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Families search for missing loved ones in Turkey's embattled Kurdish capital

Dozens are unaccounted for in Diyarbakir, Turkey's largest Kurdish city, where government forces are clashing with PKK-linked militias. The families of the missing are desperate for answers, reports Diego Cupolo.

It's been 10 days since Shakir Goklap last heard from his brother. He was last seen in Sur, a district of Diyarbakir where heavy fighting continues between Turkish forces and PKK-linked militants. Goklap fears his brother was one of seven people trapped in a collapsed building on Sunday.

Next to him sits Beritan Irlan, a young woman whose friend was stuck in the same building. Irlan explains she received a call from her friend as bulldozers cleared away the rubble.

"She said they had no weapons and that soldiers were about to enter the building," Irlan said. "She asked us to help her and then the line disconnected."

Later that day, Turkish news reports confirmed seven people were killed in Sur as a picture of a man lying face down next to a rifle, his body mangled after being run over by a tank, surfaced on the Internet.

A bomb crater in Diyarbakir’s Sur district, where fighting has been ongoing since December

Parts of Sur, which is a UNESCO cultural heritage site, have been levelled

Goklap and Irlan now join dozens of families who gather daily at Diyarbakir's Dicle Firat Cultural Center, where they hold protests demanding the government return the bodies of more than 40 people who have gone missing during ongoing military operations in the city center.

'One piece of bone'

As mothers stream in and out of the center with vacant stares, Mahmut Simsek, a manager at Dicle Firat, explains that some families have been searching for their relatives for more than two or three months.

"There are mothers who are looking for one piece of a bone from their children," said Mahmut Simsek, a manager at the cultural center. "They just want to give them a proper burial, even if they only have a piece of their body."

Framed portraits of the missing line the walls in the cultural center, where some have begun hunger strikes in their latest effort to prompt government action. Speaking over a cup of tea, Goklap said he recently went to a local morgue to try to identify his brother, but the corpses were so mutilated and burnt that they were beyond recognition.

A man holds a portrait of his missing brother in the Dicle Firat Cultural Center

This man is anxious to find out what has happened to his brother

"You couldn't see who was a man and who was a woman," Goklap said.

Out of 16 families visiting the morgue that day, Goklap said only one was able to identify a relative.

Ongoing conflict

Despite a government announcement on March 9 stating military operations were winding down in Diyarbakir, heavy street fighting continues in the historic Sur district. Automatic gunfire can be heard daily, and explosions echo through the narrow streets, as militias linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) battle Turkish special forces.

The conflict is now spreading to new neighborhoods, such as Baglar, where curfews have been issued, banning all civilians from areas under fire.

The impact on the local population has been heavy. A report issued by the International Crisis Group on Thursday said more than 350,000 civilians had been displaced in southeast Turkey and at least 250 killed since the conflict escalated late last year.

Fighting resumed after a two-and-half-year-long ceasefire fell through, and state curfews where issued in cities throughout the nation's southeastern region, where the majority of Kurds in Turkey reside.

Kurdish militias have been at war intermittently with the Turkish government since the 1980s, when Abdullah Ocalan formed the PKK with ambitions to create an autonomous Kurdish state and expand the rights of the Kurdish people, who are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world.

Civilian casualties

Caught in the crossfire are civilians in urban areas, where much of the fighting has taken place. Back in the cultural center, Fatma Akmere holds a portrait of her 28-year-old son as she rocks back and forth in her chair. She said he had recently married and was preparing to start a family when the curfew began.

Two months ago, he returned to his home in Sur to retrieve boxes of clothes and never returned. His body has yet to be recovered.

"They told me they killed my son in his home, and then they told me he was a terrorist," Akmere said. "How can they say people inside their homes are terrorists? He was not a terrorist."

A man walks with his daughter through rubble in Diyarbakir’s Sur district

Turkish military operations are officially coming to an end, though fighting has continued

As the conflict rolls into spring, stories of human rights abuses multiply, and media access is largely restricted in Diyarbakir and other cities under fire.

Last week, 23 bodies retrieved from government forces showed signs of torture. Some had been left in the streets so long that dogs and cats began to feed on them, said Sibel Yigitalp, a member of Parliament and deputy of Diyarbakir for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish left-wing political group.

"This is the way the government answers the demands of Kurds," Yigitalp said.

Overseeing the protest at the cultural center, manager Mahmut Simsek says he has never felt so useless.

"It is difficult to listen to the sound of bombs and shooting all day long and to know people are losing lives and houses are falling down on them," Simsek said. "I feel so like I cannot do anything to stop this from happening."

A woman holds a portrait of her missing daughter in the Dicle Firat Cultural Center

Family members of the missing look for consolation and help at the cultural center

The international community will eventually respond to President Recep Tayyip

Erdogan's operations in southeast Turkey,

Simsek reflected.

"I remember when Saddam Hussein said, 'What is the law? I am the law,'" he explained. "Now we are hearing a similar message from Erdogan, so I believe his end is coming soon. God willing."

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