The fight between Kurdish seperatist movement PKK and the Turkish army was at its dirtiest in the nineteen-nineties. Hundreds of (alleged) PKK sympathisers were killed or disappeared without a trace. Who was responsible? It was thought “Jitem”, a secret anti-terrorism unit of the military police. The bodies were dumped in wells, fields and rivers. Now that Turkey is democratizing, the search for the bodies has begun.
Lawyer Tahir Elçi is quite excited: he just got new information about a murdered Kurd for whom he has been searching on behalf of the family for years. A former member of Jitem has revealed details about that murder in a newspaper article. Elçi: ‘With information about the possible location of the body, I can apply for a search at the public prosecutor’s office. Then maybe the family will finally get their answers.’
It was a tough fight in the nineteen-nineties in the south east of Turkey: the war between Kurdish separatist movement PKK and the Turkish army was at its peak. In that part of the country alone the PKK committed hundreds of murders. The response from the Turkish army was the foundation, at the end of the eighties, of Jitem, a (secret) anti terrorism and intelligence service.
Jitem, first mentioned in the Turkish media in 1994, worked with the military but also with ex PKK members. One of them was Abdulkadir Aygan, by now also former Jitem member and living as a refugee in Sweden. Earlier this year, he talked about his past to several newspapers. He declared, just like other former Jitem members, that nobody who fell into the hands of Jitem would come out of it alive. Victims were mostly normal citizens who had alleged ties with or sympathy for the PKK, but also Kurdish intellectuals and sometimes random citizens. According to international human rights organisations and the Turkish human rights association IHD, Jitem committed thousands of murders and around 1200 people are still missing.
The bodies were left in fields and rivers and under bridges, but also sometimes in wells on the land of Turkey’s national oil and gas company, close to a military base near the town of Silopi, near the Iraqi border. These ‘death wells’ became the symbolic name for all the dumping places of Jitem. Tahir Elçi: ‘Whenever a body was discovered by accident, authorities took it away and gave it an anonymous grave in a randomly chosen cemetery.’
Who was killed and buried or dumped where, is mostly unknown. Local authorities usually know where the anonymous Jitem graves can be found, but a large scale search hasn’t started as yet. For that, the whole matter is too sensitive: even the very existence of the organisation is still officially denied.
Bones and a scull
Families looking for the remains of their loved ones have to hire a lawyer who can file a request with the public prosecutor to search and dig at a specific place. But it’s not easy to find out where the remains are. Tahir Elçi: ‘It involves an enormous area and it’s not always clear where to dig exactly.’ Besides, witnesses are often still scared to open their mouths. What helps is reading the newspapers closely, both Turkish and foreign: more and more often ex Jitem members are telling their stories. Last spring the first death wells were opened, but besides some human bones and a scull, not much has been found yet.
The fact that the existence of the death wells is making it into the newspapers more often has everything to do with the investigation into ‘Ergenekon’, which started in 2007 with the discovery of weapons in Istanbul. Ergenekon is a shadowy, ultranationalist organisation of (former) military, politicians and journalists, and that has been known in Turkey for decades as the ‘deep state’, a state within the state. In the nineties, the ‘deep state’ was involved in the fight against the PKK, and nowadays Ergenekon allegedly wants to destabilize the AKP government.
In the meantime, dozens of court cases are pending against Ergenekon suspects. One of the most important is former general Veli Küçük, who, besides being a big shot within Ergenekon, is also mentioned as one of the founders of Jitem. Other Ergenekon suspects are also said to have top positions within Jitem. One of those has admitted his involvement in Jitem. Now Jitem has come to be seen as the military arm of Ergenekon.
To find and identify the victims of Jitem, human rights organisations and lawyers are now pleading for the foundation of a data base about the people who were killed or disappeared in the nineties: personal data, found human remains and clothes and other personal items, pictures of bodies, DNA material. In this way family members might find their loved ones’ remains and the information could be useful in court cases. Tahir Elçi is sceptical: ‘The current government has more respect for human rights than any of its predecessors, but still I don’t think such a data-base will come about any time soon. The political climate in Turkey is not ready for that yet.’