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Turkey Begins Dig for Missing Kurds


State prosecutors in Turkey have ordered the excavation of several sites around Turkey that they say may hold Kurdish victims of state death squads from the 1980s and 1990s, a step ahead in efforts to force the country's security establishment to come clean about past abuses. Local human rights groups accuse the security forces of being responsible for more than 1,500 disappearances. There is growing hope that the missing will be found.

A search is taking place on land owned by a state oil company for the remains of people believed to be victims of a war waged by the Turkish state against the Kurdistan Workers party, the PKK.

For people living in the region they are simply known as the missing.

The region's main city of Diyarbakir is where many families of those who disappeared live.

Muhlise Adiguzel and her three children moved here from their village after her husband Vehdettin, an activist in Kurdish politics, disappeared one wintry night 15 years ago.

"Late one late night we were sitting with relatives then there was banging on the door, and shooting," she said. "Soldiers came in, blindfolded and tied my husband's hands and took him to another room. They then burned plastic on him. Then they took him away. My family petitioned the courts, but they said they have not seen him."

Muhlise says a man once did approach her from the state, offering her financial support for her family, if she agreed to be an informer. His advice was chilling: Your husband chose the wrong way, don't make the same mistake. She refused.

Instead she, like so many others looking for their loved ones, ended up at the Diyarbakir Human Rights Association.

When I visit, another family is waiting to hear if there is any news of their missing husband and father. Despite the office being bombed and numerous police raids and court cases against its members, the association has been at the forefront of searching for the missing for the last 15 years. At present it has 275 open cases. But as its head Mumharem Erbey explains, their search continues to grow.

"As far as we know there are 1,500 people missing, but there can be far more. Many people were too frightened to report missing people, and just left the area. But now we are hearing from them because for all these people it is so important to find their loved ones," he said. "In our culture it is so important to have a ceremony to bury your dead. Without it, these people can't mourn. They live in a limbo, unable to move on."

The conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists reached its peak in the 1990s, claiming thousands of lives.

Retired brigadier general Haldun Solmazturk served for much of the 1990s fighting the PKK.

"You have to understand the situation. The very existence of the Turkish state was challenged. You know in the military you are either aggressive or you are losing. So under such circumstances such things - missing persons - could of happened, I can imagine," he said. "If such things happened in the region not only as a former member of the Turkish army but as a Turkish citizen, I would like the Turkish government to use every measure to make sure these cases are fully solved and understood and the perpetrators found. Who ever committed to these crimes, this was not part of a military conflict it cannot not be, as a former professional soldier I cannot never accept that."

Solmazturk's hopes could one day be realized.

Human rights groups have long claimed that many of the excesses committed in the conflict were carried out by Jitem, an arm of Turkey's military police that human rights groups and local residents in southeastern Turkey blame for many of the killings of Kurds. The Turkish military denies the existence of Jitem, or any role related to the disappearance and extrajudicial murder of Kurds.

Now its activities have to come to light as part of a court case. Several of the leading suspects in the case are believed to be former members of Jitem. The 68 suspects are on trial in Istanbul on charges of participating in an ultranationalist network known as Ergenekon that attempted to overthrow the West-leaning government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The ultranationalists oppose efforts by Mr. Erdogan and his government to pursue membership in the European Union. To join the bloc, Turkey is expected to revamp its legal system and make its once-untouchable security forces more accountable, lending impetus to government efforts to resolve claims relating to Kurdish disappearances.

Abdurmann Kurt represents the region in the Turkish parliament, and is a member of the ruling AK party. He says the investigation is key to bringing peace to the region.

"For giving this feeling that the state is trying to create a justice in society, we need to find things that happened in the past times to find the responsible people of these kind of actions, who behaved not according to the laws and they had done lots of crimes against the society," he said. "If we find the responsible people of these kind of actions, I think this will really give a deep justice feeling to the Kurdish society especially and this will help to solve the Kurdish question, too, I think."

The search for the victims has been aided by information in a book published in 2004, by a former member of Jitem, Abdulkadir Aygan, that gave details of 28 murders and the locations of remains. Families of the missing also contributed information to aid the excavations.

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