In 2015 in Cizre, Turkey, around 189 men, women and children were trapped for weeks in three basements without water, food or medical aid before they were burned alive. STEVE SWEENEY met some of the relatives
Situated close to the Syrian and Iraqi borders and surrounded by the Tigris river the Turkish city of Cizre is described by locals as “the crown of the Kurdish movement.”
Support for the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is strong and the city returned an 81.2 per cent No vote rejecting the constitutional changes in the recent referendum.
It lies in Turkey’s Sirnak province, an area that has seen intense fighting between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and government forces.
Deadly air strikes from F16 fighter jets killed 34 people in an incident known as the “Roboski Massacre” in 2011.
Cizre was the scene of one of the most notorious events in recent history when in 2015 around 189 men, women and children were trapped for weeks in three basements without water, food or medical aid before they were burned alive.
A UN report found that: “The subsequent demolition of the buildings destroyed evidence and has therefore largely prevented the basic identification and tracing of mortal remains.”
Foreign journalists rarely come here and human rights organisations including Amnesty International have been blocked from documenting abuses. Human Rights Watch have accused the Turkish government of a systematic cover-up.
We came to war-torn Cizre to speak to the people who have lost loved ones and to help them tell their story in the secret war being waged in the Kurdish part of Turkey.
Driving through the streets in the blistering, mid-afternoon heat piles of rubble lay where once stood houses and apartment blocks.
Armoured vehicles prowled the city’s narrow streets at almost every turn as our driver took us through short-cuts that avoided the many police and army checkpoints that are a feature of every day life for Cizre’s residents.
He told me there were plans to build more police stations — they have already taken over five school buildings and one local told me they now make up 10 per cent of the population.
HDP officials claim that plans to radically change the layout of the town are a political move driven by the government as they believe the narrow streets help the PKK.
“They are building more houses than they destroyed,” I am told at the local HDP branch office. “And they will destroy even more houses to build new ones.”
He told me the authorities plan to bring people from outside Cizre, nonKurds and police as they attempt to control the city by fear and intimidation and to change the social dynamic of a “loyal and politically conscious people.
“People were told to pay 35,000 Turkish Lira for the new houses but they resisted so they changed a couple of the projects. But now they are telling people either take it or you get nothing.”
I heard how more than 67 bodies have still not been found. Families gave blood tests for DNA samples to be taken to see if they matched with any of the body parts that had been recovered.
And despite protests, houses and apartments are set to be built on top of where the unrecovered dead bodies still lie.
“I don’t know where my daughter is, but I am sure that she is underneath the building,” 41-year-old Hezni Aslan told me.
Her 19-year-old daughter Hacer was a student nurse at the local hospital when she heard news that her brother had been injured as Turkish security forces started shelling the Nur Mahallesi district.
“They took over the Mem u Zin cultural centre at the top of the hill,” she says pointing out of the window at a large building that imposes itself over the neighbourhood and is now a police station.
She told me that the family were forced to flee as fighting intensified taking shelter in another house.
The apartment still bears the scars of the battle with the walls and ceiling riddled with bullet marks.
“My little girl came and nobody was here,” she told me tearfully.
Hacer is believed to have died after the basement she took shelter in with her 22-year-old brother Mehmed Said Aslan had petrol poured into it and was set on fire burning everyone alive.
We had disturbed her other son as we entered the living room. Like a typical teenager he was having an afternoon sleep.
He told me: “My mum went looking for my sister for two days but then they flattened the area and destroyed the evidence.”
He anxiously twisted a leather bracelet on his wrist which included Gerald Holtom’s famous CND peace symbol.
It was a peace the teenager would never have known having grown up in a conflict-zone.
Ms Aslan clings on to hope that her daughter will be found, however told me: “This is a girl who would call me if she was even five minutes late. It has been eighteen months and I still don’t know where she is.”
It was a similar story with the next family I visited in the Nur neighbourhood.
Their 18-year-old son Yakup Dadak went missing a year-and-a-half ago during an attack by Turkish security forces.
“If he has done something wrong then maybe he is in prison,” his mother Halim Dadak told me in hope.
“He loved his family,” his father said solemnly as he told me Yakup would sell fuel that he had collected in Iraq in Cizre’s city centre.
Ms Dadak explained to me how she had been asked to identify Yakup’s body in the morgue. She said the bodies looked as though they had been dragged in and dumped.
“How could I identify my son. There were headless bodies, body parts and torso’s just lying there. It looked as though chemicals had been used on the bodies.”
This is a family that has been torn apart by the conflict. Their eldest son has been in prison for the last year charged with spreading terrorist propaganda. He is held in Van, hundreds of miles away and is only allowed visitors once every two months.
“We can’t afford to visit him as he is so far away,” his father told me.
Mrs Dadak took me to the spot where the houses that the two families lived in stood before they were burned down.
“We don’t want the houses to be built,” she told me tearfully, looking up to the sky.
We made our way through the narrow streets to Cudi Mahallesi a short drive away.
As we entered the house of Taybet Gokhan the reality show Survivor was playing on the television. The metaphor wasn’t lost on me as we sat down to drink tea.
Osman Gokhan was the leader of the Cudi People’s Assembly and was one of those who was trapped in a neighbourhood basement as people took shelter from cross-fire.
“We heard voice recordings where people were begging for water. They were eating rice raw just to survive. Only 5kg of bones were left. They were all burned alive,” Mrs Gokhan told me.
Her teenage daughters Melek and Dilek joined us — 15-year-old Dilek displayed a steely determination when speaking about her father.
“I am very active in politics and want to be a solicitor,” she told me as she vowed to devote her life to finding who was responsible for killing her father and bringing them to justice.
“I don’t want my father to be forgotten about in the history books. We still have no idea where the body is. Did they take it to Van and dump it in the Tigris river?”
She explained how the police continue to “terrorise” the family. They have smashed windows in their house and pay them night time visits, knocking on the door at 2am.
“The police came to our house in the middle of the night and demanded I wake up my little brother who is eight years old.
“I told them ‘I’m not going to wake him. He can sleep. I won’t let him be terrorised by your presence.’”
“I don’t trust them,” she said.
Her anger is clear as she believes that Kurds are discriminated against across the whole of Turkey from Istanbul to the Black Sea.
Grafitti marks the bullet-ridden walls of Cizre’s streets reading: “If you are a Turk be proud of it. If you are a Kurd, obey.”
“The country is going through a difficult time, but if you are a Kurd you feel it many times more.
“Even though the curfew is lifted there are tanks everywhere. We don’t feel like going anywhere.”
During the curfew — which had ended just 20 days previously — the police took over people’s houses, moving in and causing difficulties between neighbours.
Dilek continued: “They broke everything in the house. Our upstairs neighbour came down for food and the police gave ours to them.
“They took stuff out of the houses including blankets. We spent the first month after the police had gone exchanging stuff so we got everything back.”
As I left both young women kissed and held me tightly, reluctant to let go. They brought me roses and other flowers handpicked from among the rubble in their front garden.
The curfew may have been lifted, but Cizre remains a city under siege.
The people are resilient, their smile is their resistance.
But while the people of Cizre continue to search for the bodies of their dead, Theresa May signs arms deals to sell fighter jets and weapons to the Turkish government.
Enough is enough.
Steve Sweeney is a Morning Star reporter, firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter: @SweeneySteve