by Uğur Deniz – İstanbul
The question of a mother whose child’s grave was attacked several times resonates with us: ‘What does the state want from dead Kurds?’ What is the problem of the political power of Turkey with the dead? Medyanews interviewed anthropologist Derya Aydın, who studies cemeteries and mourning processes and its reflections on Kurdish society. Aydın said: “This is a political and ethical responsibility. If you do not object, necro-politics will become the normal of the government and spread to the whole country. As a matter of fact, it has already started to happen”.
When did the attacks on the dead and cemeteries intensify?
Attacks on the graves and cemeteries of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas who lost their lives in the conflict became widespread in the fall of 2015. Before that, there were attacks on the graves of PKK members. However, in the past, there were no cemeteries that just belonged to PKK guerrillas within Turkey’s borders. They were usually buried in public cemeteries or places where they lost their lives. For this reason, there were some attacks on the graves, but they were not common.
In the spring of 2013, the start of negotiations between the PKK and Turkey had put an end to these attacks, like other attacks. The cemeteries of PKK members were built right after this date, and the graves of PKK members who lost their lives in different places were moved here. However, when the non-conflict period ended by the end of summer 2015, these cemeteries became the target of attacks. The first attacks on cemeteries started in July 2015 and intensified in September and October. Attacks continued in many provinces such as Muş, Dersim, Bitlis, Diyarbakır and Şırnak. In the following years, these attacks became continuous.
How are these attacks carried out?
Some of the first attacks were by aerial bombing. For example, the cemetery in Dersim and the cemevi inside the cemetery were destroyed through aerial bombing. Certainly, the most terrible attack was carried out on Garzan cemetery. It was destroyed in 2015, but on 22 December 2017, all the bodies here were taken out with buckets and sent to İstanbul. This year, it turned out that these bodies were buried under paving stones on a highway. Similarly, this year, attacks on PKK graves and cemeteries have continued during the pandemic. Gravestones were broken in cities in Kurdistan such as Hakkari, Van, and Diyarbakır. Moreover, the Gendarmerie Command in Silvan district told families to destroy the gravestones because of the letters “x”, “q” and “w” on the graves. It was stated by the families that the gendarmerie threatened that “if the families did not, they would destroy the graves”.
Since 2015, has there been any data gathered on attacks on graves and the dead? For example, how many cemeteries are there and how many have been destroyed?
Unfortunately, there is no accurate data on this issue. Institutions like Families Who Lost Their Relatives in the Cradle of Civilization Union and Culture Association (MEBYA-DER), an institution whose members comprise the families of PKK guerrillas who lost their lives in the conflict, are working in this field. However, their work is also constantly blocked. The Human Rights Association works in this area from time to time, and they prepared a report on the Garzan Cemetery in Bitlis. However, as far as I know, there is no institution that examines the whole process comprehensively and records data about it systematically. On the other hand, Mesopotamia Agency (MA) is working very seriously in this respect, and especially due to the bans and pressures after 2016, we would hardly hear anything about the attacks on the cemeteries unless MA reported on this issue.
It is very difficult to record data on the dead. MEBYA-DER is making a serious effort in this regard. It tries to determine the identities of those who have lost their lives, takes the bodies, reaches out to their families, and buries the dead properly. However, after 2015, many bodies cannot be taken by their families. The bodies of PKK guerrillas who lost their lives in the violent resumption of conflict in 2016 were held in morgues, sometimes not given to their families for months or even years. Most were buried in the cemetery of the nameless. A similar process took place during the conflicts in the cities in 2016. The people who lost their lives here were not given to their families.
In Diyarbakır Sur, families went on hunger strike in order to retrieve bodies. Similarly, in the districts of Şırnak’s Cizre and Mardin’s Nusaybin, the bodies of many people were not given to their families and they were buried in the cemetery of the nameless. Today, the bodies of those who lost their lives are still not given to families. It takes months, sometimes years, to retrieve the bodies. The bodies of 14 people who lost their lives in Siirt in September have still not been returned to the families. Again, the body of a PKK guerrilla who died in Hakkari in 2015 has still not been returned to her/his family. Due to pressures like the confiscation of bodies, there is no real data on those who died in the conflicts or their graves.
You have undertaken research on cemeteries. What period does it cover? Is there available data about that period and what are your observations?
I conducted my research on the construction of PKK cemeteries and the destruction process between 2014 and 2017. When I did my research, I could not access systematic and accurate data. At that time, MEYA-DER was working on this issue and then it was closed by the state of emergency decree (KHK). However, I recorded data in the field that there were 13 cemeteries built between 2013 and 2015. I also noted that all of these 13 cemeteries were destroyed. Since most of the graves were anonymous and there were also empty graves where the bodies were not buried yet, it is not clear how many bodies there were in these graves and who they belonged to.
Can you comment on the question raised by a mother: ‘What does the state want from dead Kurds?’
There are quite difficult answers to this question. For various reasons, these graves are the target of attacks. First and foremost, perhaps, in Walter Benjamin’s words: “If the enemy wins, even the dead get their share”. In other words, although they are dead, they are alive both in the eyes of the state and their families. Because they still have impact on the social sphere. In fact, since these are political deaths, their deaths have as much impact as their lives. Maybe more than their lives! This is why dead warriors leave a collective memory on society. This is the memory of resistance. This memory not only shakes families but also mobilizes the Kurdish social sphere. Whilst focusing on the construction and destruction of these cemeteries, I focused on the relationship between resistance and mourning, how families experience mourning, and how it affects Kurdish social memory.
Why is the mourning-resistance relationship so interconnected and critical?
Mourning takes place as a crucial repertoire of resistance in Kurdistan. The mourning effort of thousands of families turns into a stage of resistance. Mourning essentially leads to a closure, but with the effect of prohibitions, it turns into a stage of resistance, contrary to its nature. In addition, these deaths and confiscation of dead bodies are spreading a crucial impact.
Although these cemeteries are places of death, they actually turn into a memory space where the ideals of those who died at a young age accumulate. Dersim cemetery is a quite striking example in this respect. The bones of those who lost their lives in the Dersim Massacre in 1938 and those who lost their lives in the 1980s and 1990s as well as today have been buried here together. It was and is exactly a space of memory, and the state knows this truth well. Therefore, the state wants to kill the dead again, eliminate them, break their influence, and destroy them. However, it is impossible to kill the dead again.
What makes all of this ‘state policy?’
It is not difficult to say that these practices towards the dead Kurds are realized within the framework of a certain policy. Although it is not systematic, it occurred through a certain policy. The dehumanization of Kurds with the discourse of “terror” and their easy killing; the confiscation of their bodies and not returning them to their families; the prohibition of mourning for them, and the destruction of their graves have become permanent. Therefore, these are not individual cases carried out by a few irresponsible people in certain places. The spokespersons of the government frequently make statements that report these attacks. The media also makes propaganda of this widely. When the bones were removed from Bitlis cemetery and sent to Istanbul, Tayyip Erdoğan used following expressions in Bitlis: “Where are those fake graves now?” and “Infidels are driven to Hell group by group”. So yes, this is necro-politics and belongs to power initiatives.
How does this policy strike, affect, change and transform “living” Kurds? What are the Kurds and Kurdish parties doing and what should they do against this form of necro-politics?
Of course, this causes a serious reaction in the Kurdish community. What is done to the dead essentially shows the limit of the harm done to the Kurds because there is no more that one can do. Harm done to the dead terrifies people. For this reason, Kurds have been mourning and accumulating anger for a long time over this in a personal and collective sense. There aren’t many parties that speak out against this necro-politics of the dead Kurds. Apart from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its components, there is almost no single party.
The funerals of the PKK guerrillas have been criminalized so much that people are afraid to make a defense and even speak a sentence on this issue. Police enquiry reports were organized about the politicians who attended the funerals on the grounds of “attending the funeral of a terrorist”. Since there are bans on attending funerals and burial ceremonies, only politicians can attend the funerals. People are buried at midnight, and it is mostly banned during the daytime and a few people are allowed to attend funerals. In 2016, the politicians generally used the discourse “attending a funeral is not a crime”. However, the issue is not whether it is a crime or not, because it is beyond the realms of law. It is a political and ethical issue.
Despite all the pressures that have been exerted, the HDP has opposed the harm that has been done to dead Kurds and voiced this in parliament. However, these efforts are not enough. This policy will not be abolished without opposing necro-politics altogether. Therefore, this is not just the responsibility of politicians; it is responsibility of civil society organizations, the institutions of Kurds, Kurds and even the responsibility of all of Turkish society. This is a political and ethical responsibility. If you do not object, necro-politics will become the normal of the government and spread to the whole country. As a matter of fact, it has already started to happen. The reason why the racist attack on Group Yorum member İbrahim Gökçek’s funeral took place so easily is because of the widespread and commonplace necro-politics towards dead Kurds. Because the death of the ‘other’ is not as far as we think it is.