On the 28 December 2011, 34 Turkish Kurds from the southeastern Turkish village of Roboski, in the district of Uludere, were killed by Turkish F-16 fighter jets as they crossed the border from Iraq into Turkey. Nineteen of those killed were children, the youngest just twelve. A drone initially spotted the villagers as they returned with donkeys packed with cigarettes and petrol. Turkish officials gave orders to bomb the target; apparently, they had mistakenly identified the civilian group as militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, as will be discussed, whether it was a US or Turkish drone that provided the key intelligence has been a matter of much controversy.
It soon became clear that the victims of the targeted killing were not members of the PKK, but local people. In fact, the men from the village are members of a government-funded Kurdish militia that is fighting the PKK. Like thousands in the southeastern and eastern parts of Turkey, they relied on smuggling basic goods from Iraq to earn a meagre living. Residents of Roboski had used the same route regularly for many years, both for smuggling and visits to relatives on the other side of the border. Indeed, the smuggling was not only known about and tolerated by soldiers, but the border Jandarma (Military Police) were in regular communication with local village guards so that villagers could be warned of any planned military operations. However, no warning was made that night. This is despite the fact that, according to one article, the military outpost in the village was aware of the passage of some villagers to Iraq, so they were expecting their return. It has even been suggested that the district governor of Uludere was also aware of the villagers’ journey.
As soon as they heard news of the bombing, the families and other villagers travelled the hour’s journey by foot, through mountain snow, to the site. They found the bodies of their boys, and the donkeys they travelled with, blown to pieces and strewn across the snow. Most of the victims were dead. Only three of the party survived. Although there were military bases nearby, no medical assistance arrived at the scene, nor did anyone in charge from the local Jandarma base offer assistance. Despite the pleas from the families for medical assistance, hours passed before official help arrived, and the villagers were left to carry the bodies back to Roboski alone. The reasons for the lack of official medical assistance in the minutes and hours after the attack have not been explained.
Where and from whom the intelligence that led to the strikes came from has been an issue of confusion and contention. An article published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on 16 May 2012 reported that it was a US Predator drone, on a routine patrol, that had first spotted the men and animals. Although, as a senior US defense official said: “The Turks made the call. It wasn’t an American decision.” Based on the images from the drone, US military officers were unable to determine if the men were civilians or guerrilla fighters. However, their location in an area where guerilla fighters regularly move raised suspicions, and American officers alerted their Turkish counterparts. As the WSJ article reported, American officials offered additional surveillance to identify the convoy, but Turkish officers instead directed the Americans to fly the drone elsewhere.
Turkish authorities quickly refuted the WSJ article’s claims, stating instead that its own drones had provided the intelligence footage that prompted the deadly strike. Turkish Prime Minister at the time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claimed the WSJ article’s assertions were “fabricated reports”. The Deputy Prime Minster, Bekir Bozdağ, said such claims were “only rumours”, and the Chief of General Staff stated that the article “does not reflect the truth”. Following these claims, the WSJ published a second article, in which it repeated its previous claims about the US source of the intelligence. The incident, as an article in Der Spiegel on 31 August 2014 highlighted, provided an important insight into the "tight working relationship between American and Turkish intelligence services in the fight against Kurdish separatists." Furthermore, documents from the archive of US whistleblower Edward Snowden have revealed "just how deeply involved America has become in Turkey's fight against the Kurds."
Fundamental questions about the chain of command, who was ultimately responsible for the order to strike the civilian group, and the intelligence on which the order was made, remain inadequately addressed. A draft report produced by the General Staff and the government claimed that the incident was due to a flaw in coordination between military and security officials. However, Levent Gök, a deputy of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), and a member of the Turkish Parliament's Human Rights Inquiry Commission's investigation into the incident, claimed this explanation was a "cover up". He questioned the integrity of the intelligence surrounding the incident, as well as the cavalier attitude of the government in making such a "risky decision about the characteristic of the group," and said the government report "should be thrown away as garbage". Uncovering the truth of what happened that night,according to Levent Gök, would implicate the very highest levels of the government and military, including the president and the prime minister. This, he believes, is why the incident remains shrouded in mystery.
No "Big Deal": State Denial
The lack of action to bring those responsible to account has been the source of much resentment. Prime Minister Erdogan was completely silent about the incident for more than twenty-four hours after the deadly operation. The Turkish military first denied the attack was against civilians, claiming there were PKK operatives in the party crossing the border. None of those killed had any connection with the PKK or any terrorist organisation; as mentioned above, men from the village were members of a government-funded Kurdish militia fighting the PKK. Official government narrative subsequently emphasised that the incident was merely a “mistake.” Erdogan stated: “The planes bombarded the villagers because they thought they were terrorists. That was a terror zone; compensation was paid to the relatives of the victims. It is not necessary to make a big deal out of this.” But the relatives of the victims did not take the 123 thousand TL (approximately £41,000) the government offered. They wanted justice first, and for those responsible to be prosecuted and punished. However, there has been no formal apology, and many regard the investigations conducted by the Turkish authorities as deeply flawed and inadequate.
Revealing a troubling lack of communication between the Prime Minister and the armed forces, Erdogan refused to take responsibility for the act, claiming he “certainly did not give the order,” and that he didn’t even know about it. Turkish authorities described the killing as an “unfortunate operational accident”. The Chief of General Staff also dismissed the case as an accident. However, it has also been reported that the Jandarma Station Commander of the nearby village, Gulyazi, said that had he been consulted about the situation by his superiors prior to the attack, he would have told them that the border-crossers were not PKK terrorists, but smugglers.
Some of the families were hurt by Erdogan’s description of the victims, not as civilians, but as “smugglers”. They said many residents of Roboski were forced to engage in cross-border smuggling due to economic hardship. In an effort to deflect the possibility of any wrongdoing by the Turkish authorities, however, Erdogan has used the incident to talk about the importance of border security against the danger of terrorism. On 6 January 2012, three survivors of the bombing, including Davut Servet and Haci Encu, were charged for “breach of the passport law”, “border violation” and “illegal border trade of goods.”
In a country where impunity is rife, civilian prosecutors and courts were not allowed to investigate the incident. Subsequently, the Military Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the investigation into the massacre, saying that military officers made an “inevitable” mistake whilst “performing their duty in line with the Parliament’s and Cabinet’s decrees”. The decision prompted an outcry from families of the victims. Many lawyers were also outraged, and saw the decision as a huge blow to justice. The head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, Tahir Elçi, said: “We had already said the [Unable to find source titled 'prosecution'] could not be carried out objectively and neutrally by a military prosecution. Therefore, although this is an unacceptable decision in terms of justice, it was not a surprise for us.”
In January 2012, the parliamentary human rights investigative commission set up a sub-commission to examine the Roboski incident. However, the report, delivered in March 2013, concluded the attack was unintentional and that “poor communication” between the army and intelligence was the main reason for the deaths. It cleared the army of wrongdoing, and did not name any individuals responsible for the error. The approval of the report by the Turkish government has been widely criticised. Members of the sub-commission from opposition parties told Human Rights Watch that the General Chief of Staff’s Office, the Defence Ministry, and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) refused to fully cooperate with the inquiry, and “failed to answer questions or to provide certain documentation the sub-commission requested.”
Opposition representatives on the Commission criticised the report for not answering the fundamental questions which were initially set out to be answered: who assessed and analysed the images from the unmanned aerial vehicles; who decided that the people to be bombed were PKK members; what was the specific intelligence that led to this decision; and who gave the order to strike? Rather than answering these questions directly, the report was limited to general observations and recommendations relating to border security. According to Levent Gök, the killing of 34 civilian citizens represents "a most grave violation of the right to life.” He further stated that "Prime Minister Erdoğan is politically responsible, and those who should be held responsible from a military point of view should be, in that order, the Chief of General Staff, the Air Force Commander, the Second Chief of General Staff, the First Chief of General Staff, the Chief of the General Staff’s Centre of Operations and the Commander of the 23rd Gendarmerie Border Division."
Highlighting the ramifications of the lack of genuine justice and accountability for broader Turkish-Kurdish relations and the peace process, the co-chair of the people’s Democratic Party (HDP), Sebahat Tuncel said: “Forgetting the massacre means forgetting humanity. Forgetting justice means forgetting peace. [Unable to find source titled '...'] Will you try the prime minister? It is understood that the government and the military have made an agreement and the truth will be covered.” In response to the dismissal of the investigation, Ferhat Encü, who lost two brothers as well as nine other relatives, protested on Twitter: “The killer state has been acquitted once again. What can be said? We have been fighting for two years, howling for a conscience. Does anyone hear?” In August 2012, the Diyarbakir prosecution office investigating the Roboski Massacre confirmed that civilians could in fact be distinguished in the images from the drones.
Media: Censorship & Distortion
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, information about the massacre was limited to social media. It was twelve hours before Turkish television channels began covering the incident, and then only after the Turkish Armed Forces had issued their first official statement. None of the major newspapers made any comment until the Prime Minister’s first statement, on 29 December 2011.
The manner in which the high circulation press approached Roboski reflects a long-standing pattern of self-censorship within mainstream media organisations in Turkey, particularly those close to the government. Their overall editorial approach was in line with official government pronouncements — mitigating fault on behalf of the responsible officials, and couching the actions of those officials and the military as an understandable “mistake”. Only the oppositional press explored the massacre from the vantage of the victims, and contextualised the incident within the broader considerations of the Kurdish conflict and border politics. On the other hand, mirroring official government narrative, much coverage by the mainstream press amounted to near-justification of the killings on the basis that the murdered civilians, while not PKK operatives, were nonetheless smugglers.
On the first anniversary of the massacre, most newspapers refrained from headlining the issue. Those that did carry stories were publicly castigated by Prime Minister Erdogan, who claimed the Roboski massacre was being kept on the political agenda by terrorist organisations and their supporters. He stated: “Whoever is still bringing up the Uludere issue is actually related to terrorist organisations.”
Journalists writing about the Roboski incident have been targeted by the Turkish authorities. In December 2011, journalist Ozgur Ahmed was arrested on charges related to his participation in a protest about the 2011 Uludere incident. He was sentenced to over 3 years in prison. In January 2015, Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, was brought in for questioning by Turkey’s terrorism police on the basis that she was spreading “propaganda” for terrorist organisations. In what appears to be an act of intimidation, her house was also searched. In 2014, Geerdink wrote a book about the Roboski bombing, called The Boys Are Dead, and she regularly engages in public debate about the Kurds. She is also probably the only foreign journalist based in the Kurdish region of the country.
The Kurds and State Violence
As human rights academic Dr Ayça Çubukçu notes, the massacre took place in a "political context where the Turkish state’s proudly conducted war on terror has been targeting citizens of Turkey not only militarily, but also judicially with the force of law. Notably, in the last two years alone, thousands of supporters of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)—a party currently holding seats in the parliament and campaigning for the rights of Kurds—have been detained as alleged terrorists through the 'KCK operations'". The Kurds remain one of the world’s largest ethnic populations without a sovereign state. Throughout history, they have experienced much marginalisation, persecution, and pressure to assimilate. At around 18% of the population, Turkey has the largest population of Kurds in the region (including Iraq, Iran, Syria). There are around 14.7 million Kurds in Turkey, where they constitute the biggest ethnic and linguistic minority.
During the First World War (1914-18), the Kurds fought with the Turks against the occupying powers. They also fought with the Turks under Kemal Ataturk in the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23), during which Kurds were promised a Turkish-Kurdish federated state in return for their assistance. Ataturk emphasised unity and fraternity between the Kurds and Turks, and presented himself as the “saviour of Kurdistan” (Chaliand, G. 1993: p. 46). During this period, Islamic culture and religion had served as a unifying force for Kurds and Turks. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne created the modern states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. However, after independence was achieved, promises for an independent Kurdish state were ignored.
Following the establishment of modern republican Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk, the construction of “Turkishness” began at a national level. Under the pretext of creating an “indivisible nation”, an ideology was adopted that aimed to physically and culturally eliminate “non-Turkish” elements within the Republic, these unwanted elements being primarily Kurdish and Armenian. The ideology of Ataturk’s republicanism was secular, homogenous, western-oriented, and embodied an explicit denial of a separate Kurdish identity.
Under the 1924 constitution, citizenship was held to be synonymous with being Turkish. In the same year, a mandate outlawed Kurdish schools, publications, and organisations. As Cultural Survival highlights: “Even the words ‘Kurd’ and ‘Kurdistan’ were outlawed, making any written or spoken acknowledgement of their existence illegal.” The Kurdish language and traditional clothing and music were also prohibited. Kurds could only attain recognition or assume positions in government if they denied their Kurdish identities. In fact, many Kurds, having denied their identity, have risen to important political, economic, and military positions.
The Kurds have at various points throughout history risen up in pursuit of greater recognition, political rights, autonomy, or independence. Kurdish uprisings in 1925 and 1930 were brutally put down by the new Turkish state of Kemal Ataturk. Policies of state repression, persecution, and deliberate underdevelopment have remained consistent for decades, and extend into the present. Recently, in Roboski, the state has been killing the mules upon which the people of the village depend for their livelihood. The villagers say the campaign is a new form of repression of the Kurds. Veli Encu said: “State-sanctioned murder in Roboski never seems to end.”
There remains a powerful determination to achieve justice amongst the villagers. Without the struggle of the Roboski families and local human rights organisations (most importantly the Mardin branch of IHD) to expose this crime, little would be known of this remote mountain act of state terror. Conscious of state practices of cover-up and denial, the Mardin branch of IHD sent a team of investigators to the site within hours of the attack. They photographed the scene, and interviewed witnesses and family members.
Protesters across Turkey were attacked with tear gas and water cannons by Turkish police. The suffering of the families of the victims has been greatly compounded by the denials and obstructions to justice that they faced following the tragedy. The families, together with the support of human rights NGOs, have devoted themselves to exposing the massacre and to demanding justice through both civil and judicial means. Memorials are arranged each year to commemorate the anniversary, petitions have been organised demanding a state acceptance of responsibility, an official apology, and prosecution of those responsible. Independent journalists have produced documentaries, and NGOs and artists have established a Roboski Association. An initiative has also been taken for a Roboski museum that will be built in memory of the victims. However, the government’s position has remained one of denial.
In February 2014, researchers from ISCI met a more recent young victim of military violence, Serhat Encu from Uludere. On the second anniversary of the massacre, police attacked a group of people protesting against the government’s decision to make the whole area of Uludere a security zone, and demanding the building of a commemorative monument for the victims. Serhat was shot in the back of the head by soldiers as he participated in the demonstration. The bullet fractured his skull and required surgical removal. He sits expressionless. Still, it seems, in a state of shock as he answers our questions about his experience. As we sit in a small circle on yellow plastic chairs outside his family’s village house, a military helicopter flies loudly overhead and we all look up. The repressive state is always present.
Spokesman for the Roboski families, Veli Encu, reported that the villagers has been pleased when the commission came to share their suffering. The families believed that state was sincere in its efforts to investigate the causes of the massacre and taking the necessary steps to prosecute those responsible. However, disappointment soon set in as it became clear that assurances of accountability were hollow. Both the commission and the judicial process have failed to bring justice.
The relatives of the victims still visit their graves every Thursday, and issue a press release demanding the fair investigation of the massacre.
As ISCI researchers left behind the third anniversary of the event, Veli Encu invited everyone in Roboski to stand in solidarity with them. Members of opposition parties and IHD delegation visited the village. Protests were made around Turkey, mostly in big cities and in the southeast region. The villagers continue to resist the government’s efforts to bury the case. However, as Emma Sinclair-Web of Human Rights Watch says, “Roboski is testimony to the persistent lack of state accountability in Turkey.”