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Kurds in ‘mountain prison’ cower as Turkey fights PKK with drones in Iraq

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As decades-old battle intensifies, civilians count cost in lives and livelihoods.

It took 10 days to find Muhsin Speri’s body. The 64-year-old had left his town in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan along with friends Hassan Sadiq and Safar Sini on a dry, windy day in December last year to fish and forage for wild honey and mushrooms.

Life in the Amedi region of the Zagros mountains is hard and physical, but the area has been home to Kurdish and Assyrian communities in sync with the rhythms of the mountains for thousands of years. Many locals like to roam and camp for several days at a time, but after Speri’s family failed to reach him by phone for more than a week, a search party was launched.

The bodies of the three former peshmerga soldiers were found in the Zeri valley, torn to pieces by what is believed to have been a Turkish drone strike. Sadiq and Sini appeared to have been killed instantly, but Speri was found nearly 100 metres away, a trail of blood in his wake.

“He tried to move to get help, to get a phone signal or fire his gun, to alert someone,” said his son, Baxtiyar, 35, at home in the town of Deraluk. “That’s how he died. Suffering for maybe two or three days.”

According to the Turkish defence ministry, five Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) combatants were “neutralised” in Iraq the same week as the three childhood friends died. Requests for more information about the strike that killed the civilians went unanswered. A defence ministry source said operations only targeted terrorist elements and that all necessary measures are taken to prevent civilians from being harmed.

Yet Speri and his friends are names on a growing list of civilian casualties as Turkey steps up its long-running fight against Kurdish militants outside its own borders.

The conflict is now claiming more Iraqi civilian lives than at any point since a ceasefire broke down in 2015, according to data from the monitoring group Airwars. Residents in Amedi and other targeted areas, watching Turkish drones soar silently above the mountain peaks, fear worse is to come.

Turkey and the PKK have fought a cat-and-mouse war since the rebels launched a full-scale, Marxist-inspired insurgency against the Turkish state’s repression in 1984. More than 40,000 people have died in the violence since then, the vast majority civilians, and the PKK has been designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and most of its western allies.

Iraq’s mountainous north has long been a PKK stronghold, but the area’s autonomous Kurdistan regional government (KRG) is divided on how to deal with it. The main political power, the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP), has fostered deep economic ties with Turkey and allowed Ankara to set up military bases and expand operations against the rebels on Iraqi soil in recent years. Its own forces also regularly clash with the PKK.

A ceasefire between the PKK leadership and the Turkish government collapsed owing to internal Turkish politics in 2015, igniting a new quasi war across the south-east of Turkey as well as cross-border offensives in Syria designed to stem the successes of PKK-linked Kurdish forces there.

At the same time, Ankara has begun to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy in places as far away as Libya and Somalia, helped in large part by its rise as a drone power.

Ground zero of this new military reality, however, is still just next door. In Iraq’s mighty Zagros mountain range, Turkish aerial operations are successfully hammering senior PKK leaders, killing more in 2020 than ever, but families like Speri’s say there is no accountability for strikes that injure and kill civilians.

The increase in violence has sent shock waves through communities across Amedi, many of whom have already had to flee home because of Saddam Hussein, the battle between the PKK and Turkey or intra-Kurdish fighting during the 80s and 90s.

The mountains were known as the “forbidden zone” under Saddam’s regime when they hosted the peshmerga, or Kurdish freedom fighters. Today the mountains are still off-limits, but to those who used to call them home. The renewed fighting has emptied an estimated 400 villages and killed almost 100 civilians to date, according to the rights group Christian Peacemaker Teams. Locals estimate that Turkish airstrikes and drone strikes now hit up to 70% of the area’s rugged peaks.

Many displaced families have sought refuge in district centres such as Deraluk, where Speri’s family live, but the influx of people has resulted in overcrowding and underemployment.

The limited economic opportunities are part of the reason so many people are compelled to return to the forbidden zone. Selling wild herbs, mushrooms and honey foraged in the mountains can significantly supplement a family’s income.

“We are refugees here, we don’t own an inch of this land. We have to smuggle ourselves back into our own hills and valleys because the Turkish planes drop bombs every day, and the PKK don’t even let us light a single fire,” said Baxtiyar.

“In these times of economic crisis my father was trying to provide for our family. All we want is to make a living on our own soil, but our homelands have turned into an arena for political and power games. Both the Turks and the PKK have my father’s innocent blood on their hands.”

Asked about the impact of Turkish operations on civilian communities in northern Iraq, a defence ministry source said that “all military operations by the Turkish armed forces are carried out only targeting terrorist elements and in accordance with the article 51 of the United Nations Charter that gives nations the right of self-defence.

“All necessary measures are taken to prevent civilians from being harmed and the targets detected are fired at only after confirming that they are only terrorist elements … For the Turkish Armed Forces, civilians, environment, historical and cultural structures are inviolable in all its operations.”

The PKK has long been accused by rights groups such as Amnesty International of abducting teenagers to train as fighters, as well as the detention and murder of civilians suspected of spying – claims the group denies.

According to Turkey, 12 Turkish hostages and one Iraqi Kurdish hostage were killed, all but one with gunshots to the head, in a cave complex in Gara earlier this year. The PKK said the deaths were caused by Turkish airstrikes.

“We feel the danger,” said Barani Abdujubar Shexo, who owns 50 sheep he keeps in Amedi in the summer months. “I know two shepherds killed by the PKK and one by a Turkish airstrike. During the night we cannot move.”

In the summer of 2020, emboldened by its growing military prowess, Ankara launched Operation Claw-Eagle, swiftly followed by Claw-Tiger, Turkey’s most intense military action in Iraq in the last six years. The defence ministry said more than 150 suspected PKK positions were hit by jets, helicopters, drones and artillery, including targets in the Amedi border region, the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, and the Qandil mountains.

According to Airwars, the operations caused a “sharp rise in reported civilian harm”: between 27 and 33 Iraqi civilians were killed and 23 were injured, amounting to more than double the number of civilians killed in 2019, said Mohammed al-Jumaily, the organisation’s Iraq researcher.

Presented with Airwars’ findings, a senior Turkish presidency official rejected the data, saying: “Turkey has an excellent and unparalleled track record for avoiding civilian casualties during all military operations.” A defence ministry source also said it did not confirm the claims.

Baby Zeri may not see it that way when she grows older. The three-month-old will never know her father: Mukhlis Adam, 28, was killed before she was born. In an act of grief, the family burned the photos they had of Mukhlis. His image now lives on in Zeri, they say: his daughter looks just like him.

Adam’s car was hit by a Turkish airstrike while he was on the way to a picnic in June last year. Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses who raised the possibility that the men may have been stopped at a PKK checkpoint moments before being targeted.

“Turkey might argue that even if it had known about the presence of civilians, the value to its military campaign of killing the PKK fighters meant that any additional harm to civilians in the strike was proportional. It may instead argue that it was unaware of the presence of civilians in the vehicle – or that it disputes their status as civilians,” said Chris Woods, Airwars’ director. “We often encounter such discrepancies between public and military casualty counts in our work.”

The Turkish defence ministry did not respond to specific requests for more information about the alleged attack.

None of the families the Guardian met in Deraluk and Sheladze have been offered support or compensation by either the KRG or Turkey for their losses, and they are unaware of any investigatory procedures into how and why their loved ones died.

“No politician has even come to talk to us and offer condolences,” said Ahmad Nuradeen Muhiyadeen, whose brother and nephew were killed in May last year while they were out foraging north of the Rashava valley. The Turkish defence ministry did not respond to requests for comment about the incident.

“We are too scared to go foraging in the area now, even though we have to, to survive. Neither the PKK or Turkey have any reason to be here. They are just here to ruin our lives,” Muhiyadeen said.

Anger at the situation in Amedi boiled over even before Turkey stepped up operations in 2020: the year before, hundreds of protesters in Sheladze stormed a Turkish military base on the outskirts of town, sparking clashes in which at least 10 people were injured and a 13-year-old boy was shot in the head and died.

“We feel like we are besieged,” said one of the protesters, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from the local authorities. “We have no freedom. We consider this a prison surrounded by mountains.”

According to Dr Dindar Zebari, the KRG’s international advocacy coordinator, parliament is in the process of assessing compensation claims. The impact of Turkish military operations for civilians is “undoubtedly critical”, he said, and “neither the [federal] Iraqi government nor the Turkish authorities have stepped in to reach an equitable outcome for affected civilians.”

For all of the new civilian suffering caused by the conflict in Iraq, Ankara’s strategy appears to be paying off at home in what the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project says is an “increasingly aerial and asymmetrical conflict”.

According to the conflict monitor, there was a 60% decrease in armed clashes in which the PKK claimed to be the aggressor inside Turkey in 2020 compared with 2019.

But for the people of Amedi, a cycle of violence is repeating itself in new and terrifying ways.

Tamar Ameen Tamar, 66, lost his daughter and his mother as a result of the fighting in 1997. His son was killed in a Turkish strike in 2017, leaving his six grandchildren fatherless. Tamar himself lost his right leg above the knee while tending his goats in 2018 after stepping on a mine he believes was laid by the PKK.

“Every year our movements get more restricted … We are losing our freedom, but I am scared to let the children go out and play,” he said. “I expect us to be targeted at any moment now.”

In a social club in Sheladze, serving and former peshmerga watch the news with the volume turned up to maximum on an old television set. Wrinkled fingers caress prayer beads and light an endless stream of cigarettes as those assembled reflect on how warfare has changed since their youth.

“Our war was a war of rifles and artillery. This is different. The technology was not like it is now,” said Tayar Ahmed, one of the oldest men present. There is a long silence after Ahmed finishes speaking. Later that day, the television will tell them there have been several new Turkish strikes: two children have been injured and hundreds of sheep killed.

“We used to control the mountains when we were peshmerga fighting Saddam,” he said. “We had to send the women into towns like Sheladze to buy oil and food. Now, we can’t leave.”

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