Ayhan Işık works at Utrecht University as a researcher focusing on Turkish paramilitarism and violence in the 1990s. Işık shared his views with Yeni Özgür Politika on the Turkish state’s politics and reflections of paramilitaristic policies targeting the Kurdish people since 1990s.
After the emergence of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, what was the Turkey’s approach on organising paramilitary groups?
When the armed struggle and subsequent clashes began in 1984, it was still during the Cold War period and there was still a percieved ”threat of communism” against capitalist states. Turkey was involved in the anti-communist front. Turkey’s army was positioned as a ”conventional” army based inside NATO military structures against the Soviet occupation. They probably thought that they would end the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a short period of time as with the Şêx Said or Ağrı Rebellion.
The ruling elite in Turkey established various paramilitary groups to mobilise them in the fight against the PKK and its supporters under the name of an ‘anti-terror struggle’.
The village guard system was established in 1985. Normally, the village guard was not considered to militarily overcome the PKK forces; but because they knew the land and the countryside very well, the village guard system was founded mainly for intelligence purposes.
In a statement given by former intelligence expert Ayhan Çarkin about 1986 – which Hasan Kundakçı also wrote in his memoirs, He noted that the Special Teams (Ozel Tim) consisting of several hundred people had been formed at the end of 1985 with the purpose of sending to Kurdistan.
This Special Team’s purpose was to engage in armed clashes and maintain control there. I also argued in my dissertation; The state established these groups mainly for intelligence and to detect or break the relations between civilians and the PKK.
Unofficial paramilitary groups such as JİTEM and Hizbullah at that time was a well-known fact but Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the presence of JİTEM.
There is an interesting point in the report prepared in 2012 that includes approximately 1,500 pages by the commission established to investigate the coups in the Turkish Grand National Assembly. According to the report, JİTEM was established by taking the Special Warfare Department as an example. The army rejected the allegations, however, many people declared that they were JITEM members responsible for the murders.
What distinguishes Hezbollah from paramilitary groups in this period?
Similarly, Hezbollah was an illegal group that was not established directly by the state but was used by the state. It’s different from JITEM. Hezbollah, was an illegal organisation established by radical Islamist Kurds in the late 1970s and early 80s.
The group we call the Turkish Hizbullah or the Kurdish Hizbullah is a radical Salafi-Sunni group. The violence inflicted by Hezbollah against pro-PKK Kurds (both PKK and supporters of rival Islamist groups) covers mainly the years of 1991-1995.
Hezbollah is responsible for the killing of many Kurdish civilians. It gained “war experience” in this way. The state probably thought that it would be a threat to its security, and so many of its members have been arrested since 1995.
What was the role of paramilitary groups in Kurdistan in the 90s?
Following reports prepared by the Human Rights Association (IHD), and different non-governmental organisations in Kurdistan, mass killings village burnings, enforced displacements, unsolved murders and extrajudicial executions increased rapidly after 1991. The years between 1993-94 is the peak point. It gradually decreased after 1996.
In general, paramilitary groups were more active in the conflict zones as well as places which included where there were higher levels of support for the PKK. This is why certain paramilitary groups played more important roles in some places rather than other places.
The situation is very complicated. In other words, they acted in favor of the strategy of the state. Some groups are in cooperation with the state even though they are not established by the state apparatus.
Why do you think Turkish society remained silent in the face of such horrible events occuring in 1990s?
In these years, Turkey experienced a deep economic crisis as today. It was a period that private television channels and media just emerged, and the state had a serious influence on the press. Strict criteria imposed on the news and important issues were not allowed to be reported supposedly so as not to “disturb” society. Discussions predominantly on “terrorism”, “separatism” dominated the public discourse. Thus polarisation in society became more evident.
The society in the 1990s was not “sensitive” like in the 1970s. The society in the 1990s supported the Turkish state because the 1980 coup d’etat had literally crushed society. Tens of thousands of people were detained and hundreds killed and serious human rights violations reported. The torture was everywhere, especially in Diyarbakır Prison.
Between the years of 1980-1990, the society was literally ”de-politicised” by being detached from reality with the entertainment industry, dreams of being rich, and fake news served to keep them away from the reality of conflicts. The society blocked politically for seeking its rights, diverged both the causes and results of the war and politics.
About this period, I spoke with a group of people who considered themselves as a secular, democrats and living in the west side of Turkey, and they explained that they had not heard of any news about the war in Kurdistan such was the control of the Emergency region’s laws and savage repressive grip. A certain part of the society, army, police, who were aware of what happened in Kurdistan were backed up by the Turkish state.