The Catch 22 of finding the truth about mass graves

‘You can’t go there’, two police officers in a car tell us. I pretend to be a tourist and say: ‘But I know the view from there is so nice, why can’t we go and see it, I was here before with no problem’. ‘Maybe so’, they reply, ‘but now you can’t go.’ I smile and tell them they make me so curious about what is going on. ‘Don’t be curious’, is their final answer. ‘Just, something happened there and you can’t go.’

Of course, I knew what was going on there, and why my assistant and I couldn’t go. Right in the middle of Diyarbakir, at a historic tourist site, a mass grave has been found by accident. There were archaeological excavations going on, and all of a sudden, skulls were found. Initially organisations like the Human Rights Association could go and take a look, but soon the site was closed off and excavations controlled by the state. The bones that are found are being sent to a forensic lab in Istanbul. The first speculations are that the bones are of people killed by Jitem, an illegal group within the gendarmerie that is responsible for many killings and disappearances in southeast Turkey, mainly in the eighties and nineties. Not hard to imagine: the mass grave is right next to a building formerly used by Jitem.

Digging machines

The Human Rights Organisation (IHD) doesn’t trust the state excavations. Turkey doesn’t allow any independent supervision of the sensitive investigation of mass graves, of which there are a lot in Turkey, as you can see on this IHD map. The work is often done with digging machines, destroying evidence that could shed light on the way people died and, when murder is involved, who the killers were. The unsubtle investigations also affect the quality of DNA samples that could lead to identifying the bones, and thus give the families of missing persons information about the fate of their loved ones.

For this reason, IHD no longer tries to push the state to open mass graves. As long as international standards are not followed when excavating mass graves, they think it’s better to leave the graves untouched. Only when the state is one day willing to seriously and openly investigate the mass graves, then it will be time to open them.

Best samples

But Tahir Elci, a lawyer that represents many families of missing persons, doesn’t agree. He tells me that he believes as many mass graves as possible should be opened as soon as possible. ‘The DNA of the remains have to be secured, so we can get the best samples possible’. He is less pessimistic about the efforts of the state to research properly: ‘It is true that international standards are not being followed, but I have no reason to think the forensic lab or the state willingly frustrate the investigation and cover up evidence.’

I decided to ask a forensic expert about which story makes more sense. Is it better to keep the graves closed until all standard procedures are being followed, or should they be opened despite the bad research, just to secure DNA? I soon got an answer from Professor Sue Black, an expert on human identification. ‘It’s a Catch 22’, she mails me. ‘If mass graves are to be investigated, then they have to be to the highest evidential standard, especially if you seek to prosecute perpetrators and achieve secure identifications. It is also true that DNA degrades with time, so the longer you leave the remains in the ground, then the less likely you are to extract a full profile. However, if the excavations are done badly, then your chances of extracting source rather than contaminant DNA is lowered and your chances of a successful identification being achieved are lessened.’


‘The solution is’, Sue Black continues, ‘to plan well and not waste time – but both (planned excavations and source DNA extractions) are expensive’. IHD and lawyer Tahir Elci plea for an independent expert institute to investigate Turkey’s mass graves. That such an institute doesn’t exist, is not a matter of money, since the government always manages to find enormous amounts of money to invest in, for example, (disputed) infrastructure and city development projects. It’s a matter of choice. Turkey is obviously not ready yet to make concrete steps into solving the Kurdish issue and thoroughly investigate the horrors that happened in the recent past. It makes the talk of Prime Minister Erdogan about democratisation sound very hollow once again.

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