Ten years ago on 28 December, the Roboskî massacre happened. In the bombing by the Turkish army on the Turkey-Iraq border, 34 civilians died, most of them underaged boys. They were involved in the border trade of tea, petrol, cigarettes and sugar, as their ancestors had been, to make a living in their lands divided by borders that weren’t theirs.
With the bombing, the state took revenge for a huge PKK attack two months earlier, and that’s why I write about it now. Ten years ago civilians paid the price for Turkey’s war against the Kurds, and nothing has changed since. Now that the Turkish threat against the autonomously governed regions in the northeast of Syria increases, it will again be Kurdish civilians who have to fear for their safety, for their lives.
For those who don’t know: at the time of the Roboskî massacre, I was a Turkey correspondent in Istanbul. Five days after the massacre, I went to the village where most of the victims of the massacre were from, just for one day, to make a report for a Dutch news agency and for a youth magazine. I kept returning to the village to investigate what happened that evening, and why. It eventually resulted in my first book about the Kurdish issue, The Boys Are Dead. I learned two things about ‘why’. One: that PKK attack of 19 October 2011, in which 24 soldiers had died and which shocked Turkey, flaring up nationalism and a lust for revenge. Two: the villagers were right with their answer to my question why the massacre had happened: ‘Because we are Kurds’.
Flat and barren
At the time, the Turkish government said there had been ‘intelligence’ that a high-ranked PKK-commander would be crossing the border in the area where the border traders were working. Without getting into detail here, this ‘intelligence’ was weak. It was illogical to begin with, because this mountain crossing was rather flat and barren, with no place for guerrilla fighters to hide. These paths were trade paths, not warrior paths, and everybody had known this for decades. Only the Turkish public didn’t know the local realities, which is why the state could gamble.
If any PKK leader had been among the civilians, the state would have claimed victory, and the dead civilians would have been collateral damage. Now that only civilians died, the state designated them to be ‘terrorist auxiliaries’ – which they weren’t in any way – and nobody outside Kurdistan could care less. Like I said: the Roboskî massacre happened because of political and military opportunism combined with a disregard for the lives of Kurdish citizens.
The pattern may be repeating itself in the northeast of Syria in the not so distant future. The autonomously governed regions there pose no military threat to the Turkish state, but because of geo-political developments and the dwindling popularity of president Erdoğan, the Turkish army and its jihadist mercenaries may be taking action. Kobani, saved from take-over by ISIS in early 2015, may be the target, or regions further to the east. Turkey wants to do what it did in other regions where Kurds (and other, smaller communities) have taken their fate into their own hands: attack and occupy. Such occupation comes with the crimes occupations always come with: ethnic cleansing, abductions, torture, rape, looting, confiscation of property and destruction of cultural heritage. Look at Afrin, occupied by Turkey since early 2018, where this scenario has been playing out in full force.
That there is no military threat from Northeast-Syria, is the equivalent of the fact that no guerrilla fighters were using the trade paths at the border close to Roboskî. The state can manipulate its citizens into thinking otherwise because it controls the narrative. That’s not something new, not something Erdoğan invented, it’s one of the tools of the state. It even happened in the 1930s, when massacres were carried out against Alevi Kurds in Dersim under the command of the republic’s founding father Kemal Atatürk: the state made the people believe there had been an ‘uprising’ and Dersim needed to be ‘civilized’, while the leaders of Dersim were only trying to defend themselves against the inevitable. The state’s narrative, pumped into citizens from birth, is just never questioned.
One of the mothers of Roboskî, Kadriye Encü, died this week after suffering from a heart attack. Her son Hamza had died in the massacre. She never found justice. Also the mother of women’s rights activist and politician par excellence Hevrin Khalaf, murdered by Turkey’s mercenaries in Syria in October 2019, is longing for justice, against better judgement. The Roboskî massacre is almost ten years ago and what we need to understand is: it was no incident, it was not unexpected, it did not suddenly happen, it was not an accident. Mass murder with impunity is a feature of the Turkish state, and another portion of it is right around the corner.
May our hearts shrivel if we forget Roboskî.