'Unprecedented Destruction' of Kurdish City of Cizre
May 20, 2016
Tom Stevenson and Murat Bayram / Deutsche Welle
A Turkish human rights group reveals that Turkey's army turned the Kurdish city of Cizre into a 'war zone' where more than 200 civilians were killed and more than 10,000 homes were destroyed. Cizre, once a thriving, populated and prosperous city, now lies in ruins. Residents of Cizre, in Turkey's volatile southeast, have slowly been returning to the city which has been laid waste by a protracted military campaign targeting Kurdish militants.
'Unprecedented Destruction' of Kurdish City of Cizre
Tom Stevenson / Deutsche Welle
ISTANBUL (May 18, 2016) -- An extensive independent report from the Turkish human rights NGO Mazlumder concludes that Turkish army campaigns in the predominantly Kurdish city of Cizre in the country's far southeast turned the city into a "war zone" where over 200 people were killed during the curfew. More than 10,000 homes were destroyed.
In interviews with dozens of local residents, local officials, as well as the local government and opposition party representatives, along with field research in Cizre, the NGO gathered evidence of multiple human rights violations after the city was subjected to a round-the-clock military lockdown from December to March.
"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.
A family tries to recover the belongings from their destroyed house in Cizre.
The military operations in Cizre were part of the Turkish army's campaign against militants linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) who have been locked in an armed struggle with state forces in Turkey's southeast for almost a year.
On May 10, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein criticized 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.
Mazlumder's report concludes that between 203 and 266 people were killed during the military curfew and the fighting between state forces and militants in Cizre, the majority of whom were killed when Turkish security forces stormed three residential basements in which hundreds were sheltering from the fighting.
"A total of 85 people lost their lives before the basement incidents. All those 85 people were locals of Cizre and their official place of residence was Cizre. We knew who they were and where they were living," Kadir Kunur, co-mayor of Cizre, told the NGO. "A total of 176 people were massacred altogether in three basements."
The storming of the basements, which is referred to by Cizre residents as the "basement massacre" is the focus of many of the worst suspected rights abuses.
Osman Duymak, the uncle of Mahmuttin Duymak who was killed in one of the basements, recounted collecting his nephew's body.
"We were made to wait there from morning to evening and treated in a humiliating way before we were able to get the body of my nephew. We saw eight bodies there. We brought my nephew's body to a mosque for funeral services," Osman said. "There was an imam there. He was going to make the ritual body washing, but the body was not in a state to be washed," he added.
"There was a pile of bones, weighing two to three kilograms, nothing else."
Was the Curfew Extented to Cover Up Abuses?
Residents describe how the neighborhoods surrounding the basements were attacked by state forces using tanks and artillery. According to co-mayor Kunur, following the worst of the fighting the security forces extended the military curfew for a further 19 days to cover up the evidence of abuses.
"The buildings which were not demolished during the clashes were destroyed. Debris mixed with human remains were dumped on the banks of the Tigris River," Kunur said.
After studying the claims, Mazlumder concludes that the fact that "no investigations were carried out over the 19-day period into the killings leads to allegations that the security forces may have destroyed evidence during that period."
The report also gathered evidence that the Turkish army used snipers in Cizre, resulting in civilian casualties. Abdurrahman Ince, 60, recounts how his father and his nephew's three-month-old daughter were killed by a sniper.
"Miray was my nephew's daughter. Her aunt was taking her downstairs in her arms. Miray was hit by a cartridge in the face. While Miray was being taken to hospital, the same sniper shot my father Ramazan," Ince told Mazlumder.
More than 10,000 houses were destroyed, the NGO's research found.
"It seems that snipers and heavy shelling are also responsible for the civilian deaths," the NGO wrote in the report. "According to claims, security forces did not show any sensitivity when it came to putting the lives and properties of civilians at risk during the operations."
Mazlumder's investigation also documented the destruction of the houses of "more than 10,000 families" as well as serious damages to the town's water and sewage system. The organization fears this will lead to serious and widespread health problems.
"The revelation of these acts -- the state crimes in Cizre -- is very significant," said Nurcan Baysal, a founder of the Diyarbakir Institute for Political and Social Research, another independent rights organization working in Turkey's southeast.
Baysal is skeptical, however, that legal action or other judicial accountability will result from the documentation of abuses in Cizre.
'Little Point in Expecting Justice'
"There is little point in expecting justice from the Turkish courts, in fact the government is now working on a law that will protect state forces from prosecution in the future because of this conflict," she told DW.
"However if the EU or UN would have sent missions to Cizre during the curfews it might have been different -- perhaps some of the dead would still be alive today."
Though the conflict in Cizre has now all but ended, similar Turkish military campaigns are currently underway in the southeastern cities of Nusaybin, Sirnak, and Yuksekova.
"We couldn't do anything in Cizre, but in Nusaybin, Gever [Kurdish name for Yuksekova] and Sirnak, it isn't yet too late," Baysal said.
Kurds Make Ends Meet in the Ruins of Cizre
Tom Stevenson and Murat Bayram / Deutsche Welle
The smell of burned flesh permeated the basement, but inside there was little that could be identified as human at all. The walls were blackened by flames and only some small bone fragments remained; the smell was still thick, clinging to clothes and body alike.
This was one of three of the basements in Cizre's Cudi neighborhood where Turkish security forces had stormed residential buildings in which it claimed militants were hiding, resulting in more than 100 deaths. The local Kurdish political party, DBP, released a statement on Tuesday saying that 300 people had been killed during the curfew.
A full body count has yet to be performed, and exactly what happened is still disputed by the state and local officials, but the seriousness of the assault was written on the building's walls.
Cizre was subjected to a round-the-clock lock-down for 79 straight days until the curfews were relaxed on March 1, a measure the government claimed was intended to "ensure the safety and security of civilians."
Now, the curfews have been partially lifted and residents may leave their homes during the daylight hours. DW was able to enter the city twice during this time, alongside residents in search of their belongings who had fled before the lock-down was declared.
The Turkish government has been locked in a brutal campaign against militants linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces of the country for more than seven months, imposing round the clock military lockdowns in several cities including central Diyarbakir, Cizre, Sirnak, Nusaybin, and Yuksekova.
The open fighting in the streets of predominantly Kurdish cities is almost reminiscent of the Turkish state's 1980s and 90s military campaign in the southeast that claimed as many as 44,000 lives.
Abdullah Akan was one of the few who had been hiding in Cizre's basements who survived. In all there were 20 people hiding in his home, which was fortunate not to have been one of those stormed by security forces. "Down there, all we could hear was the sound of bombs," he told DW.
"At one point our son went out into the courtyard and snipers shot him dead. His name was Ibrahim Akan and he was 16-years old - it was 26 days before we were allowed to collect his body," Akan said. "We lost our boy and our home, we have nothing here now."
The city has experienced a kind of destruction without parallel in Western Europe since World War II: street after street has been reduced to rubble, houses with holes in their sides the size of articulated lorries, multi-story apartment buildings burned out leaving only hollow shells, the rooms within them now a trichrome scheme of black, grey, and white ash.
The fighting itself was mainly concentrated in four neighborhoods, Sur, Cudi, Nur, and Yafes where the streets are narrow, making it difficult for the army to use its heavy armour, and where the PKK-linked Civil Protection Units (YPS) fighters were able to better evade security forces.
From the mountains that surround the city, the army used its heavy armour and artillery to pummel buildings in these neighborhoods, inflicting great damage.
'Like World War III'
"For the last three months we haven't been able to work, but we've still had to pay taxes," Selim Usta, a local shop-owner, told DW. "I cannot understand how a state can attack shops and citizens like this, or how they can allow others to do the same... our doors were broken, and thieves took whatever they wanted."
"It felt like World War III," Usta said.
In the city's hospitals, medical staff have been working constantly and during the 79 days of military lockdown were often forced to sleep inside the hospitals as they were unable to reach their homes.
"Security forces were everywhere in the hospital," said one nurse who wished to remain anonymous for her own safety. "They were keeping watch in all our rooms, including the operating room."
According to the nurse, when someone that security forces believed to be a militant was brought to the hospital the staff would be prohibited from looking after them.
"And when a member of the security forces was wounded they wouldn't let the doctors tend to any of the wounded civilians until they were treated first," she told DW.
Looking for Safety and Security
For ordinary residents of Cizre the fighting has produced little but pain and most families have a story of grief to tell.
"My husband is physically disabled and we couldn't get anything out of our house - we had to carry him," said Hanım Solmaz, 56, who fled the city. "The bullets were shooting past us. I didn't have time to get my shoes so I went barefoot with my seven children," she told DW.
Like so many others, Solmaz has lost almost everything and there's little sign of the safety and security the government promised.
"When we reached the checkpoint we were picked up by an ambulance which took us to a nearby village and we've been staying with a family there," she said. "Our house was destroyed, our animals were killed. We are very afraid."
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