Syrian Conflict Spills Out Into Turkey As PKK Ups The Ante

A PKK militant
A PKK militant
Delphine Nerbollier

ISTANBUL - For the first time in Turkey’s history, the Kurdish armed group PPK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) has kidnapped a Turkish lawmaker.

Hüseyin Aygün, an MP for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) was kidnapped last Sunday in the eastern province of Tunceli. PKK has claimed responsibility for the abduction and has promised to free the lawmaker "in a few days." The group has warned Ankara that it would be in the hostage’s best interest to put an end to the military operations it launched after the abduction.

Not only does this kidnapping put the spotlight on the PKK – which is listed as a terrorist organization by both Brussels and Washington - but it has also confirmed a change in the Kurdish armed group’s strategy these past few months. Abductions of civilians (mayors, workers, teachers, civil servants) and soldiers by the group have increased. Last Monday, the PKK kidnapped eleven truck divers in Hakkâri. Out of the 156 people abducted last year, 37 are still held captive while the rest were freed without the army’s intervention.

In July, the PKK military committee announced another crucial change in strategy: the Kurdish group will no longer fight using hit and runs, preferring instead a policy of regional control. This is exactly what has been happening for the past three weeks in Åžemdinli, in the south east of the country. On July 21, PKK members conducted identity checks before challenging the army. According to Ankara, the operation – in which 300 PKK fighters faced more than 2,000 Turkish soldiers - has officially ended. However, local sources deny this version and claim that although the situation is at a stalemate, PKK forces have not yet retreated.

New wave of violence

The Kurdish organization praised itself for putting the first phase of its new strategy into action and confirmed having launched its second phase with the simultaneous attack of three military bases in the nearby town of Çukurca on August 4. A few days later, a military convoy was struck by a bomb in Foca, western Turkey.

This new wave of violence can be explained by the fact that the group is about to celebrate the 28th anniversary of the PKK’s uprising on August 15. Yet it also shows that the group is determined to strengthen its grasp over the region after the recent attempts to find a pacifist solution led by charismatic Kurdish MP Leyla Zana failed in June.

However, Ankara believes that this renewed violence is linked to the current events in Syria, fuelled by the fact that the Democratic Union Party (PYD)- the Syrian arm of the PKK – has managed to gain control in the north. Last week, Turkish daily newspaper Zaman reported that Damas had released 1,200 PKK prisoners, according to a member of the Hama Syrian Revolutionary Comitee who fled to Turkey.

Fearing the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish province in Syria, Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan has started to speak out. Saying that safety issues in Semdinli are closely linked to the situation in Damascus, ErdoÄŸan has threatened to carry cross-border military operations to get rid of PKK members.

Washington also takes “this PKK threat” very seriously. During a visit to Istanbul last Saturday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. was worried about the presence of terrorists from the PKK and Al Qaeda in Syria who are “taking advantage of the legitimate fight of the Syrian people for their freedom."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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