The conflict between Turkey and north Iraq-based Kurdish rebels has turned the town of Shila Dizah into a “prison,” limiting movement and keeping residents from their farms.
The latest violence between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which took up arms in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey in 1984, began early Wednesday when PKK fighters killed 24 Turkish soldiers in a series of attacks.
Turkey then launched air and ground attacks on the PKK in Turkey and Iraq.
The Turkish army said on its website that the majority of the air and ground operations were inside Turkey, but “ground and air strikes are ongoing in a few points in northern Iraq across the border.”
The operations follow a weeks-long Turkish bombardment campaign against PKK bases in the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq that began in mid-August and continued well into September.
Residents of Shila Dizah in Iraq’s northernmost province of Dohuk can travel to the provincial capital and other villages. They generally go about their normal lives, shopping, sitting in cafes and praying at the local mosque.
But because of the threat of Turkish shelling and air strikes, residents fear crossing the mountain north of Shila Dizah — a town of about 10,000 people — and cannot access their farms in the region.
“It’s like we live in a big prison — you cannot move around,” said Nihad, a 36-year-old cab driver. People “just stay in the town.”
“The Turks … do not make a distinction between armed forces and civilians,” he said.
But he also called on the PKK to leave bases in northern Iraq so that abandoned or destroyed villages along the border can be rebuilt, and life return to normal.
The parties to the conflict are not far from Shila Dizah.
What local residents said is a Turkish military camp is located several kilometres (miles) up the road from the town. And a member of the Kurdish security forces said PKK members were on a bridge a few kilometres farther on.
Because of the conflict, life “has been affected in many ways. People cannot go out of this town to the mountains,” said Hajji, a 40-year-old who runs a fruit and vegetable shop in Shila Dizah.
“You have to stay in the main towns and cities,” he said. People “used to go to their farms and spend the day there,” but not now.”
Residents of the town, he said, are afraid. “For the Turkish army, it doesn’t make any difference if they kill a PKK (member) or us — we’re still Kurdish,” he said.
Abdullah, a 33-year-old who works as a beekeeper and does maintenance at a local school, also accused Turkish forces of indiscriminate attacks.
He said he had been working on his farm, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from Shila Dizah, for 13 years. But because of the Turkish bombardment in August, “everything is burned up, and all the effort was for nothing.”
He has not been able to go back for fear of Turkish strikes — observation aircraft operate in the area and warplanes can be there within 30 minutes, he said, adding that shelling also posed a threat.
“I was there once and they shelled the area with about 20 artillery shells,” he said.
But, he added, “the blame is not only on the Turks.” It was up to “the Turks, the PKK and the local government to find a solution for this, for what is happening to me and other people.”
He called for economic pressure to be put on the numerous Turkish companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Abdullah said that when Turkish jets overfly the town, residents are afraid. Turkey bombed Shila Dizah in 1994, he said, killing his brother’s wife. “There is no guarantee that this will not happen again any time a jet flies” over.
Sulaiman, 24, whose main income is from his farm 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Shila Dizah, has been unable to go there “for about three months.”
“We face daily air raids behind this mountain,” he said, pointing north of the town. “We are scared, we can’t go there … Last night they bombed there until two in the morning.”
Asked if he was angry at his fellow Kurds in the PKK, he said: “No, the Turks. They don’t have the right to come to my land and bomb my area. The Turks are the enemy.
“Mainly, I want this problem to go away, through negotiations … I just want it to be done so everyone can go back to their farms.”