Coming to Terms with War Crimes in Turkey

The Dead Are Climbing out of the Wells

In the 1990s the Turkish army killed tens of thousands of Kurds in the dirty war against the PKK. Now these political crimes are coming to light. Details from Istanbul provided by Michael Thumann

PKK militiamen in Northern Iraq, close to the border to Turkey (photo: AP)
The Turkish army still denies the existence of secret murder troops, but now investigators are uncovering evidence – with the backing of the conservative government under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan

​​ It's a beautiful place, southeastern Turkey. Some reach for their cameras at the sight, others set up their easels. The small village near the town of Cizre on the border to Iraq no longer has a sign indicating its whereabouts or any inhabitants; it's not on any map. Violet-coloured flowers grow wild across the roads, ivy has overgrown the stone houses, and old wooden doors are hanging askew, green with moss.

The Tigris wends its way lazily over the plain, while opposite the jagged peaks of the Cudi Mountains rise up. Gorgeous. What a pity the Turkish army doesn't want any visitors here. Recently, however, criminal investigators have shown up in deserted villages like this one, and among them, unrecognised, journalists as well. It's only the former residents who no longer dare come here.

A beautiful landscape of executions

When Leyla was forced to leave her home village in summer 1993, she thought she had lost everything. But that was only the beginning. As Leyla and her family fled, their small house burned down to the ground. The pomegranate trees, the grapevines, the goats in their stall, the milking shed – all that remained were ashes.

The gendarmerie drove the Kurdish family out of the village. Leyla's husband had just turned 22. They beat him and dragged him away, down to the river. Screams could be heard coming from that direction, then shots and screaming again.

After an hour, Leyla and her aunt dared to go down to the river. Five men lay there, two burnt, two riddled with bullets and one whose brain flowed out of his skull, his stomach hanging from the gaping wound in his belly. Leyla pushed her husband's insides back into his body as best she could. She dragged her husband back to the village. And somehow she was lucky, she says today. She was able to bury her husband.

This was Turkey in 1993. A country where the army made war on its own citizens. A country where, in the "battle against the terror" of the Kurdish PKK guerrillas, thousands of villages were wiped out and tens of thousands of people murdered – virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world, which was preoccupied back then with Serbian crimes in Bosnia.

A country where shepherds and lawyers, farmers and human rights activists simply disappeared. A country where rock crevices, wood stoves and acid-filled wells replaced orderly burials. Here in southeastern Anatolia, between the Cudi Mountains and the banks of the Tigris, lies this landscape of executions, death shafts, and the unlimited dominion of the gendarmes.

Bones supply evidence

Army jets of the Turkish army (photo: AP)
The "deep state", a term referring to the impenetrable power structures of the military, security forces and bureaucracy, none of whom feel subject to law and order, is gradually being brought to light

​​ For fifteen long years, silence shrouded the region. There were only rumours. But now bones have been found that supply evidence for what the army and the gendarmerie have let grass and flowers grow over. Human bones retrieved from old wells, scraps of clothing found in the fields, pieces of skull turning up in gravel factories. Investigators are excavating the ground bit by bit – with the backing of the conservative government under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.

The "deep state", a term referring to the impenetrable power structures of the military, security forces and bureaucracy, none of whom feel subject to law and order, is gradually being brought to light under Tayyip Erdoğan. A further chapter is being added to the ongoing confrontation between the freely elected government and what has traditionally been the final authority in Turkey – the army. Survivors of the victims of the nineties are gathering up their courage and beginning to speak out.

A farmhouse high over the town of Silopi on the Iraq border. Leyla and her friend Zeynep couldn't be more different. Leyla, 35 years old, looks like 50. She's gaunt, her headscarf drawn tightly around forehead and chin. Zeynep is in her mid-40s and seems more relaxed, with her loosely tied headscarf and flowing clothing enveloping her sturdy body. Two of her sons sit against a wall facing her. High above, just under the ceiling, hangs a hand-coloured black-and-white photograph of their dead father and brothers.

Ten minutes to leave home

One morning in 1993, the gendarmerie apprehended Zeynep's husband, a farmer. Beets, potatoes and hazelnuts made up his narrow world. He had nothing to do with the troops of PKK fighters up in the hills. The soldiers hung him for seven days by his arms; he spent seven nights on the rack under fluorescent lights. They beat his feet, arms, back, genitals. Then they let him go. "Zeynep", he told her, "I want to leave this village. I won't survive another week like that."

A few days later, soldiers suddenly appeared in the kitchen. Zeynep was just making breakfast. "So now you're fighting in pyjamas?" she laughed. The family was given ten minutes to leave their home. As Zeynep left the house through the front door with her four children, the back rooms were already burning. But her husband had to go with the soldiers.

The trail of the men who were abducted throughout the Cudi Mountains region can be partially reconstructed today. One path leads to a bright-yellow blooming rapeseed field not far from the main road to Iraq. The warm air smells of springtime. All that's left of Sinan's restaurant is a concrete ruin. The walls and roof are pockmarked with bullet holes. Old graffiti tells of the hatred of the soldiers for their victims – and more recent scrawls of the Kurdish inhabitants' fury at the soldiers.

Human remains in wells

In the corner stands the broken oven with an opening that is much too large for only pita bread and pizza. Turkish special forces expelled Sinan in 1993 and set up an execution site here. The shots from the automatic weapons could be heard all the way to the next village.

Nearby, on the grounds of a gravel factory, there were wells. Their covers have been broken open. The investigators found the remains of skulls, elbows, ribs and hair. The acid did not obliterate all traces of the bodies.

Turkish civil servants are investigating the vestiges of a Turkish reign of terror – which is tantamount to a coup. They are digging in the acid cisterns, in the cellars of the gendarmerie, into a past that some people would like to pretend never happened. This is probably the most complex uncovering of state crimes since the founding of the republic in 1923. Arduously, the agents are revealing step-by-step a network of radical Kemalist officers, gendarmes, state officials, journalists and professors.

A wide-flung web of conspiracy

The "Ergenekon Network" wanted to protect Turkey against its enemies – Kurds, Christians, Jews, the EU, America – and terrorised Turkish citizens to achieve its aims.

Turkish soldier on guard omn a graveyard (photo: AP)
According to estimates, four out of five of the unsolved murders in southeastern Turkey were the doing of JITEM, a secret task force of the Turkish army

​​ Part of the wide-flung web of conspiracy was a secret task force whose existence the General Staff and the gendarmerie still obstinately deny today, but which ex-agents have attested to. Abkülkadir Aygan worked for nine years for the secret task force JITEM. He is a Kurd and fought until 1985 for the Kurdish PKK, killing Turkish nationalists. Then he went over to the other side.

The Turkish gendarmerie first put him in prison to protect him from the revenge of the PKK. His family was given a nice apartment, and Aygan got a new name, an immaculate police record and a social insurance policy. JITEM takes care of its employees. Today Aygan lives in exile in Stockholm. He is telling the investigators where to dig. Aygan told the Turkish newspaper "Taraf" that four out of five of the unsolved murders in southeastern Turkey were the doing of JITEM.

Anyone suspected of working with the PKK received a visit from the task force. "Our job: abducting these people, interrogating them, executing them, getting rid of the bodies somehow, by burning or submerging them." Aygan personally witnessed thirty executions. JITEM did the army's dirty work, he says. Sometimes the victims were farmers and other times indiscreet lovers, or children. He estimates that 15,000 people were murdered. "JITEM's operations always ended in death, no exceptions."

"Ask the PKK about your husband"

Zeynep wanted to know for sure. She went to police stations in the towns in the Cudi Mountains, to Silopi, Cizre, Sirnak. The gendarmerie demanded money before they would provide any information: six million lira, or more than a farmer earns in a year. Her village collected money for Zeynep. The gendarmerie took the money and, as thanks, just laughed in her face: "Ask the PKK about your husband."

In her despair Zeynep ate too much and became diabetic. She was plagued by nightmares for fifteen years. The gendarmes were in her kitchen again. Loading their guns. Setting the house on fire. Taking her husband away.

In one bad dream he called her on the phone. He screamed that he was on a far-away island where the soldiers were eating him alive, today a foot, tomorrow a hand, and then the rest. "He was there, on this island", says Zeynep. "They ate him up, but I want a rib, a hair, a piece of him so I know what happened to him."

The Turkish General Staff seething with anger

The investigators are trying to identify the remains found in the wells using DNA testing. And the police and justice officials are arresting more and more members of the Ergenekon terror network, JITEM commanders and police officers from southeastern Turkey. Among them is the former mayor of Cizre, a multiple murderer whose crimes were expunged from his police record, and who belonged in the nineties to almost all of Turkey's major political parties.

Ahmet Kaya, a 76-year-old Turkish Kurd, enjoys the sun as his grandson Feyyaz Kaya, 8, recites the Muslim's holy book or Koran in the ghetto outside of Diyarbakir
The Kurdish ghetto outside of Diyarbakir houses thousands of people who fled their villages during clashes between Turkish security forces and rebels of the PKK

​​His election to the office of mayor was fixed, his vengeance genuine. People like him dominated southeastern Turkey in the nineties. People like Brigadier General Levent Ersöz, gendarmerie commander in the Southeast and the JITEM leader who set up the "republic of terror" in Sirnak. Last year he fled from the investigators to Moscow, a refuge for villains. But he was later caught when he checked into a hospital in Ankara under a false name.

Several highly decorated Turkish ex-generals have now joined Ersöz behind bars. They can read about their crimes every day in the papers. The Turkish General Staff is seething with anger. Human rights organisations are accusing the generals of doing everything they can to hinder the investigations. The national Kemalist elites and their mass media by contrast are accusing Erdoğan's government of conducting a political vendetta.

While the public prosecutors are maintaining strict silence, mass arrests and investigative slip-ups are fuelling gossip. Recently, coroners found dog bones on their examination table instead of human remains. Nobody knows what feints the army and gendarmerie will come up with next. But until now they have kept astoundingly quiet. In the Turkey of 2009.

Kurds in the Turkish army

It is the homeland of the Kurdish woman Zeynep. This became clear to her all over again seven years ago, when soldiers once again appeared at her door. This time without guns pointed at her. But they took away one of her sons – to do military service. Leyla's sons must also go into the army. For the two women this was pure torture. Would they now lose their sons as well to the "deep state"?

At the time, Zeynep wanted to gather up her family and flee. To Saddam Hussein's Iraq, to the UN protection zones for Kurds in the northern part of the country. But her relatives persuaded her to stay. Her son came back from military duty, unscathed. Like Leyla's sons.

"Life has become more bearable since those horrible days", says Zeynep, and Leyla nods. But they still can't forgive the Turkish state. "Too much has happened for that", Zeynep sighs, pointing to the pictures of the men of the family who vanished and were killed hanging on the wall.

Her sons have only vague memories of their abducted father. They were too little at the time. They know he was a farmer and that he disappeared at some point. And they know that his brother fought and died for the PKK in the nineties. For Zeynep's sons, their uncle is the hero.

Michael Thumann

© DIE ZEIT / Qantara.de 2009

Michael Thumann is Middle East bureau chief for the German weekly newspaper "DIE ZEIT".

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