Kurdish women: We want our “disappeared”, dead or alive

Tomorrow (08 March) is International Women’s Day.  Here is an article I translated from the original, Femmes kurdes: “Nous voulons nos disparus, morts ou vivants”, from today’s Le Temps from Switzerland, which looks at a Kurdish women across Turkey demanding answers to the disappearnces of their loved ones.  The links throughout the translation were not part of the original.  I have added them for reference and context.

Kurdish women: We want our disappeared, dead or alive

Reminiscent of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, families gather together every Saturday from Istanbul to Diyarbakir to demand an end to impunity and for the truth regarding their disappearances.

On this Saturday in February, Hanim Tosun defies the rain and the cold to demonstrate in front of the Lycée de Galatasaray in Istanbul.  This mother of five children, originally from a Kurdish village in eastern Turkey, holds a photograph of her husband, Fehmi Tosun, who disappeared from the center of Istanbul on 19 October 1995.  “With my children, I witnessed his abduction by the police.  They forced him into their car.  We haven’t seen him since.”

“We want to know”

Every Saturday for a month, about fifty mothers, children, siblings, like Hanim Tosun, have come to request that some light be shedfemmes_kurdes on the disappearance of their relatives. According to the Association of Human Rights (AHR), more than 3,000 people disappeared in the 1990s, the height of the “dirty war” that led the Turkish state against activists and supporters of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK).

Fehmi Tosun was also a supporter of the PKK. Before disappearing, the father of the family spent three and a half years in prison for supporting a terrorist organisation. “I have no hope that my husband is still alive,” says his wife. “But we, the families, we’ll never give up. We want to know where the bodies are.” This woman of 42 years is a regular at these gatherings. Between 1995 and 1999 she didn’t miss a one. “Since the beginning of these actions, thirteen years have passed. Meeting again in the same location, with the same pictures, is very difficult.”

The Association of Human Rights has revived these weekly gatherings since the appearance of new evidence. As part of an investigation into the dismantling of an ultranationalist network, several persons suspected of having carried out actions against the Kurds in the 1990s, have been arrested. Among them, Veli Küçük, the head of JITEM, the intelligence service of the gendarmerie, in charge of counter-offensive against the PKK. And also Levent Ersöz, a general stationed at the Iraqi border at the time of the disappearance of two politicians Kurdish. Also in late January, Abdulkadir Aygan, a former PKK member and now JITEM informant, revealed in the newspaper Taraf, to having participated in the deaths of thirty people, in custody. “I would say that 80% of unsolved murders in the region were carried out by JITEM,” he says.

Bodies soaked in acid

This kind of confession has revived the hopes of families to finally get information and to see those responsible punished. At Silopi on the Iraqi border, they have even begun looking into wells belonging to a public company, into which acid-soaked bodies were thrown.

However, the hopes of families and activists remain tenuous. How far will this investigation go, asks Leman Yurtsever, who lamented the fact that the main suspects are released one after the other. “We want our missing persons, dead or alive, but unfortunately our battle is still long.”

JİTEM and the ‘Deep State’

Sezgin Tanrıkulu, lawyer, and former head of the Bar Association in Diyarbakir

"We estimate that there are about 3,000 unsolved crimes": Sezgin Tanrıkulu, lawyer, and former head of the Bar Association in Diyarbakir

Recent debate in Turkey revolving around the Ergenekon gang has brought up past actions by the state against the Kurds. There are thousands of unsolved criminal cases from the 1990s and the early 2000s. The crimes are political murders, disappearances, kidnappings, and torture.

Last week some 8,000 Kurds demonstrated in Silopi on the eighth anniversary of the disappearance of two Kurdish HADEP politicians, Serdar Tanış and Ebubekir Deniz. Both men disappeared after visiting the Gendarmerie Command there in January 2001. The rally was organised by the DTP (Democratic Society Party), which is the successor party to HADEP.

The investigation and subsequent trial of the Ergenekon gang involves figures from all ranks of Turkish society including military and police officers, politicians, media members, labor union leaders, and political strategists. Some of those arrested have given information regarding JİTEM (Turkish: Jandarma İstihbarat ve Terörle Mücadele), the über-clandestine Intelligence and Counterterrorism Police Force.

JİTEM is a ‘non-existent’ paramilitary force, an embodiment of the ‘deep state,’ used to enforce national interests. In other words, it is the unofficial military wing of Ergenekon, a group itself that not everyone believes exists. Former Turkish President Süleyman Demirel said that ‘If you want to define this situation, you can say that the military is the state. It is deep in the state. In other words, it is the deep state.’

Abdulkadir Aygan, a former PKK member, and later a member JİTEM, confessed to the media that when retired Colonel Abdulkerim Kirca was the head of JİTEM in Diyarbakir (Amed), the unit conducted dozens of executions. The following day Kirca shot himself in the head.

Aygan has claimed that JİTEM executed between 600 and 700 Kurds in the 1990s and that ‘JİTEM operations always ended in death…those who were reported to JİTEM as having any relationship with the PKK were executed.’ Aygan is now living in political exile in Sweden.

Tuncay Güney, a suspected former member of Ergenekon now living in Canada, claimed on Sunday that the group’s leader is an active duty general in the army and that the leader’s consultant is a retired general. His testimony directly ties the military to Ergenekon.

Güney recently said a large number of the Kurds executed by JİTEM in the 1990s were doused with acid and buried in wells located near facilities of the state-owned Turkish Pipeline Corporation (BOTAŞ) in Silopi.

Both Güney and Aygan have said that many Kurds were thrown into wells between Şırnak and Cizre. Aygan claims to have knowledge of 16 such wells. Güney also claimed that one of the torture centres of JİTEM was based in northern Iraq.

Silopi region

Silopi region

DTP MP Hasip Kaplan also said that bodies had been buried in the wells. He added that informants of the clandestine JİTEM gendarmerie organisation had said that bodies could also be found at the bottom of Cudi Mountain. Kurdish activists are now demanding that the acid wells of BOTAŞ be emptied to look for remains.

Rationale and speculation around JİTEM’s mission are varied. Some say it existed to foment infighting in the PKK and to raise stakes in the fight against PKK terror. The Turkish military needed the PKK (as the US military needs al-Qaeda) to keep it operational. JİTEM carried out assassinations and bombings that were blamed on the PKK and gave the military justification to continue its operations and presence in Kurdish areas. One well-known example is the 2005 bookstore bomb attack in Semdinli.

The existence of JİTEM was first reported by Ayşe Önal in 1994. Önal was introduced to JİTEM’s founder, Veli Küçük, by fellow journalist, Tuncay Güney. She wrote about what she learned at that meeting and was fired immediately thereafter (along with 19 of her co-workers) from her position at Ateş Magazine.


Kurdish MPs want disappearances solved, 27 January 2009. bianet,

Siebert, T. In Turkey, prosecutors shed light on dark days, The National, 28 January 2009. http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090128/FOREIGN/783809545/1002

Turkey’s deep state is the army, claims former president, Today’s Zaman, 03 February 2009.

Uslu, E. The Ergenekon Investigation May Reveal JITEM’s Dirty Past, Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 18, 28 January 2009. http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=34425

Read more about Sezgin Tanrıkulu.