Forest Fires Become Weapon, Battleground in Turkey

forest fire blaze turkey photo

A 2008 forest fire in Turkey. Photo via Sabah

As the weather finally starts to heat up in Turkey, hot and dry parts of the country move into their annual state of high alert over forest fires, which generally strike each summer. But villagers in the turbulent Southeast have made disturbing accusations that officials are standing by while the military intentionally sets fire to their forests and crops."The fire started when soldiers from the military base near Ikizce indiscriminately launched missiles into wooded areas in Cudi mountain," in the province of Sirnak, close to the Iraqi border, shepherd Cem Guney told the IPS News Agency. "Soldiers helped us subdue the flames the first day, but since then they've done nothing."

The Turkish military has recently stepped up its fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, following a renewed wave of attacks by the outlawed group. The battle is mostly being fought in the country's Southeast, which is heavily populated by Kurds, and is extending across the border into northern Iraq, where the PKK is believed to have bases.

Forest Fires Set Intentionally, Villagers Claim
In Sirnak, the IPS News Agency reported, the military claims the fires resulted from clashes between soldiers and the PKK, an assertion villagers dispute, saying there is no fighting going on in the area:

Villagers add that with the exception of 2009, such fires have occurred in the same way and at roughly the same time every year for the last eight years. They suggest that the military consciously uses forest fires as a tool of policy.

Commenting on the issue two summers ago, Dutch journalist Fréderike Geerdink wrote that "there were 15 fires raging that had been started by the army in an attempt to destroy suspected PKK hide-outs." The PKK, she added, is also believed to have started fires in other parts of Turkey as retaliation against the military's actions. Either way, the blazes are devastating to the country's few remaining forests, and the people who depend on them.

Livestock Economy Collapsing in Southeast
"When there are forest fires [in the Southeast], the military does not allow efforts to put them out, claiming that the reason is security. They say there might be PKK hide-outs in the area," Nafis Koç, a branch chairman for the Human Rights Association, told the newspaper Today's Zaman at the time. "When we see the forest fires in the western part of Turkey, of course we are concerned. But we also see the planes and helicopters working to put them out. When we compare these two scenarios, we definitely feel discriminated against."

This year, villagers in Sirnak say, the fires are ruining their livelihoods and may drive them from their homes. "Nothing's left -- no trees, no shrubs," village elder and shepherd Sivan Aslan told IPS. "Everything's been burned, so we'll be forced to buy feed for our animals." Military restrictions on access to traditional pastures compounds the problem, villagers say, bringing the area's livestock economy to the point of collapse.

While Turkey undeniably has serious security concerns that need to be address, this seems like no way to win much-needed support for resolving the issue in a peaceful manner.

More on forest fires:
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The Heat is On: Summer Fires Rage in Mediterranean
Increasing Temps Will Burn Up the Western US - Rocky Mountain Forest Fires Could Nearly Triple by 2050
Hot Topic in Turkey: Forest-Fire Prevention
Giant Robot to Clear Cut Trees, Fight Forest Fires?
Tree-Powered Forest Fire Alert Network Gets Its Power From Bioenergy

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