Nine years ago today, 34 boys and men were murdered by the Turkish state in what we know now as the Roboski massacre. I happened to have investigated this massacre throughly, wrote a book about it and I know for a fact that the mass murder was a deliberate act.
The families of the victims know that very well too of course, they said it to me the first time I visited the village, in early January 2012.
I vividly remember what they answered when I asked them why it happened: “Kürt olduğumuz için”, or: “Because we are Kurds.” Until the state acknowledges this, the pain will continue.
Maybe the villagers already knew in the initial days after the tragedy that justice would never be served. Wasn’t it the same with all the other murders and massacres of which the Kurds had been victims since the day the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, and actually perhaps since the middle of the 19th century?
The state’s narrative has always been different of course. They were hanged because they rebelled (Sheikh Said rebellion, 1925), they had to be civilized and their uprising had to be put down (Dersim massacres, 1937-1938) and now, they were just unlucky, or, as the Minister of Interior said in 2012, they were ‘terrorist’s assistants’ (which of course they were not) and had it coming.
Muddy and slippery
But no, they tried to achieve justice. They went to court, they voted one of the family members of the victims into parliament for the HDP, they kept visiting the graveyard where their boys and men were buried every Thursday afternoon to make a call for justice. Every year on 28 December, a commemoration was held, where MPs and civil society leaders always called for justice too, standing between the 34 graves on the always muddy and slippery hill just outside the village, overlooking the stunning landscapes.
The judicial way turned out to be a dead end street. Because of a stupid mistake by the lawyer representing them, their case couldn’t be handled by the highest court in Turkey, effectively blocking the road to the European Court of Justice, since you can only go to the European Court when the domestic remedies are exhausted. The only way to revive the effort to hold the state accountable, is if new evidence emerges. Several people have told me that the chance of that happening is close to zero.
Recently, as I have started to read more into the way the European Court of Human Rights has dealt with cases of Kurds since the 1990s, I wonder what a verdict by this court would have brought the families of Roboski.
Of course, recognition by the highest court possible is important, and eventually the Court would have sentenced Turkey to pay damages, but would that have really healed?
I don’t think so. Turkey always obediently pays damages. It has done so since the 1990s for a wide range of crimes, from forced disappearances to murder, from unjustified prison sentences to torture. Paying damages has become a way for Turkey to avoid taking real responsibility, to avoid thorough investigations, to avoid real change. Paying damages for Roboski would have become just that: another European Court approved cover-up.
Do you know what Turkey’s first reaction was, after it bombed 34 people to death and threw an entire village into ever-lasting mourning? To offer the families a bag of money. Nobody took it at the time. The families argued that they are not in principle against paying damages, but it can only be the outcome of a process, in which the perpetrator takes responsibility for his actions and shows genuine remorse, after which apologies are made and accepted, and only then pecuniary compensation can be given and received. That would be the traditional Kurdish way.
Of course, the state showed no interest in that. Some reliable sources have told me that in the last couple of years, some families have decided to accept the bag of state money anyway, in a desperate move to make ends meet. The smuggling routes have been closed since the peace process fell apart in 2015, other work is scarce. Men in some other families have become so-called village guards, in other words, armed and paid auxiliaries of the state in the fight against the PKK. Many young men have left Roboski to find employment in Istanbul or elsewhere, often at dangerous construction sites where their life isn’t worth much. They won’t be returning to Roboski for the ninth commemoration today. They’d lose their jobs if they took a few days off.
Right to live
And so it goes. Another Kurdish community deprived of justice. Another Kurdish community deprived of healing. Another Kurdish community deprived of the right to live. Another Kurdish community robbed of its traditional life style, another village divided, another generation forced into compliance, forced out of Kurdistan and forced into further assimilation. And 28 December has become yet another painful date in the blood soaked history of the republic. Yet another massacre on the list of unsolved state crimes.
Only if the current state system falls, will those in charge be ready to acknowledge what happened, and only then healing can really start and genuine damages be paid. It may take generations, but then again, change can suddenly come fast. Let’s continue to make our contribution, because only the struggle can bring justice to Roboski. May our hearts shrivel if we forget Roboski.
Fréderike Geerdink is author of the book The Boys Are Dead, The Roboski Massacre and the Kurdish Question in Turkey.