Just as Guernica was a symbol of the Spanish civil war, Roboski (Turkish Uludere) is bound to become a symbol of Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
Guernica was a small village in the Basque region of Spain. On April 26,1937, it was bombed by Franco’s forces in the Spanish civil war. Hundreds of innocent people were killed. What made Guernica unforgettable was no doubt Pablo Picasso’s timeless painting inspired by that event.
Thanks to Picasso, Guernica found its place in mankind’s awareness and its name remains a symbol of the tragedies of war. In time, it has come to symbolize anti-war and pro-peace ideologies.
The Roboski incident little resembles that in Guernica, but its symbolism for that time period in Turkey is much the same.
Roboski is a small village on the mountainous Turkey-Iraq border at a point where the border line is not very clear. In Turkish, it is the village of Uludere, in the Sirnak province. On Dec. 28, 2011 Turkish F-16s bombed a smugglers’ caravan on the Iraqi side, thinking they were attacking armed PKK militants trying to infiltrate Turkey. At the end, 34 children from Roboski, more than half of them about 15 years old, were killed and their bodies shred apart. Their relatives crossed the border to Iraq, collected the bodis in pieces and carried them to the Turkish side for burial.
In addition to the unprecedented tragidy of the incident now known as the Roboski massacre, the Turkish public were shocked to learn that the poor villagers of Roboski, never mind being PKK supporters, were actually members of a pro-government tribe. There were loud demands to find and punish those responsible. Then came developments that were difficult to explain. Prime Minister Erdogan, famous for his populist style, exhibited incredible apathy. He appeared to be deaf to public calls for the state to apologize. While all segments of society were shouting for the punishment of those responsible, the government seemed to be trying to cover up the incident.
While there were rumors that the F-16s bombed the caravan because of misleading intelligence provided by a US drone, American officials, in reports they leaked to Wall Street Journal, evaded responsibility by claiming they had warned the Turkish side that photos they had were not clear, but that the Turks had ignored the message. The WSJ report angered Erdogan and led to a sharp reaction on his part.
Questions about the incident led to mutual accusations between Turkish intelligence services. More importantly, the Turkish General Staff and Air Force Command became targets of heavy criticism.
Opposition parties, above all the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party and the Peace and Democracy Party, which is said to share its same program with the PKK, charged Erdogan of personally ordering the massacre. They emphasized that the F-16s bombed outside the Turkish border, and that couldn’t have been done without the orders of the prime minister.
To expose the true wrongdoers, it appeared that Erdogan had to chop off some heads at the upper levels of the Turkish armed forces. But the current military high command, for the first time, was composed entirely of Erdogan supporters. The prime minister not only resisted calls for firings, but even praised the chief of General Staff. A year after the Roboski tragedy, the commander of the Turkish air force was awarded the superior-service medal.
Roboski became an important symbol for the breaking point of ten years of Justice and Development Party (AKP)-Erdogan rule. The AKP always boasted that it represented the Kurds as it got more Kurdish votes than the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Nevertheless, the AKP began to feel an erosion of support from its Kurdish constituency.
There are now perceptible trends among conservative Kurds to distance themselves for the AKP. A party called Huda-Par was established by Kurdish Islamists a year after the Roboski incident. Another movement, Azadi, was created and includes many Kurds who had earlier worked with the AKP.
At the moment, there is no concrete data on the vote erosion AKP has suffered after Roboski, and how that would affect Erdogan's calculations for the presidency. In 2014, Turkey will elect its president by direct vote for the first time. Nevertheless, no one doubts that Roboski will cause a significant decline in Kurdish support for Erdogan and the AKP.
Erdogan is defending himself by saying the Roboski investigation is proceeding and that he is sensitive to the case. He had send his deputy — and more importantly, his wife and daughter — to the village to offer condolences, and finally compensation, much higher than anticipated, was paid to the relatives of the victims.
But none of these really is working. Nobody believes that the Turkish judiciary, always very cumbersome and whose independence is always in question, will reveal the culprits. People found Erdogan’s dispatch of his wife and daughter to Roboski instead of going himself ironic. To make up for the loss of 34 young people with exaggerated compensations was seen by angry Roboski villagers as “discrimination against Kurds.” Villagers have refused compensation and insist on an apology and the punishment of those responsible.
On the first anniversary of the massacre, despite the ban on ceremonies, tens of thousands of people from all corners of Turkey went to Roboski. In provinces where Kurds live such as Diyarbakir, Mardin, Sirnak, Mus and Agri, life stopped. All shops except bakeries and pharmacies were shuttered. Students did not go to school.
Selahattin Demirtas, BDP chairman, made a dangerous diagnosis of the incident. He said:
The front and the rear of these lands is Kurdistan. Is this why are so cruel to us? Kurdish people must have their Kurdistan, autonomous, independent or federal. Just because they don’t have a state, you will pursue policies of cruelty. Kurds must have their Kurdistan so that they could demand an account of Roboski. We are begging for justice. We know there is no justice at the courts, with the prosecutors and laws. This people will take you to account by resisting, by organizing. This was an incident that could have been cleared up in couple of hours. Erdogan, for shame, is saying "let the prosecutors finish their work, then we will know if they were civilians or not," about the victims. That is the scheme he is devising. He is saying if we portray them as smugglers, we will be off the hook. Is trading between Kurdish villages smuggling? No, it isn’t. These are thousands of Kurds living on their own land. This is the truth behind the massacre.
On its first anniversary, Roboski is not only a question of human rights that has left heavy scars in Turkish consciences. It is now a massive source of fuel for Kurdish nationalism.
An example of this phenomenon was a funeral the day before the Roboski anniversary at the town of Cizre, known as a militant Kurdish town, not far from Roboski near where Turkey-Syria-Iraq borders meet.
One of the respected Kurdish personalities of the country, former minister and Member of Parliament from Diyarbakir Serafettin Elci died of cancer at the age of 75. In front of the Turkish parliament, Prime Minister Erdogan, most of his ministers and large group of parliamentarians saluted Eli’s coffin wrapped in a Turkish flag. The next day, Serafettin Elci was buried in his home town of Cizre with a ceremony attended by 100,000 people, including one of Massoud Barzani’s brothers. His coffin was wraped in a Kurdish flag.
Similar scenes repeated the next day at Roboski, adorned by black flags in memory of the 34 Kurdish children cut to pieces by F-16s.
Three days before the end of 2012, Turkey was covered by the dark shadow of the Roboski bombing. It is entering 2013 with Kurdish flags hoisted along the Iraqi and Syrian borders, and black flags fluttering with messages for the future.
It is well understood that 2013 will be a tough year for the Kurdish question, for Turkey and for Erdogan, who is calculating his presidential chances for 2014.
Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History. He contributed to two Century Foundation publications: "Turkey's Transformation and American Policy" and "Allies in Need: Turkey and the US." He is currently senior columnist of Radikal in Istanbul. Candar was a special foreign policy advisor to Turkish President Turgut Özal from 1991 to 1993.