us, let us be united against the PKK" (Milliyet, September 5 and October 1, 6, 25).
Most commonly, those posing in the photographs are villagers caught in a vice by war, victims of a side or another. Most of them can't no longer live on their usual occupation, whether agriculture or cattle farming. Even shopkeepers and craftsmen are ruined. And, for the first time in a long time, they are gaining some consideration, money, and might.
Having a weapon in hands transforms a man, and satisfaction is visible in an amazing photograph, uncredited, published in Radikal in October 1997, illustrating an article entitled “The king of the mountains”. Two dozen villagers, aligned, are posing with war weapons, American M16 and Kalashnikovs. One of them, in the middle of the group, frowning, has got into a shooting position. On the left, two men display an almost childish joy. The others brandish their guns, with butt on the hip, finger on the trigger (Radikal, October 6, 1997).
They imitate this posture since it is familiar to them, as it is a stereotype of a patriotic monument. The “monument to the Soldier”, due to sculptor Sait Rüstem, has become a widespread model, present in any important military center, always solemnly inaugurated and routinely reproduced by the media.
(To be continued - click here)
Adanır, Bedri, “Koruculuk tahakküm aracı, kaldırılmalı, Bianet, February 1, 2014. Online: http://bianet.org/bianet/toplum/153209-koruculuk-tahakkum-araci-kaldirilmali.
Alpman, Nazım, “Köye dönüs hayali”, Milliyet, July 18, 1996.
Bozarslan, Hamit, Histoire de la Turquie contemporaine, 2004.
Çakıroglu, Perihan, “Mus 'pembe''yi tanımıyor”, Milliyet, October 11, 1997.
Dalay, Esin, “Bucak asireti reisi ve DYP Urfa Milletvekilli Sedat Bucak’a göre çözüm silahta”, Yeni Yüzyıl, August 23, 1996.
Ilknur, Miyase, “Terörü yenen kent Mardin - Terörün rantını korucular yiyor” Cumhuriyet, November 17, 1996.
Kaplan, Pervin, “Korucu degil, suç örgütü”, Radikal, November 27, 1996.
Kansu, Isık and Erisen, Erdogan, “Ordu’da halk hızla silahlanıyor”, Cumhuriyet, September 23, 1997.
Sevkat, Ugur, “Atrus'tan kaçan kaçana”, Sabah, July 30, 1996.
TBMM Faili Meçhul Siyasi Cinayetleri Araştırma Komisyonu Raporu. Published and presented by Fedai Erdog, Istanbul, Gizli Saklı, 2005.