Comparisons have been drawn between Zakho massacre, in which earlier this month nine civilians were killed and dozens injured, and Roboski massacre, in which in 2011 34 civilians were killed. While pondering the similarities in deliberateness, shamelessness, impunity and the massacres’ clear identification as war crimes, I found my mind wandering off to memories I have of Roboski. Memories of scenes, smells, sounds, colours that completed the story beyond the cruel reality.
Roboski massacre, for those who don’t know, happened on 28 December 2011. In the evening, the Turkish airforce bombed a group of border traders (aka smugglers) who were approaching the border back into Turkey coming from the Zakho area with their mules packed with tea, petrol and tabacco. 34 people were killed, 19 of them were underaged. Roboski massacre was not an accident. I know that for sure because I thoroughly investigated it.
I could not have done that investigative work without visiting the villages where the victims were from many times, for longer periods of time. Usually I stayed with Pakize and her five young children, who lost their husband and father Osman in the bombing. Seeing their daily lives from closeby helped me understand the wider context of what happened. Soon I knew that if I explained what had happened on this square few kilometers in the heart of Kurdistan and why it had happened, I would actually explain the whole Kurdish issue in Turkey. It resulted in my first book about the Kurds.
Being there served two purposes. One was that many journalistic methods don’t work in Turkey. You can’t file a Freedom of Information request, you can’t interview somebody from the army or the government, there aren’t many ways to check information people give you. Many things I could only check by going there in person.
The second is that as a writer and journalist, you have to show don’t tell. ‘The villagers are poor’ is telling it, writing a scene in which Pakize’s daughter took me to the local shop to buy a fruit knife for her mother for Mother’s Day, is showing it. ‘The smugglers use mules because they are stronger than donkeys and horses’ is telling it, writing a scene in which the mules came rumbling down the mountain road in the twilight guided by the smugglers and going strong on their thin legs with their backs packed with at least a hundred kilos of burden, is showing it. ‘Traditional life continues despite the war’ is telling it, writing the scene of the women going to the mountain pasture to milk the goats and seeing them not blink an eye when army helicopters appeared in the sky, is showing it.
What is absolutely great about journalism now compared to when I investigated Roboski massacre in 2012 and 2013, is that now we have OSINT, or: Open Source Intelligence. If Roboski massacre happened now, all I needed to do to check the location of the army posts is open Google Earth Pro, zoom in alongside the border and find them. I would be able to check distances with Earth’s practical ruler, find the paths the border traders used, use the time back machine to check vegetation before and after the massacre and investigate what it revealed about the impact of the bombs. I could double check if the land across the border was indeed flat and relatively barren and therefore useless for guerrilla fighters who need places to hide.
OSINT is a blessing in investigating human rights violations and war crimes in places that are hard or even impossible to reach. Also in the Zakho massacre, Google Earth and social media networks of weapon and ammunition experts have revelaed a lot of information, pointing to Turkey as the perpetrator. People in the mountain resort where the massacre happened, made videos, which were helpful in piecing the timeline of events together.
But what about the fuller picture of village life in the mountains close to Zakho? The village had been under pressure to evacuate for years but the resort provided people with an income and they wished to stay. I guess that changes now, but who is there to document the story? Zakho is, as the bird flies, only 34 kilometers away from Roboski. You can compare both massacres, but they are part of one story, and that is the story of how the common people bear the brunt of Turkey’s fascist state violence.
The violence has gotten so much out of hand, that it is not possible anymore to take the time to tell the full story from the ground, with all the colour, smells, sounds, emotions, atmospheres that are inextricably connected to the Kurdish story, and the Arab tourists that were in this case part of it. The full militarization of the border areas is also militarizing the story of Kurdistan, robbing it not only of its senses but also of the personal and communal stories the people have to tell, with all their knowledge, experiences and memories. The story of Kurdistan known to the outside world is increasingly is becoming incomplete. And with that, less true.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.