I heard about it towards evening, said Ibrahim, 43, a dairy farmer who traveled here when his 5-year-old son took ill. It was the start of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and neighbors were traveling to Semdinli to stock up on supplies. Guerrillas who were manning the checkpoint turned them back, and told them to stop using Turkish documents and instead use only papers issued by the Kurdistan Workers Party.
They declared that this would be a frontal battle with Turkish authorities. People warned them that the Turkish army would drive them out of the valley, but they said, No, were here to stay, recalled Ibrahim, who asked not to be identified further for fear of retaliation.
As he sat at an outdoor cafe near Semdinlis modest hospital, an enormous boom from just hundreds of yards away rattled the windows. It was an army howitzer firing from the garrison at the Kurdistan Workers Party, possibly in Ibrahims village on the other side of the mountain. This is the Turkish armys approach to counterinsurgency: sending in drones to spot suspected insurgents and using the imagery to aim a cannon thats said to have a range of 25 miles.
Ibrahim smiled, for today he was at the outgoing end of the bombardment.
Many times, he recounted, a relative in Semdinli would call us when it was fired, and then a minute or two later, it would hit. The shells crashed mostly in fields, once near a house, but they made it impossible to sleep at night, work his crops or tend his cattle. Night and day, it was more shells than I could count, he recalled.
The confrontation was costly for the areas residents. Ibrahims settlement McClatchy isnt naming it for his safety and five others had emptied, and he had no idea of the fate of his property. Everything Ive got my crops, my house, my cattle its in the village, he said. We are living 10 people in a house. Nobody is earning a wage. There is no work. I dont know what Im going to do.
Business in Semdinli plummeted, because most of the districts population of 62,000 had no way of getting to town. A waiter at a cafe said people would leave the town if they could. When people hear the sound of guns, they just leave, the 30-year-old waiter. I have a son whos 1 month old. If something happens, what am I going to do?
Still, Semdinli appeared to be booming, with dozens of high-rise buildings under construction. Officials say the major investors are smugglers, who make a good profit out of importing diesel fuel and cigarettes from Iran and electronics from Iraq, all of which highly taxed in Turkey. Semdinli, which sits astride the main smuggling route from northern Iraq and Iran, has no other industry.
The towns mayor, a lawyer named Sedat Toere, is an unabashed supporter of the Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK. There is a majority consensus among the population that the PKK are fighting for the rights of the Kurds, and they do represent the Kurds. If the group were to capture the town, this would not be much opposed by the people, because the security forces on duty in the town are foreigners to the people here, he said. He calls Turkish rule 80 years of assimilation policies.
Mesut Genctuerk, the government-appointed district governor, dismissed Toeres assertions. He put the popularity of the Kurdistan Workers Party at a maximum of 10 to 20 percent.
Theres no doubt life could be much better here if it werent for the guerrilla war, said Muharrem Tekin, of the local chamber of artisans and businesses.
A four-lane highway thats a year or two from completion will cut the trip to Van, the nearest airport and railhead, to two hours. Theres a high-quality coal deposit in Derecik, just 25 miles from Semdinli. The local honey is as good as anything from the Black Sea, and theres a quarry just outside the town that has world-quality marble. It even has a unique local flower, known as the upside-down tulip.
If the borders with Iran and Iraq, now closed for reasons of security, could be opened, industry might move here.
This is a place of great natural beauty. It could be the pearl of the East, Tekin said. For now, the towns reputation, as a major center of Kurdistan Workers Party activity, scares off investors. But if the war ends, we have many things to offer.
McClatchy special correspondent Joel Thomas contributed to this report.