In War-Ravaged Southern Turkey, a Man Searched for His Missing Brother
Government's brutal crackdown has shattered Kurdish families
Sakir Gokalp knew the procedure. His mother was dead and his elderly father couldn’t face the trips to morgue. Plus, he had seen mutilated bodies before.
“They cut their noses, they cut their eyes, their mouths — everything,” Gokalp said. “One boy was run over by tanks. His body was like minced meat. Some of the bodies had been eaten by dogs. You couldn’t see anything.”
I met Gokalp in Dicle Firat, a small Kurdish cultural center in the neighborhood of Sur in the city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey in the spring of 2016. Once a lifeline for families looking for loved ones, the center — adorned with the faces of missing young people — was shut down by authorities following the failed July 2016 coup in Turkey.
Sakir had been traveled throughout the country’s southeast, looking for his brother. “The government said they have 15 bodies, eight of those were in the morgue in Malatya and seven are in Elazig,” he said. “I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see anyone. It was just bits of bodies.”
On warm spring days, Sakir traveled for hours with relatives of other young Kurds, each of them searching for someone. Mothers, sisters and brothers, all walking the fragile precipice between closure and hope.
A woman Sakir met at the morgue found her 14-year-old son. He’d been “neutralized” for being a member of the PKK-backed Kurdish Civil Defense Units — the YPS. The boy died on the streets of Sur, miles from his home in Diyarbakir, the so-called “capital of the Kurds.”
Ahmet, Sakir’s younger brother, had taken the guerilla name “Reber Varto” and had been fighting with the YPS in Sur.
Ahmet, pictured at top, had joined the YPS on Feb. 28, 2016. He was just 18. Like many young Kurds, he’d watched videos of ISIS fighters rampaging in the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobani. He’d been enraged by Turkey’s indifference to both the Kurds’ suffering and the free movement of jihadists across the Turkey-Syria border.
Following the ancestral footsteps of countless Kurds before him, Ahmet had left his studies and joined the guerilla movement. He’d eventually made his way to northern Syria, an area the Kurds call “Rojava,” or “Western Kurdistan.”
After sustaining a serious injury in Syria, Ahmet had been hospitalized for 28 days. “He is a moral person, a proud Kurd,” Sakir said. People around him nodded in silence, clutching framed pictures of their own missing loved ones.
A view of Sur showing widespread destruction
In 2016, while Kurdish fighters gained ground in Syria, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey met with brute force from Ankara. The fragile peace process between Ankara and the Kurdish Workers Party — the PKK — collapsed.
In Kurdish towns and cities such as Silopi, Cizre, Batman, Diyarbakir and Silvan, the YPS built barricades and declared a form of self-government as Turkish jets whizzed overhead en route to bomb Kurdish enclaves in Iraq and Syria. Turkish tanks rolled in. Checkpoints appeared on every corner.
Nearly 500,000 people fled their homes. Others endured life under 24-hour curfew — a “necessary precaution,” according to Turkish officials.
Videos eventually trickled out from the curfew areas, usually via Twitter accounts linked to various Turkish special forces groups. Soldiers dragged bodies down streets and cut off the breasts of female YPS fighters.
Civilians who managed to leave during the sporadic breaks in the curfew spoke of towns and cities being completely demolished. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed he would “rebuild Sur like Toledo.”
The government covered ruined sections of Sur with white tarps to hide them from foreign observers. In February 2016, a small group of wire journalists and locals gathered to record the “unveiling” of a street in Sur. Special forces faced the small media pack. The tarp came down, revealing half-destroyed buildings. The local people peered over the cameras and tutted.
Ahmet had called his father sometime in early March 2016. “I’m in Sur,” he’d said. “Don’t be sad. I’m fighting for those who can’t.”
Ahmet Gokalp was killed in Sur on March 10, 2016. He was 19. His fellow guerrillas buried him in Sur, but he would not rest there.
The government exhumed his body and brought it to Malatya, a city known for its pro-Erdogan population. That’s where Sakir finally found Ahmet. Sakir cried when he recalled burying his brother’s decomposed, mutilated body in May 2016.
Meanwhile, thousands of Kurds were crowding into refugee camps in southern Turkey. Others slipped across the border into Iraq to join the PKK … and fight back.
More Ahmets leaving behind more Sakirs.