MERGA, Iraq – Dozens of villages have been abandoned and hundreds of families displaced close to Iraq's northern border with Turkey as a result of Turkish air strikes targeting militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known as the PKK.
Of the 76 villages of the Barwari sub-district of Dohuk governorate, which lies along the Turkish border, between half and a third are empty, save for a few people occasionally returning to check on their property or work on their farms, according to Kurdish government officials.
On a recent trip into the mountains of northern Iraq, long a refuge for the PKK that has fought a three-decade war against Turkey for Kurdish rights, Associated Press reporters visited the village of Merga, only a few kilometers from the Turkish border.
The village, a small hamlet of perhaps a dozen houses surrounded by oak, apple and almond trees and set in a green valley among the snow-peaked mountains of the Zagros mountain range, had no inhabitants left except for four old men who said they came there only occasionally to look after their gardens.
"The aircraft keep coming here continuously. They bomb the mountain, they bomb the edge of the villages," said Fawzi Ali, a local farmer, who had just driven up from Dohuk, where he had moved with his family last year, to check on his property. "People cannot live here."
He said none of the four villages nearby — Hassa, Yekmal, Kharaba, and Shilaza — had any people in them.
"There is nothing here. Nothing except the mountains," he said.
Another man, Isho Iohanna, said of one airstrike that, "We had never seen such missiles before. These missiles shook the houses and the fruits were falling from the trees."
It is not clear exactly how many villages have been affected. According to Ismail Mustafa Rashid, governor of the Amedi district, which includes Barwari, 35 villages have been abandoned. According to Aziz Mohammed Taher, head of the agricultural department in Barwari, 25 villages have been evacuated.
They had no exact information on how many people have left the area as most seem to have moved in with relatives or rented houses in nearby villages and towns. Both officials estimated that hundreds of families have been affected.
The airstrikes, which target PKK bases in the area, seem to have largely spared the villages themselves. No civilian casualties have been reported since last August when eight people were killed in the village of Zergele.
Ali said the guerrillas of the PKK were moving through the mountain valleys and it was clear that it was them that the aircraft were targeting.
"They are in the area but nobody knows where they are exactly. They are in the mountains. They are everywhere," he said.
Going up to the village and back, a team of AP reporters passed by PKK patrols three times, driving on the mountain roads in their trucks.
In the village of Asey, the last populated settlement on the road toward the border, Mayor Serbes Hussein said people had started abandoning their villages in the summer of last year when the airstrikes first began.
He said the conflict was having a big impact on the area.
"It is an area very rich in agriculture, mostly famous for its apples, and people were producing huge amounts to sell them in the fruit market of Dohuk," he said, adding that seasonal labor in his village was also suffering from lack of work caused by the evacuations.
According to Aziz Mohammed Taher, an entire harvest of apples has been lost last year.
Many of Barwari's villages, including Merga, are populated by Assyrian Christians.
Since the early 1980s, the war between the PKK and Turkey has killed up to 40,000 people. A two-year ceasefire was abandoned last summer, leading to fighting in Turkey's southeast and regular Turkish air strikes in northern Iraq. The PKK has used the mountains of northern Iraq as a refuge since the late 1990s.
Associated Press writer Salar Salim contributed to this report.