DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY —
A growing number of Kurdish families in Turkey are calling for the return of their children who they say have been abducted by the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK. The PKK denies the claim, but with the Turkish prime minister stepping in, the dispute is putting pressure on an already stalled peace process.
In the sweltering summer heat, a group of families hold a daily vigil for their children who they say were kidnapped by the PKK in recent months. Each carries a photograph of their child. Some were as young as 14 when they disappeared.
Sureyya Toklar, whose son disappeared three months ago, says she is convinced her son was kidnapped by the rebel group.
"My son couldn't have gone on his own will," she said. "He didn't have such love for them. I am sure he was tricked and didn't go on his own will."
The families claim the rebels are holding their children in mountain bases just across the Turkish border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Throughout three decades of conflict, thousands of young Kurdish men and women have "gone to the mountains," a euphemism for joining the PKK. Until now, there have been few voices claiming any were kidnapped.
But Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped in and taken up the families’ cause. The dispute comes at a delicate time in the government-initiated peace process with the rebel group.
According to Fatma Oncu, a member of the ruling AK Party's national committee from Diyarbakir, the peace process has allowed people to start speaking out against the PKK.
"Women are now coming out to the streets and voicing that their children are being kept in this way [by the PKK]," she said. "As a party we are supporting these women in this process in every way, she said.
But many pro-Kurdish political groups back the PKK in dismissing claims of abduction. They say all those who join the PKK are volunteers and accuse the government of generating the controversy as a distraction over the lack of progress in the peace process.
Edip Yasar of the Democratic Society Congress, a pro-Kurdish movement, says the claims of abduction are groundless.
"Who would believe in such claims of abduction? Even the crows will laugh at these statements by the government," he said.
Yasar says the PKK has stated no one under 16 will be given positions in its armed structure, and that the group says it will send back children who want to go home.
Back at the families' vigil, the PKK pledge is being met with both skepticism and guarded optimism, according to Sureyya Toklar.
She says the mothers are determined and won't be going anywhere until their children come back.
"My son is 14 years old, God willing he'll be sent back," Toklar said. "We are waiting, let's see."
No date has been given by the PKK to return any of the children. Observers say the families could well be pawns in a wider struggle between the government and the pro-Kurdish movement over the stalled peace process.