‘Başınız sağolsun’ we say to everyone we meet in the Kurdish village of Roboski/Uludere. We are offering our condolences to the families of victims of one of Turkey’s most appalling recent crimes – the Roboski Massacre. One after one we offer our sympathy – no-one here is exempt from grief.
Massacre in the mountains
Visiting Roboski, a small isolated mountain village on the Turkish Iraqi border, is a sobering experience. For over two years Roboski has been a village in mourning. At 21.39 on December 28, 2011, disaster struck and in an instant the village lost its youth when they became victim to the Turkish government’s ‘war on terror’. Thirty-four of a party of 38 - most of them children - were slaughtered in an aerial bombardment by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. Those killed were engaging in traditional cross border trade. Roboski is a poor village where there is little or no work. Cross border trade provides a small and welcome income for the older men and pocket money for the purchase of notebooks, stationary and pens for the teenagers.
The 19 children who were killed had attended school during the week and only occasionally and at weekends did they accompany their brothers, uncles or friends on the journey across the border to buy cheap petrol and cigarettes. The round trip takes only three hours, a little longer in the snow, and the border is historically porous. Villagers in Roboski have family on both sides of the border and this kind of trade has a long history.
As soon as villagers heard of the bombing they made the desperate journey to the border – bodies and body parts lay beside dead donkeys, strewn in the white snow. Blue plastic jerry cans and the food the travellers carried with them littered the site. Photographs taken at the time capture a scene of devastation.
We learn from the families that medical assistance and ambulances were prevented for some hours from attending the site of the massacre and that the military refused to organize an immediate rescue because they feared retaliation from the villagers.
News of the massacre reached the Mardin branch of the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) within hours and human rights activists travelled to the site in the early hours of the following morning to gather evidence before the state had time to remove it. Their role has been essential in recording testimony, supporting villagers and campaigning for justice.
What happened on the night of December 28 is now known. A US Predator and then Israeli built Turkish Heron drones falsely identified the group as comprising PKK operatives. Turkish fighter jets were then instructed to fly in and bomb the group, which they did repeatedly. The results were catastrophic.
No villager is untouched by this crime. Twenty-eight of the dead from this small mountain community were part of the same extended family and shared the same surname, Encu. Grief here is in one sense overwhelming, woven into the fabric of everyday life. But there is also a powerful demand for justice – a determination on the part of villagers to force the Turkish government to apologise and to prosecute those responsible for the mass murder of their young.
Mothers of the dead boys
The fight for justice: ‘Justice for Roboski, Peace for the Universe’
We have travelled to Roboski with Veli Encu, the force behind the Roboski Association, a group campaigning for justice whose banner proclaims ‘Justice for Roboski, Peace for the Universe’.
Veli’s 15 year old brother was killed in the bombing. Veli had just returned from Ankara where he had been invited to meet the Chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commission. Ayhan Sefer-Ustun’s Commission has defended the actions of the military and produced a report, which victims see as a complete whitewash. Veli agreed to meet him on the one condition that he did not shake his hand. This rebuff led to him being forcibly evicted by security guards from Sefer-Ustun’s office. ‘He devalued our pain’, Veli tells us as we make our way from Cizre to Roboski.
We are five in the car. Travelling with Veli are Mehmet Encu, Asima Alma and Mercan Encu, all of whom lost sons and all of whom have been campaigning in Ankara. We arrive in the village well after dark, park outside the Roboski Association and climb a steep mountain path to Veli’s family home.
Zuleyhe and HalimeAs we sit in the bright, warm and welcoming living room of Halime Encu’s village house she brings us a plastic carrier bag filled with the belongings of her son, Serhat – prayer beads, a leather wrap around bracelet, his T shirt, watch, sunglasses, necklace, a key ring and shoe laces. The T-shirt she tells us Serhat took off just before he left home for the last time. There is something unbearably sad about these few remains of a young life destroyed. Our presence in the village draws mother after mother to this warm living room. Their desire to tell the story of their lost sons is matched only by their desire for justice.
Until those responsible in the Turkish state are held to account and until the state has apologized for this act of terror, life for these families remains frozen in time, ‘Nothing has changed for us…’, says Hanim Encu ‘…today is just like that day’. All the mothers arrive with plastic carrier bags containing framed photographs of their boys. The blast from the bombs was so intense that bodies were ripped apart. Kadriye Encu weeps as we learn she found only the leg of her son, Hamza.
Photos of the dead in the Roboski Association office]
Mehmet Encu whose young son Erkan and two brothers were killed in the bombardment greets us warmly. His house nestles at the foot of the mountain road along which the young men and boys and their donkeys travelled that fateful December day. Roosters crow outside as we eat together and listen to Mehmet’s story. He is a quiet man whose face carries the scars of a land mine explosion years before. His wife Selek gave birth 10 months earlier and they have named the child Erkan in memory of their dead son.
As we eat a meal of chicken and aubergine, prepared by Selek, Mehmet describes the violence of the attack, that the F-16 fighter jets delivered a series of 4 bombardments, that the impact blew apart their lives. He implicates, not only the Turkish state, but those states who were indirectly responsible, ‘If Europe hadn’t sold Turkey the F16s; if the Turkish government had not bought the Israeli manufactured Heron drones…’
‘Journalists came from Europe but unfortunately we couldn’t make our voice heard anywhere’ he says sadly. But Mehmet will not give up his quiet struggle for justice and with Veli Encu works tirelessly for the Roboski Association.
In a familiar process of denial by state criminals the Turkish military first denied the attack was against civilians, claiming there were PKK operatives in the party crossing the border. None of those killed had any connection with the PKK or any terrorist organisation. In fact families of 27 of those killed were village guards – militias set up in the 1990’s by the Turkish state to counter PKK insurgents.
The army reported it had carried out the strike after US and Turkish spy drones had identified a group moving towards its sensitive South-eastern border in an area known to be used by Kurdish militants:
"Members of the Turkish Armed Forces acted in accordance with the decisions adopted by the Council of Ministers and the law," the army prosecutor's office reported.
The Prosecutor was here referring to a government edict authorising the military to bomb Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) hideouts in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. In a country where impunity is rife the Military Prosecutor in Ankara discontinued all charges against the five army officers implicated in the massacre and without an apology announced "… army personnel made an unavoidable mistake while performing their duties".
Serhat Encu and his fatherIn this environment of impunity, state violence against the villagers of Roboski continues. After a breakfast of home-made yoghurt and cheese we are introduced to a more recent young victim of military violence. One month before our visit to Roboski on the January 15, Serhat Encu was shot in the back of the head by soldiers as he participated in a demonstration over the government’s decision to make the whole area of Uludere a security zone. The bullet fractured his skull and required surgical removal. He sits expressionless, still, it seems, in a state of shock as he answers our questions about his experience. As we sit in a small circle on yellow plastic chairs outside his family’s village house a military helicopter flies loudly overhead and we all look up. The repressive state is always present. Serhat’s father brings out the black jacket he was wearing on the day of the attack – he shows us the bullet holes in the hood and shakes his head as Serhat stares ahead.
We visit the local cemetery – most of the graves are for those killed in the massacre. Brightly coloured floral arrangements adorn the burial place giving it an almost festive air – an air which quickly dissipates when reading the birthdates on the headstones and confronting the spent bombshell positioned between the graves and the mountains.
Our final interview takes us high up the mountain pass, past the once beautiful village of Tarlabasi, destroyed by Turkish troops in the 1990’s campaign to eradicate Kurdish insurgents. Veli’s family survived the bombing of this village in 1992 but were forced to relocate to Roboski when the village was completely destroyed. The mountain road we travel along, and others like it, were built by the Jandarma for the transport of supplies to the watchtower they had established here at the border where the massacre took place.
There were only 4 survivors of the massacre and Servet Encu, a shepherd, is the only one who will speak of the experience. We meet him, alone with his goats on the snowy mountainside. He is a quiet, dignified, elegant man who found escape from the trauma of the massacre with his flock - he is the only one to bear witness and the burden weighs heavily.
The villagers are now so distrustful of the state that they have discouraged Servet from accepting the psychological counseling the government has offered. They fear a form of brain-washing, an attempt to erase the only witness testimony of the crimes of that day. Servet tells us that as the party of travellers made its way back across the snow-covered mountain his donkey wandered away from the others. He survived because as the precision bombing began he had left the track to retrieve his donkey. Thrown to the ground by the blast he lay in the snow for hours, terrified that any movement he might make would be detected by the drones flying overhead. He was close to death from hypothermia when rescuers reached him.
2011 was a tumultuous year in the region - the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain turned on their despotic rulers and the world was gripped by the revolutionary fervour of the ‘Arab Spring’. Perhaps this is why so few outside Turkey know of what happened in Roboski. But the killing of 34 young Turkish people by their own government is a crime of great magnitude that should be widely known, exposed, challenged and accounted for.