Suphiye Baykura has lost count of the number of morgues and prosecutors' offices she has visited since her husband Hasan disappeared one night late in 1993 after being dragged from their house by police, soldiers and local militiamen. But now, after over 15 years of searching, Baykura has fresh hope that she may finally find her husband's remains.
The source of her optimism is the March 9 news that a dig organized by prosecutors in the southeastern Turkish province of Sirnak yielded bone fragments and clothing at a site believed to be holding the victims of state-backed death squads. "For three years, I hoped he would turn up in a basement somewhere, safe," she says, sitting at home in the Sirnak town of Cizre, 20 miles north of Turkey's border with Iraq. "Now all I want is a grave to pray at."
Expected to continue for days, the excavations at five sites aim to find the remains of hundreds of people who disappeared during the 1990s - at the height of Turkey's war against Kurdish separatists. Prosecutors are basing their search on testimony provided by more than 100 families, including Ms. Baykura and members of her family.
The real trigger for the digs, unprecedented in the region, is a wide-ranging investigation into an ultra-nationalist group charged with trying to overthrow Turkey's government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. When investigations into the network -- which Turks have dubbed Ergenekon -- began in June 2007, many Kurds were skeptical. But the arrests starting last summer of security force members notorious in Kurdish areas in the 1990s have raised hopes that the Ergenekon case will bring closure to many unresolved disappearances connected with the Kurdish insurgency.
Among 40 soldiers now held in connection with the Ergenekon scandal are a retired colonel and general believed to have co-founded JITEM, a shadowy military police unit that may be linked to more than 600 murders of Kurdish activists. Also in custody is Levent Ersoz, the former Sirnak regional military police chief.
"Ersoz handcuffed - it is a miracle," says Yakup Tanis, an engineer who lives in the Sirnak town of Silopi. In January 2001, his brother Serdar, a local politician, told prosecutors that Ersoz had repeatedly threatened to kill him. A fortnight later, he and a colleague were called to Silopi's military police station. Neither was ever seen again.
There are no reliable figures for the number of civilians murdered or disappeared by state-backed paramilitary groups amid the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a war that has claimed more than 40,000 lives since it started in 1984. Official statistics put unsolved murders between 1991 and 1995 at 1,412. Human rights groups reckon that at least 5,000 died, including over 1,000 missing persons who are presumed dead.
Getting convictions for murders committed by security personnel remains nearly impossible, says Tahir Elci, a prominent human rights lawyer. He says he can remember only one case - that of a sergeant sentenced to life in 2007 for ordering the 1994 murder of a Kurdish businessman. Turkey's system, he adds, "protects its murderers."
Yet the fact prosecutors have begun looking for mass graves is a sign that Turkey may be starting to change. The country's efforts to join the European Union may be playing a significant role in the transformation, as Brussels has exerted pressure on Ankara to revamp its legal system and make its security forces more accountable.
Two dozen Sirnak families first agitated for an investigation into mass graves claims back in 2004, when Abdulkadir Aygan, a former JITEM member who has lived in Sweden since 1999, published a book detailing the whereabouts of 28 JITEM victims. His confessions enabled three families to find their relatives' remains. But wider investigations foundered amid media and judicial indifference and widespread local fear.
Today, led by the hard-hitting new daily Taraf, Turkey's media seems much more willing to question official representations of the conflict in the southeast. And the sight of former untouchables being arrested in connection with the Ergenekon investigation appears to have jolted the consciences of officials who witnessed the lawlessness at first hand.
In February, for instance, one former minister admitted what locals and a handful of Turkish investigative journalists had known all along: 11 Sirnak villagers burned to death in a minibus in 1996 were killed by state security forces - not the PKK, as the military had claimed at the time.
"People who have never been to Kurdish areas are beginning to realize the full horror of what happened down there," says Umit Kardas, an Istanbul-based lawyer who served as a military judge in the southeast in the early 1980s.
Yet there are still numerous obstacles blocking the path to full disclosure.
Tahir Elci worries that sensational news about alleged 'acid wells' into which paramilitary groups threw victims' bodies to dissolve them risks obscuring the reality of what groups like JITEM were up to in the southeast a decade ago. "OK, it's good copy, but these people didn't throw all the bodies down wells, and they certainly didn't feel the need to dissolve them," he says. "They were pharaohs here. They could throw them wherever they wanted."
Cemaleddin Beyan can testify to that. When he came down to Silopi from his village in 1988 to find out what had happened to his son, arrested with five others the day before by soldiers, he found the town in uproar. Locals told him they had just seen six men thrown from a helicopter onto a military police base on the outskirts of the town.
Beyan had to wait 24 hours before being allowed into the base to retrieve his son's body.
"Sirnak is a like a shop selling atrocities," says Abdulcebbar Igdi, a Cizre-based former journalist who has collected testimonies from over 200 local families who claim their relatives were killed by security forces in the decade after 1988.
The guardian of Turkey's constitutional order, the military has not intervened in the Sirnak excavations, and until recently put up no resistance to the arrest of military officials in connection with the Ergenekon case.
But when Abdulkerim Kirca -- a retired colonel on trial in connection with murders allegedly carried out by JITEM -- committed suicide in January, military officers turned out en masse for his funeral. Serdar Yilmaz, a local non-governmental organization activist thinks the funeral turnout was a warning that the army doesn't want JITEM to be investigated too closely. "The army knows it must modernize to keep up with a changing Turkey," he says. "But it wants to adapt without losing its central position. If JITEM came out fully into the open, the reputation of the army would be destroyed."
Lawyers in ongoing JITEM trial, being held in the regional center of Diyarbakir, have applied three times to Ergenekon prosecutors for the dossiers to be joined, but have yet to receive an answer.
An Istanbul-based journalist who has written extensively on the conflict in the southeast, Celal Baslangic doubts Ergenekon will get far unless prosecutors investigate key suspects' links to death squads active in Kurdish areas. "The Kurdish war fattened these people up," he says. "In terms both of mentality and personnel, JITEM and Ergenekon are the same: two legs of the same beast."
Izzettin Aslan, a retired civil servant in Diyarbakir, has more personal reasons for hoping the Ergenekon investigations will be expanded to include crimes committed in the southeast. His son Murat disappeared in 1994 after going out to pay an electricity bill. Aslan found his remains in a valley near Silopi in 2005 using information provided by Abdulkadir Aygan, the Swedish-based former JITEM member.
"Abdulkerim Kirca is dead, and I leave him to God's judgment," Aslan said, referring to the retired colonel who headed the Diyarbakir JITEM unit in 1994. "But other JITEM members are still in Diyarbakir. We share the same streets. ? Ergenekon provides the chance in a lifetime for justice finally to be done."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.