Displaced by fighting, Kurdish residents call for peace

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Azize Calis is pleading for peace.

The 70-year-old Kurdish woman is among tens of thousands displaced by fighting raging between Turkish security forces and militants in the southeast after a peace process collapsed in the summer.

Calis and her family fled from their home about two months ago with only the clothes they were wearing from one district in the city of Diyarbakir to the relative safety of another. Besides fearing for her life, she was also faced with round-the-clock curfews and being left without food, electricity or water.

"They rained fire, calamity, wrath on top of us," Calis said in Kurdish from the shoddy rented house where the family of eight has sought refuge in Diyarbakir's low-income Baglar district. "We escaped to save our lives."

The family ran away from the city's historic Sur district, an area famed for its ancient city walls — dotted with historic mosques and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While Baglar is far from the gunfire and blasts that ring from Sur, the living conditions are spare. Apart from a TV set and a rug, the house has no furniture aside from the cushions they sit on and the mattresses they sleep on.

Calis longs to return home, blaming both Kurdish and Turkish leaders for her misery, and imploring them to seek peace.

"We are in a miserable state. If our (Kurdish) leader and those leading Turkey, if they had a little mercy, they would not bring about this wrath on us," Calis said. "We want peace, we want peace, we want peace!"

A two-and-a-half year peace process between the government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, collapsed in July, reviving three decades of conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives.

Fighting persists in urban areas in Turkey's southeast, including in the Sur district. Turkish security forces, backed by tanks, have embarked on large-scale operations to root out Kurdish militants and imposed round-the-clock curfews in several municipalities, displacing tens of thousands of people — mostly Kurds.

Kurdish militants have set up barricades, dug trenches and primed explosives to protect the areas they declare to be under Kurdish self-rule.

Several neighborhoods of Sur and the nearby town of Cizre have been under siege since December, while the blockade in the town of Silopi was lifted late last month after the government declared it to be cleared of PKK-linked militants.

The military says at least 175 militants have been killed in Sur and another 574 have died in Cizre since the start of the operations. The zones under curfew are off-limits to journalists and observers, leading to human rights concerns.

This month, U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein called on Turkey to investigate the alleged shooting of a group of unarmed people in Cizre after video he described as "extremely shocking" was posted online.

The video purportedly shows people wheeling a body on a handcart behind a man and a woman who are waving white flags, before apparently being targeted by gunfire. Human rights advocates have also voiced concern over the fate of around 20 people who were reportedly wounded during the fighting in Cizre last month and allegedly stranded in the basement of an apartment. A pro-Kurdish party has accused the government of denying them medical assistance while the government says ambulances and medical teams haven't been able to reach the wounded because of militant attacks.

The Turkish Human Rights Foundation says at least 224 civilians, including 42 children, have died in combat areas under curfew since August.

More than 200 soldiers and police were killed in the conflict since July, according to the government.

When authorities lifted the siege in Sur for a few hours two months ago to allow residents to buy provisions or leave the neighborhood, Calis, her daughter-in-law and six grandchildren, fled along with about 45 of her neighbors.

"We left all our belongings behind," Calis said.

The family found refuge with a relative, but with two other families already living in the two-bedroom apartment, conditions were too cramped. More than a week ago, they were able to move into a cheap house in Baglar, about three kilometers (about two miles) west of Sur.

Another former Sur resident, 20-year-old Nurhayat Sahin, says she was trapped in her house for six days before she decided to leave waving a white flag.

"When my house was riddled with bullets, I grabbed a flag and left with the children," Sahin said. "We just want the fighting to end."

They stayed with her sister-in-law until that house also became too dangerous to live in. Local authorities in Diyarbakir eventually placed them in a hotel.

Interior Minister Efkan Ala said the operation against militants in Sur is "85-90 percent complete" and the curfew there could end in a few weeks.

"Our security forces are working street by street, turning them into secure places," Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.

The lengthy fighting has taken its toll on the region's economy. With several jewelry stores, food wholesalers, clothing stores and hardware shops, Sur is also Diyarbakir's main commercial center.

Sahismail Bedirhanoglu, owner of a hotel in Sur and chairman of the Eastern Southeastern Industrialists and Businessmen Association, estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 small businesses have been affected by the blockade.

"All commerce has stopped. I myself had to close the hotel and send my employees on unpaid leave. Thousands are currently unemployed," Bedirhanoglu said. "Even if the operations were to end tomorrow, it would take a year for the city's economy to recover."

The extent of the damage to the city's cultural heritage wasn't known and an official in charge of protecting the heritage refused comment. In October, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported that two churches and a mosque were damaged during the clashes in Sur.

Davutoglu has promised to reconstruct areas damaged in the operations and vowed to turn Sur into a "new Toledo," a reference to the Spanish city which was once a center of learning and co-existence between the three main religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A famous fortress there was badly damaged in the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War and was restored.


Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.