The trenches have been dug in Cizre. Several feet wide and paired with mounds of earth and torn-up building material, they appeared blocking roads in this Kurdish enclave in southeastern Turkey after Ankara launched an intensive air campaign against the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in July.
Children play on them during daylight hours. But at night, when police move in, they're patrolled by groups of armed youths, who attempt to repel these official incursions in fierce clashes that have left at least one dead and many injured.
Cizre has spent years on the fringes of war. The unremarkable-looking town of just over 100,000 lies on the Tigris River, around 30 miles from the tripoint where Turkey meets conflict-ravaged Syria and Iraq, and violence regularly strays over the national boundaries. Now, the cycle of airstrikes and renewed PKK attacks on Turkish troops threaten a return to the three-decade-long struggle between the two sides that claimed more than 40,000 lives. And here, residents feel like they're at the heart of the fight.
"There's a saying, 'if there's peace, it will start from Cizre, and if there's war, it will start from here as well,'" the town's co-mayor Leyla Imret, 28, told VICE News recently. "And we can say we have a civil war in Turkey." Imret, whose father was killed by security forces when she was five and grew up in Germany, describes her ward as a center of resistance against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
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It's obvious even without the trenches. The town's gray walls are graffitied with the myriad acronyms of Kurdish militant groups: the PKK, its umbrella organization the KCK, youth arm the YDG-H, Syrian affiliate the YPG, and "Apo," a reference to PKK founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan. The police presence in the town itself is minimal, despite authorities calling in reinforcements from the surrounding area, and the patrols that do take place are conducted in convoys of armored vehicles.
Family members of slain teenager Hasan Nerse clamber on a barricade during a funeral procession in Cizre. Photo by John Beck.
The airstrikes began on July 24 after the PKK killed two police officers in retaliation for a suicide bombing in the border town of Suruc that left 33 pro-Kurdish activists dead. The attacker was trained by the so-called Islamic State (IS), but Kurds blamed the security forces for laxity or collusion, and claimed the murdered officers had been working with the jihadists.
The strikes are part of a two-pronged "war on terror," claimed to focus on both the PKK and IS, but so far concentrated almost entirely on the militant Kurds. The group, which Turkey, as well as the US, view as a terrorist organization due to its history of attacks on civilian and military targets, has since launched a number of assaults on army and police targets, killing several.
Cizre's history of unrest and PKK support goes back decades. During the worst of the insurgency in the 1990s, dozens were killed in frequent street fighting.
'When it gets intense the armed guys intervene. Everyone has a responsibility.'
A landmark 2013 ceasefire agreement brought a fragile peace to Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast and granted more rights to a population long subject to restrictions on use of its own language and cultural practices. But Cizre was one of the spots where cracks in the peace process showed first.
When IS looked set to capture the Syrian-Kurdish border enclave of Kobane from the YPG in October, as Ankara looked on, seemingly disinclined to help, Turkey's Kurds erupted. Clashes between YPG supporters, backers of the Kurdish Islamist Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par), and security forces killed at least 35.
The YDG-H subsequently declared it had established autonomy in Cizre, constructed trenches, and set up checkpoints searching cars and people from night until dawn. Tensions rose again come winter, when a number of youths died in fighting, including two children — Umit Kurt, 14, and Nihat Kazanhan, 12 — who apparently perished at the hands of police in January.
Ocalan subsequently appealed for calm in Cizre in a missive widely seen as aimed at the YDG-H youth wing. It backed down and dismantled the fortifications. The group finds easy recruiting in the impoverished town due to slim employment opportunities and heavy-handed policing that sweeps up many youths for alleged links with the KCK, often putting them on a path to militancy in the process.
"Long Live Kobane Resistance" graffiti on a Cizre wall. Photo by John Beck.
An 18-year-old who asked to go by the pseudonym "Shorishger [revolutionary] Botan" took VICE News on a nighttime patrol of the Cizre neighborhood his group was responsible for.
The group of masked teenagers in multicolored sneakers with pistols thrust into their trousers made their way down poorly lit, bullet-hole specked alleyways, taking turns to dash across roads where police might have their guns trained and crossing rooftops with a system of makeshift ladders to reach lookout spots.
Some were tense, large numbers of security forces had attempted to move into the district from multiple routes on several nights previously, leading to fierce fighting that left several of their number injured. There was no repeat of the mass offensive that night, but sporadic gunfire continued into the early hours of the morning and police repeatedly fired tear gas into the neighborhood.
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Botan said his group took turns watching entrance routes both day and night. He pointed out with pride the defensive fortifications, which he said had been excavated with a bulldozer of their own, then re-dug when police tried to fill them in, and re-dug again. They were large enough to block even armored personnel carriers from entering, but the foot or so of clearance each side allowed local local residents to negotiate them on foot or motorbike.
He outlined his group's "teams," organized by different roles, including the supply and use of different weapons, such as rocks and Molotov cocktails. "We have stones, firebombs, fireworks, and guns here as well," he said. "When it gets intense the armed guys intervene. Everyone has a responsibility."
Children play around a trench and barricade in a Cizre neighborhood. Photo by John Beck.
The feeling of mass resistance goes well beyond the youth. Most residents saw it as necessary to stop a perceived anti-Kurdish crackdown characterized by the mass arrests of young people and extreme police brutality.
The crackdown, they say, is revenge. In Turkey's general election of June 7, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) exceeded the 10 percent vote threshold required to secure a parliamentary presence for the first time. In doing so, it blocked Erdogan's ambitions of securing a "super majority" for the AKP, which would in turn allow him to alter the constitution and vastly expand his own powers.
Since the airstrikes, the president has also called for members of the HDP to be stripped of parliamentary immunity, accusing them of links with the PKK. Hundreds of people, including members of the HDP and Democratic Regions Party (DBP), have now been arrested on similar charges.
'When it's a policy and we know it's systematic attack on our people, we take precautions'
"Everyone is digging trenches. Before the youth were the targets, now everybody in their houses is targets for the police," Mesut Nar, the local DBP co-chair told VICE News in the party's Cizre offices. As we spoke, reports of a Turkish airstrike on the village of Zergele in the Qandil Mountains that killed eight civilians appeared on a wall mounted TV. Mustachioed older men shook their heads and tutted at looped footage of bodies wrapped in blankets being carried out over the rubble of houses.
A 38-year old who asked to be known as "Rebar Cudi", because he'd just been released from a jail sentence due to his political activities, showed VICE News around the town during the day. He said the trenches and barricades were necessary to stop waves of arrests, adding that they were constructed by groups of locals as soon as the airstrikes and detainments began. "When there are small incidents this doesn't happen, but when it's a policy and we know it's systematic attack on our people, we take precautions."
Police are adapting to the defences, he added, and have drafted in armed bulldozers. One had been used the previous night to smash through two walls of a factory compound in order to reach a blockaded road.
"Like the air strikes, the raids in the street are every night to apply psychological pressure," he said. "This is the price of the 13 percent [the HDP's vote share]... They [the AKP] are taking revenge on the HDP."
A bullet hole in a store window close to where Hasan Nerse was killed. Photo by John Beck.
The latest victim of the violence was Hasan Nerse, 17, who was reportedly shot dead by police on July 29. Pictures said to be of his bloodied body circulated in the hours afterwards. He had been wearing traditional clothes and was seemingly summarily executed: his hands cuffed behind his back, one bullet wound to his leg, and several to his chest.
The exact circumstances of Nerse's death are unclear. His relatives say he and some friends had driven into town for ice cream at around midnight. At some point, the car swerved to avoid a police roadblock, prompting a short car chase before the boys crashed and tried to escape on foot while police shot at them. Nerse appears to have been hit in the thigh and arrested while his companions escaped. The results of his autopsy have not yet been released to his family or lawyers.
At the dual lane road where he died, bullet holes shot from at least two different positions scar storefronts and an adjacent wall. The streets were quiet when it happened and the shops shuttered. Residents all report hearing gunfire, but most took cover, rather than investigating further.
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In a building opposite, a teenager told VICE News he'd heard shouts that someone was injured and tried to go outside, but swiftly retreated when officers pointed their guns at him. The police then drew up vehicles so as to obscure the scene, he says. Afterwards, he describes hearing repeated orders for someone to put their hands up.
Another man showed VICE News a phone video which he said he'd taken from a balcony. In it, a young man, said to be Nerse, can be seen handcuffed face down on the street between police vehicles, still conscious and moving. This man also describes the vehicles then being moved to block off the scene.
Another witness, who had also been nearby in an upstairs apartment, gave VICE News a similar account. "People were saying someone was injured, but anyone who put their head out of the window they [police] fired tear gas at... They [police] were shouting 'What is in your hand?' asking him questions like 'Who are the people you were with?'... but he wouldn't give his friends names."
A picture said to be of Hassan Nerse's body on a relative's cell phone. Photo by John Beck.
Nerse came from a typically large family, and is survived by both of his parents and four brothers and two sisters. A close relative, who asked not to be named, spoke with VICE News on the third day of the funeral proceedings in Cizre's central mosque. Sat amid a group of middle-aged men alternating sips of water and sugary tea, and fanning themselves with strips of cardboard, he described Hassan as a keen secondary school student who was well liked and "obsessed" with both football and travel, but not politically active.
Later that day a funeral procession set off from the BDP headquarters attended by relatives, local officials, and dozens of local residents. The crowd, led by family members holding a banner with Nerse's face alongside Ocalan's, chanted anti-government slogans and made their way to the mosque, clambering over barricades and around ditches.
'The police don't differentiate between women, children, and teenagers, they just kill everyone'
Speaking outside the mosque, surrounded by other female relatives, Nerse's mother, Emine, 50, defiantly grasped a picture of her son wrapped in Kurdish colors. "He was just a kid he didn't have anything to do with politics," she told VICE News. "He was just wearing traditional clothes. It's our costume, we've been wearing it for hundreds of years. He just had dinner and went out with his friends to the market."
Emine also saw his death as a result of the AKP's perceived anti-Kurdish policies. "They [police] don't differentiate between women, children, and teenagers, they just kill everyone. What we demand is only our rights, the use of our language and our identity... It's what our child wanted as well and what all human beings want. We don't want war, we want peace and for mothers to have peaceful lives and see their children growing up."
A group of women raise their hands in "victory" sign as the Kurdish national anthem "Ey Reqib" plays outside Cizre mosque. Photo by John Beck.
But more sons and daughters will inevitably lose their lives to this current period of unrest. The HDP and other political groups are appealing for peace, as did co-Mayor Imret, lamenting that the dead were inevitable victims of the political process.
Erdogan said late last month that peace was "impossible" and Zagros Hiwa, a spokesman for the KCK, told VICE News that "a new era of struggle and resistance has started for the Kurds." And violence has continued in Cizre on an almost nightly basis. On Friday, PKK linked assailants fired rifles and rocket propelled grenades at a police team that arrived at one of their trenches, injuring one officer.
A few days previously Botan vowed that he and others like him would fight to the death. The YDG-H is made up of radical youth who grew up in conflict with the state. But it has little in the way of formal leadership and it may not be easy to reign them in. "There will be a civil war in Turkey," another masked youth interjected. "We will go town by town."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck
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