As Turkey gears up for a general election in June, the government has pledged to investigate the fates of the thousands of citizens who vanished during the government’s decades-long crackdown on individuals suspected of aiding Kurdish rebels. But questions persist about how thorough that investigation will be.
The urge to clarify the past appears to be the strongest among relatives of the vanished. "Late one night, we were sitting with relatives; then, there was banging on the door and shooting. Soldiers came in, blindfolded and tied my husband and took him to another room,” recalls Muhlise Adiguzel, the wife of one of the disappeared. “They then burned plastic on him. My children and I heard him screaming. Then they took him away"
That was 17 years ago, and Adiguzel, a mother of three, has not seen her husband, Vahdettin, since.
Vahdettin Adiguzel was an activist for a Kurdish political party, and is believed to be one of the thousands who vanished during the Turkish state's "dirty war" against the Kurdish rebel group, the PKK or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The PKK has been fighting for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey since 1984.
For years, relatives searching for information about what happened to their loved ones have encountered a wall of silence. But the discovery last January of two mass graves near the town of Bitlis in predominantly Kurdish southeast Turkey has cast a spotlight on this dark chapter of Turkish history.
The two sites, which were also used as garbage dumps by a local armed police station, have so far yielded 20 bodies. Efforts are now underway to identify them. Some are believed to be members of the PKK, but others are suspected to belong to individuals known in the region as "the disappeared.”
The disappearances of such individuals were part of a state policy of intimidation of the local Kurdish population in the early 1990s, said Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at the New York City-based Human Rights Watch. "[T]here was a policy of rounding [up] hundreds and thousands of civilians, and giving [them] no proper trial or judicial process, but, rather, taking them in, threatening them, torturing them,” Sinclair-Webb said.
Many others simply vanished; at the time, no attempt was made to identify bodies found in the area, she continued. “[T]here is a massive legacy and impunity for the past abuses, for the disappearances and killings."
This February, thousands of Kurds demanding justice marched to the two mass-grave sites. For years, Kurdish parties and human rights groups have called for an investigation into the disappearances. The government earlier dismissed this demand as terrorist propaganda.
But, in a heavily publicized move that month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met some mothers of "the disappeared." Each week for over a decade, these women have staged a protest in downtown Istanbul.
Turkey’s general election in June is widely seen as one of the reasons for the ruling Justice and Development Party’s tactical shift.
Until recently, all Turkey’s mainstream political parties have also steered clear of addressing the issue of “the disappeared.” Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, has now called for setting up a parliamentary "Truth Commission" to investigate the disappearances.
The push for Turkey to face up to its past has even extended to some former senior members of the country's armed forces. Haldun Solmazturk, a retired brigadier general who fought against the PKK during much of the 1990s, believes that the government should “use every measure to make sure these cases are fully solved and understood, and the perpetrators found.”
“Whoever committed these crimes, this was not part of a military conflict. It cannot be, “ Solmazturk said.
But human rights groups point out that the cases Erdogan chose to highlight were mainly non-political. A subsequent plan by parliament’s Human Rights Commission to set up a sub-committee to investigate the disappearances also has provoked disappointment. Both Turkey’s main Kurdish party, the BDP, and members of the opposition, assert that the committee has few powers and is largely cosmetic.
Frustration over the Kurdish rights issue in Turkey is also growing in the European Union. "There is still amongst the ruling class a heavy defensiveness against Kurdish rights,” said Richard Howitt, a British Labor Party deputy in the European Parliament, and member of the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee.
With Prime Minister Erdogan courting the Turkish nationalist vote, that defensiveness is likely to continue at least until after this June's general election. But political scientist Cengiz Aktar at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University believes that a more fundamental problem stands behind the government's reluctance to delve into Turkey’s past.
"The lack of memory is a national feature of this country,” Aktar said. “You know, if you don't have a memory of the Armenian genocide, you won't have a memory of the killings of Kurds and others. So, I think the insistence for truth and reconciliation is extremely important to make sure the Turkish society will one day become a normal one, by being capable of facing its history."
That day cannot come soon enough for Muhlise Adiguzel and her family.
“The only thing we want is to have his bones back,” Adiguzel said in reference to her husband. “It is a double sorrow. He has been killed, but we can’t bury him and mourn him."
Dorian Jones is a freelance journalist living in Turkey.