Turkey's Dirty War against the Kurds: 'We Used to Murder People at Night When the Soldiers Weren't Around'

By in Istanbul

When members of the special Turkish police unit Jitem arrived at night, Kurdish inhabitants of southeast Turkey knew there would be another disappearance. Investigators are now looking into the activities of this allegedly disbanded secretive organization from the 1990s -- and the 'death wells' where its victims were hidden.

Things had been going well for Nimet Karaaslan and his new business. But when the Kurd opened up his little restaurant in the spring of 1993 in Cizre, a city right near Turkey's border with Syria, men wearing dark sunglasses and carrying submachine guns paid him a visit. "Give us your restaurant," they ordered him.

The men were part of Jitem, a special unit of the Turkish gendarmerie charged with "intelligence gathering and counterterrorism," and they made themselves at home in Karaaslan's restaurant. They practiced with their weapons, and they set up a center for interrogating and torturing people. The restaurant was in a good location. From the front, you could look out over the snow-covered peaks of the Cudi mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, where units of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish separist group, are still entrenched today. From the back, you could look out over the Tigris River, which separates Turkey from Syria.

The Ipek Yolu Highway, the Turkish name for the Silk Road, runs right past the front of the building heading toward Iraq. And behind it there is a sea of chest-high, green corn broken by the occasional well. The wells turned out to be great places for getting rid of the bodies of those who were executed.

For years, people in the surrounding villages kept quiet. And then, in 2002, the army lifted the region's state of emergency, and the men from Jitem disappeared. For a long time, people thought that speaking about Karaaslan's restaurant increased their own chances of disappearing.

But, since March, the area has been home to backhoes and salvaging equipment. What was once unheard of is now happening in southeastern Turkey -- in Cizre, in Silopi, in Kustepe and wherever else local lawyers have filled a petition to have the "death wells" opened. Turkish officials have now started to dig for the remains of Kurds who have disappeared. But the digging also means working through one of the darkest chapters in this country's history, when Turkish security forces waged a dirty war against supporters of the PKK and its suspected supporters.

Shot 'Like an Animal'

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of civil rights activists, politicians and businesspeople suspected of having ties with the PKK were kidnapped and murdered. No one knows their exact number, and it was only in rare cases that the victims were even identified. Many corpses were dumped into wells; others were doused in acid and thrown into fields. The horror of the sight was meant to serve as a deterrent. But the majority disappeared without a trace and are still listed as missing.

One of the missing is the Kurdish construction worker Ramazan Solmaz. His wife Piroze last saw him on January 15, 1993. "He was on his way to work when they caught him," she says. "That's all I know. There are no traces, no clues. I'd just like to know where his body is. I just want to bury him." Piroze and a friend have put their faith in Cizre's bar association. "My husband, Selahattin, was shot in broad daylight in 1998 right on the street," say her friend, who is wearing a pitch-black version of the traditional Kurdish gown. "Just like that. Like an animal."

At the time, the women didn't even think about filing a criminal complaint. In Cizre, confronting those in power had its consequences. The powerful included not only the soldiers and the people from Jitem, but also members of the radical-Islamic Turkish Hezbollah, a militant Kurdish organization unrelated to the Lebanese Hezbollah. The war between the Turkish army and the PKK raged in the mountains surrounding Cizre. But in the city itself, it was this group that held power over life and death. A brutal leader of this clan named Kamil Atak once let himself be nominated to become mayor. As local politicians will tell you, the former shepherd used to take pleasure in "feeding" his captives to his Hezbollah fighters.

Spreading Fear and Anxiety

Even after the state of emergency was lifted in 2002, Atak remained under the protection of state security forces. Just over two months ago, on March 23, police arrested Atak as part of a nationwide operation after he garnered the attention of investigators working on the "Ergenekon" case. Soon after Atak's arrest, authorities also arrested Cemal Temizöz, a colonel in the military police, who also sowed fear and anxiety among the inhabitants of Cizre.

"Ergenekon" is the name of a place in popular Turkish mythology, but it is also the name given to a conspiracy of networked ultra-nationalists. Roughly 150 of its members are now standing trial in Turkey. The former soldiers, police officers, journalists, professors and everyday Mafiosi stand accused of having planned a coup against the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The trial has been going on for more than six months. It is the most explosive trial in recent Turkish history.

Among the accused is Veli Kücük, the retired general who allegedly founded Jitem. Kücük's arrest in January 2008 was the most sensational event of the year. As things have turned out, though, the kind-faced grandfather appears to be untouchable. It is still hard to tell whether the military used Kücük as a sacrificial pawn or whether the generals in Ankara believed he had become too powerful.

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