At the age of 15, Adem knows how to make a Molotov cocktail and can quickly turn a scarf into a balaclava — that’s the equipment he needs for his own warfare in Turkey’s 26-year Kurdish conflict.
The eighth-grader is one of thousands of Kurdish youths whose violent street protests have become a serious challenge to police, turning urban areas into a battlefield where banks are torched, public property is vandalized and many are injured and sometimes killed.
“If the police have pepper gas, we have stones and Molotov cocktails,” Adem, clad in school uniform, said confidently in Diyarbakir, the largest city of the mainly Kurdish southeast and a hotbed of ethnic militancy.
“Sometimes you would make your own Molotov and sometimes someone would bring many and distribute them ... We would dismantle the pavements, breaking them with a sledgehammer,” he said.
The youths sympathize with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and much of the international community list as a terrorist group over its separatist insurgency in the southeast since 1984. Jailed PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan is their hero.
“The leader remains in prison — that’s why we are out there,” Salman, 18, said.
Recounting their pitched battles with police, Salman calls public buildings and banks “hostile institutions” that should be “hit” and explains how the boys “keep positions” and “sometimes retreat to rest.”
A series of EU-inspired reforms have notably broadened the freedoms of Turkey’s Kurds in recent years: They can now broadcast in Kurdish, teach their mother tongue at private courses and use it in political activities.
However, the taboo-breaking changes appear to have little bearing on the youths, overridden by a simmering rage rooted deeply in years of conflict.
A generation that has never known peace, they grew up as witnesses to the worst years of the PKK insurgency in the 1990s — bloodshed was a daily routine at the time, the state persecuted even peaceful activists and the army burnt villages, driving hundreds of thousands into poverty in urban slums.
High-school student Ibrahim Oruc was one such teenager, born in Bismil, a town near Diyarbakir, just months after his parents fled their village.
The conflict caught him up 17 years later last month when police opened fire on a violent protest in Bismil over the disqualification of several prominent Kurdish candidates from general elections on June 12.
The electoral board subsequently reversed its ruling, but Ibrahim, who was among the demonstrators, died, fuelling more Kurdish violence in the streets.
In his modest home in a dusty neighborhood, Ibrahim’s devastated father complains that no government official ever called to give condolences. He wonders how peace can prevail over the spiral of violence.
“My younger boy, aged nine, keeps saying that police killed his brother. How will he respect the state from now on?” Omer Oruc asked.
“Scores of youngsters come to me, saying they will avenge Ibrahim ... I tell them the best revenge will be to study and become educated men,” he said, fighting back tears.
Hours after Ibrahim Oruc was shot dead on April 20, enraged youths retaliated by torching the local office of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Huseyin Yagmur, the AKP district chairman, was still without an office last week, carrying the party’s election posters in his car, with nowhere to hang.
Threats from militant Kurds, he complained, discourage townsmen from renting him their properties and nourish suspicion against Kurds supporting the AKP.
“I’m also a Kurd, but not a separatist ... They speak about human rights and democracy, but here I am without a place to sit in,” he grumbled in a local teashop. “In the 1990s, people feared the state, now they fear them.”
Back in Diyarbakir, the “Molotov guys” — as they are widely called — say they loath violence, but argue it is necessary to press Ankara into dialogue to end the Kurdish conflict.
“Military action will continue as long as political issues remain unresolved,” Mustafa, 20, said “And we have to defend ourselves.”