Have we given up on the Turkish soldiers held captive by the PKK?

Years after more than a dozen Turkish soldiers were taken captive by Kurdish militant groups, the soldiers have still not come home and there has been near-total silence about the case from the government and media.

The summer of 2015 saw peace talks between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalist leaders break down, triggering a period of violence in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Between 24 July 2015 and 21 September 2016, a total of 13 soldiers and police were taken captive by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led the armed insurgency against the Turkish government since the 1980s. They were captured at roadside checkpoints across cities in the southeast of Turkey. Some had been non-commissioned officers for only three months, and others were on their way home.

Since then, their families have been visiting members of parliament, ministries, and political parties to ask for their help, but for the past four years their pleas have been met with silence. We know that the soldiers are in good health thanks to letters they have sent their families and photographs that have been published by ANF, a Kurdish news agency.

But aside from the work of Turkey’s Human Rights Association (İHD), particularly the concerted efforts of co-president Öztürk Türkdoğan and board member Raci Bilici, virtually no one is working to secure the release of these soldiers. The İHD has repeatedly reached out to various ministries, even to the office of the president, but has yet to see any results.

In the past year, I have had the opportunity to meet with some of the families of these soldiers. I am one of the people trying to maintain communication between these families and officials in Ankara. I hoped that we would be able to make progress quietly, to perhaps take a small step towards peace by reuniting these soldiers with their families, and therefore have avoided writing about this topic until now.

But it did not work. Our efforts in Ankara have not yielded any results, and the government has turned a blind eye to the families of these soldiers. I have finally decided to write on this topic, with apologies to the families for my delay.

Gürsel Özbey is the father of one of the kidnapped soldiers, and is the former president of the Commodity Exchange Market in the central Anatolian city of Malatya. His son, Semih Özbey, was serving in the city of Rize on the Black Sea coast, and was on his way home to Malatya to visit his mother, who was a cancer patient, when he was kidnapped by the PKK.

Since then, Gürsel has done everything in his power to rescue his son. He has visited all of the relevant authorities and politicians including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, but so far he has come no closer to bringing his son home. He neither has news of his son, nor any commitment from the authorities that they will begin the process to retrieve him.

Before writing this I spoke to Gürsel over the phone. “Since they were taken, we haven’t had any happy days,” he began.

“The PKK says, the İHD should set up a delegation, the government should ensure the protection of this delegation, and they should come get the prisoners. They say they cannot release these people into anyone else’s custody, for their safety,” Gürsel told me.

“The PKK is saying that they are ready to give up these prisoners, as long as someone comes to collect them. But the government is unwilling to listen. I spoke to President Erdoğan. He said to be patient. But we are out of patience. Think of how worried a mother gets when her child comes home at a late hour. We have been waiting for our son for four years. Our children are safe now, but who can guarantee that nothing will happen to them tomorrow?”

“These children are the soldiers and police of the Turkish Republic, and were taken while serving their government. Does the government not recognize this at all? Please write about this, start a conversation. Public awareness needs to increase. The government needs to take action. Find a solution and bring our children back. So many holidays have come and gone. Since our children were taken, we haven’t seen happy days.”

It seems that the government has given up on these imprisoned soldiers and police officers. Years have passed. As military operations continue these people’s lives are in increasing danger. Kidnappings like this occurred before in the 1990s and early 2000s, and the government would give the İHD authority to set up a delegation and retrieve these people from the PKK. The same could happen today.

I would like to repeat the İHD’s calls:

We need to talk to the government: These people are citizens of Turkey. You must listen to their families and take the necessary steps to ensure they are reunited with their families.

We need to talk to political parties: Make room for this issue in your agendas, hear their families, and pressure the government into taking necessary steps.

We need to talk to the PKK: Try to find other ways of ensuring that these people are reunited with their families. They are the ones that are suffering most.

And we need to talk to the public: As long as there is no strong public outcry, it seems unlikely that the government will take action. Amplify the voices of these families. The cost of silence is the loss of a loved one for a mother, a father, a child, a lover, a sibling…Turn to your loved ones and think of those whose loved ones have been held prisoner for years.

Plus, it is nice to consider the possibility that the reuniting of soldiers and police officers with their families could open a small window for the larger peace process!