By Jon Hemming
MAKHMOUR, Iraq (Reuters) - Seventeen years away from their homes in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast have done little to diminish their longing to return, but for a group of refugees in Iraq, the killing of 35 relatives by Turkish jets last week showed why it was not safe to go back.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has promised a full investigation into the air strikes close to the Iraqi border that killed 35 mostly teenage smugglers. [ID:nL6E7NT179] But he said it had been impossible to tell from the air that the group was not Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters trying to infiltrate into Turkey.
The cycle of violence between the Turkish military and the PKK has blighted Turkey's southeast for 27 years with human rights abuses and atrocities committed on both sides, and civilians inevitably caught in the middle.
In the mid-1990s Turkey's security forces began the clearance of villages suspected of sympathizing with the PKK, and thousands fanned out to the slums of Turkey's big cities.
One group fled to neighboring northern Iraq where Iraqi Kurds have carved out self-rule, first by force of arms against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, now in an autonomous region officially recognized in the new post-Saddam constitution.
Now settled in a dusty breeze block refugee camp on the edge of the Iraqi Kurdish zone, some 10,000 Turkish Kurd refugees still dream of one day returning home.
But by dint of fate, it was a trail close to the home village of many of the refugees that was bombed.
Twenty-six of those killed shared the same surname: Encu.
"They were my brother's sons, my uncle's sons. They had never taken up arms against Turkey," said one of the refugees, Resat Encu. "They were high school students. They were trying to make money for school expenses, to buy books."
The Turkish military said its fighter jets had struck a route used by PKK militants to enter Turkey after unmanned drones detected a group approaching the border. Turkey, the United States and the European Union all list the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Those from the village of Roboski, closest to the site of the attack, said it was impossible that Turkish troops had not known the group were smugglers since two military checkpoints directly overlooked the route, making it impassable for the PKK.
"Everyday a group of 50 or so would leave the village at round 2 p.m. with mules and cross into Iraq, passing right by the checkpoints in broad daylight, and return with goods around 8 o'clock in the evening," said Murat Encu, another family member.
"The soldiers knew all about it and would even ask for cigarettes from those coming back from Iraq," he said, adding that he had made the same journey himself to visit relatives.
The Turkish military said in a statement the air strike was carried out after intelligence reports of an impending attack on their outposts and bases close to the border.
The fact that Erdogan has promised a full investigation into the events is a sign of the progress, albeit slow, in Turkey towards recognizing the scale of the problem in the southeast.
Emerging from a series of Islamist parties shut down by the once secularist-dominated judiciary and eased from power by military, Erdogan's AK Party has sought to undercut support for the PKK by granting greater Kurdish cultural rights.
He said in 2010 that he was ready to discuss the return of those in Iraq's Makhmour Camp with the United Nations refugee agency, saying it was a breeding ground for terrorists.
While those at Makhmour insist they are simple villagers forced from home by the encircling violence, there is little doubt where their sympathies lie.
Portraits of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan hang in homes and above the school classrooms, while graffiti on the walls praises the man who was snatched by Turkish forces in 1999.
The United Nations reached an agreement with Turkey and Iraq for the return of refugees from Makhmour in 2004, but it was never put into effect, and very few returned home.
While nearby Iraq's Kurds quietly build a measure of prosperity in the country's only real safe and secure corner, their Turkish Kurd cousins languish in the muddy camp, caught in limbo by the failure of Turkey and the PKK to make peace.
The latest bloody incident makes their return any time soon even less likely.
"Whenever the Kurdish problem surfaces in Turkey, they want the Kurds to leave and not come back," said Makhmour refugee Ahmet Ozer. "Their mission is to make refugees."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)