It was a typical early summer day in Yuksekova, a town of 60,000 people in Turkey's southeastern corner. The sun was out, the rivers were running fast with snowmelt, and there was a riot on.
Usually crowded, the town's main street was completely empty on May 18. Heavily protected police cars roared up and down, spraying water from cannons on their roofs. Young men and children taunted them from side alleys. Apart from revving engines, the only sounds were the clank of stones hitting the armored police vehicles.
For the second day in a row earlier this week, all Yuksekova's shops - excluding two or three bakeries – had been forced to close. The tradesmen were angry.
"It is the 10th time I have had to pull down my shutters since the beginning of the year," complained Murat, the owner of a building business that is successful by Yuksekova standards. "This town has gone out of control, and it is ruining people like me."
Back in the late 1980s when the practice of coordinated shop closures began, locals say, closures were limited to two symbolic days a year, a more or less voluntary sign of shop-keepers' solidarity with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, an armed left-wing group that began an independence war against Turkey in 1984. Beyond Turkey, the PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by many countries, including the United States.
When the PKK resumed its insurgency in 2004 after a five-year ceasefire, there was exponential growth in the phenomenon. In 2007, according to a study by the local Chamber of Trade, shops closed for 11 days in Yuksekova and the nearby town of Hakkari. By 2009, that number had risen to 39, including six consecutive days in December.
Asked to explain what has changed since 2004, some locals say the reputations of Yuksekova and Hakkari as being hot-houses of Kurdish nationalism encouraged Kurdish nationalist politicians to manipulate local opinion as a means of showing their own commitment to what many Kurds see as a "national struggle."
In the run-up to the traditional Kurdish festival Newroz, on March 21, Kurdish "politicians came here and started praising locals for being the heart of Kurdish resistance," said one Yuksekova journalist, on condition of anonymity. "They pumped them up and up and up, until this sort of thing was bound to happen."
There were similar scenes mid-April, when Ahmet Turk, Turkey's leading Kurdish politician, had his nose broken by a Turkish youth as he came out of a courthouse in the northern Turkish city of Samsun. "If Samsun has its madmen, so does Hakkari," said Osman Baydemir, the popular mayor of Turkey's biggest Kurdish city, Diyarbakir. The rioting in Hakkari Province lasted two days.
Many observers see the rise in urban violence as a sign both of the growing vacuum at the heart of the Kurdish nationalist movement, and the changing dynamics of the PKK's support base.
"In the old days, there was a clear chain of command," says one Yuksekova politician. "The PKK would tell the politicians 'the shops will be closed today' and the politicians would pass that on to the shopkeepers. Today, they both say 'don't close the shops down', but then some 18 year old claiming to be the right-hand man of a PKK commander comes along and countermands their orders."
Locals say the break-up in the PKK hierarchy began in 2005, when three separate PKK groups began to set up civilian support organizations in Hakkari Province. The PKK has always used civil 'militias' to spread its message and ensure a steady influx of provisions and money. After 2005, however, the rapid growth of militias, and the lack of a clear chain of command, led some members to use the PKK trademark to enrich themselves.
In 2008, two Yuksekova men were found dead, allegedly murdered by the PKK for running a protection racket under the guise of collecting for militias. Some locals say the group has since moved to professionalize what were once volunteer militia units, to avoid a repeat of the same problem.
"In the old days, rhetoric about the Kurdish struggle was enough to bring people onside," says Irfan Aktan, a Yuksekova-born reporter who writes widely about the Kurdish issue. "But war has left a whole generation in poverty. They have nothing to lose. Money is infinitely more important to these people than ideology."
A journalist based in Diyarbakir, Ahmet Sumbul sees no evidence that the PKK is professionalizing itself to ensure the loyalty of its supporters. But he agrees that urban violence is on the rise, and changing too. In the past, he says, protestors used to stone police stations and state offices. "Over the past five years, they have started throwing stones at everybody and everything. Small shopkeepers get the worst of it."
"The PKK can use these people, but they can't control them. It's just unfocussed anger. Kids no longer listen to their fathers. Kurds no longer listen to the mountains," Sumbul added.
It's a form of nihilism that one Yuksekova tradesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has experienced firsthand. Twice, he has been insulted for trying to stop teenagers from starting a fight with police. Once, a masked kid put a brick through his car windshield "because I had broken some curfew he had personally decided to call."
In an ironic echo of Turkey's founding ideology, which it claims to despise, the PKK has always denied the existence of class divisions among Kurds. Today, a popular slogan at pro-PKK marches is "the PKK is the people, and the people are here."
But the reality is very different. Born out of a coalition between university-educated Kurds and villagers, the PKK is increasingly a movement of the urban poor, observers say. "Professional Kurds, educated Kurds, are increasingly distancing themselves" from the group, said the Yuksekova tradesman. "They no longer see it as representing their interests."
With anger among tradesmen at the frequency of shop closures increasing by the day, and Kurdish politicians powerless to change anything, he can now see no alternative but to travel to the PKK's headquarters in northern Iraq to ask them to intervene. "This is destroying the unity of the people," he says. "I used to close up shop with pleasure. Now I - and everybody else in this town - do so with frustration in our hearts."
Nicolas Birch is a reporter who specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.