By Bernice Rubens
The dire sufferings of the Kurdish people are largely unknown in this country. In Turkey, a country not overly concerned with human rights, their plight is appalling. The war between the Turks and the Kurds is now entering its twelfth year, with over 20, 000 countable casualties. This figure does not take into account those thousands who are permanently maimed and traumatized by torture. And in that quarter, the Turkish security forces need no lessons.
Recently I went to Kurdistan as part of a delegation sent to investigate the brutal murder of eleven Kurdish villagers in the district of Guclukonak on the 15th January. That was over a month ago, and the evidence is still there. The rusting burnt-out mi nibus on a bleak incline of the mountain pass. Who did it? And how did it happen? The Turkish authorities would have us believe that the massacre was the work of the PKK. Thus the precarious declaration of the cease-fire had been broken. But there was str iking evidence, and moreover, inviolable logic, that the killings were the work of the government security forces. We’d heard arguments from both sides, but the sight of that sad little bus on the bleak hillside was our first piece of concrete evidence. O r what was left of it. Its rusted frame was polka-dotted with bullet holes. On close investigation, we deduced that the shots, probably from machine-guns, had been fired from the front end and had pierced the back. What bewildered us were the bullet holes on the roof of the vehicle and automatically we looked skyward at the flat-topped mountain overlooking the road.
The interior of the bus was totally burned out. Only the iron skeletons of seats had withstood the fire. On the floor of the bus was a charred foot, and on a bench-rail another wad of one-time flesh that might have been the hand of a villager who had ten ded his sheep. The horror of it silenced us all, and we re-boarded our bus, shivering. Along the long route the mountains, we had passed by several villages that had been evacuated by the government forces, suspicious that they housed and sheltered PKK gu errillas. Ghost villages, clothed in a mouthful sigh. Some villages had been put to the torch and who knows whether they had first been evacuated. Across the Tigris, we saw where the refugees had been housed, temporarily, they had been told, though there was no sign that their cold and tented lodgings would be short-lived.
In time we reached a village, one that was nearest to the minibus attack. Though at great risk to their lives, the villagers were prepared to tell us their story, ”we have lost our husbands, our sons” they said. ”What more is there to lose?”
They spoke quietly, soft-pedalling the rage. We listened to the silences and space between their words, and to the sub-text of their sighs. Inconsolable. We spoke to the widow of the bus driver and to the father of one of the village guards who had been on that fatal journey. A village guard is recruited by government forces. Whether they like it or not. Many are reluctant to fill such a post, despite the steady pay that is offered, for the job involves surveillance and possible betrayal. Many of them ar e closest members of the PKK, so the post is even more ambiguous. From the stories that they told us, it seemed that four of the village guards and a driver were summoned to arrange a van, and to collect six suspects who had been taken from neighboring vi llages. Their job was to take them to their homes. The decision had been made to release them. The driver’s widow told us that they had been ordered to the nearest station, a two-hour peasant walkway. Later they saw a helicopter flying over the village in the direction of the spot where the bus was found. And a little later, they heard a series of shots.
For us, the mention of the helicopter clarified the bullet holes on the roof of the bus. The PKK have arms in plenty, but nothing as serious as a helicopter.
There were other stories too. There were eyewitnesses. A group of village militia across the river, saw the minibus was stopped on the mountain road. They saw fit report the incident by radio to the nearest military station and they were summarily told t o ignore it. Another group of witnesses was on the spot. The passed the stationary minibus, and stopped to see what was wrong. Inside the bus they saw a group of blindfolded men guarded by security forces. They were told to be on their way. Which they wer e, and quickly too, in fear of implication. Whatever. The charred bodies of the victims were brought to Kocyurdu for identification, all of them burnt beyond recognition. Except for one. That of the driver, who had attempted escape into the river, and whose body was riddled with shot.
The government forces insist on blaming the PKK while all the evidence cries out against that accusation. Apart from the question of doubtful strategy, why should the PKK wish to murder their own sympathizers? There is also a rumor abroad that the killin gs were ordered neither by the PKK nor the security forces, but by a special commando group in the Turkish army that owed no explanation to anybody.
The Guclukonak massacre was one of many acts of inhumanity that is staged on the stifles and screaming terrain of Kurdistan. For that sorry land is the setting for a quiet genocide, quiet because we on the outside are not listening. And even if we are aw are of it, we turn a deaf ear.
Over fifty years ago, the word holocaust acquired a new and appalling meaning. We were silent then. And although what is happening today in Kurdistan is in no way comparable with the abject horror of those years, our silence today is equally obscene. For the sake of our own children and of those of the Kurds we can no longer turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. Attention must be paid. Indifference in the face of other people’s torment is, in itself, a violation of human rights.
February 18, 1996
Bernice Rubens is a writer and Vice-President of the English Center of International PEN.