Five hundred days later

Let me first describe the scenery. A sand road in a mountainous area, some 35 people sitting beside it, including me. To our left, after the road takes a bend to the right: a road block with an armoured vehicle, red and white tape cordon, barbed wire, a ‘restricted area’ sign and some twenty military personnel. On the hill top high above: a group of at least a hundred people who went around the road block to reach the place where they wanted to commemorate their loved ones, who died in an air force bombing exactly 500 days ago.

In Ortasu Roboski village, people get ready for the commemoration of the massacre.

The plan was pretty simple: the families of the 34 people who died in the Roboski massacre on 28 December 2011 wanted to walk to the exact spot where the massacre happened and leave 34 carnations there, to commemorate their loved ones on the 500th day after the bombing. The place where it happened is on a hill-top right on the Turkish-Iraqi border, by the stone border marker.

The 34 people were bombed while smuggling. The smuggling resumed after the bombing, and continues to this day. There is not much other work in the region, and the villages of Ortasu (Kurdish name Roboski) and Gülyazi (Kurdish name Bejuh) are so close to the border that smuggling has been a logical way to make a living for decades.

The front of the walk towards the place where the massacre happened.

The people gathered in Ortasu, the first part of the way was covered with tractors, minibuses and cars. The last part of maybe two kilometres on foot, the women holding banners at the front. What was expected happened: the last section of the road was blocked by the army. Two members of the local branch of the Human Rights Association and a lawyer went to talk to the army, to try to convince them to let the families through, but in vain. A statement came from the armoured vehicle: the army couldn’t let the people through, for their own good: it was a dangerous area with land mines. The crowd booed.

Road block. Between the hills, right next to the lowest point: the place where the massacre happened.

Then suddenly, a few young guys started running to the right, followed a small path for a short distance and started climbing up the mountain, around the army blockade. Some army personnel ran towards them, but soon went back to their positions – apparently they got the order to let the people pass. Soon others followed, including almost all the mothers and wives of the men who had been killed.

I followed them briefly to take pictures, but didn’t run up with them to the border stone. Going to that place is considered an illegal border crossing, and in these circumstances it was also officially entering a restricted military area. Citizens of Turkey get fined for that, but foreigners like me might be thrown out of the country, and I decided not to take that risk. The others who stayed behind were with small children, couldn’t make the rather steep climb physically or had reasons not to risk getting arrested or fined.

Mothers by the road block.

Soon we saw the group appear as small black puppets on the top of the hill by the border stone. It was around 1 pm, and nobody was sure what was going to happen next. Phone contact with the group up there was impossible, since there was no mobile coverage. The only thing left for the people who decided to stay behind, was to sit down beside the road in the shade and wait. I was part of that group.

After some two hours, army helicopters appeared. Well, at least one of them was there the whole time, but now three of them landed right in front of us and disgorged altogether 35 soldiers in battle dress, as if some war was going on. That’s when I got the feeling we were watching some surreal film. They ran towards us because that’s where the road was, and one of the villagers, actually one of the survivors of the massacre, was friendly enough to open the wooden gate of the land the choppers landed on to let the soldiers pass. I never cease to be amazed by the friendliness of the people here.

Army helicopter brings in soldiers.

The soldiers ran alongside the road block and dispersed on the same mountain the people had climbed to get to the border stone. Apparently, it was concluded, the plan of the army was to arrest the illegal border crossers as they came down from the mountain. Again, talks between the army and representatives of the community started. Two villagers were allowed to walk up to the group by the border stone to hear what their plan was. After going up and down twice, the soldiers promised not to take anybody into custody. But the group didn’t trust the promise, and announced they would stay up there till 6 and demanded that the soldiers leave before that. From a distance, we heard them shouting slogans.

The soldiers then ordered the remainder of the group to leave, saying that if we left, they would leave too. After some discussion, the group decided to give the soldiers the benefit of the doubt. They would go, but wait just a few hundred metres down the road. The armoured vehicle and the road block weren’t visible anymore, but the group on the hill-top was. Now and then slogans were heard, echoing in the valley.

Two young men coming back from the massacre commemoration, the site of the massacre visible in the background.

And right at six o’clock, the group started to descend from the mountain. It took some twenty or thirty minutes before they were down and reached the group that had stayed behind. The army kept its word and didn’t take them into custody, but they did break another promise they were said to have made: they filmed all the people coming down, so they could be identified and prosecuted later. That’s why many villagers coming down covered their faces with shawls or hid them with tree branches.

34 Carnations were left behind by the border stone. One of the fathers had an especially emotional time, since he found the mobile phone of his son who was massacred there, recognizing it by the initials that were carved into it.

The road block, set up especially to hinder the commemoration, was removed. This week, the smuggling will resume. As always, the illegal trade will be tolerated again. But commemorating the death of dozens of people killed by the state in the way the villagers deem fit is still strictly forbidden.

All pics by me. Click to enlarge. More pictures on the Kurdish Matters Facebook page

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