Amed cannot recall the day 19 years ago when the Turkish army drove his family from their burning village, but the Kurdish teenager has many other memories to explain his anger.
He particularly remembers, as a small boy, asking about a row of faces hanging on the wall in his grandmother’s home. “She said they were my uncles and relatives. She told me they were killed by soldiers or disappeared or were tortured. How else could I have grown up, other than wanting to break heads with stones?”
Accused by prosecutors of throwing a Molotov cocktail at a demonstration in his hometown of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s primarily Kurdish southeast, Amed is one of the so-called “stone-throwing kids,” a generation of angry youths whose clashes with riot police have become a symbol of the simmering unrest gripping the country’s 15-million-strong Kurdish minority.
Last month, Kurdish leaders announced a campaign of civil disobedience in the hope of winning from the Turkish government their long-sought goals of greater autonomy and cultural rights. Meanwhile, Kurdish nationalists are already enacting a program of “democratic autonomy,” forging institutions of self-government without the approval of Ankara.
But a growing number of analysts fear that the younger generation of Kurds, radicalized by a cocktail of violence and urban poverty, may be losing faith in peaceful activism.
If reform does not come soon, some believe, the growing disillusionment of these young people could herald a dangerous new phase in a conflict that started 26 years ago when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas first took up arms against the Turkish government.
“If there’s not much effort to solve Kurdish demands, then things can potentially become really nasty,” said Henri Barkey, a specialist on Kurdish issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. The current young generation grew up following the early 1990s, when the army burnt some 3,500 villages, triggering a massive demographic shift in which more than a million Kurds fled or were driven to Turkey’s big cities.
“Their parents had always lived in Kurdish villages by themselves, distant from the streets and distant from the Turks,” said Barkey. “They have been transplanted into cities where there’s a massive police presence. They’re the ones who are most violent and the most politicized in a negative sense -- almost anarchical.”
Barkey believes the situation in the cities, where angry young Kurds are living at close quarters with far-right Turkish nationalists, could ignite a new kind of “inter-ethnic conflict.”
Politicians from the main Kurdish political grouping, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), blame the Turkish government for the growing radicalism among Kurdish youth.
While the government has eased restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, Kurdish politicians, journalists, lawyers, and activists are still routinely prosecuted for what are often little more than “thought crimes.”
Currently, 151 prominent Kurds, including eight mayors, are being prosecuted for alleged links to the civilian wing of the PKK in a high-profile trial that critics claim is an assault on peaceful political activism.
“Because of the arrest and punishment of politicians, hopelessness is spreading and young people that are getting more radical are refusing our proposals for a solution,” said Abdullah Demirbas, the BDP mayor of Sur district in Diyarbakir.
Demirbas has firsthand experience of the struggle to hold on to the younger generation of Kurds. Two years ago, his own son, then 16 years old, took to the mountains to join the PKK after being sickened by a string of prosecutions launched against his father.
“I was trying to tell him that the democratic policies would work,” Demirbas told EurasiaNet.org. “But he said to me: ‘You haven’t killed anybody, you haven’t stolen anything. You’ve just made policies and they’ve punished you. The system only understands weapons.’”
If progress does not come soon, some believe Turkey may miss its best ever chance to settle the so-called “Kurdish Problem.”
“Right now, everything would be perfect for Turkey,” said Aliza Marcus, a Washington-based expert on the Kurdish issue. “You’ve got an experienced Kurdish leadership, and a PKK movement that wants a solution and wants to do it within the Turkish national borders.”
But she fears this will not remain the case for long. “There’s a real danger that when the original generation of the PKK and Kurdish politicians leave the scene, you will have a more radical and a more fractured movement and a generation less able to speak to the Turkish politicians and less able to control their followers . . . It’s not easy to make peace with people who have only known war.”
The Justice and Development Party government has promised to overhaul Turkey’s constitution following the June 12 general election, which it is tipped to win comfortably. Some view this as a last chance for the country’s leaders to deliver on nearly six years of rhetoric about addressing Kurdish grievances.
But the prosecution of their politicians has left Amed and his friends deeply pessimistic about the prospects of accommodation with the Turkish state. They nonetheless acknowledge that violence cannot lead to lasting peace.
“It’s easy to pick up weapons, and if they want it to get worse, we can make it worse,” said 18-year-old Rohat. “But there’s no solution that way. Civil disobedience is the only chance we have.”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where he writes for the Times.