Blood feuds and gun violence plague Turkey's southeast

BILGE, Turkey Tue May 5, 2009 3:03pm BST

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BILGE, Turkey (Reuters) - "I wish fire upon the houses of those who set the fire in my house," said 75-year-old Sultan Celebi. "They ruined us all. I want for them the biggest punishment that is possible."

Celebi's words, uttered after an armed attack on a village wedding robbed her of four children, three daughters-in-law and one grandchild, amply illustrated the depth and bitterness of bloodfeuds, clan rivalries and vendettas in largely Kurdish southeastern Turkey; an unending cycle of violence and revenge.

Forty-four people were killed on Monday in one of the worst attacks involving civilians in Turkey's modern history. The massacre, perpetrated by masked men with automatic rifles and hand grenades, must put pressure on Ankara to address the root-causes of instability in the region, long a hindrance to Turkey's European Union membership quest.

The mass killing was, according to local residents, the culmination of a long family feud.

Sixteen women, including the bride, and six children were killed in Monday's attack in Bilge, a village of a few hundred people in the Turkey's conservative heartland.

While the scale of Monday's killing has shocked this Muslim country of 70 million, experts say dozens are killed in rural Turkey every year in "blood for blood" vendettas passed from generations over land disputes, grazing rights or matters of family honour.

Experts say the problem, which is more acute in the Kurdish southeast, is aggravated by unequal land distribution, power struggles in a feudal-style clan system and a decision by the government to set up well-armed village militias against Kurdish rebels.

"The modern...republic (of Turkey) was supposed to create a nation of citizens, but it has betrayed its ideals in the southeast," said Dogu Ergil, an academic and expert on Kurds.

"This is a combination of tribalism, love for guns and tradition gone awfully wrong," Ergil told Reuters.

Local residents said the feud within the extended Celebi family in Bilge dated back to a land conflict in the mid-1990s.

The attack, which witnesses said was carried out by several gunmen, came after the father decided to marry off his daughter to a man in the nearby city of Diyarbakir, passing over a groom from one part of the quarrelling Celebi family.

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There are some 60,000 state-sponsored village guards throughout Turkey's southeast, who fight alongside state security forces against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels. Critics say the region is awash with guns.

Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, said village guards have used their weapons many times to settle blood feuds.

Human rights groups have long called on the government to disband the village guards, whom they say are an unaccountable force; but disbanding them is not that easy.

"There are entire villages in the southeast where being a village guard is the only way of subsistence. The economy of entire villages is dependent on these forces so it's a serious social-economic problem as well," Jenkins said.

Critics say the state encouraged tribal loyalties by creating a system of state patronage to counter the rising influence of the separatist PKK guerrillas in the 1980s.

"The government committed the grave mistake of creating peace and order by setting up a system of local notables and giving them weapons," Ergil said.

The massacre in Bilge, and the culture that lay at its roots, will likely add grist to the mill to those in Europe who say Turkey is too poor and too backward to join the bloc.

The government has said it has improved the rights of women, especially in the conservative southeast, where honour killings are common, but Brussels wants more to be done.

"We are feeling a great sorrow as a nation. Such a primitive cruelty that opened deep cuts in our conscience is inexplicable," President Abdullah Gul said in a statement.

"Everybody should think seriously about tradition, blood feuds and animosity standing before human life in this era we are living in. Individual and institutional efforts should be made not to allow this kind of incident to happen again."

On Tuesday, bulldozers were busy in Bilge digging out graves to bury the dead as women wailed nearby in the rain.

"This village is cursed," a 19-year man said." (Additional reporting by Thomas Grove and Paul de Bendern; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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