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Tiny Village Struggles to Revive Kurdish Life

The village of Kerwas, or Yalaza in Turkish, located near the town of Lice in Turkey’s southeast.
Ayla Albayrak for The Wall Street Journal

A sleepy little village in Turkey’s southeast has an ambitious project for the country’s estimated 15 million Kurds: to build the country’s first Kurdish-language primary school and set a model for modern Kurdish village life.

In a country where Kurdish-language public education remains one of the most debated topics in the government’s peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, villagers in Kerwas, near the southeastern town of Lice, gathered the funds for their own school and started building.

“Our children are becoming Turkish. They are losing their own language,” said Dervis Akgonul, 45, a villager working at the school’s construction site. Mr. Akgonul said he plans to educate the youngest of his five children at the school, which locals hope will open in time for the fall semester and offer education in both Kurmanji and Zaza dialects.

The government allowed non-Turkish education in private schools in a legal amendment passed in March, falling short of the demand for Kurdish-language public education. Villagers say the school will be run by volunteer teachers.

The community school project, they say, kicked off after the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan sent a message to the Kurds in October from his isolated prison island in Western Turkey, telling Kurds to start working for their freedoms and not expect everything from the government. Local Turkish authorities have suspected PKK involvement in the school project, which the villagers deny.

The unpainted four-storey school now towers over Kerwas, a poor village with only some 100 inhabitants, surrounded by green hills and neighboring villages. Yet two decades ago, before the military forcibly evacuated the village and partly burnt it down in 1994, Kerwas was a lively village with over a thousand residents.

According to officials, 3,000 Kurdish villages and hamlets were evacuated and destroyed by the military, citing security concerns and accusing the local population of feeding and sheltering the PKK. But Turkish and international human rights associations say some two million people were forced to migrate from 4,000 villages.

The Kurds were allowed to return to the villages a decade later and offered small financial compensation, but returning to abandoned villages with destroyed or non-existent infrastructure proved unpopular. Former residents are now accustomed to urban life and mostly use villages as summer retreats and for growing vegetables to support life in the cities. Many young men and women from the region have joined the PKK, which today is based in Northern Iraq.

The road to Kerwas remains unpaved, ruins of burnt houses are scattered among the newly-painted ones, and the villagers have had to dig pools for water supply. But the returnees say they are here to stay.

“For 18 years, I never even visited the village…we will not leave now,” said Mr. Akgonul, who added he struggled as a construction and daily worker in eastern city of Bingol.

After the evacuations, illegal cannabis fields emerged on the abandoned hilltops around Lice, recently destroyed by security forces. While the PKK and the security forces accuse each other of benefiting from drug smuggling, locals say they are happy about the clear-up.

“It was ruining our youth. Our village is ready to begin a new life,” said Fettullah Celik, a former Kerwas resident and member of Lice town council.

But the returnees, who now have the right to claim back its Kurdish name and change the signboard at the entrance to the village carrying its Turkish name, Yalaza, have forgotten to do so.

“We never knew Yalaza. It was always Kerwas to us,” Mr. Celik said.

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(via WSJ Blogs)