‘It will just be a PKK show’, somebody told me when I said I intended to go to the opening of the first PKK ‘martyrs graveyard’ in Turkey. By calling it a show, he dismissed the significance a burial ground has for any political movement, armed or not, that loses people through violence. The PKK is no different in that than the Turkish army, or the Gezi protest movement which shook Turkey earlier this summer and which had deaths to mourn as well. But burial grounds, including those of (armed) political movements, represent pain too. A pain that is too often taken for granted as part of the way to democracy in Turkey.
I saw no tears at the opening of the graveyard. It wasn’t even sad. Defiant would be a better way to describe the atmosphere. When a coffin arrived, slogans were shouted angrily, later guerrilla songs were sung with much emotion, and everybody I talked to spoke passionately about the struggle.
For them, it is important to have a place where their martyrs are buried. Before, this kind of graveyard could only be opened in the Kandil Mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, where the PKK has its base camps and where citizens cannot go. The fighters who are buried here were up till now buried where they died, many of them way back in the nineties. Some of them were in mass graves made by the Turkish army, others buried by fellow fighters. The location of graves is not always known and more mass graves are being discovered, as this article shows. When the remains are identified, they can be properly buried here.
I made a short video of the opening of the graveyard, watch it here:
A PKK show? Of course the opening of this graveyard had a political purpose too. The PKK is withdrawing from Turkey as part of a peace process, while the government hasn’t yet taken any steps to meet any of the legitimate demands of the Kurds, so by such shows of power and presence the PKK can reaffirm its strength in the region. A small group of people I talked to explained it even as a sign of power of the people. I triggered them a bit by asking if it wasn’t obvious that something is changing in Turkey when it is possible to open such a graveyard. ‘This was unthinkable a year ago’, I said, ‘and now the government allows it.’
They firmly rejected that view. It was not the government allowing it, it was the people asserting its rights, they said. One of the women, who didn’t want to give her name, added: “And the government cannot stop us. Yes, that is because of the process going on, but it is Öcalan who decided to take giant steps like a cease fire and a withdrawal. These steps have given the people the strength to open this graveyard today. The army is supposed not to take any action because of the agreement, so what can they do?’ Also, the government has to keep a distance when it comes to something as sacred as burying the dead.”
But it’s more than politics. The peace process is not yet leading to anything concrete in parliament. Now it is summer recess and then in spring there are local elections, so I don’t expect significant steps from the government soon. That doesn’t mean the peace process has failed. You could see it as a setback in a process that can eventually only go forward, even if it sometimes goes in the opposite direction. Even if the violence between the PKK and the state starts again, which might very well happen if the governmentdoesn’t take action – and the PKK has warned Ankara ‘for the last time’ this week – it doesn’t mean all is lost.
What will be lost, though, is more lives. And although I understand that this is a difficult process that may include more deaths, I find it very hard to accept that. Living in this region, travelling around, talking to people, I cannot only look at it politically.
On the way to the opening of the graveyard, in a minibus with some members of the BDP Diyarbakir women’s branch, I talked to an older woman whose son joined the PKK in the nineties. He was wounded and ended up in jail, from where he recently published a book. At the graveyard, a woman in her twenties told me she had a childhood girlfriend who went to the mountains and died. She said: ‘We are a people of pain’.
Two weeks ago, I went to Uludere again, where the massacre took place at the end of December 2011. I talked to a family whose 15 year old son joined the PKK last April. The boy lost three of his closest friends in the massacre. He couldn’t deal with his trauma anymore and left. Will he lose his life if the war starts all over again? Will the family and the village lose another young man to this dirty conflict?
I cannot see this as collateral damage of a troubled peace process. Politics touch the lives and deaths of ordinary people, and I see that here every day. It is impossible for me to leave humanity out of consideration.