Survivors of the city wars

(This is a story from late 2016, that was already on my website but not archived, and newsletter subscribers will get an alert that it’s ‘published’ now.)

MAXMUR – The city wars in Turkey’s Kurdish regions are mostly over. Many fighters of the YPS, the Kurdish armed youth group that fought the Turkish army, lost their lives. Byline ran into some survivors in a dusty refugee camp in Iraq.

Read the full story on Byline!

Kurds not giving up on education in mother tongue

The Kurdish political movement has no intention of giving up on the three private schools they opened to teach exclusively in Kurdish. The opening of the schools last week led to a cat-and-mouse game between the schools’ administrators and the local governors — the latter closing the schools, the former reopening them several times. Clashes between the schools’ supporters and the police erupted, and nearly 100 people were taken into custody.

Read the whole article here! 

An article that explains education in mother tongue in seven questions and one anecdote can be found on my Beaconreader page!


Turks divided about Yunus’ faith

ISTANBUL – Turks don’t seem to be unanimous in their opinion about the faith of 9 year old Yunus, who was placed in the foster care of a Dutch lesbian couple after Dutch authorities took him away from his abusive Dutch-Turkish parents. The matter already overshadows a visit of the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to the Netherlands this week. Erdogan accused Holland of ‘assimilation’, the Dutch government considers his remarks an inappropriate interference in domestic affairs. Some Turks seem to mainly worry about the separation of the family, while others are bothered by the fact the foster parents are lesbians.

The whole matter doesn’t seem to be a huge item in Turkey. Many people don’t know the story, or only heard about it vaguely and want to know more before they form an opinion.

Bus driver Tüncay Özmen (48, father of three children) wonders if enough has been done to stop the violence in Yunus’ family, but strongly condemns it: ‘In Turkey a child can be taken from such a family too. It will be placed in a home and the state will take care of it until it is eighteen years old.’

That Yunus was placed in the care of a lesbian couple doesn’t particularly bother him: ‘That’s not the biggest problem, as long as that family is safe. But the main point is, I think, that a child should grow up with its own mother and father. Your own family can’t be replaced.’

Hüseyin Üyar (43), who works as a customs officer, has heard about Yunus on TV. ‘The violence is of course the worst. The Dutch state has the right to take a child away from such a family, definitely. But what I don’t understand is that he is placed in a family with sick parents.  That’s off the frying pan into the fire, isn’t it? Homosexuality is a disease; you shouldn’t do that to a child.’

Filiz Keskin (33 year old receptionist) overhears the conversation and inquires what it’s about. ‘I totally agree’, she says. ‘Homosexuality is horrible. Aren’t there any other families? Turks, other foreigners, Dutch? That would be way better.’

Ferhat (21, student and gay himself) doesn’t know the Yunus-story, but gets excited when he hears about it. ‘So the Dutch state places an abused child in the foster care of a lesbian couple? Amazing that that is possible. In the Netherlands gays can also get married, isn’t that so? What a country! I like it. I mean, this way a child learns to have a broader outlook than his own culture, and I suppose this family will teach him some respect towards women too. Very good. I hope Yunus will be happy.’

The wounds can not heal

It is not just the families of the victims of the Uludere massacre who still feel the pain of their loss. The whole village is affected by the bombings, which occurred just over a year ago, on December 28, 2011. But the pain of the entire community can be seen in each of their stories.

‘It has been a year of tears and of thoughts’, says Pakize Kaplan (29), who lost her husband Osman (32) in the Uludere massacre. She was left behind with three daughters and two sons, now aged between 6 and 12.

Pakize is not very much on the foreground, compared to some of the mothers of victims of the massacre. She mourns mostly in private. What has she changed over the past year? Pakize: ‘We don’t know what exactly happened, and maybe we will never find out. But God knows everything, and that gives me some comfort’.

Pakize Kaplan, with the light headscarf, next to the grave of her husband Osman.
Pakize Kaplan, with the light headscarf, next to the grave of her husband Osman. (pic by me, click to enlarge)

Pakize takes the picture of her husband with her when she heads for the commemoration on December 28, 2012. This is what all mothers, wives and grandmothers of the deceased do when there is a meeting or ceremony concerning last years event. The fact that there is a routine to mourning lost family is as horrifying as anything. But this way, they give the 34 lost human lives a face and make sure they are not forgotten.

At the graveyard, where a few thousand people come together to commemorate and where several prominent Kurdish politicians and activists are present, all 34 names are read. After every name, the crowd shouts out “He is here!”

That the Turkish government hasn’t opened up about the details of the massacre hinders the healing of the villages where most deceased where coming from: Gülyazi (Bujeh in Kurdish) and Ortasu (Roboski in Kurdish). By implicating that the villagers who were smuggling petrol that evening last year were linked to the PKK, the government opens the wounds again and again.

The anger about that and the pain of the big loss, affects the whole community. Several young men no longer attend school because they couldn’t concentrate on their lessons anymore. One of them, 17 year old “S.”, says: “Our morale is totally broken. Now we try to work. Yes, we also smuggle. There is not much other work here. I’m not really scared to go. We never though that anything like what happened last year could ever happen. It will not easily happen again.”

For young women the situation is difficult too. Semire Encü, who lost her 13 year old brother, has just turned 18. She is not attending school anymore, and when asked about any wedding plans, she says: ‘I will never get married, never. The boys are dead.’

People make V-signs during two minutes of silence during the commemoration of the Uludere/Roboski massacre, 28 December 2012. (pic by me, click to enlarge)
People make V-signs during two minutes of silence during the commemoration of the Uludere/Roboski massacre, 28 December 2012. (pic by me, click to enlarge)

The community – as well as several villages in the surroundings – haven’t celebrated any weddings since the bombing. The huge Kurdish weddings with up to to one hundred people dancing a traditional govend on a green field between the mountains, are over. Nobody feels like celebrating anything, and nobody in the village can tell when they will resume again. The women all still wear black as they have for the past year, as their mourning continues and the mystery around the bombing remains.

Poet Abdurrahman Adiyan, from the western Turkish city of Bursa, visited Gülyazi and Ortasu several times in the last year. He wrote a poem about the massacre right after it happened, but he felt he needed to do more for the community. He ended up visiting all the families of the victims, talked to them about the one they lost and made a personal poem or every family.

“I hope poetry can help people in their healing,” Adiyan says. “At some point, the bombing must be left to history, and the memory must be kept alive. Art is a good way of doing that’”

Adiyan visited all the families again during the Feast of Sacrifice in October, and read the poems to them. The families requested that he do so. Adiyan: “I hope the families can picture their loved one before their eyes while hearing and reading the poetry.” Narin Ant (21), who lost her 19 year old brother Adem, gets tears in her eyes when she hears the poem again. “I do picture him,” she says.

At the same time, Adiyan realizes the village is a long way from leaving the event to history. “The mothers are still in such deep sorrow and so many questions remain, that it is too early. Still, I hope I have made a contribution. I chose poetry because it is lasting. It can help people in the future too.” A book with all the poems was published on the first anniversary of the massacre, called The Border Stone with Number 15, the border stone where the bombing took place.

Students fall on the ground one by one to symbolize the Uludere/Roboski massacre. (pic by me, click to enlarge)
Students fall on the ground one by one to symbolize the Uludere/Roboski massacre. (pic by me, click to enlarge)

The strength of art in the face of sorrow was also shown at the evening of December 28. A group of Kurdish students walked down from the graveyard to the place where the commemoration was held, holding torches and shouting slogans. Then they gave a heart breaking performance, watched by the community, including the women who lost their sons, husbands, grandchildren.

All the 34 names were read out loud. After every name, one student stepped forward, said, “I was bombed to death,” and fell down on the floor. They were wearing T-shirts with the pictures and names of the deceased. Meanwhile, the crying of the mothers, other villagers and many visitors could be heard. Maybe art, and the strong unity and solidarity of the community, can help the people heal.

Working on a Greek beach

(I was on a short holiday in Greece and couldn’t resist making a story.)

They earn some €30 a day, Greek youngsters working in tourism during the summer. While their country is going through hard economic times, they are happy they found a summer job. ‘Without this work, I wouldn’t be able to go to university’, says Chris (18). A story from the beaches of Greece.

Chris (18), Lesvos island

Their luck is that beach bars and restaurants, souvenir shops and other businesses in tourism usually employ the same people every year. So they don’t have to fight to get a new job every season, but just hope they can work for the same boss again. Chris Kovras (18) was lucky indeed: he’s been working for the third summer now, five to six days a week, for a cafe right on the beach in the tourist town of Eressos on the island of Lesbos.

‘I have no choice but to work all summer, because without it I can’t go to university’, says Chris. ‘My parents work in tourism too, they have their own business but it’s not doing so well now. If I didn’t have a job, it would be very hard to continue my studies.’

He walks back and forth to the bar and the kitchen with drinks and snacks, the outdoor seating is full. He loves the island he grew up on, but he’s not sure if he will be living there in a couple of years’ time. Chris: ‘I’m going to do a technical course, and I’m supposed to finish that in four years. But I don’t think the Greek economy will be doing much better by then, and finding a job sure won’t be easy.’ He is considering drastic measures: ‘I have an uncle in Canada. If things get really difficult after my graduation, I might go to him and find a job there.’

Areti (16), Lesvos island

Areti Trentou (16) works down the coastal road in a clothing and jewellery shop. She works every morning, her sister every afternoon. Her parents own the shop. ‘We all have to contribute to make enough money’, Areti says. ‘It is nice work, we sell nice stuff and you get to meet a lot of people. So no, I really don’t mind working every day.’
Her afternoons are free, and she usually spends them with her friends. ‘I earn €15 every morning. So I can go have a drink in the afternoon, and I try to save up part of the money.’

On Chios, an island to the south, Marialena Leodi (18) is working on the beach. She too works in a family business: her uncle owns the place. She earns €60 to €90 a week, working two or three days. ”Two cousins of mine work here the other days. Like that, the whole family can profit a bit from my uncle’s business”, she says.

It’s her first job. And no, the family doesn’t need her to work. ‘My parents work in mastic, that’s a tree that is unique for Chios. The liquid from the tree can be used for all kinds of purposes, for example in medical applications. They still earn enough money from that.’ Marialena works purely for her own target: a driving license.

Marialena (18), Chios island

Marialena will go to university after the summer to study economics. And even though that sounds smart in a country that isn’t doing so well economically, she’s not at all sure to find a job after graduating. ‘But I don’t really worry about it’, she says. ‘We will cross that bridge when we get there. You know, on the islands, the economy is not that bad yet, especially in summer. People in the big cities, like Athens, have a much harder time.’

Areti doesn’t worry much either. At least not about ‘later’. She does worry a bit about now. Because at home she notices that her parents don’t make as much money as in previous seasons. ‘I’ve been working here since I was 14, and there are fewer tourists now. At home I see it too, we have less money. We do have enough to eat, but there’s no money for extras. That is another reason why I like to earn some money for myself. If I manage to save up a bit for the winter, then I won’t have to ask my parents for money if I need anything. That would be nice.’

Kurdish class at state schools

ISTANBUL – The Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has announced that Kurdish will be an elective course at state schools across the country, According to Turkish media reports on Tuesday. Erdogan called it ‘a historical step’.

The elective course ‘Kurdish’ will be offered to children starting at age twelve, if at any school there are enough children interested. The minimum number of children that would need to enrol in the course at a school hasn’t been announced yet. For the time being, the classes will be given by non-accredited teachers: because Kurdish has been forbidden for decades, no accredited teachers are available.

Kurdish classes have been permitted at private institutions in Turkey since 2002. Those classes are aimed at adults, and never really got off the ground. Initially they were frustrated by the state, later there was not much interest among the population, partly because of the cost.

Kids in southeast Turkey: smuggling to survive

SMUGGLING – At the end of December 35 people lost their lives in a bombardment by the Turkish army. Seventeen of them were less than 18 years old. They were smugglers, who brought diesel and sugar from Iraq to Turkey. There is a war going on in the area between Turkey and the PKK, a forbidden Kurdish movement. That makes the smuggling risky. Why do these kids smuggle, if it is so dangerous?

Seyvan (11) has already joined the smugglers once on their trip to Iraq. First three hours through rugged mountains to cross the border, then three hours back. ‘It was very difficult’, he says. ‘Luckily on the way up I was allowed to ride a donkey. On the way back that was not possible, because then the donkeys are loaded with goods.’

Semire (16) and her brother Seyvan (11)

He didn’t want to go again for some time, but now that so many boys and young men have died, everything is different and he has no choice. His 13 year old brother Bedran was one of the boys that died in the bombing. Seyvan: ‘Now I am the oldest boy at home. If I don’t go smuggling, we won’t have enough money to live on.’

Smuggling is an absolute necessity for survival in parts of southeast Turkey. The area is inhabited by Kurds, a minority that does not have the same rights in Turkey as ethnic Turks. Thirty years ago the armed Kurdish group PKK started a violent campaign against the state. Ever since then there has been war between the PKK and the Turkish army, especially in the mountains around the border with Iraq.

Because of the fighting, other means to earn a living have disappeared. People can’t go to their fields anymore, because large areas of the land have been declared a military exclusion zone. Herding sheep is dangerous: there are land mines in the area. Companies don’t want to invest in the southeast because it’s not safe enough, so there are no factories either.

Özer (19)

From smuggling you can earn around 700 lira per month, and that’s just enough to make a living in a village. Children join in the smuggling starting at about thirteen years old to make up the 700 lira family income, and sometimes a bit extra for schoolbooks, or a laptop. Özer (19) often went smuggling when he was between 13 and 15 years old. Now he is studying tourism in a city in the region. ‘But in my holidays I still go smuggling’, he says. ‘If I don’t go, my parents won’t have enough money to pay for my studies.’

It’s always scary, he says, to go into the mountains. ‘You can be shot at by soldiers. They know we smuggle and they allow it because they know we have no other source of income, but sometimes they shoot anyway. Luckily never anything happened to me.’

In a few more days the official mourning will be over and the smuggling will start again. Sinan is only eight years old but he will go too. He doesn’t have a father anymore, and his 13 year old brother Sivan died in the bombing. It is now his responsibility to provide for his family. He is very quiet, and only shrugs his shoulders when he is asked if he is scared. What can he say? He has no choice, there is no other work.

Semire at the grave of her brother Bedran (13)

Just outside the village is the graveyard of Gülyazi. All the graves of men and boys who died are in one field. It looks very colourful: there are cloths over the grave stones in the Kurdish colours green, red and yellow, and orange, pink, red and yellow plastic flowers have been stuck into the ground. The names of the dead are painted on the grave stones: the real stones haven’t been made yet. The graveyard looks out over the beautiful snowy mountains where the drama happened.

Semire (16), sister of Seyvan, sits down at the grave of her little brother Bedran. ‘I am so sad that Seyvan has to go smuggling now’, she says. ‘I would prefer to go in his place, I’m older. But smuggling is work for boys, not for girls.’

Semire helps her mother with housekeeping. Because of a lack of money she had to quit school. ‘I remember what Bedran said when they went off smuggling late in the afternoon; he would return home around 11 at night. I fell asleep, and when I woke up in the morning, I heard people crying and I saw that Bedran wasn’t there. Then I immediately knew he wouldn’t come home again.’

Uludere victims’ families don’t want compensation

GÜLYAZI – The families of the 34 boys and young men killed last week in a bombing by the Turkish air force, will not consider accepting the compensation the Turkish government is offering them. Prime Minister Erdogan announced on Tuesday that within a few days he would pay the families of the men, who were smuggling across the Iraqi border when the bombing started.. Zahide Encü, who lost her 15 year old son: ‘First they bomb my son to pieces and then they offer money? We don’t want money; we want to know what happened.’

The mourning period isn’t over yet in the village of Gülyazi, where 25 of the 34 killed boys and men come from. The other nine are from the nearby village of Roboski, also in the district of Uludere. One of the smugglers was severely injured and is in hospital – he is already counted among the dead. One man survived.

The Turkish government wants to pay 20,000 Turkish Lira (about 8,000 euros) per person killed. Survivor Servet Encü (35): ‘The government knows the people are poor here. That’s why they think they can make things good again with a bag of money. But that’s not how it works. I’d rather eat grass than accept money from this government.’

Zahide Encü (45, photo) has six children, including two sons. The oldest, now 26, stepped on a landmine while gathering wood eight years ago and can no longer contribute to the family income. Now the youngest, Aslan, is dead too. ‘How will we make a living now? I don’t know. No, I didn’t consider for one second accepting Erdogan’s money. I trust in God to help us.’

The villagers say that they will not accept an investigation into what happened from any party in Turkey. A human rights commission of the European Union should lead an investigation, they say. But they don’t think the Turkish government would give permission for such an independent inquiry.

What exactly happened last week remains a mystery. The Turkish government for now is calling it an ‘accident’ and has promised a thorough investigation, but the villagers won’t buy it. Survivor Servet Encü: ‘Everybody knew there was smuggling going on, including the police and security forces. The village head even got a phone call from the commander whenever air or ground operations were planned, and then we wouldn’t go out. The month before was so quiet on the route that we went again with bigger groups and with more donkeys. And then suddenly on the way back all roads were closed and the bombing started.’


From smuggling a family can earn a monthly income of 600 to 700 lira, which is enough to survisve on in a village. There is hardly any other work: large parts of the province are restricted military areas, or there are landmines which make herding cattle impossible. There are no factories. Children help earn the family income – so, starting at age 13 or 14, the children also join the smuggling.

Ironically enough the age that kids start smuggling has gone down. Eight year old Sinan will go for he first time next week, when the mourning period is over, in place of his brother Sivan (13), who was among those killed. Two hours to cross over the boarder, two hours back, will he be able to manage that? Sinan: ‘On the way to the border I can ride a donkey.’

Sinterklaas for one day in Turkey

ISTANBUL – Dutch Turks who live in Turkey pass the tradition of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) on to their children. ‘I celebrated Sinterklaas in the Netherlands when I was little, so it’s nice to get my children acquainted with it too’, says one of them, Nermin Celik (38). If you want to see ‘Sint’ in Turkey, can go to the Dutch consulate in Istanbul and the embassy in the capital, Ankara.

Hüseyin Celik (38), husband of Nermin and father of three children between 2 and 8 years old, finds it a pity that in Turkey Sinterklaas is purely a children’s celebration. He was born and raised in Rotterdam, and Nermin lived there for thirty years. The couple moved to Istanbul three years ago, for Hüseyin’s work. Hüseyin: ‘In the Netherlands we also celebrated Sinterklaas evening, with presents. I miss that, and the whole atmosphere that comes with it. I am grateful that we can go to the consulate with the children, so we can at least show them who Sint is.’

Besides Sinterklaas, Nermin and Hüseyin also still celebrate Easter now that they live in Turkey. Not so much for the Christian tradition, says Nermin: ‘We hide eggs for the children. I think we will return to the Netherlands within a few years, so for the children it’s practical if they stay in touch with Dutch culture. Then they can easily join in again later.’
‘Sinterklaas celebration in Istanbul’, she adds, ‘is comparable to Sinterklaas celebration for children of employees in Dutch companies, when the children come to their parents’ work, where Sinterklaas comes and distributes candy and presents. Sinterklaas for one day.’

Sinterklaas candy 

That one day, this year on 3 December, starts with the arrival of the Sint at the Dutch consulate at Istiklal Boulevard, the busiest shopping street of Istanbul. Nermin: ‘The locals find it very strange. They think: is that Santa Claus? It’s very nice to be part of the group of people who know exactly who Sinterklaas is.’ Semiha Ünal (44) joined Sint for a few times at Istiklal, as one of his helpers. ‘Many Turks make pictures. They don’t know Sinterklaas, which is strange because he was actually born in Turkey.’
After that there are presents, and typical Sinterklaas candy, brought over from the Netherlands. What started twenty years ago as a small party with ten kids attending, now attracts about 120 children, both Dutch children of consulate personnel and expats, as well as kids of Turkish Dutch parents.

For Semiha, who lived in the Netherlands from age one to eighteen, joining the Sinterklaas celebration was an emotional moment: ‘For more than twenty years I have had to miss the Sinterklaas atmosphere, until I moved from a smaller town to Istanbul three years ago. Via the Dutch club I was able to sign up as Sint’s helper. I was as happy as a kid!’
She is sad that this year she won’t wear her typical make up and funny clothes that Sint’s helpers always wear: she has trouble with her ankle. Semiha: ‘When I am Sint’s helper, I want to do it right. I can’t jump around now.’

‘At night we have some time for a social life’

Go to school during the summer holidays? In Turkey that’s quite normal. Without ‘summer school’ it’s impossible to get a place at a good university. 

The bell rings, the break is over. Özden Korkmaz (17) and Onur Vural (18) want to hurry off to class immediately, but reluctantly make time for a picture. ‘Now I really have to go, class is starting’, says Özen then, and off they go. It’s Friday morning, in the middle of the summer holidays. The weather outside is great, but in this private school in Istanbul about fifty pupils have their noses in the books. Seven mornings a week. They are preparing for the national university entrance exam.

Such a private school is called ‘dershane’, and they can be found everywhere in Turkey. They give extra classes in all secondary school subjects. Without these extra classes it’s practically impossible to do well in the university entrance exams, so all pupils who want to go to university attend a dershane. Not only for much of the summer holidays, but also after the schools have started again: then they will go after school, and on Saturday, and on Sunday.

from left to right in the dershane canteen: Özden, Onur, Kardelen, Kader

‘It’s just very important for our future’, says Kader Sevgin (16), who’s chatting with some girlfriends in the cafeteria. She wants to study law at the university in Izmir,which has a good reputation. Her friend Kardelen Filorinali (17) wants to be an engineer and attend a university in Istanbul. ‘Preferably Bosporus University, because it’s the best’, she adds. She’s now going to a dershane for the second year, and also works hard on her school-work at home.

When they hear that Dutch youngsters really don’t go to school in their summer holidays and would even refuse to do so, they explain why it’s different for them. Onur: ‘I want to study medicine and I’d love to go to a good university in Ankara. The better you do in the university entrance exam, the better the university you can go to. So you really have to end up as one of the best. If not, you will end up with a university diploma that won’t find you a good job.’

His friend Özden wants to be an engineer and would love to go and study in Germany. ‘But the chance that that will happen is small’, he says. So he goes for the second best option: one of the best Turkish universities. But does he always feel like getting up in the morning to pack his school bag and go to a class room? He finds that a silly question: ‘It’s only for two school years that we go to school this much, that’s not so bad is it?’ Onur does understand the question: ‘I sometimes tell my mother I don’t feel like going, but I know I just have to go. Of course, sometimes I would prefer to just go play some soccer.’

Seven days a week

The university entrance exams will be held in the spring, and are considered the most important exams in life. There are many universities in Turkey, but the quality differs a lot and if you end up at a small university in some remote city, your diploma won’t have much value. Besides that, it’s a fight to get a place, because many, many more youngsters want to go to university than there are places available. Many pupils don’t go to their normal school at all in the weeks before the exam but just attend the dershane full time (seven days a week!). After the exam they finish their normal high school, but that is hardly important anymore.

One year of dershane costs around five thousand Turkish lira (about 2000 euros), but Özden and Onur get a discount because they are so smart. Burcu Baydemir, the student coach of the dershane, explains that students who do well in the dershane entrance exam get a discount: ‘They will probably get a place at a good university’, she says, ‘and we can use that again in our marketing’. So, just for attending the dershane and a possible discount the youngsters have to do an exam? ‘Yes, that’s the way it is’, says Burcu. ‘That’s just how the system works.’

Özden, Onur, Kardelen and Kader hurry out of the cafeteria to the class room. A few hours to go, then they can go home, only to start doing their homework. And then? Özden: ‘At night we have some time left for our social life.’