Death from above: Iraqi border villages bear the brunt of Turkish air strikes
ARADEN, Iraq – The village of Araden sits amidst gorgeous countryside not far from the main tourist attractions of Iraq's Kurdish region. Stunning mountains dot the landscape, while the city of Amedi overlooks green valleys, and there are remnants of an old vacation home used by the former president Saddam Hussein close by.
In Araden, which is largely Christian, churches are surrounded by lush forests and fields. However, Araden and other villages near the Iraqi-Turkish border face regular air strikes from Turkey, which is targeting positions held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
According to the Erbil-based Kurdish media outlet Rudaw, in the past year, Turkish jets have bombed Amedi district 98 times, and at least 12 people have been killed.
The armed Kurdish group has fought a guerrilla war in Turkey since 1984, and the PKK has long made its base in the mountainous border between Turkey and northern Iraq, which is controlled by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Mohammad Salih lost his son, Dilovan Mohammad Salih, to such an air strike on 15 November, when Dilovan was tending to his honey bees in the mountains above the village. He has no hope that the bombs will stop in the future.
“Kurdistan can’t stop the Turkish bombs,” said the older Salih, using the Kurdish nationalist name for the region, holding a picture of his late child.
“Turkey is a big country. Kurdistan is small.”
Salih says his son was not a member of the PKK, nor a supporter. He said he was in the Peshmerga, the official military unit of the KRG.
This was not the last time Turkey struck apparent PKK targets in Iraq. On 13 December, Turkish jets hit a refugee camp in Makhmour, which, unlike Araden, is deep in territory controlled by Baghdad.
Turkey believes the PKK has a presence in the camp. Ankara will not stop what it sees as essential operations for its security, and is currently threatening to invade Kurdish-inhabited parts of neighbouring Syria in an effort to fight the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units (YPG).
However, people in Araden and the nearby villages in the Kurdistan region of Iraq’s border area are already suffering because of the Turkey-PKK conflict.
Kurdistan can’t stop the Turkish bombs. Turkey is a big country. Kurdistan is small
- Mohammad Salih, villager
The PKK seeks autonomy for predominantly Kurdish regions in southeast Turkey, and uses violent tactics to achieve this. Turkey attributed a bomb attack that killed seven Turkish soldiers in October to the PKK.
The group has a large presence along the mountainous border between southeast Turkey and the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, and Turkey’s air force frequently targets them there, despite recent Iraqi opposition. Iraq condemned the attack in Makhmour, and summoned Turkey’s ambassador over it.
However, Turkey continued to bomb northern Iraq shortly after this, and regularly bombed the PKK in KRG territory and the Sinjar region throughout 2018. Most of the attacks were in areas close to the Turkish border, like the one that killed Salih’s son.
The Makhmour attack, on the other hand, took place 165km into Iraqi territory. Some villages in the Duhok province have reportedly been evacuated due to the dangers of the bombings.
The attacks have disrupted life in villages near the Iraq-Turkey border. Salih says he supports neither the PKK nor Turkey’s presence in the area, and that the Turkish jets in the sky have rendered it unsafe to go to parts of Araden closer to the mountains.
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “There are always airplanes.”
Many villagers are fed up with the situation. Salwan Hirmiz owns a small convenience store in the centre of Araden. He says the strikes have made farming difficult.
“They’re bullying Iraqi and Kurdish lands,” he said from his shop near a church in the town.
“Farmers can’t go to the mountain. They’re scared.”
Locals are quick to point out Turkey’s military presence in the area. Turkey maintains a military base in Bamerne, which is just west of Araden, according to Rudaw. MEE observed a base with what looked like an airstrip in the town. At the time of publication, the KRG had not responded to MEE requests to confirm the site's use.
Turkey, which launched Operation Tigris Shield - a ground incursion into Iraq against the PKK - on 10 March last year, had 11 military bases in northern Iraq as of June 2018, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.
This is not to say the area is a warzone, though. Amedi, the largest locale near Araden, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area, bringing in people from across the KRG and Iraq in the spring and summer.
The conflict does not affect daily life in the city, according to one shopkeeper.
“They don’t hit the town, only the mountains,” Muhammad Ahmed told MEE.
However, Ahmed said he wanted both Turkey and the PKK to leave the area, and said he felt powerless in the face of the bombs.
“I don’t like it because it’s my land and I can’t stop them,” he said from his store in central Amedi.
A lot of people in the area are not supporters of the PKK. The Duhok province the villages lie in is a stronghold for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is the largest party in the KRG.
The KRG is limited, but it can condemn it at least. The KRG has been silent and it is shameful for KRG leadership
- Sarkawt Shams, Kurdish MP
The KDP has traditionally enjoyed close economic ties with Turkey, and has actually fought the PKK in the past.
Araden’s Assyrian Christian population suffers from a Turkey-PKK conflict that does not involve them, and other Assyrian villages in Iraq have been caught up in the fighting as well.
Immediately following the 15 November bombing, some on social media accused the KRG of being neither strong nor fast enough in condemning the attack, although the Peshmerga did condemn the Turkish air strike a few days later. And in March, the KRG also officially expressed concern over Turkish air strikes in its territory.
Sarkawt Shams, a member of the Iraqi parliament from the New Generation party, says the KRG can only do so much, but should come out stronger against Turkey’s air strikes nonetheless.
“The KRG is limited, but it can condemn it at least,” Shams told MEE. “The KRG has been silent and it is shameful for KRG leadership.”
The federal Iraqi government strongly condemned the Makhmour bombing, but the camp is recognised by Baghdad as federal and not part of the KRG. Villages like Araden in Duhok province, on the other hand, where many of the air strikes have taken place, are recognised by Baghdad as KRG territories.
Shams thinks Iraq has likewise been slow to condemn Turkey’s actions overall, and says this is the first time the country summoned the ambassador over the issue.
Imagine if Iraqi forces launched some attacks or military interventions in Turkish lands, what would be the response? - Ali al-Bayati, Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights
“Baghdad is also responsible for keeping silent or ignoring the strikes as if the Kurdistan region is not part of Iraq,” he said.
Some Iraqi politicians are similarly angered by the Turkish attacks in Iraqi territory. Ali al-Bayati from the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights says Turkey should work with Iraq to fight the PKK, and not bomb the country unilaterally.
“If Turkey wants a real solution in the case of the PKK, they should cooperate with the Iraqi side,” he told MEE. “Imagine if Iraqi forces launched some attacks or military interventions in Turkish lands, what would be the response?”
From the Turkish government’s point of view, the air strikes are a matter of national security. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, as well as by the United States and European Union.
More than 1,100 Turkish security services members have been killed in the Turkey-PKK conflict since peace talks broke down in 2015, according to the International Crisis Group, which updated their statistics on 11 January.
Since 2015, more than 460 civilians and more than 2,400 PKK fighters have also been killed, according to the group.
Iraq’s President Barham Salih, a Kurd from the city of Sulaimaniyah, met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 3 January.
The two discussed the PKK issue, but it is not clear what, if anything, will come out of the meeting.
Regardless of what happens to Turkey-Iraq ties in 2019, the damage is already done.
“He was born there and killed there,” Salih said of his son.
“He left behind four kids who are now living without a dad.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.