A year on, Cizre basement deaths remain an open wound for Kurds

cizre curfew Kurdish Turkey
First enter to Cizre after curfew was partially lifted, March 2016 (Kom News/Duygu Yildiz)

Cizre, a district in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, is one of the areas where Turkey’s security forces, backed by tanks, conducted extensive operations against Kurdish militia linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015 and 2016. After the breakdown of ‘peace talks’ between the government and the PKK, the militants had raised barricades, dug trenches and planted explosives to defend areas where they had aspired for self-rule since July 2015.

The town of 132,000 near the banks of the Tigris river has been the worst hit in terms of the scale of the conflict. The last curfew in Cizre was partially lifted on 5 March 2016. Today, the curfew is still implemented partially, between 11 pm and 2.30 am by the governorship of Sirnak.

An extensive independent report from the Turkish human rights NGO Mazlumder concludes that Turkish army operations turned Cizre into a “war zone” where over 200 people were killed during the curfew and more than 10,000 homes were destroyed. During the months-long curfew, some people stayed put in the worst-hit neighbourhoods like Sur, Cudi and Nur, while others fled.

“Cizre has witnessed unprecedented destruction following clashes which took place during a curfew lasting over 78 days, and unlike in curfews before, the curfew in Cizre saw mass killings,” Mazlumder said.

The accusations refer to an operation carried out on 7 February 2016, when security forces raided a building in the Cudi neighboyrhood of Cizre where dozens of wounded people were sheltering in the basement. Initial news reports from the state television broadcaster suggested that 60 people had been killed in the operation. The precise number of casualties is still unclear, with initial reports ranging from 10 to 30 to more than 60 killed.

The report also stated that the Turkish army used snipers, resulting in civilian casualties.

Switzerland’s Institute of Forensic Medicine (UZH) also published the results of its research on the remains of a woman’s body who was trapped in a basement and later died in Cizre last year. Berjin Demirkaya was sheltered with a group of people in the a basement of a house. After the curfew was lifted, some burned body parts were found at the scene. It was stated that some civilians were killed by military forces and burned to destroy the evidence. The UZH report proves she was killed before being burned.

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Burned human remains in a basement, Cizre, Turkey, March 2016 (Kom News/Duygu Yildiz)

Meanwhile, according to the Turkish Armed Forces more than 600 Kurdish militants were killed in Cizre. Human rights groups say 92 civilians were killed in the town during the military operation and another 171 bodies have been found in the basements of houses.

Mazlumder’s report concludes that between 203 and 266 people were killed during the military curfew and the fighting between state forces and militants; the majority were killed when Turkish security forces stormed three residential basements in which hundreds were sheltering from the fighting.

“We believe that they have carried out a mass murder in Cizre and to cover it up they disclose it gradually everyday,” said recently imprisoned deputy Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Speaking to German daily Deutche Welle, Faysal Sarıyıldız, a HDP deputy who was in Cizre at the time said, “We knew there were more than 30 trapped in the first basement, and that seven had already died.”

“Then there were another 110 in two other buildings. Since the army attacked these buildings we have seen 70 bodies, 39 from one of the basements and 31 from the two others, but frankly we believe that even more may have been killed,” he said, adding that based on the evidence some sort of incendiary device may have been used “because many of the bodies were burned – they were totally unrecognisable they had been burned so badly.”

Sariyildiz said that he had personally seen nine of the burned bodies, and tried to conduct a more comprehensive investigation but that he wasdenied access to the state hospital by the Turkish army.

At least 338 civilians were killed and more than 355,000 displaced during the curfews according to HRW researchers. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), an international body producing information on internally displaced people around the world, believes the number of displaced in the renewed conflict is actually much higher – 945,000.

cizre curfew Kurdish Turkey
Cudi Neighbourhood, Cizre, Turkey, March 2016 (Kom News/Duygu Yildiz)

HRW attempted to document abuses in the city of Cizre after the curfew was lifted. In April 2016, Turkish police put a stop to HRW’s investigation, blocking the group’s researchers from interviewing family members and witnesses.

HRW expressed concern that, not only was Turkey barring international investigations, but it was not conducting any investigations of its own into the reports of abuse.

On 10 May 2016 , UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein criticised the Turkish military campaign in the southeast in general, and the killings in Cizre in particular. He demanded a full investigation into reported killings of civilians.

It has a year since more than 200 civilians lost their lives and Turkey has been accused of mass murder, yet, no official investigation has been launched by Turkish authorities.

A year on, the identities of many of the victims are still unclear, but claims of a massacre are strengthening.