'I hope no one suffers like us': return to shattered Turkish town

Mahmut Bozarslan
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A women and her children stand in the ruins of battle-damaged house in the Kurdish town of Silopi, in southeastern Turkey, near the border with Iraq on January 19, 2016

A women and her children stand in the ruins of battle-damaged house in the Kurdish town of Silopi, in southeastern Turkey, near the border with Iraq on January 19, 2016 (AFP Photo/Ilyas Akengin)

Silopi (Turkey) (AFP) - The blanket curfew in Silopi lasted 36 days as clashes raged between the Turkish army and Kurdish militants. Finally it was lifted, allowing residents to come to terms with the scale of the destruction in their hometown.

The curfew in Silopi, a town of some 80,000 in the Kurdish-dominated Sirnak province of southeastern Turkey, was one of several imposed as the army wages a relentless campaign to crush Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.

The government says the measures are essential to oust militants who had gained control of key urban centres in southeastern Turkey. Kurdish groups, by contrast, accuse the army of killing dozens of civilians.

Silopi's curfew remains in place between 6 pm and 5 am (1600 GMT-0300 GMT). But its partial lifting on January 19 allowed residents who were forced out to return and a semblance of normal life to resume.

With tears in her eyes, Feyruze Buluttekin lamented the piteous state of her home. Its balcony has collapsed in several places, its windows are smashed and its floor has been ripped apart, possibly by a shell.

"We stayed at our house. Some left, some didn't. We stayed for 12 days," Buluttekin said.

"On the 13th day, my cousin was killed in front of her house. Her body stayed at our home for five days, with no one else taking care of it, and then we took it to the mosque.

- 'Covered children's ears' -

The military operation, backed by the curfew, began on December 14, when special forces and the army entered Silopi in force with the avowed aim of removing barricades and filling in trenches set up by the militants.

Clashes raged day and night in a battle that turned the town into a warzone, with the army using tanks and heavy artillery against rockets and improvised bombs used by the militants.

"We couldn't even get water because we were afraid of the sounds of rockets and weapons. We suffered a lot," said Mehmet Simsek, who stayed in his house for 14 days.

"We have 10 children and we covered their ears with cotton swabs, fearing their ears would explode. Then (after 14 days) soldiers forced us out of our house."

He added: "I hope no one suffers like us."

The house of the Mutlu family suffered some of the most damage in the town, lying in ruins, presumably after being hit by a missile or a bomb.

"I don't know who attacked us!" said the mother of the family, Sariye, lamenting that their only cow, a crucial source of food, had been killed.

- 'OK, kill me' -

According to the army, 140 "terrorists" have been killed in the operation in Silopi, dealing a considerable blow to the PKK.

It says another 364 militants have been killed in an ongoing operation in the town of Cizre, also in Sirnak, that started on December 14, and 106 in the Sur district of Diyarbakir city in an operation that started on December 2.

The opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) ridicules that toll and says that at least 70 civilians have been killed in the operations.

Speaking to AFP, HDP MP Feleknas Uca accused the European Union and Germany of "closing their eyes" to the situation in Kurdish-majority cities and warning there risked an exodus of "hundreds of thousands" Kurdish refugees.

Many residents blame the army for the extent of the damage. But others also point a finger at the PKK and in particular its youth branch the Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDG-H).

"They were breaking people's doors but I told them not to do that, saying people will eventually return," said Hamit Alkis.

"They pointed a gun at my chest and threatened to kill me. I said: 'OK, kill me'. The soldiers came and just as we were walking towards the soldiers, they opened fire on us from behind, thankfully it didn't hit."

Even after the partial lifting of the curfew, there is still a heavy security presence in Silopi with armoured vehicles streaming in and out. Operations continue in some neighbourhoods and only a few businesses have reopened.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that operations against the PKK would continue "until the region is cleansed of terrorists and public oder re-established in our nation."