Image courtesy Philip Downey

When I met him last March, Davut Akyon was clawing at the fresh brown earth in Bağözü, a village in Southeast Turkey. He worked deliberately, but quickly, turning over large chunks of limestone, moving from one mound to another, the speed of his labor failing to mask the futility of his task. Occasionally, he would throw a rock down a well, following its trajectory with vacant eyes. Then he would stop, his weight resting on his right leg, and smoke rolled tobacco, his hand cupped around the cigarette.

Davut was looking for his brother’s bones. Little more than a month before, the remains of eleven humans were found in Bağözü, near the town of Dargeçit, about 80 kilometers from the Syrian border. These unmarked graves are believed to contain victims of a conflict between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which stretched through most of the 1990s. It descended into the villages. Human rights abuses on both sides of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict were rife.

Bağözü, known as Triwa in Kurdish, was forcefully evacuated by the Turkish military in 1995. Its eighty-five honey-colored houses were abandoned and the village was brought under the control of the army. The recent discovery of remains suggests that Bağözü could be one of the many abandoned villages where the bodies of PKK guerrillas and Kurdish civilians killed during the fighting or executed by the army were buried. The Human Rights Association (IHD), an organization closely associated with Kurdish rights, has cataloged 253 potential sites and expects there are many more. Bağözü is the twenty-ninth gravesite to be opened since the first was discovered in 2004.

Davut does not know why they took [his brother]. He has spent the last 17 years looking for Nedim’s body, a search that has come to dominate Davut’s existence.

Davut, who lives in Dargeçit, looks older than his forty-one years. He is almost six foot, with broad shoulders, cropped hair, and a thick Kurdish moustache, but with a meek and nervous disposition, he seems slighter than he actually is. In different circumstances, his buzz cut, weathered face, and barrel chest could suggest a military background. In February, he gave a DNA sample to the local prosecutor with the hope that his brother Nedim would be among those discovered in the Bağözü graves, but he’s continued searching beyond the gravesites for more bones throughout the village.

Nedim was twelve when he was taken in the middle of the night from his family home. “Our house was surrounded by soldiers. I came out but they yelled at me to stop… They asked me where my brother was. I told them he was upstairs,” says Davut of that night in November 1995. “The soldiers moved past me and climbed the stairs. They entered Nedim’s room and pushed him to the floor. They bound his hands behind his back and blindfolded him. He was still in his pajamas as they marched him downstairs. A hood was placed over his head and he was pushed out of the house.”

That was the last time Davut saw Nedim. As he rushed to the door to follow his hooded brother, the local gendarme commander blocked his path. “He said, ‘If you ever follow us, I’ll kill all of you.’ A couple of minutes later we heard a gun shot.”

Davut does not know why the soldiers took Nedim, why they targeted his family and his younger brother in particular. He has spent the last seventeen years looking for Nedim’s body, a search that has come to dominate his existence. “Our lives have never been the same,” Davut says. “We are always searching for him. Twenty-four hours never pass without thinking about Nedim. I remember everything about him. It’s your brother, you never forget.”


With a population of almost fifteen thousand, Dargeçit sits just beyond the northern reaches of the Syrian plain, on the edge of the Eastern Highlands. On the western approach, the land is made up of largely barren, rock-strewn fields, which frame the odd farmhouse or ancient monastery–remnants of a once-thriving Syriac Christian community. The only thing that grows here is the oak. Yashar Kemal, in his famous 1955 novel Memed, My Hawk, saw the tree of Kurdistan as a symbol of the gnarled and stoic villager, rooted to the land by an oppressive feudal system. The oak has been appropriated as the symbol of the Kurdish parliamentary party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), and is displayed on their bright yellow flag as a representation of home for a people uprooted.

Ever since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, this region has been what the writer Christopher de Bellaigue calls a “rebel land.” In the wake of World War I, the emergence of the Turkish nation from the remains of the Ottoman Empire heralded the end of fraternity between Kurds and Turks. Mustafa Kemal (who later took the surname Atatürk, meaning “Father of the Turks”), the country’s founder, built a nation established on martial myths and driven by the ideas of early twentieth century Europe: science and progress, secularism and urbanity, but also ethno-nationalism and social engineering. Atatürk’s nation-building was a fussy and neurotic process of constructing a modernized, Turkified identity one symbol at a time—from streamlined clothing to a new alphabet and new names for people and places. The Kurds faced forced assimilation. For much of the Republic’s life, Kurds have been known as “Mountain Turks” and their language and popular culture has been banned. Today, Turkey’s Kurds, who number approximately 14 million—18 percent of the population—are acknowledged, but still marginalized.

Just two years after the declaration of the Republic, Sheikh Said, a wealthy landowner and religious figure from Palu in the northwest of the Kurdish region, led an unsuccessful rebellion against the new national government in Ankara. The Sheikh and his followers were hanged in a public square in Diyarbakir, the region’s largest city, and then dumped into unmarked graves. This was the first rebellion against the Turkish Republic and its definition of national identity. Many more have followed. As early as 1927, the British Ambassador Sir George Clerk noted, “the government has already begun to apply to the Kurdish elements… the policy which so successfully disposed of the Armenian minority in 1915.”

The latest conflict began in 1984 when the PKK launched a guerrilla campaign against symbols of Turkish state power, including the army, police, and civil servants, in the Southeast. The PKK talked about liberation through adherence to a Marxist-Leninist doctrine, but the premier ambition of its guerrilla war was independence for Turkey’s Kurds and the formation of Kurdistan. Because of its hit-and-run tactics against both the Turkish military and large landowning families who benefited from government patronage, the group gained a loyal and broad following in the Southeast. As one businessman in Diyarbakir told me, “I supported the PKK in the 1980s because they were the only group capable of standing up to the power of the state.”

As many as thirty-five hundred people in the Southeast, mostly civilians, may have disappeared, the majority of them between 1990 and 1996. (Members of the current government say the figure is between one thousand and fifteen hundred, but as with all numbers on the subject, it is highly contested.)

The fighting has ebbed and flowed—through the capture of the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999, through numerous ceasefires (one unilaterally declared by the PKK lasting almost four years), through terrorist attacks by the PKK in cities in the west of Turkey. Yet each summer as the snow melts, the fighting resumes in the remote valleys of the Southeast. The conflict reached its height in the 1990s, before Ocalan was captured and the current government came to power.

At that time, Dargeçit was at the center of a society that was disintegrating. To the east was “Hell’s Valley,” a natural transit route for PKK guerrillas and a site of intense, fierce fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military. In 1990, the separatist group had been waging a low-intensity guerrilla war for six years and had gained significant strength both in military recruits and in support among the local villages. The government’s response was to place the region under emergency law and largely cede control to the army and its proxies. Up to 3 million people were displaced and roughly three thousand villages and hamlets were depopulated because the inhabitants refused to join the Village Guard, a civilian militia paid and armed by the state to fight the PKK.

Executions in detention were common. Sometimes JITEM, a secretive intelligence and counterterrorism unit of the Turkish military, was responsible for the killings. Other times, they were carried out by special teams of Kurdish-speaking men in civilian dress nominally employed by the military. These death squads, which were difficult to categorize as civilian or military, were often supported by the Village Guard. Those who had not joined the guards learned to fear the arrival of a white Renault, the car of choice for special teams carrying out abductions. As many as thirty-five hundred people in the Southeast, mostly civilians, may have disappeared, the majority of them between 1990 and 1996. (The current government says the figure is between one thousand and fifteen hundred, but as with all numbers on the subject, it is highly contested.) Though the PKK could not match the force of the Turkish military, it too was willing to bring the conflict to the population at large, killing civilians accused of supporting the opposing side.

Dargeçit felt the full force of this war–the fear, the fighting and the debilitating effects of military occupation. Ahmet Yilmaz* who lives in Kudmere, a village 5 kilometers from Dargeçit, told me, “I can’t put into words what we’ve seen. Only people who were living here can understand it. Every night there was a conflict here. It was mentally difficult. It was like Palestine. It was a war zone.” But Dargeçit also became a center of resistance to military rule. It was there that one of the early instances of Serhildan—a Kurdish uprising inspired by the Palestinian intifada in which protestors chanted the slogan “Edi Bese” (“Enough”) while throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails–took place. In March 1991, two thousand villagers marched through the streets of Dargeçit in protest and were fired upon by the military, which led to rioting and more than 100 arrests. The funerals of PKK guerrillas often occasioned protest and rioting. Their deaths turned into celebrations of martyrdom, where women, in imitation of wedding ceremonies, etched henna into their skin, the dead guerrilla marrying the land of Kurdistan.

In 1995, at the peak of the conflict, the military detained roughly fifty townspeople in Dargeçit following the deaths of two teachers killed by the PKK. All but seven were released. Süleyman Seyhan, a fifty-eight-year-old man, was found dead four months later in an abandoned village well. Six are still missing. Though several of the initial television reports on the recent discovery of graves in the Dargeçit area linked the bones to terrorists, many people hope that the remains belong to civilians, including Davut’s brother.


The government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), elected in 2002, has staked parts of its credibility in the Kurdish region on its ability to seek recompense for the victims of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Early in its tenure, buoyed by the prospects of EU accession, the AKP enacted a number of reforms offering hope to the Kurdish community. The AKP was the first government to offer compensation, and more importantly an apology, to Kurdish villagers forced to evacuate in the 1990s. It was the first government to introduce a program to support the return of Kurds to their villages. It was also under the AKP that the first unmarked grave was excavated in 2004. In the 2007 national election, the AKP increased its share of the vote in the Southeast to 52 percent, becoming the largest party in the region. During their three terms in office, extrajudicial killings have all but stopped. The government introduced a Kurdish language channel on state TV in 2009 and allowed Kurdish language study at private universities, moves that would have been considered unthinkable less than a decade earlier.

The PKK has also moderated its position. Since the capture and imprisonment of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999, the strident calls for an independent homeland have been replaced with calls for language and cultural rights and some form of political autonomy. By 2009, the government was discussing a “Democratic Opening,” a program of reform that would bring a permanent resolution to the Kurdish issue.

But the situation remained fragile. Fighting continued intermittently with skirmishes in the mountains and protests on the street. The Kurdish movement remained skeptical. Although there was promise, the prospect of full language rights, including the use of the Kurdish language in state schools, was distant. Despite the government’s boast of its human rights record, children were still being imprisoned as “terrorists” for throwing stones at protests, and Kurdish mayors still faced imprisonment for praising Ocalan or the PKK. With the Village Guard operating throughout the Southeast and occupying many abandoned villages, the AKP’s vow to help Kurds return to their villages also lacked credibility.

The democratic opening completely unraveled with the return of thirty-four PKK fighters and refugees from Northern Iraq to Turkey under an amnesty program in October 2009. They were met with joyous celebrations by relatives and Kurdish villagers. The Turkish press and much of the public saw this as a proclamation of victory. The government felt betrayed and immediately charged the returnees with belonging to a terrorist organization (some of them escaped back into Iraq). Plans for the return of PKK-affiliated activists from the European diaspora were cancelled and the mood soured.

The government responded by talking less about reforms and Kurdish rights and more about defeating the PKK militarily. Covert peace talks, which had been ongoing since 2005, were shut down. The government used a broad-ranging 2006 anti-terror law not only to criminalize the acts of the PKK, but also to arrest anyone expressing support for the organization. Kurds who have written about the struggle or turned up at protests have found themselves in prison. Turkey now imprisons more journalists than any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many of them are Kurdish. Thousands of activists, politicians and journalists have also been detained under an investigation into the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an organization that prosecutors allege is attempting to establish a parallel Kurdish state within the country. In the 2011 election, the AKP’s share of the vote in the Southeast fell to 39.6 percent. And since then, negotiations over a new constitution, which the government campaigned for as a solution to Kurdish woes, have stalled.

Frustrated by lack of progress and emboldened by the events across the border in Syria, factions within the PKK have embarked on a fresh bout of kidnappings and fire bombings of primary schools in the Southeast. Outside the region, the organization has detonated bombs in several Turkish cities targeting police stations and the country’s security apparatus. In the first ten and a half months of 2012 at least 490 lives were lost, making it the deadliest year in more than a decade. In August, one of the most popular tweets in Turkey read: “We don’t want an opening, we want a massacre.”

However, in September, Kurdish prisoners began a hunger strike, demanding full language rights and better conditions for the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. The prospect of almost seven hundred inmates dying of starvation in Turkish prisons forced both sides towards compromise. After sixty-eight days, Ocalan struck a deal for the resumption of peace negotiations with the government. The strike ended and the public mood softened. Erdogan called the strike “just a show,” but in late December it was confirmed that peace talks had resumed between Ocalan and the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT).

Yet, local newspapers report ongoing deaths of guerrillas and Turkish soldiers. On January 10, three Kurdish activists, including one of the co-founders of the PKK, Sakine Cansiz, were assassinated at the Kurdish Institute in Paris. The media was rife with speculation about the perpetrators. Were they Turkish nationalists? Was it Turkish Intelligence? Or factions within the PKK itself? Most papers agreed that the peace talks were now once again in peril.

Erdogan and the AKP continue to talk up their human rights credentials and their dedication to pursuing justice for unmarked grave cases. For some Kurds in Southeast Turkey, the government’s handling of the unmarked graves is a litmus test of its intentions towards the region. According to Raci Bilici, the Chairman of the Diyarbakir Branch of the Human Rights Association (IHD), “This is kind of a test of their [the ruling Justice and Development Party’s] sincerity. Whatever happened in the past, from the state side, wherever they did something against human rights, they should pay the price and get the people’s respect and trust. If they face up to these things, I think everything will clearly change a lot.”

The IHD is calling for an independent investigation into each and every gravesite adhering to international standards of excavation. The association wants full criminal investigations into the whole chain of command including the highest ranks of the military and the government serving at the time of the disappearances. Above all, it wants to see the individuals and state officials implicated in these events prosecuted.

According to Ayhan Sefer Üstün, an AKP member of parliament and the head of the parliamentary commission on human rights, “It’s usually easier to talk about [human rights abuses] around the table… but when ten of your soldiers become martyrs, we all are human and we get influenced by these things. It’s much harder to talk about human rights in these difficult times, but in our commission everybody talks freely. And everyone knows that ongoing terror [by the PKK] should not mean extrajudicial killings are less important to investigate.” Time marches on: the twenty-year statute of limitations for many of the civilian murders that took place in the 1990s is closing in. One wonders whether justice will be lost among the current animosities and chaos.


While many in Dargeçit fled during the conflict, Davut stayed. He never told me why. He was the only one of nine siblings who didn’t leave. He has built a life for himself keeping animals and doing construction work. He is married and has six children. They all live together with his extended family in a cavernous one-story house on the eastern edge of town. It is here that he has quietly grieved. According to Hasni Dogan, a friend whose brother also went missing, it wasn’t until two years ago that Davut began to speak publicly about the night his brother was taken.

Davut does not speak in the abstraction of politics but in the personal language of loss. About the investigation into the graves, he said simply, “We want to see our hearts breathe.”

Many of the refugees from the Kurdish-Turkish conflict have lived lives of multiple migrations, two languages, and a double exile–first from their villages and now from the society around them. Hemmed in by the poorer neighborhoods of Turkey’s largest cities, they have contracted a politics of resistance, attending rallies and party meetings where young people wrapped in Keffiyehs lead rousing renditions of the “Guerrilla March,” a nationalist ode to the rebels in the mountains. Although there are no official figures, it is clear that many of Turkey’s 14 million Kurds have accepted the benefits of assimilation, forgoing ethnic identity for jobs and social inclusion. But those affected by the conflict continue to speak of alienation and their children’s desire to join the PKK.

Davut was drawn into the circle of the Kurdish resistance movement by the disappearance of his brother. When his inquiries into Nedim’s abduction were ignored by state officials, he turned to the organizations that were willing to help: the Human Rights Association and the People’s Democracy Party (HEDAP, a forerunner to the BDP). After we visited the gravesite, we went to the Dargeçit BDP branch office. As the local party chairman, Mehmet Kilic sermonized on the ills of the Turkish state, Davut and other relatives of the disappeared sat silently, their heads bowed reverentially. But Davut does not speak in the archaic left wing language of the movement, nor does he seem to draw energy from the prospect of protest and the idea of freedom. Davut does not speak in the abstraction of politics but in the personal language of loss. About the investigation into the graves, he said simply, “We want to see our hearts breathe.” He does not seem angry, he just seems terribly sad. “I’m trying to get information [about my brother’s disappearance], but I just feel so alone.”

Davut made it clear that his immediate family was not political. When I asked him why he thought the security forces had taken his brother, he gave an impassioned, if rambling, answer: “My brother was a shepherd, but he was not a political person and had never even been to a demonstration. Some of my family were part of the Village Guard, my uncle was the town mayor, and we had even acted as porters for the army. Although Nedim may have given food to the guerrillas, he was no terrorist.”

It is hard to know why Nedim was taken. In an atmosphere of rumor and suspicion, when the notions of innocence and guilt are subjective, a man could be condemned as a result of a personal grudge or a family dispute. A frail villager in Bağözü, known as Hajji because he had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, said, “Everything was forbidden during the 1990s. Even the amount of bread you could get was controlled. If you had too much bread, [the Village Guard] were saying you were sharing it with people from outside.” By people from outside, he meant PKK guerrillas.

In Davut’s family, as in many others, the conflict spun a web of affiliations that did not divide neatly along family or village lines. While the brutal acts of the military and the PKK have polarized public rhetoric, the reality on the ground is more opaque. In the 1990s, allegiances were not always firmly held and sometimes shifted as a result of local considerations, family disputes or alliances. Soldiers were executed by their colleagues, members of the Village Guard were killed for collaborating with the PKK, and rebel sympathizers or guerrillas were hung as traitors by their own organization. Many families were simply caught between these competing factions. Necdet Ipekyuz of the Diyarbakir Branch of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (TIHV), a left-leaning organization, said, “It would not be hard for the government and the AKP to sign a piece of paper declaring peace, but it would be difficult to confront this trauma and mistrust that has permeated Kurdish and Turkish society.”

The atmosphere of suspicion is omnipresent in Dargecit. The graves came to light because a seventy-year-old Village Guard alerted a disappeared person’s relative to their existence. But in general the Village Guards, still salaried and armed by the state and often implicated in the abuses of the 1990s, have largely remained silent. According to a BDP official, families from fifteen villages in the Dargecit area joined the Village Guard in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, almost none of them will talk about the security operations or where bodies were dumped. “The old mayor and the guy who operates the digger for the municipality know where they put the bodies. They are both still alive and in Dargecit,” says Davut. He believes that many of the Village Guards, some of whom were his relatives, knew about the events surrounding his brother’s disappearance, but that they refused to speak (none of them would talk to me). As described by Yashar Kemal in Memed, My Hawk, the old village communities, ruled by a feudal landlord and run on rumor and gossip have mutated under new conditions of fear. The people of Dargecit continue to live uncomfortably as neighbors, the daily language sprinkled with paranoid phrases of ‘state informant’ or ‘terrorist sympathizer’. On more than one occasion when I visited, a conversation ended abruptly because of the fear – real or imagined – of the imminent arrival of a “state spy.”

But for people like Davut, the excavation of these graves and the criminal investigation behind them could bring about a transformation. The decision to excavate and open an investigation into the 1995 operation is the first time that Davut and other relatives have been met with anything other than official silence or denial. The paper trail following his brother’s case stopped sixteen years ago – there was the testimony given by the family to the Human Rights Association and the urgent Amnesty International press release in April 1996 calling for information on the Dargecit disappeared. Says Davut, “Fifteen days after my brother had been detained, they detained the whole family. My father’s head was fractured. They detained us all for three days and we were tortured severely.” After Nedim’s disappearance, Davut’s seven petitions to the then-prosecutor went unacknowledged. In place of a response, he got a narrative of state innocence—either Nedim had been killed by the PKK or he had gone off to join them.

The official history—which says that the PKK was responsible for all displacements and disappearances–can still be heard. I was presented with this narrative several times. A gendarme commander stationed at a military outpost above Dargeçit told me that 1990 to 1996 was a dark period in Turkey’s history, but that “there was no displacement of people here by the Turkish State. The PKK killed two village headmen then set off a bomb on a bus and after this the people were afraid and just began to leave.”

But a new paper trail is emerging in Dargeçit. The local prosecutor is putting together a case against former members of the military, two of whom, according to a leaked summary of the prosecutor’s files published in the Radikal newspaper, serve as local mayors in towns in the west of Turkey (I spoke to one who denied any involvement in the events of 1995).

When I spoke to Davut in March, he told me that he trusted the prosecutor, describing him as helpful and fearless. Still Davut looked for more bones, and he searched the graves for the pajamas that Nedim was wearing when he was led from the house, but did not find them. When I asked him if he was hopeful, he said, maybe, because one of the skulls was small. As if cradling a grapefruit, Davut cupped his hands in front of his chest.


The AKP’s apology for the Kurdish-Turkish conflict and their decision to support the excavation of graves may have challenged the official history, but it has largely been met with skepticism and bitterness by the Kurdish movement and the country’s left-leaning human rights groups. Every Saturday at midday on Istanbul’s main pedestrian street, a group called the Saturday Mothers, inspired by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo of Argentina, holds a peaceful vigil for those murdered in detention, including both Kurds in the Southeast and leftists in Turkey’s cities, another target of the Turkish military. They chant slogans such as “Those who kidnap will lose in the end,” and “If you keep silent, it will happen to you too.” Watched closely by plainclothes policemen and a battalion of riot police, the majority of these protestors are dismissive of the government’s current efforts. Ayse Avci* who works with the group told me that the government is merely keeping up appearances. “They rely on their rhetoric. Their power and aura is based on this,” she said.

People within Saturday Mothers and human rights groups paint a picture of a contemptuous government, unwilling to change the culture of impunity within state institutions. I was told by one human rights worker the story of Hasan Avras, who received a DNA match for his relative’s bones only to discover that they had been lost in the post. The image of the remains sitting in a mail sack at a dusty post office was hard for him to shake. In actuality, those remains probably never left the building. Former employees of the state-run Forensic Medicine Institute and public prosecutors described to me a culture of fear within their institutions. They say the weight of political pressure continues to impact the way the work there is done.

Since 2004, twenty-nine graves have been opened, but few criminal cases have gone to court. Hundreds more graves remain shut because certain prosecutors have refused to countenance an excavation. According to Necdet Ipekyuz of the Human Rights Foundation, “As of now, there is not a single case that has been finished, in which they have established this person has been murdered and it was done by these people.”

This may change. In the last three years, a handful of cases have been opened against members of the military and the Village Guards for disappearances and murders during the conflict. Many of them are accused of belonging to the secretive JITEM organization. The AKP has been given credit in the press, much of it justified, for breaking the taboo and challenging the culture of denial. Halit Advan, the Chairman of the Diyarbakir branch of the AKP, told me that the government had nothing to gain from covering up the events of the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, and that they were committed to uncovering those in the army, the judiciary and the bureaucracy—a network of ultranationalists known as the “deep state”—responsible for these crimes.

While the government has taken steps to begin opening these burial sites, it has also, on occasion, tried to silence those who draw attention to their existence. In September 2011, two German sociologists, Martin Dolzer and Martin Glasenapp, were detained by police in Van province for making “propaganda for a terrorist organization.” Their crime was to issue a press release in which they criticized the Van Governor, Münir Karaloğlu, for blocking their delegation’s access to a mass grave in the area containing thirty-two bodies, including that of Andrea Wolf, a German sociologist who was working on a book about the PKK when she disappeared in 1998 (other reports suggest she joined the guerrillas).

But with the level of mistrust between the government and organizations aligned with the Kurdish movement remaining high, and public opinion, shaped by the deaths of Turkish soldiers in the Southeast, prone to flare with nationalist sentiments such as “The best Kurd is a dead Kurd,” there seems little chance that a full accounting for these graves will be made.

The government has refused to adopt recommendations from local and international think tanks and NGOs, which call for the establishment of a dedicated truth and reconciliation commission employing specialized prosecutors tasked with investigating each grave case. The AKP has also declined to establish a DNA bank to which relatives of the disappeared could give samples, creating a database for matching remains. Excavations still do not follow international standards.

For the IHD and others within the Kurdish movement, these are signs that the government is deliberately being selective, focusing on a few individuals belonging to JITEM rather than questioning the knowledge and involvement of the higher ranks of the army, the government and the bureaucracy. Says Raci Bilici, “We’re so sure that the state archives has [a list of] how many people were killed and how many have been buried. All this is available in the archive…[but] many people will be harmed by this, maybe that’s why the AKP won’t touch it.” Bilici is convinced that there are people serving in the army, the police and the government who were involved either directly or indirectly in human rights abuses during the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. In September 2011, the IHD challenged the government by drawing up a map detailing 253 unmarked graves, the result of a painstaking information gathering process drawing on eyewitness accounts, testimony from the relatives of the disappeared and tip offs from municipal workers. The graves are marked by red pins clustered like birthmarks in the Southeast of the country. Government officials I spoke to, such as Ayhan Sefer Üstün, the head of the parliamentary human rights committee, were largely dismissive of the map, implying that the IHD is too closely associated with the PKK. This may hold some truth. The association officially condemns abuses by both the Turkish military and the PKK, but employees at the IHD rarely criticize or investigate the alleged abuses of the PKK. The map not only includes potential sites of disappearances, but also the graves of guerrillas killed while fighting with the military. Even the head of the other major rights group in the country, the Human Rights Foundation (TIHV), Şebnem Korur Fincanci, who has been extremely critical of the government’s approach and applauds much of the IHD’s work, concedes that IHD’s numbers may be exaggerated. Nonetheless, the reams of villager testimony that they have collected, and the hundreds of gravesites that they have found, gain accusatory weight with each passing day.

But with the level of mistrust between the government and organizations aligned with the Kurdish movement remaining high, and public opinion, shaped by the deaths of Turkish soldiers in the Southeast, prone to flare with nationalist sentiments such as “The best Kurd is a dead Kurd,” there seems little chance that a full accounting for these graves will be made. The overriding emotion seems to be fear—fear of what might be found in the graves, of having to investigate the deaths of PKK guerrillas as well as ordinary citizens, fear of the public reaction if guerrilla bones are returned to their families for joyous funerals of martyrdom, and fear that the Kurdish-Turkish conflict not only implicates a small nationalist cabal known as the deep state, but much of society.


Although relatives in Dargeçit were told that they would have results of the DNA tests within two to four months, Davut still hasn’t heard anything. When I returned to see him in July, his mood had turned bitter. It was the first week of Ramadan, and the land looked drained of color. He was sitting somberly in his front room, the curtains drawn. With his hopes having been raised, these months had added disproportionate weight to the sum of official silence.

Davut suspected that the government had the results but that they did not want to release them. He began to tell me stories that were difficult to believe, but in this region also hard to dismiss. Since I had last been there, he said that two suited men, who he assumed were intelligence agents, had questioned him in a room next to the prosecutor’s office about why he was pursuing this case so aggressively and whether he was “in the hands of Diyarbakir”—a euphemism for the PKK.

He also told me that his cousin, whom he said was a Village Guard, had tried to abduct him, luring him to a meeting and then attempting to drive him out of town. When Davut managed to jump from the car, his cousin got out and pulled a gun. There was no way to verify this story, but Davut did show me the official court case notification given to him after he filed a complaint with the public prosecutor. “I know they’re watching me twenty-four hours a day,” he said. “There’s still that fear. That’s why it’s very hard for us to live here.”

Yet Davut has lived with that fear for almost two decades. His second eldest, born in 1997, was given his brother’s name. It is painted on the front wall of the house in big bold white letters: Nedim. His home has become a private storehouse of grief. Pictures of Nedim are arranged throughout his house. He had been a thin wiry kid with a broad smile and a thick shock of hair. Here he is frozen in time. He would always wear the turtleneck jumper and trousers cut in the style of a time and place I had only ever seen in old Turkish movies. But Davut had tried to resurrect him in his son. One of the framed pictures was a collage placing a photo of his brother Nedim, next to a picture of his son—the features, like the name, an exact match. Davut’s swollen outdoor hands cradled the picture, caressing it like a child. Then he said, out of nowhere, “If they’d taken him up a mountain (with the PKK) or with a gun in his hand, it would have been different. But they took him when he was sleeping.”

*The name has been changed to respect the wishes of the interviewee

Patrick Wrigley is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He has recently written for Outside, Caravan, and Monocle magazines. He is working on a book about the Kurds of Istanbul.

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