Turkey: New Finds Reignite Search for Kurdish Mass Graves
For the people living in the predominately-Kurdish southeast region of Turkey, the fact that their region is dotted with the mass graves of victims of the political violence that haunted the area in the 1980's and 90's has long been an open secret, although one that few talked about in public. That changed several years ago, especially because of the high-profile Ergenekon case -- an investigation into an alleged ultara-nationalist plot to topple the government -- which, despite its flaws, has managed to land some formerly untouchable military and political figures in jail and shed some light on dirty deeds committed by the Turkish state.Emboldened by the Ergenekon case and other efforts to root out Turkey's "Deep State," Kurdish activists in the southeast have started to make more forceful demands for these suspected mass grave sites to be excavated, part of an effort to determine the fate of the several thousand Kurds who went missing during the 80's and 90's during the fight between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and security forces.The Diyarbakir branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association, for example, has published on its website an interactive map of suspected mass grave sites. Also in Diyarbakir, a recent petition made by relatives of several missing person has led to a court-ordered excavation that so far has revealed the remains of some 23 people. From a report on the Bianet website:
The number of skulls found in a mass grave in the district of Saraykapı (İçkale/Diyarbakır) rose to 23. Relatives of disappeared persons applied to the prosecutor's office on 25 January with the requests to identify the bones and bring the responsible people to court.
In the 1990s, the building right next to the excavation area was used by the Gendarmerie Intelligence Anti-Terrorism Unit (JİTEM), an unofficial wing of the Gendarmerie established in the late 1980s to counter ethnic separatism in south-eastern Turkey. The location is close to the Diyarbakır Closed Prison and the Saraykapı Courthouse....
....On 25 January, executives of the Human Rights Association (İHD) Diyarbakır Branch applied to the Diyarbakır Public Chief Prosecution together with 36 families whose relatives went missing in police custody or became victims of unsolved murders.
The families demanded to identify the bones found in the course of the excavations and to find the responsible perpetrators.
İHD Diyarbakır Branch Secretary Raci Bilici said in a statement released before the application was submitted, "Saraykapı, the location where the human bodies were found, is not an ordinary place. This was the place of the JİTEM headquarters where people were being executed".
Furthermore, Bilici announced, "Everyone in the region knows that massacres were done there. The only one who does not know about it is probably the state that did not undertake any investigation despite all our efforts".
Digging for the truth in southeast Turkey could prove to be a major challenge for the Turkish government and Turkish society, which may now find themselves forced to face a very dark chapter in the country's modern history. As columnist Yavuz Baydar writes in Today's Zaman, the dig in Diyarbakir is only the tip of something much deeper:
The skulls discovered in Diyarbakır are only the beginning, according to human rights activists. There are many eyewitnesses and “confessors” who will point out other spots. But, they also expect concrete and bold steps for taking everybody responsible to court. Everybody.
Unveiling the past, near or distant, is a huge task for the government, media and the citizens. Skulls are buried in the earth, and there is an immense number of skeletons in Ankara’s political cupboards. It is now apparent to many people here that the painful, often bloody abuse of power under military tutelage was a work of continuity: Digging for the truth in the dark corners of the last decade leads to the ones hidden in the 1990s, which points to the 1980s and so on.
For more on the issue of the Kurdish mass graves and the search for the missing in the southeast, take a look at this story I filed for the Christian Science Monitor in 2009 on one family's successful effort to find the remains of a relative who had disappeared in 1993.