GIZRE, Turkey - Barefoot children with tattered, crudely sewn clothes are the only "resistance fighters" in this dilapidated Kurdish city, near the border with Iraq, legendary for its armed resistance to an oppressive Turkish rule. To the taste of the government, the town lies too close to the border with Iraq; on the opposite side, the Iraqi Kurds have autonomy - something dreadful to the Turkish government.

Twelve years ago, this now quiet town was the sight of violent bloody clashes between Kurdish guerrilla fighters of the Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) and Turkish soldiers, resulting in the deaths of dozens of people.

Hence, few were surprised this year when the local governor, who is not of Kurdish origin, decided to prohibit celebrations of the politically sensitive Kurdish festival of Nawrus, which fell a day after the opening of the U.S.-British attack on Iraq. While the Kurds in Diyarbakir, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey, were permitted to celebrate and did so in festivities gathering close to 100,000 people, the cities, towns and villages in the border zone were prohibited from marking what could be an ethnic link to war.

"Last year they let us celebrate and this year they won't because there is a war and we are near the border," says a Gizre school teacher who prefers to remain unidentified.

Last Thursday night, the Turkish government passed a motion in parliament allowing Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq. Turkey fears both an exodus of Kurdish refugees into Turkey, as well as the possible creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, which could encourage Kurds living in Turkey to fight for independence.

The Nawrus holiday, which many link to the Kurdish struggle for sorely lacking civil rights and even to independence, is based on an ancient legend about the overthrow of a cruel king named Dahaq. Legend says that two people were killed daily and their brains were fed to two snakes which sat on either of the King Dahaq's shoulders - or that their brains were used as a salve for sores he had on his shoulders. As time went by, the king's advisers tricked him and gave him sheep brains, sending the people chosen for sacrifice to take refuge in the mountains. One day, a villager named Kawa took the initiative to kill the king. In one version of the tale, he was a blacksmith who led the revolt after his two sons were chosen to die. Kawa told the mountain refugees to light fires on March 21 and that would be a signal to the kingdom to rise up against the king. Kawa himself killed the cruel ruler, his name thereby becoming synonymous with leading a struggle against evil. Nawrus is celebrated by lighting fires and jumping over them for purity in a ritual that has roots in the fire-based Zoroastrian faith.

"Fire is the symbol of freedom from evil for us, the struggle for our rights," says M., a Kurdish musician and university student. "Until the `90s, the Turkish government didn't acknowledge the Kurdish people and culture or let us speak in our language," says M. He tells the story of a mother who went to visit her son, Kamber Atesh, in a Diyarbakir jail. "She only knew how to say, `How are you,' in Turkish. So she could only say over and over, `Kamber Atesh, how are you?'"

For the 10-12 million Kurdish people living in Turkey (population 63 million), Nawrus has gained added significance because Turkey refuses to recognize Kurds as a minority, insisting the country's largest ethnic group are fully integrated into society, while forbidding expression of Kurdishness, whether it be the celebration of Nawrus or the use of their unique language. Following a military coup in 1980, Kurds were prevented from using the Kurdish language even in unofficial settings. This was later partially lifted in 1991, but it remained illegal to use Kurdish in schools, the media and politics.

It was during those difficult years that Mazlum Dogan, a jailed young activist in the PKK, set himself on fire on Eid Nawrus.

"Mazlum Dogan is a modern Kawa," says M. "His act was a political protest against the Turkish government treatment and rule of Kurds."

Dogan has made the holiday even more politically significant to Kurds. "For me," Dogan is symbolic, he killed himself for our cause," says D., another young Gizre Kurd.

EU hope

"Until last year, we couldn't even register our children with a Kurdish name," he continues. However, the European Union's (EU) demands that Turkey afford Kurds more civil rights as a prerequisite to gaining EU membership, gave the Kurds a few more liberties as of November last year. "The European Union has forced Turkey to give us more rights," says M. "Now, for example, we can ask for a translator in court. However, our people don't know their rights. And, anyway, even today, if I sing three songs in Kurdish, I will be afraid."

This fear prevented adults from participating in the celebrations. "The children made fires and they [Turkish security forces] put them out and beat them," says a Gizre taxi driver. "The adults, we are afraid."

Throughout the neighborhoods of the city, the small children rolled tires determinedly into the narrow, pitted alleys of the ramshackle neighborhoods or out to the edges of the town. There they quickly lit them as part of the ancient ritual fire celebrations, jumping over the flames for "purification" as the older people watched warily from doorways and balconies.

As if on cue, an armored Turkish jeep with a revolving machine gun on its roof, rumbled down the road a few minutes later, scattering the children screaming and running in different directions. Five security men got out and kicked the burning tire into the puddles, dousing the flames.

"This is the 15th or 16th fire we've put out since six this morning," says a civilian-dressed Turkish security man with a machine gun swung over his shoulder at three in the afternoon. He came with four other security agents and one policeman in uniform. "This is not important work, but we are `FBI' and this is our job today," he said, adding that "Kurds are our brothers."

But, his colleague, the policeman, disagreed: "We must do this, Kurds are bad." None of the five were from the Kurdish-populated area of Turkey; all had been sent to Gizre for two years' service.

Turkish fears of Kurdish desire for secession go back to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. The Kurds, who number some 20 to 25 million and are concentrated in an area spanning southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Iran and parts of Syria, were promised in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres their own state. But Turkey forced a renegotiation of the treaty, and the Kurds were left without a state. Those living within Turkish borders became part of the new Turkish nation which attempted to unite the various ethnic groups living within it. However, the Kurds did not take well to this, rebelling in 1925 against attempts to assimilate them. A deal was struck in 1937, leaving the Kurds to their own devices, but also leaving the area undeveloped, without investment from the government.

According to R., an 18-year-old from Gizre, the economy is the biggest problem for the Kurdish area of Turkey: "Everyone is leaving here." However, he maintains, racial discrimination is a problem as well. "When the military stop and check buses, they only take down the Kurds and make us wait sometimes for hours," he says. "I don't want a separate country, I just want rights. R. tells of his troubles when celebrating Nawrus with friends: "We lit a fire and about 30 minutes later, a friend told us that police are coming so we ran away. Some people who were just passing by got hit by the police with batons."

The leftist-guerrilla Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) was formed in 1978, headed by Abdullah Ocalan. In 1984, the PKK staged its first attack, killing Turkish soldiers. Since then until Ocalan's capture in 1999, over 30,000 people, including civilians, have died in the conflict with the Kurds.

"In my opinion, Turkish people and Kurdish people are inseparable," says M. "I don't want autonomy, but if I can watch a movie in English on TV, I want to be able to watch a Kurdish film," continues M. "If I can speak in my own language, live my culture, do my traditional dance, and light my fire, why would I want to separate from Turkey? I just want my rights."