Kurdish women’s experience of state violence in Turkey
An Interview with the Migration Monitoring Association (GÖÇİZDER) that illuminates the invisible aspects of the war and uncovers what happened through women’s eyes.
As more than two years have passed after the military operation by the Turkish state in the predominantly Kurdish-populated southeastern provinces, a report published by the Migration Monitoring Association (GÖÇ-İZ-DER), based in Istanbul, reveals new details in the experiences of civilians, in particular women, during that period.
Starting in August 2015, round-the-clock curfews—in some places lasting for months—were imposed in response to Kurdish militants’ digging ditches and setting up barricades to prevent police from entering their neighbourhoods and the declarations of self-rule across several predominantly Kurdish towns and cities. The Turkish state’s disproportionate response—with the use of artillery, tanks, and helicopters—resulted in the displacement of approximately half a million people, an estimated 3,638 deaths and severe human rights violations perpetrated by the state, including burning of more than 100 civilians trapped in basements in Cizre.
Based on interviews with 480 women, the report titled Human Rights Violations against Women and Their Experiences during the Curfews and Forced Migration records women’s testimonies, painting a full picture of the hardships and losses that they went through and highlighting the gender aspect of state violence in Turkey. As the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatens to invade northeastern Syria once again —the territory under control of the Syrian Kurds and their allies— with the proclaimed purpose of eradicating the “terrorist” Kurdish forces, this report serves as another warning of the dangers that the local population will face if Turkey fulfills its threats.
We spoke with Yeter Tan and Zelal Coşkun from the research team about the findings of the report. Yeter Tan is a MA student at Ataturk Institute for Modern Turkish Studies, Boğaziçi University and a project assistant at Migration Monitoring Association (GÖÇ-İZ-DER). Zelal Coşkun is a psychologist who is active as a volunteer at Migration Monitoring Association (GÖÇ-İZ-DER).
The interview was translated and edited for clarity.
Anya Briy (A) and Mahir Kurtay (M): What was the aim of your report? Why did you decide to focus specifically on women’s experiences?
Yeter (Y): Significant human rights violations naturally take place during any conflicts. This is also true of the 2015-16 events. Usually, as there are severe violations in general, it is not known what women specifically experience in these processes. Thus, we decided to illuminate these invisible aspects and uncover what happened in this period through women’s eyes.
Generally, it is correct to say that the state’s violence targets women. For example, by making women's belongings an object of harassment or through sexist discourses. In 2015-16, the Turkish state pursued a masculinist occupation policy and this was reflected in the experiences of the women whom we interviewed.
Zelal (Z): In addition to what everyone equally experiences, women struggle with their specific problems. That is, besides general problems like lack of electricity or water, women also faced such difficulties as not being able to find a pad or even to remove a dead baby from the womb. Besides this, the writings with sexual content left on the walls in bedrooms demonstrate that women were seen solely as objects by Turkish security forces.
Y: As women had to stay in basements crowded with many people, it was impossible to find any private space. Those who were pregnant in this period could not have health checks. Abortions were impossible. Some women had to give birth under these circumstances. They could not call an ambulance, or if they called, it would only come after a long period of time. Notably, domestic violence increased during that period. Men would hit women, women would hit children and children would hit their toys.
“Our home was in disorder when I returned. Law enforcement officers used our home as their station and sleeping quarters. We could not use anything after them. [...]. They tore apart my underwear in the bedroom. Condoms were everywhere around the house. There were a lot of hideous and derogatory writings on the walls.” (an interview from the report, city of Cizre, age 31)
“When we came home, nothing was in its usual place. There were toys of my brother’s daughter. She had a very big teddy bear, even bigger than me. They [security forces] tore the bear in the middle. One could understand that they had raped the toy. Even now, when I think of it, I do not know what to do with myself. There were condoms in my brother’s room. They threw around my brother’s wife’s and my sister’s underwear, putting it on display. This is immoral. I am trying to understand how one could come and do such things to our personal belongings.” (Yuksekova, age 27)
“Forgive me for saying this, but when we went in, we saw that they even left shit on women’s underwear. They wrote nasty things. For example: “Kurdish girls in shalwar [traditional trousers], wait, we are coming.” It has been three years since then, but these writings are still on my mind. Especially those against women, like “Get ready, girls, we are coming soon.”
(Diyarbakir, age 43)
“We could not go out during the curfew. We stayed in the basement for 3 months. We were 7 families, all of us hungry and thirsty. There were a lot of sick people among us. We could neither go to the hospital, nor buy medicine, nor go outside at all.’’ (Cizre, age 23)
M: Have you experienced any difficulties in conducting this research in terms of entering the most affected areas, such as Cizre and Sur, and reaching out to the victims?
Z: We went everywhere where the curfews were declared in 2015-16, experiencing some difficulties in all of these places. Even though time has passed since the war, it has not been forgotten. We had to be careful talking to the people as every question we asked could bring back again their traumas. They experienced things that we were shocked to hear about. At the same time, we were impressed by these women’s resistance, they are really strong. Now they are suffering from psychological problems due to the destruction that they went through. Some do not go out, saying that the dead bodies are still on the ground. They say they feel guilty for stepping on victims’ corpses.
Y: The curfews are over—in some places, they lasted till 2018—but the occupation continues. There are a lot of security forces in the cities: police, soldiers, and armoured vehicles.
Z: Like in a garrison town.
Y: Exactly, both the people with whom we talked and our friends faced serious security problems. Some families did not want to talk to us as they were afraid of police.
Z: We feared for their security too. For example, the home of a family that we interviewed was raided by police just two days before our meeting. People do not go to sleep till 3 am since this is when raids usually happen.
“Our neighbor’s daughter-in-law killed herself after the curfews. She became depressed, she told her mother-in-law that she was going downstairs and then hanged herself.’’ (Yuksekova, age 80)
“I could not go out for three months, we stayed in the basement together with seven other families, hungry and thirsty. There were many sick people. We could neither go to the hospital, nor get any medicine. We could not go outside. The state did not treat us as humans, so we do not recognize the state. I do not go to school anymore, I’ve quit, I do not want to.’’ (Cizre, age 18)
A: The Turkish government portrayed its actions in 2015-6 as a counter-terrorist operation that only targeted PKK-connected militants occupying city neighbourhoods. According to the findings of the report, who were the primary victims of this operation?
Z: People have not accepted the state’s narrative of fighting the terrorists. From our interviews we learned for example about an eight-month pregnant woman who was shot in front of her door. She had nothing to do with digging ditches. That woman of course would tell you that the state’s statements about the fight against terrorists are absurd. They know that two-year-old children, for example, are not terrorists. They even directed violence against a mentally ill child. The victims blame the state as being responsible for protecting them. Even though there are some who blame other forces, usually it is the state that is seen as the main perpetrator. [Only 1% of the respondents in the study reported having been subjected to physical or verbal violence by the PKK-connected Kurdish Civil Protection Units (YPS) --ed.]
Y: When asked who was responsible, 90% out of 480 participants blamed the state, saying that the state attacked their most basic human rights.
“Soldiers were firing at our house. We hanged a piece of white cloth as a flag on our house, but they continued fire. They shelled our house, making a huge hole in a wall. I said to my husband, “This time we are killed,” and cried. My children called me on the phone. I told them that I would be killed this time, that we were under fire, that they would burn our home… A woman was killed in front of our house. They were firing guns, so we could not go outside. She was a pregnant woman, shot on the stairs, she died right where she was.” (Nusaybin, age group 50-64)
“Soldiers were saying in their announcements: “This place is not yours, you are Armenian, you and your children. You have to leave, or we will kill you.” They destroyed our house with three artillery shots.”
(Idil, age group 36-49)
“During the blockade I stayed at home. I was stubborn, I said, “I will not go, I will not leave this place.” I said, “My land is my honor, I will resist until the very end and I will celebrate the victory of my resistance.” Sometimes attacks were so severe that we were biting our hands. We were putting cotton in our ears. We were singing with a loud voice in order to protect our children. But I do not want to tell you what we experienced, it will not be fair to our freedom fighters.”
“ Later he too [my second son] was wounded, but it was not serious. He told me, ‘Mom, do not take me to the hospital, if you take me there, they will kill me.’ How was I supposed to know? We took him there and they killed him. This is my greatest regret … [Crying].” (Cizre, age group 36-49)
M: Your organization has also worked on forced displacement that took place in the 1990s as the Turkish government forcibly evacuated and destroyed Kurdish villages in its fight against the PKK. What continuities do you see with what happened in 2015-16?
Y: There are both similarities and differences. In the 1990s, villages were destroyed, which caused a migration from rural areas to cities. This time migration happened from within cities. While in the 90s, people migrated to western Turkey, now they mostly went to nearby cities in the southeast. In the 90s, people were only able to return to their villages after a long period of time—if at all. Now, in many cases, they went back immediately. As to similarities, both periods can be characterized by the state’s policies of occupation, destruction, annihilation of Kurds and depriving them of their livelihoods.
“In the 90s, as our village was evacuated, they were bombing us. They burned our house. We were scared and went to Syria. Our house was burned in Syria too and we had to return to Turkey. We were not citizens there, they did not give us identity cards. We came here, we thought we might have a better life, but it is the same here. It was very very difficult, nobody can imagine what we have lived through.” (Nusaybin, age group 36-49)
“We migrated in the 90s. They burned our village and bombed the surroundings. We had to leave our village. It has been several years since we came here, but as you can see, we are in a war situation again. They destroyed our house.”
(Idil, age 55)
A: After the conflicts, the government has proceeded to rebuild the districts where conflicts took place in order to change them demographically and prevent any future resistance. In this process, they have permanently displaced the original residents and destroyed the social fabric of historic places, like Sur. Has the state so far compensated people for their loss of homes, livelihood and social environment?
Z: People were devastated economically. Most families refuse to apply for compensation from the state. Out of those who do apply, not everyone’s application is accepted. Moreover, the property is assessed at a price much lower than its real value. There are even threats against those who sue the state for their losses. TOKI [social housing —ed.] makes the victims go into debt by assessing houses that are being offered at a high value and signing up people for loans. There has been no psychological support either. It goes without saying, that there cannot be any compensation for people’s spiritual losses.
Y: Impoverization as a policy has been implemented by the state against the Kurds already for a long time. That’s why, it is important to monitor victims’ court cases. We must prevent another 90s from happening. In that period, people were paid for their homes far below the real value.
“Nobody asks about the situation of poor people like us. I have been in this situation for three years. If you ask me whether anyone helped me: honestly, I haven’t see anyone on my side. I am only a piece of dust in this world, I neither can go outside nor do I have anyone near me. When I go outside, I see their traces everywhere; where they sit, where they joke with each other, where they have their weddings. In this world everything became darkness for me. I mean, I hate myself. I ask why I am still alive. Being dead is better than this situation…”
(Cizre, age 44)
M: Your report focuses on women’s experiences not only during the curfews, but also afterwards, during the subsequent migration. What did these families go through in the new places they had to move?
Y: They do not get material help, as we already said. Those who do, usually receive it from civil society organizations rather than the state. Virtually nothing has been done in regards to education, rent and health. Children had to interrupt their studies in the period of curfews. Some did not even want to continue school: education lost its meaning after everything that they had experienced.
Z: Those who had to migrate do not accept their new places. They don’t even learn their new addresses, they don’t want to adapt to the new environment. They are discriminated against because of their Kurdish accent, traditional clothing and culture. Children especially become aggressive due to discrimination and ostracization experienced at school. These people come from a culture where neighbours spend time together on the street, but they cannot do this in their new environment.
They are suffering from depression and traumas, they turn inwards, cannot sleep, constantly think about the moments they lived through. For some, depression has become chronic, panic attacks have turned into a panic disorder. People suffer from post-traumatic syndrome, as can be seen from the lack of desire to go outside, communication disorder, etc. Others have obsessive-compulsive disorder. And there is still police around. Imagine, 72 active police armoured vehicles daily driving around the city.
There is a high rate of antidepressants use. We had incidents with people falling asleep before the interview, or having outbursts of laughing or crying during the meeting.
“As if our past experiences had not been enough— we were discriminated against in the new place. In Mersin, where we had migrated, we were in a district where the majority of people supported the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Students would say to us, “Terrorists who speak Kurdish have no business in our school.” My children were blacklisted and marginalized by other children. I thought it would be better for my children if they continued to study but I didn’t know that it would be like this. They lost their interest. They were not allowed to use their mother tongue. We had to come back, we just couldn’t manage it there.’’ (Cizre, age 36)
“They killed my mother. After these events, I quit because I did not want to study in a state school. I do not have any plans for the future. I only think of my siblings.’’
A: Following the curfews and the coup attempt in 2016, the Turkish state shut down all of the women’s initiatives that were established in the southeast during the peace process between 2013-15. Why, in your opinion, have the state targeted women specifically?
Z: Women’s organizations were carrying out awareness-raising activities. They were providing services to families. The reason why these institutions were closed, in my opinion, is the fear of women becoming conscious of masculinist policies. Such women wouldn’t stay silent and would act. The state wanted to prevent this, to keep women inside their homes.
Y: It was not a coincidence that women’s access to information was shut down. On the other hand, resistance is of great importance among the Kurdish women. Preventing their visibility too was probably one of the reasons.
A: In the report, you point out that Turkey’s government violated many international agreements to which it is a party. To your knowledge, has any European or international institutions condemned the Turkish government’s actions in 2015-16?
Y: As far as I know, the European Union made some statements expressing their concern, but there was no direct condemnation. Not only were international agreements violated in this process, but also Turkey’s Constitution itself. 88% of the participants of our study reported violations of the right to life. If one is not guaranteed her right to life, how can she use her other rights? Article 5 of the Human Rights Declaration is clear on it: the state has to protect the right to life under any circumstances, even during a state of emergency. This was not done in 2015-16. Moreover, according to Turkey’s Constitution, the decision to declare a curfew can only be made in the Parliament. However, in 2015-16, these decisions were made by governors. This in itself makes this operation illegal.
Z: In fact, the state of emergency was declared after the period of the curfews. Yet, the state did whatever it wanted to already before that.
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