When the Turkish state needed help protecting Kurdish villages in its southeast region in the mid-1980s from insurgents belonging to the Kurdish-separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), then-president Turgut Özal began a “village guard” system. The controversial system, established in 1985, recruited villagers – mostly Kurdish themselves – to act as a paramilitary force both to protect their villages and to aid the Turkish military. The Turkish state has kept the system in place since then, despite opposition from both human rights groups and from within the Turkish parliament.
The number of village guards was around 90,000 in the 1990s. Even though recruitment slowed down during the 2000s – a relatively peaceful period – from the outbreak of new conflict in August 2015 recruitment began to gain speed once again. Unfortunately, there is no precise data on the number of recruits today. The most recent figures from the General Directorate of Provincial Administration are from February 2014. According to those numbers, in 2014 there were 47,800 temporary village guards in addition to 25,000 voluntary village guards in 22 provinces.
With the renewed outbreak of war between the PKK and Turkish military, then-Prime Minister Davutoğlu organised a meeting with representatives of the village guards. Following the meeting, it was reported in the media that new village guards would be recruited and that existing village guards would get a raise. Immediately after Davutoğlu’s conference, first lady Emine Erdoğan held another meeting with female village guards at the Presidential Palace and wished them good luck for their “fight against terrorism”.
During winter 2015, when Turkish military operations spread into urban areas of the southeast, “village guards” began to be “seen” in the cities for the first time. In January 2016, newspapers reported that village guards were fighting alongside military forces in Diyarbakır Square. According to the reports, these guards were being brought in from other provinces and sent to comb streets that special army teams were unable to access. The local media often reported that in the operation in Diyarbakır’s central Sur district, “policemen, soldiers, and guards collaborated.” As a matter of fact, during this period, village guards began practically replacing the police in many southeastern cities.
In April 2016, a new concept was introduced: city guards(!) First, in Hakkari, the provincial government announced that 224 guards would be hired to work with the local Police Force. Şırnak, Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Şanlıurfa followed this lead, eventually employing a total of 2,394 city guards. After the July 15 failed coup attempt, some towns and cities in the west of Turkey joined in and began hiring them as well. Yeni Şafak newspaper reported that in addition to a restructuring of the police force, Turkish Armed Forces and intelligence services, the government was preparing to hire more ‘guards’ and ‘night watchmen’. The newspaper also reported that the responsibilities of both groups would be expanded.
A decree issued in October 2016 broadened the authority of city guards. According to the decree, the newly formed paramilitaries would be issued heavy weapons and equipment, paid a minimum salary and would have social security benefits.
In 2017, the government retired more than 18,000 village guards aged 45–50 and hired over 25,000 new guards aged 30 or younger to ‘rejuvenate’ their ranks.
These new guards were not just hired to protect the towns and cities; they were hired to destroy them. The village guard system of the 1980s is now distended far beyond its original purpose. The new guard system is both political, and financial.
States only resort to paramilitary operations when their official armies and soldiers are insufficient. Examples of this can be seen in many countries around the world, from Iraq to Guatemala. In Turkey, the village guards were used in this capacity too.
Crimes committed by the guards have, in the past, received extensive coverage in the media. And since its inception, many Turkish governments have promised to retire the guard system before elections, but have decided to keep the system intact after they were elected. The present AK Party government has followed their example. Not only they did not remove the system, but now they are building an army of guards for a new war.
However, history teaches us that such paramilitary structures are not easy to dispose of, even after the war is over. And if they go rogue, they do not only attack their enemies; they attack innocent members of the public and sometimes their political creators as well.