A specter is haunting Turkey’s policy in defense of its national interests, territorial integrity and security: the specter of being trapped in the difficulties of fighting against terror for three decades at least, with nearly 40,000 dead, and failing in this time to peacefully resolve the country’s Kurdish dilemma. While there is no doubt that the fight against terror is not a clean task, it still should be no excuse for authorities to keep demanding that the people accept any wrongdoing as collateral damage.
When Turkey’s military court decided on Jan. 7 that there was no need to prosecute the December 2011 air bombardment of Uludere — Roboski in Kurdish — which resulted in the death of 34 Kurdish civilians, it was evident that that decision would not be well-received in the people’s conscience. The military prosecutor’s office based its reasoning on the fact that the order for the operation came directly from the chief of the General Staff. It also underlined that carrying out such an order could only be considered normal procedure, but it was unfortunate that the intelligence was bad, and that had led to this tragic “error.”
In June 2013, this case was transferred from a civilian court to the military court when the former declared the case not under its jurisdiction.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ferhat Encu, the brother of 17-year-old Serhat, who died in that bombardment, said, “This decision is nothing but injustice and lack of remorse, but we were expecting this. The government did not respect our losses from day one. Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan thanked the military just two days after this attack for carrying out such a successful operation, and they tried to silence us by paying compensation. We did not accept it.
“Idris Naim Sahin, the interior minister at the time, publicly claimed that if these people had not been killed by the air bombardment, they would have been put on trial for smuggling. The Uludere prosecutor’s office in fact interrogated all the family members who lost their loved ones there. We knew from day one that they wanted to cover up this incident, but we won’t allow them to do so.”
Unfortunately, as these kinds of incidents have piled up over the years without any fair settlement, people’s nerves understandably have worn thinner and thinner and their frustrations only multiplied. There is too much trauma, not only for senseless deaths, but also because of poverty. People who live along the border have limited options for making a living and winter conditions hit hard. Farming or raising stock either becomes out of the question or it does not bring in enough money to feed their families. Many simply turn to smuggling to survive, and the state authorities know it too well and mostly turn a blind eye to it.
The military prosecutor’s office stated in its decision that the previous incidents and intelligence reports prove that the area where this bombardment occurred was on the Kurdistan Workers Party’s (PKK) transit route. It was claimed that villagers involved in smuggling could not have passed through the area without the knowledge of the PKK.
“It is very clear that this decision to carry out this operation was given directly by the prime minister,” Umit Ozdag, head of the 21st Century Turkey think tank, told Al-Monitor. “On the day of the incident, there was the National Security Council meeting. The intelligence provided suggested that a key PKK commander, code-named Feroz, was among that group crossing the border into Turkey from Iraq. And the prime minister authorized this cross-border operation. If it had succeeded, Erdogan would have announced it victoriously. Since it did not end with the expected outcome, the chief of General Staff took the burden. Nothing will come out of the courts on this issue.”
Encu, however, sounded determined to keep fighting for justice.
“We managed to keep this issue alive on the country’s agenda — something happening maybe for the first time in Turkey, and we will continue to do so,” Encu told Al-Monitor. “We are discussing what to do now with our lawyers. There seems to be two ways. We can either appeal the court’s decision, or carry this issue as individuals to the Constitutional Court in order to exploit all possible legal means in the country. We will then consider going to the European Court of Human Rights. We are doing so because we want to see an end to such reckless military operations. We want to see the day when the military gets payback for its wrongdoing.”
Yunus Muratakan, a lawyer in Diyarbakir who helps the families of Roboski victims, concurs. “But I don’t believe the military will ever admit to its wrongdoing, and see this issue from our eyes,” Muratakan told Al-Monitor. “They need to be kept legally responsible even for the bad intelligence. Where did this intelligence come from? If you suspect there is a potential that the intelligence could be misleading, you’re obliged by law not to carry out an unlawful action. Kurds have been fighting against such injustices either within the legal norms, or by violence — through the PKK. We don’t see any wrongdoing of the PKK here.”
Encu also expresses pride that the people of Roboski have a historical role in the making of the PKK. “When people refer to us as village guards, they neglect history. We did so just to protect our families from the state’s violence, torture. We never betrayed the Kurdish cause,” he told Al-Monitor. “They talk about smuggling, or illegal trade. We did not have borders here up until the 1950s. We come from the same families on both sides of the so-called border. We marry from each other’s families. How do you divide us?”
The bottom line is, though, that those borders are there for a reason, and people on both sides of the line do play a critical role in peace and wartime. The issue is that it has been unfortunately impossible for decades to find a way to please both the Turkish state and the Kurdish nationalists in a deal to end this ongoing, unnamed civil war. Although the Erdogan government started an initiative in bringing the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to a negotiation table to find a solution, it’s no longer possible to talk about any process that may yield an acceptable result. It is also questionable whether that was the right approach in the first place to resolve this controversial issue, since people on the western side of the country are equally and even more so frustrated by constantly losing military members in this war, while the Kurdish side — in its perception — fails to show empathy to those losses both in blood and treasure. In sum, though, the way the Roboski incident is playing out in public seems to have ended all these potential hopes of any resolution to the Kurdish dilemma.
“If the prime minister were not directly involved in this operation, this would have been easily resolved. The prime minister, however, carries the first-degree responsibility — both politically and legally. The chief of General Staff carries a second-degree responsibility. And they whitewashed each other with this military court’s decision,” Sezgin Tanrikulu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said on Jan. 7.
“It is, however, impossible to clear themselves from any responsibility in people’s conscience. I am stating this as a criminal case lawyer: The prime minister will eventually stand before an international court of criminal justice for crime against humanity. And that will be his legacy for his children, and that is how he will be remembered as a prime minister.”
Hasip Kaplan, a deputy from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, also addressed parliament on Jan. 7, feeling frustrated and helpless about the judiciary.
“Those 34 children will look into your eyes, and shout, ‘Are you not human?’ Look at this decision. It details all the steps, and leaves no doubt that [the prime minister and the chief of the General Staff] were well aware of this operation. Let God bring down these bombs upon those merciless ones. Let God do it so that they understand why we can’t keep silent before such injustice. We won’t let them forget our deaths.”
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