The wrong discussion about tear gas

‘It’s not harmful’, Interior Affairs minister Sahin said, referring to tear gas. Still, over the last couple of years, seven people have died in Turkey from the effects of tear gas. For example: two had a heart attack after they were sprayed with tear gas, one died after a tear gas canister hit his head. So, now there is a discussion going about whether or not tear gas is harmful. I would like to raise another question: why aren’t the Turkish police better trained to manage demonstrations, instead of letting them get out of control?

Let me take the death of Metin Lokumcu as an example. He was a teacher from Hopa, a town on the Black Sea coast, not far from the Georgian border. Last year, the AKP election campaign paid Hopa a visit, and of course PM Erdogan was going to speak. In Hopa, the AKP is, to say the least, not much loved. People gathered to demonstrate against the governing party, among them Metin Lokumcu. The demonstration got out of hand, stones were thrown, water cannons and tear gas were used. Matin Lokumcu died, as it turned out later from a heart attack, possibly caused by panic over the tear gas used.

Angels

When the Turkish police use tear gas, they do it in a big way: shot from a riot vehicle at the crowd in general. A few stone throwers are enough to make the police react, sometimes not even one stone thrower is needed for them to take action. Often, just demonstrating is enough. The examples are numerous and all recent: students being attacked by police for protesting against certain politicians visiting their university, union members dispersed while protesting against changes in the education system, leftists in a battle with police while demonstrating against the death of Metin Lokumcu, and so on.

Are the protesters doing nothing wrong? Are they all angels? That is not the point. If there were large scale riots, then the use of teargas might be justified, but that has seldom been the case in the demonstrations at which teargas was used. When just a few people in a crowd throw stones, tear gas should be out of the question, because it can seriously damage the health of people who had peaceful intensions and were just there to exercise their right to demonstrate. But also because teargas only increases the tension – if you didn’t have stone throwers already, you will sure have them after using tear gas.

It is the responsibility of the police and of the Ministry of Interior Affairs to manage demonstrations properly, to make sure they don’t get out of hand. Indeed they have to make sure people can safely exercise their democratic right to demonstrate. The Turkish police are far from doing that. And the first step towards it is to ban the use of tear gas against peaceful protesters – the type of protesters that are by far the majority in Turkey.

Three anonymous Christians

Have you ever heard of Necati Aydin, Ugur Yüksel and Christian Tilmann Geske? Small chance you have, bigger chance you haven’t. They are three Christians (two Turkish, one German) who were brutally tortured and murdered in the East-Turkish city of Malatya in April 2007. This Monday, the court case against the killers and accomplices will resume. The murder is in many ways similar to the murder of Hrant Dink, a few months earlier in 2007. For Hrant, thousands took to the streets with good reason to scream out for justice. No such thing will happen on Monday for Necati, Ugur and Christian. Nobody knew their names before their deaths, nobody came to know them afterwards. I wonder: will their anonymity influence the court case?

I don’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing that no crowds will take to the streets on Monday. In the end, of course, it’s not about how many people cry out for justice, it’s about whether or not justice is done.

Like I said, the Malatya murders and the murder of Hrant Dink are in many ways similar. Both Dink and the three Malatya victims belonged to groups that are deeply mistrusted throughout Turkish society: Armenians – the group to which Dink belonged – have always been considered ‘traitors’, Christians have always been considered part of a foreign conspiracy aiming to weaken Turkey. The murders were carried out by young nationalists, but it was clear from the very beginning they were not acting alone, but were pushed by others to kill and that they were protected by the state after they committed the crime.

Dig deeper 

Also, the court cases can be easily compared: they are mainly aiming at the ones who carried out the murders, not at the accomplices or the ones protecting them. For some time, it seemed the Malatya murder case was going in the right direction because the prosecutor was willing to dig deeper, but he was suddenly taken off the case – one may wonder why, of course. This Monday, most probably anew indictment will be ready, and then it will be clear if the new prosecutor is willing to connect the case to (part of the) Ergenekon case. Both the Dink case and the Malatya case are believed to have been carried out by Ergenekon, part of the ‘deep state’ that will do anything to protect the state.

The Dink murder, the Malatya murders and the Santoro murder (he was a Roman Catholic priest who was murdered in the North-Turkish city of Trabzon in 2006, which is also the home town of the killer of Hrant Dink) are believed to be the last murders carried out by the deep state – the Ergenekon investigations started soon after the Malatya murders, and then the killings stopped.

Overwhelming demand 

So you can say that the way the murders are handled in court says something about how much the deep state is still keeping a firm grip on state institutions, like the judiciary. In the Santoro case, the 16 year old murderer was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment soon after the assassination in 2006, for the rest no probe was carried out, even though there were leads that he didn’t act on his own. In the Dink case, nobody dared or wanted to make the case much bigger than the actual murderer and the man inciting him to kill. Despite the overwhelming demand for justice from thousands and thousands of people. Or because of the public outcry? I do wonder if the judiciary is even more afraid to ‘give in’ to demands for justice when they are so loudly heard, and while the whole nation is watching the system closely.

The Malatya murders are less high profile. Monday, most probably a new indictment will be read. It will make clear to what extent the prosecutor will widen the case beyond the five main suspects. The lawyers of the victims’ families are hopeful, I heard. Will the prosecutors dare to be brave, now that they are watched less closely, now that not tens of thousands are protesting, now that they are handling the case of three anonymous Christians instead of a (posthumous) famous Armenian?

If you have any thoughts about the influence of publicity attracted by a case on the prosecutors’ braveness: the reaction field is open!

A ‘new approach’ to the Kurdish issue: a road leading nowhere

I have not been blogging for over a week. I have been uncertain what to blog about. Recently I have written a lot about oppression of Kurds, and I felt I needed more variety in my subjects. So I was pondering what to write about. But today, I decided to give up. I’m a journalist; it would be ridiculous to blog trivia in these times when the Kurdish issue is all over the news – and not in a pretty way.

A lot has happened since Newroz earlier this month. The two most important developments of the previous week were the one month publication ban for Kurdish paper Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda) because of ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’, and the ‘new approach’ the AKP government is following on the Kurdish issue. The two of them are in total contradiction to each other.

Full force 

The government’s intention is to fight the armed PKK with full force, and at the same time negotiate with the pro-Kurdish BDP. It is interesting to see an apparent change again in how the PKK is looked at in relation to the Kurdish issue.
Before, in the eighties and nineties, in the state’s eyes there was no such thing as the Kurdish issue. Kurds didn’t even exist, so how can there be a Kurdish issue, right? So the whole thing was brought back to ‘terrorism’, related to nothing. Later, when Kurds all of a sudden turned out to exist anyway, the whole Kurdish issue was brought back to the violence of the PKK. The state thought that when it wiped out the PKK, the Kurdish issue would be solved.

Then, at some point in the last decade, talks with the PKK started: apparently it sank in that maybe, just maybe, the existence of the PKK had something to do with the decades-long suppression of Kurds. And now, the two matters have been separated-again: the AKP has stopped talks with the PKK, put leader Öcalan in solitary confinement*), and wants to wipe out the PKK and negotiate with the BDP about solving the Kurdish issue. But it seems the AKP hasn’t really made up its mind yet about how the Kurdish issue and PKK violence are entwined: thousands of BDP politicians and administrators, calling for a democratic solution to the Kurdish issue, are jailed for having ties with the KCK, sort of a Kurdish umbrella organization of which the PKK is one of the founders. So AKP, what are they in your perception, linked or not?

Information exchange 

What could be the aim of this strategy of the AKP is to eliminate anybody in Kurdish politics who is (imaginary or not) somehow related to the KCK or the PKK, stop all information exchange with the PKK, and then negotiate only with ‘clean’ Kurdish politicians. That would explain why Öcalan is in solitary confinement and cannot even see his lawyers (who would get opinions of Öcalan out), why many of his lawyers were also arrested after the solitary confinement started, why many Kurdish journalists are jailed (they have connections with all actors so can get relevant opinions out through their papers) and why BDP members are being jailed.

It’s a road leading nowhere. The BDP has done very well in the last general elections, they have a huge base in Turkey’s southeast and among Kurds in big cities like Istanbul and Izmir. Shutting up any BDP politician somehow tied to the PKK or insisting on Öcalan being included in negotiations is unreasonable. The AKP will find themselves at the negotiating table with people who have no, or at best only a little bit of support among the Kurdish people. A solution must be reached with as many actors as possible, to make a peace solid and lasting.

Stubborn

It is a ridiculous picture to begin with, of course. The AKP says it wants to negotiate, but locks up thousands of members of the party it says it wants to negotiate with, based on a too broad and widely criticized anti-terrorism law. And when the BDP then demands that first their members should be set free, that the solitary confinement of Öcalan should be lifted and that the violations of press freedom must come to an end, the BDP is blamed for being stubborn.
By the way, spring has started. An increase in PKK violence is expected now that the snow has started melting away even in the coldest parts of the country.

All these things were in my mind this week, as developments evolved. But I was not going to blog about it. I needed a change in subjects, I kept telling myself. I was going to blog about the visit I paid to a hamam in Gaziantep last week, and about how massive visits to hamams in Turkey, where women of all sizes and ages come, could be a great counterweight against all the unrealistic female body images we get via the media. And I was going to blog about how Turks are very unjustly denied a more relaxed visa regime with the European Union. I was going to blog about a small religious party demanding ‘pink buses’, for women only, and why I think that’s a bad idea. But I just couldn’t get it to paper. I will blog about those issues, but later. Now the very serious and negative developments in the Kurdish issue need all the attention they can possibly get.

*) Solitary confinement is a torture method. Öcalan is by far not the only prisoner in Turkey subject to this torture: also for example several suspects in the ‘Ergenekon trials’ are being damaged for life by this horrible punishment.

Newroz, or: a day in the park

Let me start with a picture of how I spent most of Sunday afternoon, when Newroz (the coming of spring) was celebrated in Diyarbakir: here it is. All quiet, no police to be seen, only in the air were two helicopters keeping an eye on the crowd. Around me, there were families having a picnic (some even took a barbecue), kids were playing and laughing, there was dancing and singing and political slogans were chanted. A peaceful day in the park.

Well, that’s of course not the whole picture. The day started rather violent in Diyarbakır. Usually Newroz is celebrated at March 21, mostly by Turkey’s Kurds. This year pro-Kurdish BDP took the initiative to celebrate it on Sunday in Istanbul and Diyarbakir. They wanted it to be a day of protest. Since a year, the situation around the Kurdish issue has deteriorated: the talks between the state and representatives of the PKK have stopped, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been in solitary confinement for almost a year and the arrests in the KCK probe (read more here) continue undiminished. No, it had nothing to do with the 21st being on a weekday: it was, as far as I could figure out, the first time the celebrations were rescheduled to the weekend.

The gouvernourship of both Diyarbakır and Istanbul didn’t allow the celebrations – or should we call them protests – on Sunday. The reason is unclear, but it was stated that Newroz is on the 21st and on that day celebrations would be allowed, and that was it. But people didn’t care about the ban. If Kurds want to celebrate Newroz on a Sunday, well, they can hardly be stopped.

Fires

What was expected, happened: people tried to reach the festival grounds, which was closed by police already in the early hours, and clashes with the police started. Both in Istanbul and Diyarbakir. In Diyarbakır, in the end things turned out pretty well. After the clashs, apparently it became clear to the securıty forces that about a million people couldn’t be stopped, and they opened the festival grounds. It was weird: my friend Beyza and I made it to the grounds via sideways through fields and waste lands, and when we arrived we saw the main entrance was open.

The atmosphere was in general good. There were many fires – they are part of Newroz celebrations – and there was music and dancing. I was surprised and it took me a while to understand what was happening: so the police decided to give up, back off and let people celebrate? Yes, they did. They did confisquate the sound system at the stage though, to prevent the whole happening to become too much a protest. I consider that a violation of the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest, but it didn’t lead to large scale trouble.

I was afraid that things would get out of hand when I saw some young people attack two GSM cars standing next to the festival terrain. They were set on fire. Older people tried to stop it, but couldn’t. I wondered why these were destroyed, and later learned that people distrust the mobile operators and believe their phones are being tapped. Not too surprising, since for example much of the so called ‘evidence’ in the KCK trials is based on illegal wire tapping. Anyway, this violent group was only small, and there was no police around to worsen the situation with water or with tear gas, so soon all turned quiet again. Not too much later, the pic of your sleeping favourite correspondent was taken.

Tear gas canister

How different the situation in Istanbul was, I found out later. The day started the same: police closing the festival grounds, large crowds of people trying to reach it anyway and violent clashes between police and protesters. But while the Diyarbakir police somehow came to its senses and opened the grounds and allowed the festivities, the Istanbul police didn’t change its policy: the huge park was closed and stayed closed. The result: large scale clashes, around 150 arrests, dozens of people wounded, one BDP member killed by a tear gas canister, and a lot of material damage because protesters threw stones at busses and shops and destoyed bus stops.

Imagine what would have happened when the Sunday Newroz celebrations would have just been celebrated, without being banned by some gouvernours clearly not in total touch with reality. I bet it would have just been a wonderful day, like it was for a big part in Diyarbakir after the police gave up its resistance. By the way, I heard of new clashes and tear gas use in Diyarbakir after people left the festival grounds at the end of the afternoon, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I left at the same time, walking away from the grounds give a rather good view at the surrounings and I heard no tear gas being shot, I saw no people running, I didn’t smell tear gas and didn’t see people affected by tear gas or by a water cannon. Still, of course I was only one person in one place.

Constitution

Yes, nowadays Newroz celebrations in Turkey have become partly political and that is not the original meaning of the feast, but why is that a problem? Why is that a reason to ban it when it is not celebrated at exactly the right day? If people want to celebrate Newroz on March 18 or on whichever day they wish, let them. There is no law that says Newroz can’t be celebrated on any other day than the 21st, is there? Even stronger: the Turkish constitution states people don’t need prior permission to demonstrate, so it seems there was no legal ground for the ban. And no, also the fact that the celebration would be more of a demonstration, is no reason to forbid it. Demonstrating is a democratic right.

The only way for Newroz to turn back to its original purpose – celebrating the start of spring – is to solve the Kurdish issue. Then Kurds don’t feel the need to take the opportunity to protest. Till then, the way to not let things turn ugly and violent, is to let people celebrate and demonstrate as they wish. That’s the recipe for a peaceful, happy day in the park.

A kiss on the cheek

The gay men in the film Zenne Dancer kiss on the cheek, not on the mouth. The only time they go further than that is when they need photographs of gay sex, to convince a military committee they are actually gay and for that reason get exempt from doing their military service (which is not a procedure invented for the film but still common practice in the army). Then, when they ‘have to’, we see full kisses, and then the suggestion of sex. The funny thing is, one of the men, the German Daniel, is bisexual, and a girlfriend visiting him does immediately sit down on his lap and starts kissing heavily, as lovers do. He rejects her: he is in love with his Turkish boyfriend.

It must have been very hard for the director and producer to make a film for a broad audience about a gay honour killing and about how gays are treated in Turkey. To find a balance between telling a true tale of gay love and friendship and not shock the audience with too explicit images. Because in Turkey that is what still shocks mainstream audiences: real love, including sex, between two men. 
The other shock in the film is the tragedy the film is based on and which happened in 2008: Ahmet Yildiz, a student in Istanbul from the conservative south-eastern region of Urfa, was killed by his own father because he was gay. The murder is known for being the first gay honour killing that drew widespread public attention. The father has still not been arrested, and is most probably hiding in northern Iraq.

Honesty

In short, you could say that Zenne Dancer (meaning ‘male belly dancer’) tries to find a balance between what shocks Turks in general – gay love – and what is condemned often but nevertheless still happens and often even understood: honour killings. Some statistics: a survey at Bahcesehir University showed that 88% of the Turks object to a gay or atheist neighbour or an unmarried couple living next to them. Stats from the Turkish government show that in Istanbul alone every week an honour killing takes place (and usually women and girls are the victims), and about thousand were carried out in the whole country between 2003 and 2008.

Turkey as a society is not primarily based on freedom of the individual and seeking happiness in your personal life, but on protecting the family and tradition you are a part of. Individual choices are subordinate to that. Who challenges the order, can get into serious trouble.
In the film, that is very well shown by a conversation between the two lovers, Daniel and Ahmet. Daniel encourages Ahmet to be honest to his conservative family about being gay. ‘Honesty is always the best way’, he says. ‘In the end, your parents love you’. Especially that last sentence made me giggle: it is so utterly typical of a western way of thinking. Your parents will at most be shocked for a while about their child being gay, but if you give them some time, they will adjust and welcome you into their arms again. Ahmet replies: ‘You don’t understand. Honesty could kill me.’

Changing attitudes

Ahmets parents do love their son, that is clear throughout the film, but that love is not strong enough to wipe away traditional convictions. Ahmet refuses to come back to his family and get ‘help’ from the Imam to overcome his ‘sickness’. So then the father sees no other way: he travels to Istanbul and guns down his son. In a later scene, we see Ahmets mother, who encouraged the murder, crying uncontrollalby.

The film won a series of awards at Turkey’s most important film festival, in Antalya. It is now in cinemas all over the country, also in conservative cities like Trabzon, Konya and Diyarbakir. I do wonder what kind of audience it is attracting, and about how they feel afterwards. The message of the film is clear, and what should be the most shocking part is the honour killing. How big a part of the audience has to admit that deep down they are more shocked by the one vague but unmistakably gay sex scene? How much will the film contribute to changing attitudes towards gays in Turkey? Can gays really kiss in the next big release film about gay rights?

Uludere two weeks later – a sweep up

On 28 December 35 civilians died in an air strike of the Turkish army. The victims came from the villages of Gülyazi and Ortasu, in the district Uludere in the southeastern province of Sirnak.

In two weeks time, I wrote seven stories about it. Some of them are based on what I saw and heard in Gülyazi, where I went a few days after the massacre. The articles were written partly for media I work for, partly for this website. I sweep them together here, to give you an idea of what happened, in chronological order.

For news agency ANP:
‘Turkish TV can’t cover the news’

For this website:
Uludere investigation, or: the potholes in our minds

For news agency ANP:
Uludere victim’s families don’t want compensation

For this website:
The village guards of Uludere
He went for a computer
Who saved the governor?

For youth paper 7Days:
Kids in southeast Turkey: smuggling to survive

On 10 January, Turkish NGO’s Insan Haklari Dernegi (Human Rights Association) and Mazlum-Der published a report about the Uludere massacre. They did not get access to any of the authorities. They published a list of questions that urgently need answers, and state that the UN and the Council of Europe should investigate what happened.

This will never happen. Ever since Turkey’s war of independence, that lead to the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has a deep rooted suspicion against any foreign interference. The government will never allow anybody from outside dig into its affairs. Especially not when it has no intention of the truth ever coming out, like in this case. Already very soon certain documents concerning the massacre were labelled ‘classified’ – with which the covering up began.

My conclusion: the truth about Uludere will never be known, and those responsible will never be punished.

Voices of violence

The verdict is there: RojTV, the Kurdish TVchannel broadcasting from Belgium with a Danish license, will not be closed. Good news! A victory for the freedom of speech. Having said that, I deeply wish for RojTV to disappear naturally, or at least to radically change.

I have the same wish for many Turkish TVchannels. They all glorify violence.

I don’t know if you’ve ever watched RojTV, but I have. I have friends in Diyarbakir and when I visit them, RojTV is the channel being watched. There are news broadcasts, nature and music programmes, the boring weather stuff, in short, just what you expect on a TV channel. All spiced up with some good old-fashioned PKK glorification. Groups of PKKfighters strolling through the mountains, images of guerillas who died in battle, historic footage of PKK leader Öcalan leading meetings, all accompanied by patriotic Kurdish music and flag waving.

Languages

I have to say I was kind of flabbergasted when I heard that a campaign on Twitter supporting RojTV has the slogan: ‘The voice of peace, RojTV’. They claim RojTV promotes peace, for example because it broadcasts in all languages spoken in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran: (several dialects of) Kurdish, Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Armenian and English. That’s great, and I mean it, but does that make it a voice of peace? The armed struggle is glorified, and however you look at it, an armed struggle is not peaceful. Dot.

Then again, I’m also flabbergasted when I hear Turkish officials speak about why they find it so important to close down RojTV. It’s promoting terrorism, they say, spreading hatred, etc. I prefer not to use the label ‘terrorism’ because I believe it’s a political term, but yes, violence is being glorified. But if that is a problem, shall we then also close down a few Turkish channels? Look at any Turkish news channel when the army has wiped out some PKK camp, or when a soldier has died: the army’s violence is being glorified, the funerals of soldiers are over-dramatized and repeated again and again, accompanied by patriotic music and flag waving. Just like on RojTV, but with other music, and another flag.

Symptoms

Both RojTV and Turkish channels are voices of violence. Via satellite dishes, they reach millions of people in Turkey and its wider region and in Europe. They are a perfect reflection of what is going on in Turkey: a bitter, long-lasting conflict, causing loss of precious human lives on both sides. Both RojTV and Turkish channels are symptoms of these conflicts. If you criticize RojTV, you can’t refrain from criticizing Turkish media as well. If you forbid RojTV, than take Turkish channels off the air too.

But of course, closing TVstations down for what they broadcast is never a good idea. It violates the freedom of speech, one of the most basic human rights. The trick is to nullify the reason why they apparently feel the need to glorify violence. If the Kurdish question is solved through political means, I bet RojTV will change, and Turkish channels too. But the stations have a responsibility of their own too. They could actually contribute to peace. By reducing nationalism, but most of all by stopping the glorification of violence, the flag waving, the nationalism.

The licence of RojTv has not been withdrawn. I strongly agree with the judges’ decision. And I deeply hope RojTV has the courage to change.

Who saved the governor?

‘Look’, says C., one of the people I went to Uludere with this week, pointing to the side of the road. ‘That’s where the governor ran down to, remember?’ I do remember; I saw the footage. The governor of the Uludere district came to the Gülyazi and Roboski villages to console the families of the victims, but he was, to say the least, not very welcome. Villagers attacked him with stones and their fists, and afterwards he needed to go to hospital for a check up. What happened exactly?

If you believe Turkish papers, the attackers were incited by Kurdish politicians, in particular BDP MP Hasip Kaplan. He had warned AKP politicians not to come to Uludere because it wouldn’t be safe. Several columnists and politicians became very angry with him, saying he was threatening people. That is also what hit the headlines.

I asked C. and others how the governor got away. ‘Hasip Kaplan took the megaphone and told people to stop the attack’, they answered. They pointed out where the governor was, and where Kaplan stood when he took the megaphone.

Provocateurs

I read an interview with the governor in, I think, Radikal, in which he stated that the people who attacked him came from other villages, and that he was sure there was nobody from Gülyazi or Roboski among them. ‘I know everybody in these villages’, he was quoted as saying. None of the villagers confirmed this to me. ‘Of course he has to say they came from other villages. He can’t say the villagers themselves didn’t want him here. He would make us look bad, and we don’t know if we could keep our children from attacking him the next time he shows himself.’ “Can he show himself again anyway?”, I ask. Not for a long time, they state. They add that’s not a big loss: ‘He has never done anything for us anyway.’

So when you read Turkish papers, what you assume happened is this: the governor came to console the victims’ families, a Kurdish politician incited the people against this government representative, and then ‘provocateurs’ from other villages came to make trouble. A picture that totally fits the prejudice that people have against Kurds and Kurdish politicians. How different the picture gets once you also hear the story from the other side.

During the day we hear that several villagers have been arrested, including family members of the victims. For what? For attacking the governor, based on TV footage. Adding everything up, it sounds to me like the people I talked to were right and the governor lied about the attackers coming from other villages. He was saved by Hasip Kaplan, and by telling a lie he hoped to save himself from future attacks.

The village guards of Uludere

This week, I went to Gülyazi, one of the villages in the Uludere district where 35 citizens were killed by the Turkish air force. I talked to families of the victims, and to young smugglers. I’d like to share my findings on two subjects in blog posts: village guards, and smuggling as a totally normal part of life.

Read more on the village guards below, and click here for the blog post about smuggling.

 

Most of the victims of the Uludere killings belonged to the same extended family, with the surname Encü. Soon it was claimed that they were a ‘kurucu family’, meaning there were supposedly several korucu, or ‘village guards’, in the family.

Village guards are Kurdish villagers employed and armed by the state, who help the state in the fight against the PKK. The system was introduced in the eighties, after the PKK started its violent campaign in 1984. The state thought it was a good idea to have auxiliary forces who knew the landscape, the people and the language of the area.

Often people were forced to become village guards. They were given a ‘choice’: either you become a village guard, or we burn your house and kick you out of the village. Many people refused and left their village, some were killed for refusing, and others gave in and started working for the state. There are many village guards. To give you an idea: Gülyazi has 500 to 600 inhabitants (and 25 of the victims came from here, so that’s about 5% of the population), and with about 6000 people in surrounding villages, they share one muhtar, a state-employed village head. In this area of 6000 people, there are 27 village guards, so every village has a few.

Traitors

The PKK considers the village guards traitors and has killed several of them, and you still hear of village guards becoming victims of PKK attacks. The korucu are often involved in all kinds of illegal activities, from extrajudicial killings to disappearances and drug trafficking. The whole system got severely out of hand and is under debate – read some more about that in a previous blog post.

That the Encü family was known for being village guards puzzled me while watching and reading the news about the Uludere killings. The funeral for the 35 victims was huge, and hundreds of people came from all over the region to attend it. The anger and pain among Kurds is immense. I somehow couldn’t reconcile that with some of the victims being korucu family members. I thought the korucu families were somewhat outside the rest of the Kurdish community, that they were even seen by some as traitors, but now I saw a very different picture.

Labels

I talked about it with the victims’ families, including some members of the Encü family. They said that when such a tragedy hits the community, it’s not important if you are a village guard or not. The community just comes together. But they also suggested it’s not considered an important matter anyway if you are from a korucu family or not. Everybody struggles to make a living, and being a korucu is one way. So I asked if it is possible to be a village guard and at the same time in your heart be a PKK supporter. I didn’t really get an answer. Or, to be more precise: the answer was that these kinds of labels have nothing to do with the everyday realities of life in a village near the south-eastern border. ‘We are all Kurds’, one man said, ‘and the truth is: no Kurd wants to kill another Kurd’.

That didn’t satisfy me. There must be more to it. More than I could figure out in just two days. I will return to Uludere a few times in the near future and try to find out more, also about other questions and matters I am curious about. In the meantime, if you have any knowledge to share on this subject, the comment section is open! 

Apology by decree

What’s it worth, this apology that Prime Minister Erdogan made yesterday for the Dersim massacres? He said it, he actually said that he apologizes on the state’s behalf for what happened in 1937 and 1938. A novelty in Turkish politics. But at the same time it is not a novelty at all. It is not the first time people’s pains are being used for playing political games. And it’s not the first time Erdogan just states or decides something, without first taking his proposal to parliament or conduct a nation wide debate about it. He rules by decree, and this is an example of it.

A political game? Of course it is. Erdogan just wanted to put opposition leader Kilicdaroglu on the spot. Kilicdaroglu has his roots in Dersim, family members of his were murdered, and the whole Dersim debate going on these days was started by a CHP MP from Dersim who stated that the massacres were a planned attack, and that Atatürk, President at the time, ordered it. Heavy discussions in the CHP: many MP’s attacked their Dersim colleague for his words: the CHP is Atatürks party who was ruling the country as the only permitted party, and criticizing what happened in Dersim touches the roots of their political history.
The discussions and allegations between Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan were going on for some days already, and Erdogan also heavily attacked Kilicdaroglu in his speech in which he apologized. What a shameful behaviour, to make politics over the pain of thousands of people. How must it feel for people from Dersim to be used like this for the Prime Ministers gain?

Legitimate action

Besides all this, ruling by decree is not worthy of a democracy. Not when it comes to any policy field, but especially not when it comes to deeply black pages of Turkey’s history like the Dersim massacres. For a wholehearted apology, first a careful, sincere debate is needed about what exactly happened, why it happened and why an apology would be in order.
This apology of Erdogan came totally out of the blue. Until the day before yesterday, the state version of what happened in Dersim was that there was an uprising going on in the province, that threatened the still young republic, and this uprising was legitimately cracked down. If this was the case, why would an apology be needed? It must be weird also for Turks, who have learned the state history in schools. Why is our Prime Minister apologizing for a legitimate action?

Apologizing out of the blue is not a way to confront the past. Confronting the past is throwing all historical taboos overboard and discuss the matter from every angle. With everybody whom it concerns. Open archives, put responsibility where it belongs, listen to people’s stories, acknowledge pain. Then an apology can follow – by the President, since he represents the state, and not by the Prime Minister, who represents the government.

Silenced

The danger of this apology is not only that it will not bring any relief to the survivors of Dersim and the families of the ones who didn’t survive, but also that it blocks the road to real reconciliation. The apology is already done, so why now start debating the whole issue? Why acknowledge pains, why researching in detail what happened? I fear the day that the survivors and the families of the deceased are being silenced because Erdogan apologized already and they are being asked what more they could possibly want.

So no, I won’t praise Erdogan in any way for his apology. It’s sad to say, but it came too early.