The Roboski massacre, a deeply tragic event in which Kurdish civilians involved in cross-border smuggling were allegedly mistakenly targeted by the Turkish Air Force (TAF), marks its 12th anniversary without justice or resolution. This incident underscores the persistent concerns about impunity and perceived state-sanctioned crimes against Kurds, and more broadly, against minorities in the country.
🔴 Twelve years after the Roboski massacre in Şırnak (Şırnex), Turkey, families of the victims continue their quest accountability for the incident that claimed 34 Kurdish civilian lives.#Roboskimassacre | #WarCrimes | @FerhatEncu
— MedyaNews (@1MedyaNews) December 27, 2023
The massacre occurred in the Uludere (Qilêban) district of Şırnak (Şırnex) province, a Kurdish-majority area in southeastern Turkey, near the Iraq border, on 28 December 2011. It involved the loss of 34 Kurdish civilians, including 19 children, engaged in smuggling activities, typically involving gasoline and cigarettes. The group was allegedly misidentified as members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) by the TAF, leading to four airstrikes targeting them. The aftermath witnessed widespread protests in Kurdish communities and international condemnation. The Turkish government acknowledged the deaths but provided conflicting explanations, with no prosecutions carried out in relation to this incident.
After the massacre on 28 December 2011, the initial statement from the Turkish government suggested the victims were PKK members. The General Staff maintained the victims were targeted by F-16s for using routes frequented by PKK members.
Roboski airstrike: Facts
On 28 December 2011, news about the airstrike in Roboski broke on television, about 12 hours after the event. This delayed coverage was due to social media pressure that had already brought attention to the incident, compelling mainstream media to report it. The Turkish Army issued a statement claiming the airstrike was in response to “detected paranormal activities along a border frequently used by terrorists.”
The next day, on 29 December 2011, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan commented on the airstrike, linking it to alleged arms smuggling and public demand for intervention. Concurrently, funerals for the airstrike victims were held, where AKP Deputy Chair Hüseyin Çelik described the event as an “operational accident.”
Despite the gravity of the situation, on 30 December 2011, Prime Minister Erdoğan congratulated the army for its “sensitivity” and accused the media of manipulation.
By 3 January 2012, a visit to Roboski village by human rights activists, union members, doctors, and lawyers revealed that some victims had died from exposure due to the absence of immediate medical aid.
On 9 January 2012, a military investigation commenced, leading to the suspension and prosecution of several military staff. Two days later, on 11 January, the Turkish Parliament set up a commission to probe the killings.
Survivors of the massacre faced charges, including passport law abuse and smuggling, on 16 January 2012, a move seen as intimidation.
The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) filed a lawsuit against the Turkish government at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on 26 January 2012.
Between 4 and 6 February 2012, the parliamentary commission conducted a field investigation in Roboski. Some members protested after reviewing drone footage of the incident, stating that civilians were clearly identifiable.
On 5 April 2012, the Defence Ministry submitted a report to the parliamentary commission amid a media coverage ban imposed by various courts.
A pivotal moment occurred on 16 May 2012 when The Wall Street Journal reported U.S. involvement in providing the drone footage for the airstrike. The Turkish Army and PM Erdoğan denied this claim, which included an assertion that civilians were clearly distinguishable in the drone recordings.
On 23 May 2012, the Interior Minister stated that the airstrike order came from Turkish Air Force generals, an apparent attempt to shift responsibility away from the government.
By 5 August 2012, the Diyarbakir prosecution office affirmed the WSJ’s report, confirming that civilians could indeed be distinguished from the drone recordings.
As the first anniversary of the incident neared, on 6 December 2012, a campaign was initiated demanding prosecution and a formal state apology for the tragedy.
In January 2012, Hakan Fidan, the former-head of the National Intelligence Organisation (MİT), denied MİT’s involvement, stating there was no ‘flawed intelligence’ provided. However, in November 2014, then-Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin contradicted this, asserting MİT provided multiple intelligence reports leading to the tragedy.
Years after the incident, neither MİT nor state officials have acknowledged their role in the massacre. Post the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, the government – obscuring state responsibility – shifted the blame to Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish imam accused by Turkey of orchestrating the coup attempt, whose movement allegedly had influence within the Turkish army.
The investigation after the massacre led to the Diyarbakır Public Prosecutor’s Office declaring a lack of jurisdiction in June 2013 and transferring the case to the Military Prosecutor’s Office. In January 2013, the Military Prosecutor’s Office concluded that the personnel involved acted within the bounds of their duties and that inevitable mistakes were made, finding no reason to initiate public prosecution.
Efforts by victims’ families for justice faced setbacks, with the Constitutional Court rejecting their application in 2014 due to incomplete documentation, and the European Court of Human Rights deeming the application inadmissible in 2018 for not exhausting domestic remedies.
Halime Encü, mother of 17-year-old victim Serhat Encü, expressed the enduring pain and changes in Roboski since the massacre. She highlighted the spread of drug abuse among youth, increasing suicides, and the community’s shattered psychology. Encü emphasised their relentless pursuit of justice, refusing any compensation, and demanding accountability for the massacre.