7 years later, Roboski families cling to fading hope

Veli Encü remembers clearly what he vowed to himself, what all the devastated villagers vowed to themselves on that tragic night seven years ago: they would fight for truth and justice for as long as it took, and never give up.

Encü maintains that vow today, after a year that has been especially difficult for the families who lost their sons and husbands to Turkish army bombs on Dec. 28, 2011.

After years of failed court cases in Turkey, they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) – and were rejected. “Still, we will not give up until those responsible for the massacre are punished,” says Encü, the spokesperson for the families seeking justice for their lost loved ones since that tragic night.

A group of almost forty boys and men had set out from the Kurdish village of Roboski (“Ortasu” in Turkish) in the Uludere district of southeast Turkey’s Şırnak province, walking toward the Iraqi border with a few dozen mules. Once in Iraq, they loaded the mules with oil, tea and cigarettes and prepared to return.

Uludere villagers had regularly made such journeys ever since the borders of the region were drawn up by international powers a century ago. The new borders split the Kurdish areas into four countries – Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey – but failed to break familial and communal bonds. Especially since the start of the war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army, in 1984, smuggling, or cross-border trade as locals prefer to call it, has been one of the few ways to make a living.

As they approached the border from the Iraqi side, the group heard Turkish fighter jets whiz overhead. Then the jets dropped bombs on them -- a total shock, as the soldiers manning nearby Turkish army posts, one of them very close to the smugglers’ route, were well aware of the border trade and had always tolerated it. Of the 34 killed, 19 were underaged.

Villagers rushed to the scene after the blasts. An image of locals loading the victims, wrapped in blankets with their feet sticking out, into cars and onto carts, made international news.

Turkish authorities never properly investigated the massacre. A parliamentary investigation concluded, somewhat cynically, that the villagers had been killed in a bombing accident. This reduced the lost civilians’ lives to collateral damage in the war against terrorism.

None of those responsible, neither local commanders nor politicians in Ankara, have been brought to justice -- despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal promise to the victims’ families.

Veli Encü lost many members of his extended family in the massacre. Initially, his older brother Ferhat Encü served as the Roboski spokesperson. But he eventually became a lawmaker for the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), hoping to help launch a legitimate official inquiry into the massacre.

In late 2016, however, Ferhat was among the many HDP members of parliament who were arrested. He remains incarcerated, convicted of the standard “making propaganda for a terrorist organisation,” which also caused him to lose his seat in parliament.

“Instead of those responsible, the victims of this massacre are being prosecuted,” said his brother Veli, who was also detained years ago, like most locals fighting for justice.

Earlier this year, after years of failure in Turkey, they took their plea to the ECHR. But something went wrong: in May, the ECHR declared the case inadmissible on grounds that domestic remedies had not been exhausted (the full decision is here, in Turkish).

The ECHR decision was based on the 2016 decision of Turkey’s Constitutional Court, which rejected the case on a technicality: all the relevant paperwork had not been submitted on time.

As the ECHR decision became public, the families were outraged. Critics of the Kurdish movement reasoned that of course procedure must be followed before the court could address the merits of a case. Still, many responded, the court could have decided differently, as the Roboski massacre may be the grossest violation of human rights in Turkey’s recent history.

The lawyer for the Roboski families, Kerem Altıparmak, agrees. Yes, some important files were delivered late to the Constitutional Court, he admits. But the families’ lawyer at the time, Nuşirevan Elçi, filed a doctor’s note to the court saying he had to take a medical leave of five days, explaining the delay. The Constitutional Court allows for this, though its regulations fail to specify what qualifies as a valid excuse in terms of severe illness.

In an unpublished article, Altıparmak explains that Turkey’s Constitutional Court rejected the case based on procedural mistakes by lawyer Elçi, months after it had already started the procedures to judge the case on its merits. Because the procedures on merits had already begun, the rejection of the case was taken by the wrong body of the Constitutional Court: it should have been taken earlier by a body deciding on procedures. In other words, Altıparmak argues, in its rejection of the case the Constitutional Court failed to properly follow its own procedures.

What Altıparmak’s article fails to mention, however, is that Elçi did not just fail to submit key documents by the deadline, he also failed to submit his doctor’s note until more than a month later. Altıparmak acknowledges that his colleague, who did not comment for the piece despite repeated requests, “could have been more careful and diligent.”

In the wake of the ECHR decision, the families feel forgotten.

“After we learned about the European Court’s decision, we didn’t immediately react to the many media requests,” Veli Encü said. “We wanted to give Mr. Elçi the opportunity to contact us, to apologize or explain himself. But he never contacted us again. I think that shows the psychology of a guilty mind.”

Last month, the families felt doubly betrayed when Elçi was re-elected as chair of the Şırnak Bar Association. Encü says they have filed a formal complaint to the Şırnak Bar, yet adds that the families have not lost hope.

For one thing, the legal battle isn’t over. “To revive the investigation, new evidence is needed,” Altıparmak told Ahval. “Speeches by (ruling Justice and Development Party) members in parliament or in the press, or the investigations conducted against military personnel who took part in the Roboski attack, could be used to initiate a new investigation. We are working on this with the Diyarbakır Bar.”

Altıparmak added that in exceptional circumstances, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee can accept a case even after the ECHR finds it inadmissible. “Neither of the two options are promising,” he admits, “but we will try.”

Meanwhile, the village of Roboski is preparing for the 7th commemoration, again taking place at the graveyard where the victims are buried. The families have gathered there every Thursday since the massacre to mourn and call attention to their plight.

“The last month we couldn’t go every week because there was too much rain or snow,” says Esra Kaplan, who lost her father Osman in the massacre when she was just 11 years old.

Esra’s mother Pakize is now raising five children alone. She does not speak much Turkish and is often unable to follow the latest news about the case.

Asked whether she has hope that the truth about the massacre will one day come out, and justice will be served, the 18-year-old expresses her doubts. Years ago, however, her mother told the author of this piece that she trusts in God to deliver justice, and that this gives her strength and hope.

Dutch journalist Fréderike Geerdink investigated the Roboski massacre and wrote a book about it, available in English here and in Turkish here.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.