What follows the Kurdish curfews?

What follows the Kurdish curfews?
Comment: Seizing the corpses of civilians killed during curfews in south-east Turkey allows Ankara to tell the world they were 'terrorists', writes Yvo Fitzherbert.
5 min read
19 Jan, 2016
Amnesty International issued a report calling for urgent action against indefinite, indiscriminate curfews [AFP]

In the early hours of Friday morning, Erdogan's attempts to silence critics reached new heights, as 12 academics were arrested after signing a declaration opposing Turkish military operations against Kurdish rebels in south-eastern Turkey.

The petition called on Turkey "to abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other people in the region".

Among the signatures was Noam Chomsky, who was invited by Erdogan to come and visit the Kurdish south-east in a defiant speech against the academics' declaration.

The petition of peace only places Ankara's policy in the south-east under further strain. Officials have come under increased scrutiny after ongoing curfews were imposed as part of military operations against YDG-H, the urban youth movement of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

This week, Amnesty International issued a report calling for urgent action to be taken against the indefinite, indiscriminate curfews.

Comment: Turkey's AKP frames Kurdish citizens as terrorists - read more here

The Human Rights Foundation of Turkey also released a report on January 8 claiming that 79 civilians had been killed since the December 11, with more than 1.3m civilians affected by the curfews.

State policy

Since the peace process broke down in July, Turkey's security forces have increasingly resorted to using curfews in an attempt to root out the YDG-H from urban areas.

However, civilians have found themselves caught in the middle, with Turkish soldiers seemingly shooting indiscriminately.

The curfews have been relentless in some towns. In Sur, the historical part of Diyarbakir - the largest city in the region - a curfew has been ongoing for 42 days, while Cizre and Silopi have been under lockdown for more than 30 days.

Corpses of civilians have reportedly been left on the streets, while survivors hide in basements, without access to water, electricity or basic health services.

The imposition of these curfews reflects a growing urban dynamic to the Kurdish conflict. Back in the 1990s, when the conflict was last this bad, the fighting took place in the mountains between the Turkish military and the PKK. In response to the alleged support many Kurdish villages lent the PKK, Turkish soldiers forcibly evicted thousands of villages, leading to mass migration to the cities.

The cities in the Kurdish-majority regions swelled as a result. By the time the two and a half year peace process broke down in July 2015, the PKK had begun to organise in urban spaces through their youth wing, the YDG-H.

Predominately made up of youths who were forced from their villages as children, the Kurdish Youth began to erect trenches and declared neighbourhoods "autonomous" from the state.

Last week, I met a group of Kurdish refugees at Istanbul airport who had been forced to leave their home city of Cizre, one of the worst affected towns in the south-east. As urban centres have been transformed into war zones, thousands have fled as they have become legitimate targets in the eyes of the military.

State media consistently reports that "terrorists" have been killed, thereby eliminating the presence of civilians. The state's logic follows that any Kurds left in these areas must therefore be deemed "terrorists", thereby refusing to acknowledge the presence of civilians.

Disrespect for the dead

According to the images in a heartbreaking video, 14-year-old Zilan describes how many bodies lie buried in the snow in Cizre, Silopi and Sur. In Silopi, a mother of 11 children was reportedly shot and succumbed to her wounds as she lay on the street for a week. Snipers shot at anybody who attempted to rescue her.

Her daughter, Inan, wrote an emotional letter: "For seven days she lay in the street. None of us slept, so we could keep the dogs and birds away from her; she lay there, 150 metres away, and we saw how she had lost her life. In those seven days, the state caused us as much suffering as any one human being can cause in another. My mother still had her shawl in one hand, her hands had become stiff, her body position reflected her struggle to survive."

In Diyarbakir, a group of six Kurds are on hunger strike, demanding to retrieve the bodies of their dead children believed to have been killed on January 1 in the historic Sur neighbourhood.

To many, the pain of not being allowed to give their children a proper burial is too much to bear.

This is not the first time the state has refused to respect Kurdish corpses. In the summer, photos circulated on social media showing the mutilated corpse of a female PKK fighter, whose body was tortured following her death in clashes with Turkey's security forces on August 10.

In another example, the body of Hacı Lokman Birlik, a Kurdish film-maker, was paraded through the streets of Şirnak in October.

Cemeteries of PKK fighters, established during the relative lull of the peace process, have been subject to attacks by the Turkish military in recent months.

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The state's strategy towards fallen Kurds in the south-east has recently taken a further turn, with a new amendment allowing authorities to bury bodies unclaimed by the families after three days. Many Kurds fear this new amendment will lead to further state-sanctioned abuse of Kurdish corpses.

So why is Ankara not allowing bodies to be collected and buried properly? If the state allowed proper collection and funeral processions to take place, it would not only serve a political agenda for those Kurds fighting the state, but would also serve as evidence that the state had killed normal civilians during these curfews.

However, by prohibiting proper burial through by seizing bodies, they effectively deem these citizens to be terrorists.

In this, such disrespect for corpses serves to legitimise Ankara's actions in Kurdish cities. With increasing pressure from Europe, Turkey is eager to hide the brutal tactics which have seen 162 civilians reported killed since August 16.

But with the conflict raging on, it is hard to imagine Ankara enacting a decisive victory against the Kurdish rebels. Nationalism, it appears, has become the defining strategy of this government, whatever its repercussions elsewhere.

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist based in Turkey. He has written on Kurdish politics, the Syrian war and the refugee crisis for a variety of Turkish and English publications. Follow him on Twitter: @yvofitz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.