Do Kurdish lives matter?

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of incidents in which civilian Kurds are killed by armored vehicles operating in Kurdish cities. The colonial-military mentality of security personnel operating under conditions of emergency rule leads to a devaluation of Kurdish lives.

There were only three days to the New Year when Cihan Can, a 33-year-old civil engineer from my hometown, Diyarbakır, lost his life in an unusual but increasingly common type of accident. He was crossing the street when he suddenly found himself under the tires of an armored police bus carrying a SWAT team. The driver of the vehicle later explained that it was raining at the time and the victim was right in the blind spot of the armored vehicle, which he noted is almost a meter long. He also said that he thought he was simply driving over a pile of wood left in the street. The officer was released without charge.

Last month, in the Bağlar district of Diyarbakır, 5-year-old Efe Tektekin was on his way to the neighborhood bakery to buy bread around noon when he was suddenly hit by an armored vehicle. Run over twice, Efe was rushed to Dicle University Hospital but died due to cerebral hemorrhage. What is truly remarkable is that Efe’s 65-year-old grandfather, Mehmet Tektekin, was struck and killed in a similar armored vehicle accident on June 6, 2018. Efe’s father, Ahmet Tektekin, who lost both his father and his son in less than a year, said that the policeman who caused the death of his father received a minor sentence and was soon freed.

In a similar recent incident, 7-year-old Hamza Ögdem was seriously injured after a hit and run by an armored police vehicle. The perpetrator was not identified. In another case in Dargeçit, Mardin, the driver of the armored vehicle that hit a woman, Suphiye Yakut, 51, could not be prosecuted because somehow neither the vehicle’s own camera nor the street surveillance cameras (or even the nearby bank cameras) were functioning at the time and therefore there was no video record of the accident.

It was long after bedtime and the brothers Muhammet and Furkan Yildirim were sleeping in their beds in their home in Silopi when an armored police vehicle smashed into their room and brought down the whole house. Both brothers, 6 and 7 years old, were killed instantly. News outlets reported that according to the locals, the governor, in his condolences to the father of the children, said it was “fate.”

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of incidents in which civilian Kurds are killed by armored vehicles operating in Kurdish cities. These casualties due to reckless driving through congested urban neighborhoods by the armored police and military vehicles that prowl Kurdish towns reveal another face of the “low-intensity conflict” itself: civilian deaths by accident constitute a steady backdrop to the conflict and find official normalization through it.   

Civilian fatalities resulting directly from the securitization of Kurdish lives by the Turkish state– which should be understood to fall outside the confines of the conflict between the PKK and the state– make up a significant share of Kurdish victimization in Turkey. 

Dec. 28 marked the eighth anniversary of the infamous Roboski massacre, where Turkish military jets, acting on faulty intelligence, obliterated thirty-four young villagers and their mules who were engaged in routine, subsistence-level smuggling near the Iraqi border. Incidents like this, where Turkish military officers engage in the dehumanization and/or utter slaughter of Kurdish villagers on suspicion of support for the PKK, are common. The securitized climate has become so toxic that ordinary military personnel can at times abuse human rights and kill civilians with impunity. They typically receive little to no punishment for their acts. Police and courts protect the perpetrators while the victims remain helpless. The courts first stall and later drop cases due to the statute of limitations.

The Diyarbakir office of Turkey’s Human Rights Association released a report in July 2019 on violations of the right to life of people in the Kurdish region by armored vehicles. The report reveals the extent of the threat to the public posed by combat vehicles operating in civilian zones.

The colonial-military mentality of security personnel operating under conditions of emergency rule leads to a devaluation of Kurdish lives. People who see Kurdish civilians as less than equal citizens of Turkey, indeed as potential enemies or terrorist sympathizers, are the kind of people who end up driving recklessly through narrow streets in those armored police vehicles.

The ease with which people get run over by such vehicles in Kurdish towns in Turkey is comparable to the ease with which African-Americans are shot by the police in the United States. While in each individual case, one might come up with some excuse or explanation, the overall picture indicates a structural problem.

One might ask: do Kurdish lives matter? Armored police vehicles killing Kurds by accident is only one chapter in the book of Kurdish Lives Don’t Matter. Another chapter is the escalation of incidents in which Kurdish individuals speaking their native language in public spaces are set upon by Turkish mobs. Kurds have been badly beaten and even killed in such attacks in several places in Western Turkey, and the perpetrators remain absolutely immune from police intervention.

Oftentimes these incidents, which—borrowing somewhat awkwardly from the American lexicon— are called “lynchings” in Turkish, are carried out in the name of the homeland and readily justified by both participants and observers. They are seen as unfortunate bursts of patriotic fervor; the victims are labeled terrorists. 

Securitization interrupts civic life in many ways. From the incompatibility of armored combat vehicles with the logic of city traffic to the lack of legal accountability for obvious bias crimes to overall degradation of the rule of law– even in a political climate where Turkish lives don't seem to matter much, Kurdish lives always matter less.

November 09, 2019 Mountains and politics