The May 4 massacre of a wedding party that left at least 44 people dead is putting pressure on the government to address two thorny issues: the persistence of blood feuds in a country that is seeking European Union membership, and the lack of oversight of government-backed militias, in which men with little training have ready access to automatic weapons.
The night of May 4 was supposed to be a time of celebration for the inhabitants of Bilge, a Kurdish village set in a fold of hills above Mardin in southeastern Turkey not far from the Syrian border. About 200 friends and relatives had gathered for an engagement party during which a former village chief, Cemil Celebi, was to give his consent to his 20-year old daughter Sevgi's marriage to a cousin, Habip Ari. There was supposed to be dancing, laughter, and prayers for the future of the young couple.
Then, just after nine o'clock in the evening, as men and women filed into separate rooms in Celebi's house for evening prayers, the shooting started. Four or five men, their faces hidden by masks, forced their way into the house and opened fire with machine guns. Within minutes, at least 44 people, including 6 children and 16 women, were dead.
"The village imam was at the head of the room, a young man from Ankara, and the village men were lined up behind him on their prayer mats," one villager told Turkish reporters. "They were mown down in rows."
"They [the assailants] shot through the windows and the door, catching people in the crossfire", another villager said. "The people inside had no chance."
Eight suspects were taken into custody with their weapons on May 5. The alleged assailants turned out to be cousins of the Celebis and Aris, and inhabitants of Bilge, Interior Ministry sources said. Given that all adult males in the village are members of a state-backed militia, formed ostensibly to bolster security in a region where Kurdish militants have been active -- the suspects had no problem obtaining the weapons, grenades and ammunition needed to carry out the attack.
At a news conference, Interior Minister Besir Atalay indicated that the violence was the result of a blood feud, or as he put it, "hostility between two families."
The scope of the violence has shocked Turks and has placed the government in a delicate position. On May 5, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to appear proactive as an anachronistic custom that has long been tolerated by Turkish leaders found itself in the spotlight. Calling the Bilge killings "inhuman," Erdogan expressed support for a nationwide education initiative in an attempt to end the practice of blood feuds, a practice that justifies murder in the name of vengeance.
"There is no tradition that can be an excuse for such a crime," Erdogan said.
The origin of the May 4 violence appears to be related to the death of at least one person in the early 1990s, an act that locked the family of the groom-to-be and the assailants' clan in a blood feud, according to Turkish television news accounts that cited local sources. The feud had been supposedly patched up. But locals said that Cemil Celebi's decision to marry his daughter off to a rival branch of the family after turning down the suit of one of the assailants' close relatives had stoked up old enmities.
Yet many analysts are unconvinced by efforts to explain the Bilge bloodbath -- by far and away the biggest massacre of its kind in modern Turkish history -- with talk about traditional practices.
Blood feud killings rarely result in the deaths of more than three or four people, let alone 44, they point out. Above all, while clans have no qualms about killing women deemed to have sullied the honor of the family, the mass murder of women and children is in complete violation of local codes of honor.
"This is an unbelievable atrocity, incomparably worse than anything I have ever seen", says Sait Sanli, a retired butcher in the city of Diyarbakir, an hour north of Bilge, who has made peace between hundreds of feuding families in the past decade.
A sociologist at Diyarbakir's Dicle University, Mazhar Bagli, agrees: "it is too early to be sure, but I think we are faced here with something completely new," he says. For Bagli, the annihilation of the Celebi and Ari families shows how traditional structures have been dangerously unbalanced by a separatist war that has killed more than 45,000 people since 1984.
The background to tensions among the Bilge families supports the notion that traditional social structures have come under immense strain during the past few decades. Trouble began at the height of the war, when Ankara was drafting thousands of Kurds into militias armed to fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.
One branch of the family joined up eagerly, not so much out of a sense of loyalty as in the knowledge that guns, ammunition and state backing would give it the upper hand over its rivals. Much more unwilling to be in the front line of a conflict with militants who had a history of targeting militia families for reprisals, the other branch took up guns only later -- and then only because it did not want to be left behind in what amounted to an arms race.
For a decade or more, the two families, armed to the teeth, put on a show of unity, going out together on operations against the PKK. When unhappiness about Cemil Celebi's choice of a groom for his daughter reopened old wounds, one side had the ammunition to make a thorough job of their revenge.
"If you give men guns and protection, before long they'll start using them for their own ends", says Celal Baslangic, a journalist who has written widely on the Turkish conflict.
As early as 1995, a Turkish parliamentary report described the militia system as an "investment in social discord," confirmed militia involvement in extortion, theft of property and village evictions. Like their counterparts in the PKK and colleagues in state paramilitary groups, a minority of militia chiefs are believed to have played a role in the multi-billion pound heroin trade that flourished in the region during the conflict.
Yet, while locals see the militia system as one of the biggest obstacles to peace in the region, the Turkish government has, at least until now, looked at it as a means of fighting massive local unemployment. Five years ago, there were 70,000 Kurdish militiamen. Since then, up to 27,000 newcomers have joined the ranks.
Talking on the private TV channel NTV on May 5, the sociologist Rustem Erkan said that the Bilge massacre left the whole of Turkey "with blood on its hands." For Mazhar Bagli, Turkey's government must respond to the May 4 bloodbath with an immediate investigation into a system that permits men armed with nothing more than a primary school certificate and an oath of loyalty to tout Kalashnikovs at will.
Back in Bilge on May 5, most survivors were too shocked to complete more than a couple of sentences for reporters during a press availability held on the village outskirts. In the village center, investigators carried on with the grim work of gathering evidence. Apart from the wind, the only sound was the chug of four diggers excavating mass graves for the dead, and -- from a field behind the graveyard -- the high-pitched Kurdish dirges of the women.
The men, meanwhile, were down in Mardin, waiting for relatives' bodies to be released from the hospital morgue. When they come back, Cemil Celebi's backyard, decked out for a wedding, will be put to use for a wake.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.