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Turkey Uncensored: A Dark History of Enforced Disappearances

Hursit Kulter, a member of the Sirnak Provincial Board representing the legal pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP), was allegedly detained by Turkish state forces on May 27. He has been “missing” ever since.

Administrative organs, including the governor and prosecutor of the predominantly Kurdish city of Sirnak, in addition to the local police and military, have denied knowledge of Kulter’s detainment, refusing to give any information about his whereabouts.

Turkey’s “Coalition against Impunity” issued this statement [1] about Kulter’s disappearance:

We draw the attention of the international and national communities to the fact that there is serious evidence that the Turkish government has once again begun to implement the practice of enforced disappearances.

Kulter’s father testifies that his son called him that day and told him that he was at home, the house was surrounded by soldiers, he was going to be taken under custody, that they should look for him – and then the communication ceased and there has been no news from his son since that phone call.

From a twitter account BÖF@Tweet_Guneydoğu, which is believed to belong to security forces undertaking the operations in the region, it was tweeted that “Hursit Kulter was under custody. [2]

The Turkish Government is responsible to investigate and determine the whereabouts of Hursit Kulter and to take precautions against any threats to his life under national and international law.

If a person is detained by security forces and no information is available about his/her whereabouts, the government is responsible to have a reasonable explanation about what happened.

In the meantime, lawyers working for Turkey’s Human Rights Association (IHD) appealed [3] to the United Nations for Kulter, saying that they “are in fear for Kulter’s life and that more severe human rights violations are taking place than in the 1990s, with many people being disappeared and killed in extrajudicial murders in Cizre, Nusaybin, Sur, Silopi and Dargecit.”

A petition [4] has also been launched, stating, in part, “To prevent the extrajudicial killings of the 80s and 90s from repeating and to prevent the legitimization of these practices, the interior ministry must immediately declare where Hursit Kulter is.”

Turkey’s War on Kurds

Kulter went “missing” during a period in which the predominantly Kurdish districts in southeastern Turkey were under very violent military curfews imposed by the Turkish government. Those curfews were accompanied by brutal military and police attacks against Kurdish neighborhoods.

According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey [5] (TIHV), “Between Aug. 16, 2015 and April 20, 2016 there were 65 officially confirmed, open-ended and round-the-clock curfews in at least 22 districts of seven cities in Southeastern Turkey.” And during that period, “at least 338 civilians lost their lives. Seventy-eight are children, 69 are female and 30 are over the age of 60.”

The IHD reported [6]:

A war is ongoing in Turkey, where all known national and international human rights norms are being violated to the extreme. This period has been marked with unimaginable atrocities by Turkish Armed Forces and Special Operations Teams: extrajudicial execution of hundreds of civilians; towns razed to the ground by artillery, mortar and other heavy armor; families denied the right to retrieve their beloved ones’ dead bodies for months; civilians trapped in basements and burnt alive by chemical weaponry; people machine gunned while carrying their wounded to the hospital.

The military and police attacks have caused the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds.

“It is estimated [5] that, according to the 2014 population census, at least 1 million, 642 thousand residents have been affected by these curfews and fundamental rights of these people such as right to life and right to health are explicitly violated.”

The Migrants’ Association for Social Cooperation and Culture (Goc-Der) reported [7] in June that 1 million people in predominantly Kurdish districts have fled the region since last August, due to the military operations.

What is even more tragic is that the real number of casualties is expected to be much higher:

“It is impossible to know the real number of deaths,” said Ayse Gunaysu, an activist with the Istanbul Branch of the Human Rights Association. “Actually, we are going through such a difficult period that we can’t keep track of the casualties. The state forces are destroying the evidence. They are destroying even the dead bodies. In the town of Cizre, they blew up buildings and threw the dead bodies to the Dicle River. Arms and legs were found in the debris. I mean, nothing could be recorded properly. People were burned alive in some basements of buildings in Cizre, but those buildings were then razed to the ground by state forces. The evidence is intentionally being destroyed. Hence, we do not know the exact number of casualties.”

Turkey’s Kurdish “Saturday Mothers”

Enforced disappearances were one of the most horrific – yet commonplace – incidents of the 1980s and 1990s in the predominantly Kurdish districts and the major cities of Turkey.

During those years, thousands of Kurds – including activists, politicians and businesspeople – were kidnapped and murdered. No one knows the exact number of the victims.

In his comprehensive article “Turkey’s Dirty War Against the Kurds,” journalist Daniel Steinvorth wrote [8]:

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.

The Turkish public, however, was mostly insensitive to these abhorrent crimes.

“The state was denying it. The mainstream media wasn’t covering it. And the universities were silent,” said [9] Sebla Arcan, spokesperson for the Commission Against Disappearances Under Custody at Turkey’s Human Rights Association. “News that so many young people were being disappeared was not reaching the public.”

Dehumanized by the Turkish government and abandoned by the vast majority of the Turkish public, the families of the victims formed [10]The Saturday Mothers [11]” − also known as the “Saturday People” − and met for the first time on May 27, 1995 in the Galatasaray district in Istanbul, to protest the enforced disappearances and political murders in Turkey.

During those gatherings, the family members of the victims and human rights activists combine silent sit-ins with communal vigils at noon every Saturday and hold photographs of their “lost” loved ones. Every week, they commemorate a missing person and read a short note about the victim’s life, calling for the state authorities to bring back the dead bodies of the victims.

“In the old days,” journalist Caleb Lauer wrote [12], “the Saturday Mothers were beaten by police and arrested. Today, they are ignored.”

On June 4, the Saturday Mothers gathered [13] again in Istanbul – this time for Kulter – and asked the Turkish state authorities to give them information about his whereabouts.

His mother, Kerime Kulter, said in a voicemail to the group, “The state says, ‘We have not taken him,’ but they are lying. My son was struggling for justice. I will not stop until I find him.”

At the daily press briefing on July 12, a journalist said to John Kirby, U.S. State Department spokesman, “This is Hursit Kulter. He is the local pro-Kurdish party member who has disappeared. Millions of hashtags have been going on in Twitter and social media concerning this, but there is no comment from the Turkish authorities. I wonder if you have anything on that?”

Kirby responded [14], “I’ve not seen that report. Why don’t we see if we can’t get back to you.”

History proves that the Turkish government – as the perpetrator of those enforced disappearances – will not do anything to reduce the sufferings of the victims’ families until it is forced to. It is the international community – particularly the U.S. government – that should make the Turkish government, its ally, stop murdering people and to bring back the dead bodies of the victims.

In his June 2 commencement address at the U.S. Air Force Academy, President Barack Obama said [15] that “the United States of America remains the most powerful nation on Earth and a force for good.”

In times like these, the U.S. government should prove that it really is a force for good by helping Kulter’s mother find her son. Or it could choose to be just like another government that turns a blind eye when even its allies engage in the most brutal acts of evil.