Informal Control of the Turkish State: Lived Experiences from Kurdish Borderlands

Dilan Okcuoglu
Dr. Dilan Okcuoglu is a postdoctoral fellow in Global Kurdish Studies at the American University, School of International Service in Washington, DC. Prior to that, she was a visiting scholar at Cornell University, M. Einaudi Center for International Studies. She was also affiliated with the Interdisciplinary Research Center on Democracy and Diversity at the Université du Québec à Montréal in 2018-2019. She received her PhD and MA in political studies from Queen’s University in Canada. She has another MA degree from Europe (Central European University), and finished her undergrad in economics (Bogazici University). In addition to academic life, she has keen interest in diplomacy and policy making. Dr. Okcuoglu has an interdisciplinary background in politics, economics and philosophy. Her teaching and research interests primarily lie in the politics of MENA, conflict and peace studies, comparative territorial and border politics, democratization, global justice, ethnic politics, and nationalism, as well as state-minority relations in conflict zones. Okcuoglu has already published book chapters and op-eds in The Conversation, Peace Insight, Jerusalem Post, Daily News, and National Post. She is currently working on her article manuscripts and a book proposal in DC.

Dilan Okcuoglu’s “Informal Control of the Turkish State: Lived Experiences from Kurdish Borderlands” is part of JMEPP’s upcoming Spring 2021 edition, Beyond Borders: Middle East in Empire, Diaspora, and Global Transitions. The full edition is expected to come out on April 30, 2021.

“In 2009, we planted our wheat in front of Turkish soldiers; they could see our land from the military base. We were just about to harvest the produce when they put a ban on it. With this decision, our annual harvest was completely wasted. Soon after this decision, that lieutenant was relocated, and the new one was the complete opposite of the previous one. There is no rule of law here.” These words, reported to me during my fieldwork in the Kurdish borderlands in 2013-2014 by Refik, a middle-aged Kurdish farmer, reflected the way people in the Kurdish borderlands experience state strategies for surveillance and control of populations. His words help us see beyond the formal policies and institutions of state governance, shedding light on the informal source of state authority in contested borderlands: arbitrariness and uncertainty. 

Kurdish borderlands are remote and mountainous zones that are conducive to sudden moments of violence and uncertainty. Research on ethnic politics, territoriality, and violence remains a challenge in those contested areas, where multiple sovereignties (of states as well as non-state actors) meet. Conducting research in these borderlands is difficult;[1]not only because of the terrain, but also because the four nation-states with Kurdish populations—Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria—have imposed severe constraints on both Kurdish populations and scholars interested in the subject.[2] As a Kurdish female scholar coming from abroad,[3] my research—on the lived experiences and perceptions of state building, specifically territorial control—was under surveillance from the very first day I arrived in the region, and the pressure increased as I traveled to rural areas, interfering with my work in both overt and covert ways. Throughout my stay I was harassed on social media; stopped at checkpoints by the military; approached on the street by the Turkish police, and repeatedly questioned about when I would leave. There were other challenges as well: while I did not realise it when I first set out, my research topic was personal. I do not know how many times I found myself crying in the middle of interviews[4]; what I heard resonated so much with my memories as a child learning about the evacuation and burning down of my hometown in Kurdistan and watching my family’s suffering and resilience over the years. I learned, as a child, that sudden changes, creating uncertainty, are embedded into the reality of war and violence. I witnessed the disappearance and extrajudicial killing of people around my father (who has been politically engaged in Kurdish circles since the 70s), my uncles’ sacrifices and the continued fight for the rights of Kurds and Kurdistan. My grandfather, who was never able to accept the loss of his homeland and entire family history, died from cancer after his forced displacement to Istanbul in the aftermath of the evacuation[5]. The stories that came up repeatedly in interviews—of the difficulties of everyday life, the arbitrary nature of violence and control, and the constant state of precariousness which kept people alert but also insecure—reminded me of the peak of violence in the 1990s. As Abulof (2014) has shown, deep securitization is widespread in divided contexts where the state officials are not certain about the regime’s survival.[6] Because of that, the state employs both formal and informal mechanisms of control over demography and territory. The informal state controls physical activities, such as farming, travelling, ownership entitlement, and interacting with other people, but it goes beyond that, into the emotional world people inhabit by infiltrating people’s minds and hearts. This informal control plays out through uncertainty that rapidly changes everyday dynamics and renders people agitated.

Arbitrary control 

On a very humid day in the summer of 2013, I was sitting with my hosts in a border village in Turkish Kurdistan. A middle-aged Kurdish man, Botan, was telling me about his perception of borders when his brother, seemingly agitated and anxious, appeared and interrupted, telling Botan they needed to leave immediately. Botan, politically active since the 1990s, had been tortured in the past, and was therefore experienced, and well-equipped to deal with the rapidly changing dynamics of the borderlands. He dashed into his house, grabbed his AK-47, and joined a group of men heading out of the village. It wasn’t long before they returned. On arriving back, Botan sat down with me again, and filled me in on the events. He told me that their herd—300 sheep and goats—had been abducted by Iranian border guards who had crossed the border from Iran into the Turkish side. “This is the first time something like this has happened here since the 90s. We have risked everything. The Iranian pasdaran (the unofficial name people use for the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) know that these animals are our everything; our daily and annual bread!” His father, who had returned with him, had experienced similar issues. “Both states—Turkey and Iran—are plundering my property,” he told me. 

The issue with the guards was not only the actions they had taken. It was that they were part of a pattern of the arbitrary use of power by the soldiers, which created an atmosphere of ambiguity for the villagers. Trapped living under the authority of at least two sovereign states, people live in a grey zone, constantly switching between the different transcripts of public versus private lives and languages (Scott 2009) and enfolded in formal and informal webs of relations with the numerous actors in constant traffic along these borderlands: smugglers from Iran and Turkey; PKK guerrillas; villagers; and soldiers. Those traversing the borders are often perceived as threats to the state and are liable to lose their lives. The Roboski massacre of 2011, is perhaps the most serious example of this, when 34 civilians, who had been involved in smuggling goods across the borders, were killed in an airstrike by the Turkish air force.[7] Despite these risks, Kurdish villagers still travel to Iraq and Iran to see their relatives. In recent years, however, this has become increasingly difficult because of changes made by the state. 

Like many of the other people I interviewed, Garzan, now in his 60s, moved to a village in the borderlands after his hometown was evacuated in the 1990s as a part of the Turkish state’s counterinsurgency agenda[8]. Because he has relatives from both his fathers’ and mothers’ sides in Iraq, he travels there from time to time. In previous times, he travelled across the mountains for these visits, but in 1969, an official border-crossing was opened at Turkish-Iraqi border. This legal crossing, with its rigid control measures, made the crossing much tougher than before. Some of this was bureaucratic. “When I went to the office to get a permit, they told me that they are only open two days per week, and I should revisit on Monday and Thursday,” Garzan told me. Other changes were the restrictions imposed on the use of and access to the land; construction of new checkpoints and dams; building new infrastructure, such as military roads and high-tech castle-like military bases known as kalekols; deploying more troops and police forces; recruiting new village guards and creating new paramilitary forces—several villagers reported during the interviews. Such changes, while seemingly banal and limited, are means of controlling not only the borderlands, but also the populations within them. 

In response, people, especially in border zones, have also developed diverse strategies to cope with uncertainty and arbitrary use of power in the midst of violence and war: contingent alliances with conflicting actors. In one conversation, a villager told me that the history of getting into contingent alliances goes back two generations: “Our grandfathers told us that their battalion commanders would ask them to bring sugar and other products from the other side of the border. We have been travelling across the borders for decades; this is the biggest advantage of living in the borderlands. But since the state declared the emergency rule, or OHAL, in 1987, the border policies have changed in a negative way, and they have imposed strict control along the borders. This has disadvantaged lives in the borderlands.” This shift toward a rigid border control was undertaken alongside other control practices, such as recruiting people as village guards, changing the topography of the region, and recrafting demographics[9].

This cluster of narratives from the Kurdish borderlands between Turkey, Iraq and Iran reveals the complexity of strategies and mechanisms that the state uses to control people and territories, but also the need for qualitative research in understanding these phenomena. The impact of the different modes of state control only becomes explicit when considered in combination, from the ground. The Turkish authorities use a combination of formal programmes and policies alongside the informal, but very real, manipulation of uncertainty. This strategy essentially depends upon getting inside people’s heads; a form of authority and domination that an exclusive focus on formal policies and institutions would miss. People’s lived experiences illuminate how the Turkish state uses uncertainty and dependency as an ad hoc source of authority to control people and territory in its borderlands. This paper is an invitation to reconsider the limits of conventional approaches, which focus primarily on formal institutions and policies for the study of ethnic conflict. The next step will be to show the practical implications of the state’s informal networks on state-building in conflict-driven settings of the MENA region. 

I would like to thank William Reno and Begum Adalet for their helpful comments at the Buffett Institute’s Article Development Workshop, Northwestern University.


[1] For more details, see Firat Bozcali, “Probabilistic Borderwork: Oil smuggling, nonillegality, and techno-legal politics in the Kurdish borderlands of Turkey,” American Ethnologist 47(1), (2020): 72-85.

[2] Academics in Turkey who have studied the Kurdish question from a critical perspective have been silenced, targeted and sometimes imprisoned. See Deger and Unlu (2011) for a detailed account of this issue. 

[3] This is not uncommon. See: B. Maria Olujic, “Coming Home: The Croatian War Experience,” in Fieldwork under Fire: Contemporary Studies of Violence and Culture, ed. Carolyn Nordstrom and Antonius C.G.M Rubben (California: University of California Press, 1996).

[4] For the emotional and ethical challenges of doing field work in conflict zones, see: Elizabeth Wood, “The Ethical Challenges of Field Research in Conflict Zones,” Qualitative Sociology 29, (2006): 373–386; Lee Ann Fujii, “Research Ethics 101: Dilemmas and Responsibilities,” PS: Political Science and Politics 45(4), (2012): 717–23.

For the emotional challenges of fieldwork and the ways to deal with the challenges, see also: El Dana Kurd and Calla Hummel, “Mental Health and Fieldwork,” PS: Political Science and Politics 54 (1), (2020): 121-125.

[5] These insights also relate to the ongoing discussions about the positionality of the researcher in the fieldwork. For further details, see: Aarie Glas and Jessica Soedirgo, “Towards Active Reflexivity: Positionality and Practice in the Production of Knowledge,” PS: Political Science and Politics53(3), (2020): 527-531.

[6]  For the theoretical and empirical discussion of the securitization process in the Israeli-Jewish context, see: Uriel Abulof, “Deep Securitization and Israel’s ‘Demographic Demon,’” International Political Sociology 8(4), (2014): 396-415. For comparative examples, see also: John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, The Politics of Ethnic Conflict Regulation: Case Studies of Protracted Ethnic Conflicts (London: Routledge, 1993).

[7] On 27 December 2011, the Turkish army bombed the village of Roboski, killing 34 Kurdish smugglers/villagers who were crossing the Turkish–Iraqi border. This incident, known as the Roboski event, was one of the turning points for the continued peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (2012-2015).

[8] In those years, almost 4000 towns were evacuated and demolished. This has been an effective tool in the hands of the Turkish army to maintain the control of demography and territory. See: Displaced and Disregarded: Turkey’s Failing Village Return Program, Human Rights Watch, 30 October 2002. https://www.refworld.org/docid/45dac6a92.html

[9]For more detail on the use of village guards, see: Evren Balta, “Causes and Consequences of the Village Guard System in Turkey,” presented at Mellon Fellowship for Humanitarian and Security Affairs Conference, CUNY-Graduate Center, New York, NY, 2 December 2004. For the spatial control and demographic engineering in Turkey, see: Joost Jongerden, The settlement issue in Turkey and the Kurds: An analysis of spatial policies, modernity and war (Leiden: Brill, 2007); Zeynep Gambetti and Joost Jongerden “The spatial (re)production of the Kurdish issue: Multiple and contradicting trajectories,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 13(4), (2011): 375–388; See also, Kerem Öktem, “The nation’s imprint: Demographic engineering and the change of toponyms on republican Turkey,” European Journal of Turkish Studies7 (2011). http://journals.openedition.org/ejts/2243   

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