Jan 06 2019

“Two Faces of Sorrow”, author Erkaçmaz talks to those bereaved by Turkey’s Kurdish conflict

Photographer and writer Kamran Erkaçmaz travelled across Turkey interviewing the parents of some of the many thousands killed in three decades of fighting between security forces and Kurdish militants. The result was his exhibition and book "Two Faces of Sorrow", a moving account of mourning and grief, and calls for peace and revenge.

At least 40,000 people – soldiers, militants and civilians – have been killed since the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) took up arms in 1984, originally for independence, but later for Kurdish rights and autonomy.

Erkaçmaz met 328 families across Turkey, parents of both Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants who had died in the conflict.

"All of these parents say other people should not feel this pain, but they say it quietly, inside their houses. They are afraid of society. These people want to see an atmosphere of peace again," said Erkaçmaz.

The book 'Two Faces of Sorrow' by Kamran Erkaçmaz

Erkaçmaz began the project in 2012 when secret peace talks between the state and the PKK were heading towards a ceasefire declared the next year. But fighting flared up again two-and-a-half years later after the main pro-Kurdish party made a strong showing in July 2015 elections preventing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party gaining a majority in parliament. The renewed conflict allowed the president to appeal to voter concerns over security and score an outright win in repeat polls in November the same year.

"When I was talking to people in 2013, they were discussing peace with hope. I talked to the same people in 2016, and I realised that their opinion about peace had completely changed. The media shapes their ideas,” Erkaçmaz said.

Television channels, even state broadcaster TRT, aired programmes about peace during the talks, and newspapers were full of news about the peace talks.

“The language of the media and the government should serve peace … But now, there is no one talking about peace,” said Erkaçmaz. "When the talks began, there was significant media interest in my work. Now no one is calling me."

Kamran Erkaçmaz, interviewing with a Kurdish fighter's mother

The victims of the conflict, he said, were overwhelmingly poor, since on the government side at least, families could pay to have their sons’ compulsory military service reduced to a bare minimum.

In one district in the central Anatolia popular with tourists, Erkaçmaz said he was told he would have to go to the villages to find families who had lost relatives in the fighting, as those in the towns were too well off to have allowed their sons to join the military.

In the villages, Erkaçmaz said, “that was exactly what I saw. The families were all poor. Actually, that explains everything.”

A Kurdish woman in southeastern province of Şırnak.

During the ceasefire between the state and the PKK, the government said Kurdish militants could come down from the mountains, serve time in jail and return to their families. The families of some militants celebrated, but that angered the parents of fallen soldiers.

"Of course we want those in the mountains to rejoin society after being punished,” Erkaçmaz quoted the father of a killed soldier as saying. “But it should not be like a celebration. Maybe the killer of my son is among those coming back."

With the renewal of fighting and the security crackdown, Erkaçmaz said Turkey was now further from peace than before.

But the determination of people campaigning for peace, despite the odds, gave hope, Erkaçmaz said. “There will be an opportunity for peace as long as people like them exist."