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Kurdish disappeared

Dorian Jones, Istanbul / ccOctober 3, 2012

Hundreds of people were killed or disappeared during the insurgency by Kurdish rebels in Turkey in the 1990s. Now time is running out for the relatives still seeking justice.

Families of the Kurdish disappeared standing outside the court in Diyarbakir in March 2012, where a former policeman and six others were on trial for the murder and kidnap of 20 people in south-eastern Turkey between 1993 and 1995. (Photo: Copyright: 2012 Emma Sinclair-Webb/Human Rights Watch)
Image: 2012 Emma Sinclair-Webb/Human Rights Watch

Seyhan Dogan was just 14 when he was taken away by paramilitary police. It was 3 a.m. on October 29, 1995. "I remember waking up to screaming and shouting and powerful lights being shone into our house," says his younger brother, Hazni. "Special Forces broke in and took him away in handcuffs."

The next morning they came for Hazni, too. They took him to the gendarmerie base where Seyhan and seven others were being held. "There was all kinds of inhumane torture," Hazni says. He can still recall the "terrible screams."

Hazni was released four days later. He caught sight of Seyhan "bloody and unconscious - he looked in a very bad way." It was the last time he ever saw his brother.

Quest for the truth

In the 1990s the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK, was fighting a violent armed struggle against the Turkish state. The PKK demanded more freedoms and greater autonomy, especially in the predominantly Kurdish south-east of the country. Turkish forces responded to PKK attacks with increasing brutality. Hundreds, possibly even thousands of people disappeared and were presumably killed.

Kurdish rebels patrol the mountainous Iraq-Turkey border region in October 2007. (EPA/ALI ABBAS (c) dpa)
The PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for three decadesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

For 17 years now the Dogan family has been campaigning to find out what happened to Seyhan. His mother in particular was fearless in her search for an answer. "She went to army bases," Hazni says, "which back then was a very dangerous thing to do, as people simply disappeared from them." They told her Seyhan had been released the day after Hazni, and that he had gone to the mountains to join his "terrorist friends." None of the family believed this.

Crucial breakthrough

Seyhan's mother never gave up, but neither could she get any information. "She petitioned the courts," Hazni explains, "but there was a wall of silence." Both his parents died without knowing what happened to their son, and Hazni is convinced it was the strain that killed them. He took up the fight, and for more than a decade now has been campaigning alongside hundreds of other families of the disappeared to try to find the bodies of their loved ones.

Earlier this year, he finally had a breakthrough. A retired militiaman came forward with crucial information, which prompted excavations at the army base where Seyhan and Hazni were detained. 11 bodies were found. One was wearing civilian clothes. "The clothes look very familiar," says Hazni, "but the corpse was burned and buried under rocks. We've been waiting seven months for the forensic test results from the morgue in Istanbul. We haven't had an answer yet, but I'm hopeful."

Turkish pro-government village guards, left, patrol past soldiers maintaining their armored vehicle, in the area near Turkey-Iraq border, in Sirnak, Turkey, in October, 2007. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
Militia, paramilitaries and the army are all implicatedImage: AP

Justice is in the country's interest

In another important development, state prosecutors recently put senior military officers on trial for the first time for their alleged involvement in the killings of civilians. The relatives of the disappeared naturally have personal reasons to want those responsible to be found, but Hazni insists that the pursuit of justice is in the interest of the country as a whole. "It's a system," he says, "and we don't want our children to grow up in this system. Justice is essential for our society, and that's what we want. Some of those responsible are mayors in some towns now."

But time is running out. Many of the killings and disappearances happened in 1993 and 1994, and Turkey's 20-year statute of limitations on prosecution means there is very little time left for prosecutors to get to grips with the huge number of cases. A recent report by the US-based non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch strongly recommended that Turkey should abolish this statute of limitations.

Thousands of Turks demonstrate to condemn terrorism in Ankara, Turkey, in September 2012. The banner reads: "We don't want the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) at the parliament." (Photo: AP/dapd)
An upsurge in PKK attacks has turned the mood against the KurdsImage: dapd

Conflict is escalating

Turkey, however, has warned that a recent spate of attacks by Kurdish rebels is likely to jeopardize the possibility of legal reforms. For some time it had seemed as if progress was finally being made. Less than two years ago, with a PKK ceasefire in place, the government was pushing its "Kurdish Opening" program, including high-level talks with the PKK, Kurdish-language education, and the freedom to use Kurdish in election campaigns.

Now, though, the process has been derailed. Thousands of Kurdish civilians have been arrested under anti-terror laws, and over the past six months PKK attacks have escalated, with some of the heaviest fighting in decades.

Hazni Dogan says that, far from delaying the legal reforms needed to abolish the statute of limitations, the recent fighting shows that it has never been more important for the country to confront its past. "It's a matter of life and death," he says. "These people are still among us. If they're not held accountable, 10 years later the same thing will happen to today's children."

Students protesting in Istanbul, February 2012, against the arrest without charge of hundreds of students under anti-terrorism laws. (Photo: (c) Dorian Jones) Istanbul, Februar, 2012
Students protest against the arrests of Kurds under anti-terrorism lawsImage: Dorian Jones

Some politicians, he says, are talking about establishing a Truth Commission to deal with the crimes of the past. "Perhaps, with their efforts, we can start to clean things up," says Hazni. "It's all related - stopping the bloodshed, stopping the war. If we don't do all of this, how can we talk about peace? We need conscience and morality. We tell ourselves not to lose hope. If we lose hope, there's nothing left of our humanity."