Fleeing a Restricted Zone, Witnesses Describe Turkish Military Brutality
Civilians say they are afraid for their loved ones still inside
Civilians looking for help filled the small offices of the neighborhood council in Sur, a Kurdish district in Turkey’s volatile southeast. Old women huddled together as officials took names, addresses and requests for assistance.
“I come here because I have psychological problems. Look at me,” 28-year-old Yeter Kaya said, pulling down her hijab to show her greyed hair.
As she spoke, Turkish bombardments rumbled in the background. For nearly two months, Sur has been under a 24-hour curfew as Turkish forces battle with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — or PKK — and the recently formed Civil Protection Units.
Kaya fled her home eight days into the curfew, when Turkish forces facilitated a brief respite for civilians to leave. She told War Is Boring that discovering the fate of loved ones still locked inside the restricted areas is becoming impossible.
“Every day I hear the bombings and shooting but I don’t know what’s happening to my friends and family,” Kaya said. “I know many of them are dead but they will not give us the bodies back. They leave the bodies outside the mosques for the cats and dogs to eat. When we asked for the body of our brother-in-law they decapitated him and gave us back his head.”
Ankara vehemently denies claims that Turkish forces mutilate corpses, despite footage released last year that showed Turkish soldiers dragging the body of a Kurdish man behind a vehicle in the province of Sira. The footage sparked an international outcry, yet Ankara defended the soldiers’ actions, saying it was a precautionary measure as bodies of those killed in the fighting are often booby trapped.
Members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party say they appealed to Ankara to allow relatives of those killed in the fighting to retrieve and bury the bodies of those inside in the restricted areas. But the government cut communication with Kurdish parties, DPS co-chair Hafiz İpek said during an interview in the party’s offices in downtown Diyarbakir.
“We’ve asked the state countless times to give back the bodies of those killed in the fighting but they will not engage in dialogue,” she said. “We have families desperate to bury their dead children. To have some dignity for themselves and their loved ones.”
At top and above — bomb damage in Sur, Turkey. Below — a Kurdish Civil Protection Units barricade. Photos via Kurdish social media
As the military bombardment increased, legislators in Ankara rushed through laws that allow for the speedy burial bodies in the curfew areas. On Jan. 7, an executive order allowed authorities to bury those killed in the fighting if relatives did not collect the bodies within three days.
A second order permitted local authorities to bury bodies immediately without funerals if they feel the delivery of the body to the families — or a funeral — could lead to social upheaval and violence.
Families awaiting news of loved ones claim these laws could be used to mutilate bodies and prevent relatives from seeing the condition of the corpses inside the cut off areas. “How will we know who is dead?” İpek said. “How will we know what happens to the youth inside? The families leave but they young stay and fight. We will never know who who killed them and how they were killed.”
Last week, three MPs from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party party announced they have begun a hunger strike in support of more than 20 people allegedly locked in a basement in the closed town of Cizre. HDP officials claim they were told ambulances would be sent to the house to treat those wounded in the conflict, but discovered later the house was under fire that day. The Turkish Health Ministry later announced it had tried to set up a safe point for ambulances to collect the wounded but that this was rejected.
Earlier that same week, two families ended their three-week hunger strike after receiving the bodies of their relatives killed 31 days prior. The father of Mehmet Oran, who died in Sur, said his son had been disemboweled and decapitated, and claims he identified his son’s body by a mark on his dismembered arm.
Multiple reports from those who fled the curfew in Sur claim that Turkish war songs played through the town’s public address system and the word “Esedullah” or “Lion of God” is graffitied on the town’s walls — the mark of a new breed of Turkish special forces whom locals describe as wearing black clothes and long beards.
Despite HDP requests for information on the special forces operating in the curfew regions, there is little information about the “team of Esedullah” soldiers. And with access to whole of southeastern Turkey’s Kurdish regions tightly restricted, members of the local medical community have held protests demanding access to the wounded inside the curfew towns.
Speaking at one of the nightly demonstrations in Diyarbakir, Dr. Baran — a plastic surgeon working in the city — said doctors are growing increasingly frustrated. “We treat everyone, we took the Hippocratic Oath, but when you are constantly treating soldiers and militants and are forbidden access to children and civilians, well, you have to say something,” Baran said.
Members of the medical community claim they have reached out to international organizations but are routinely ignored, a sentiment echoed by Gülistan Yalçındağ from the Human Rights Association, an Ankara-based non-governmental organization.
“We are very surprised at the international community’s silence on the human rights violations here in Turkey,” she said. “The E.U. is looking at this from the prism of the refugee crises, where they see Turkey as an ally. People prefer to ignore human rights and look at this from a political angle but people are dying every day and that’s reality for Kurds here.”
While the European Union bolsters its agreements with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees to EU countries, many worry that Turkey’s Kurds could make up the next tide of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East.
For Kaya and her two-year-old daughter Cudi, the future is unknown. But she says she is determined not to relive the violent scenes of the past few months.
“I had to stuff Cudi’s ears with cloth to stop her from hearing the bombings,” Kaya said. “One day I was up on the roof getting wood and the snipers shot at me. I never stood up straight again after that. If I could tear up my I.D. card and throw it in the sea I would.”
“I want to leave.”