“We have enemies.”
The old Kurdish woman said this by way of running me off. I had trekked into her mountain hamlet at dusk, hoping to camp nearby. She waved a hand at the stone homes around us. Most were empty. There had been a killing between neighbors. The house of the perpetrator had been leveled. Fearing retribution, his relatives had run for their lives. Armed members of the victim’s family were now guarding the place against their return. The watchmen’s lonesome campfire seesawed in the wind high up on a cliff.
“It’s not safe here,” the woman apologized. So I walked on. I slept five miles away in a field.
We have enemies. Over the past three months, while plodding some 350 miles along the steppe trails, rural back roads and modern highways of Turkey’s Kurdish heartland, I’ve heard this bleak refrain dozens of times. I am crossing the world on foot as part of a project called the “Out of Eden Walk.” The idea involves retracing the first human migration out of Africa during the Stone Age, and reporting current events at the micro level along the ancestral route to South America. Turkey, the eighth country on my itinerary since leaving Ethiopia in early 2013, was supposed to be easy. But while plodding into eastern Anatolia this summer, I have been shooed out of Kurdish villages, interrogated by Kurdish vigilantes and nearly shot twice by frightened Kurds. None of this is personal, of course.
Friendlessness — having enemies — is synonymous with Kurdishness.
The world’s 30 million Kurds, a tough and independent mountain people who mostly practice a moderate brand of Sunni Islam, are scattered among Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran — states that for generations have perfected the tools of marginalization, counterinsurgency and manipulation to keep their unruly Kurdish minorities in check. Lately, American military support for Kurds battling the Islamic State in Syria has revived a modest dream of pan-Kurdish unity: greater cooperation among the region’s rival Kurdish movements, if not the dawn of a Greater Kurdistan.
Yet my boot-level view of Kurdish fractiousness suggests how steep that slope may be. To be clear: I have been overwhelmed by a stunning brand of Kurdish hospitality that places nearly every private home and barn at my disposal. (I am walking with a cargo mule.) But this kindness frequently comes entangled in a painful thicket of grievance and suspicion — not just among individual Kurds, but entire villages and families. Walking through a still-mythic Kurdistan must resemble, I imagine, a foot journey through 19th-century Appalachia: Kurds appear to share the same violent honor culture and clannish tensions as the frontier Scotch-Irish. Any ramble in the woods can be fraught.
I learned about this geography of enmity even before arriving in Turkey, when my first Kurdish walking guide phoned me, rueful, to back out of the job. His family had teetered into a blood feud. Someone had been shot. We couldn’t even meet in the city of Sanliurfa, population 800,000, for fear of bumping into his village foes. (This was a blow. He was a highly resourceful person; he’d saved his relatives from the vendetta by engineering a local blackout, then hustling his kin to safety inside the power company repair van.)
Eastern Anatolia is profoundly haunted, of course, by more infamous violence: Turkey’s ruthless suppression of pro-independence Kurdish guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the P.K.K. I have inched past countless villages depopulated by an insurgency that has claimed 37,000 lives. But I also have pushed the mule through many “new” villages spawned by Kurd-on-Kurd brawls. “How old is this place?” I asked Sahmettin Aydin, the muktar, or headman, of an ancient-looking outpost called Pasli. “About 30 years,” he replied. “Our entire village relocated here after a murder case in 1987.”
Religion is another source of friction, especially since the rise of the Islamic State extremists in neighboring Syria. I was mistaken for a jihadist infiltrator and almost shot by a posse of Kurds near Mount Karacadag. (“I am going to kill you,” one vigilante hissed into the ear of my new walking guide — himself a Kurd — who then frantically dialed a Kurdish politician to rescue us.) Within minutes it became clear that the real object of their wrath was the Kurdish Hezbollah, a religious party funded by Ankara in part to fight the P.K.K.
It is hard to blame the Kurds for such flintiness. An accident of history and geography crushed them between the Ottoman and Persian empires for centuries. They were obliged by bigger powers to play the role of an unreliable border gendarmerie, with all the attendant betrayals that come with that job.
But cultures of mistrust wear you down. The Kurdish region of Turkey is beautiful: These days, I tramp past poplars that burn golden under ashy winter skies. But it is a forlorn sort of beauty. I tiptoe through it warily, sometimes with my hands in the air as a sign of surrender.
The saddest Kurdish fratricide I have encountered involved the korucu — members of the Kurdish “village guard” set up by the Turkish government to battle the P.K.K. They are doomed men, loathed by nationalist Kurds as turncoats. A few weeks ago, the P.K.K. tied one to a telephone pole and executed him firing-squad-style. They reportedly stuffed a 10-lira note in his mouth for good measure.
Last week, three of these militiamen ambushed me. I was hiking with my two walking guides in a forested river valley near the plateau town of Agri. I was lagging behind, punching text messages into a cellphone. Figures in camouflage sprang from behind the trees. They screamed at me. They leveled their Kalashnikov rifles. I flung up my hands to the sky. But they kept shouting. We couldn’t understand each other. It was the closest I’ve come to being shot since covering the Iraq war.
“You gave us a scare,” one of the assailants said later, meaning that he thought we were P.K.K. He clapped my shoulder. He explained that he had enemies. He urged me to enjoy the scenery of his fractured land.
Paul Salopek is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a contributor to National Geographic magazine.