Category Archives: Kobane

At the martyrs’ cemetery – death and destruction in a Turkish military security zone in Kurd country

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On the day before Turkey’s 1 November election I and my colleagues visited a vast “security zone” where the Turkish army has been fighting PKK guerrillas since the end of recent peace talks … and for years before they started. We saw fields burnt by military operations, a cemetery whose mosque was destroyed by soldiers, met a young man who appeared to be a guerrilla and the mayor of a village accused of collaboration with the state.

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Faik Magar and his wife on their way to Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Dicle, 31 October 2015

I don’t really want to talk to the man on the donkey – I want to press on to the village where NGO activists in Diyarbakir are supposed to have arranged contacts for us – but it turns out he has plenty to say.

“Look around you!” he says, indicating a huge plane nestling between mountains. “You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land.”

He’s called Faik and he’s on the way to Diyarbakir with his wife because she is ill. Although she’s the one who’s ill, he’s riding the donkey, we comment afterwards, although we ourselves neglected to ask her name.

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A house destroyed by firebombing at Arikli, Diyarbakir province Photo: Tony Cross

The fields around us are bare. A house nearby has been destroyed. This area several kilometres north of Diyrabakir city, has been declared a security zone by the Turkish army and in July helicopters firebombed the area, destroying crops and homes, as Faik points out.

Although he doesn’t volunteer the information straight away, the firebombing followed a battle with PKK fighters in the nearby mountains and, apparently, the guerrillas dig tunnels in which to shelter, as did the NLF during the Vietnam War.

As we talk a helicopter flies overhead. As experienced radio journalists, we point out microphones in the air to record the sound. Experienced as he is in life in a zone of interest to the Turkish military, Faik tells us not to, in case they think we’re pointing weapons at them.

We press on to our destination – Sise in Kurdish, Yolçati in Turkish – driving through fields and past the occasional building.

After a couple of wrong turns we find an isolated farmhouse. But where is Sise?

Ebru Ökmen, the French-language interpreter and fixeuse working with my colleague Nicolas Falez, phones our contacts. Turns out where there.

A man comes to greet us. He’s Zeynel, the farmer’s brother, and he’s on a visit from Izmit, where he has lived and worked since leaving the area many years ago. There was a lot more to Sise then, he tells us, but it emptied after the military launched air raids and military operations against the PKK in 1993.

So the area has long experience of combat. According to the rights activists who sent us here, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish state to pay damages for the effects of its operations in the 90s.

“Only people have no other way to survive still live here,” Zeynel says.

Last night there were two drone strikes on the mountains, he tells us. “We weren’t frightened, we’re used to it.”

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Mohammed (L), Zeynel (R) and a bag of watermelons (C) Photo: Tony Cross

Zeynel’s brother; Mohammed, arrives, pushing a wheelbarrow full of watermelons – the local speciality – ready to be kept in the cellar for the winter.

Ten days ago the military bombed the mountains six times. Local people found the bodies of eight PKK fighters afterwards and took them to the “martyrs’ cemetery”, where local guerrillas are buried.

“Twenty-four hours after the aerial bombardment the army arrived by road and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off,” he says.

“They claimed their were munitions hidden under the graves but it’s not possible that there would be munitions hidden in a cemetery,” he goes on. “They did it because they {the people buried there] were PKK. If there were weapons or munitions hidden it would be in the mountains, not in a cemetery.”

The army has taken advantage of the PKK ceasefire to attack the area, says Mohammed. He advises us to visit the cemetery, saying that there could be fighters there.

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Pestil sucuk dries in the sun on Mohammed’s farm Photo: Tony Cross

Before we leave he shows us around the farm. Rows of what look like sausages are drying in the sun. It’s not pork but walnuts wrapped in dried grape pulp. The Turks call it pestil sucuk (fruit pulp sausage). I first came across it in Georgia, where it is called churchkhela. My interpreter, Tayfik, tells me that Armenian women often sell it in Diyarbakir, where it is more widely available than in Istanbul, so this is apparently a Persian-influenced or Caucasian recipe.

One of Mohammed’s sons is in Kobané, the Syrian town seized by Kurdish fighters from Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you prefer to call it.

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The “martyrs’ cemetery” at Sise Photo: Tony Cross

The central part of the cemetery, where the graves are laid out in neat, white rows, is intact. But there is wreckage on three sides of it. A lorry has brought a portakabin that is being installed by a group of about 20 people.

They are relatives of the fighters buried here and the wreckage is where they were camped out to protect the site from the army, they tell us.

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The wreckage of shelters where relatives of the PKK fighters were staying at the cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

If we want to interview someone, we must wait for a “spokesman”.

He arrives a few minutes, later a short, quietly spoken but authoritative young man – he’s 22-years-old, he tells us later, adding that we can’t take his photograph and, at first, telling us not to record but relenting when we point out that this is for radio and that his voice will be dubbed by a translation.

He takes us through the graves to some more twisted masonry and metal – the ruins of the mosque, destroyed by the military who claimed it was an arms cache, he says.

A young woman joins us. She was present when the military arrived.

The relatives brandished the Koran and asked the troops how they could defile the cemetery if they were Muslims, the pair tell us. The soldiers responded by claiming that there were crosses on some of the graves and calling them Armenians, ie Christians.

“We were supposed to be offended but why should we be?” she asks.

Sensing that these two are more than just relatives of the deceased, I ask if the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.

“That depends on the attitude of the AKP,” the young man replies. “If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war.”

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Place of death, Kobane – a grave in front of the ruins of the “martyrs’ cemetery” mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Some of the graves are freshly dug and awaiting headstones, presumably the fighters killed the other day are buried there. Others inform us that the place of death was Kobane.

To listen to my audio report from Sise for RFI click here.

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Men transport a solar panel at Tepebasi Photo: Tony Cross

A few kilometres away is Tepebasi, a village that overlooks a ravine whose rocky sides lead down to a reservoir made from a dam on the river Tigris.

A couple of men transport a solar panel on a donkey – what Lenin would have called  combined and uneven development – and a man with a rifle stands outside the mayor’s house. He’s Mehmet Bozkurt, and the mayor, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is his brother. The rifle appears to be for hunting, although the mayor, who soon arrives and invites us to sit in the sun outside his home, might need some protection.

Tepebasi is the home of the candidate for the ruling AKP in this election. Since the 1990s it has had poor relations with some neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants accused its people of being “village guardians”, a militia funded by the government and viewed as collaborators by the PKK and its supporters.

In the 1990s the PKK attacked the village and kidnapped some villagers for ransom, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt tells us, as we eat figs and dried grape pulp from his garden and sip bitter Turkish tea.

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Tepebasi mayor Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt with one of his sons and his wife, whose name, again, I neglected to ask Photo: Tony Cross

The village receives government subsidies for the organic vines that produce the grape pulp but, despite the dam on its doorstep, sometimes suffers power cuts because the power goes to a nearby town first.

The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children – four boys and five girls – several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife, who hovers in the background as her husband speaks to us.

He won’t be voting AKP, he says. Not quite. It turns out that the AKP candidate’s uncle was squeezed out of the running and left the party to stand as an independent. He’ll be getting Mehmet Yasar’s vote, it appears.

Mehmet Yasar criticises both the government and the PKK for the breakdown of the ceasefire and presents a front of studied neutrality when discussing the conflict, citing a Kurdish proverb, “Keep your mouth shut in the day and the doors shut at night.”

To read my account for RFI of the visit to Sise and Tepbasi click here.

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The river Tigris in Dicle, Diyarbakir province, south-east Turkey Photo: Tony Cross

 

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