As the historic trial and investigation of an alleged coup plot – known as “Ergenekon” – continues to grow in Turkey, the whole process is also have some very interesting side effects in the country. (For some background on the Ergenekon case, take a look at this article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor.)
The case itself has been, at times, too complicated – and occasionally downright bizarre – to easily explain to audiences outside Turkey. But what I’ve found particularly interesting about the case is how the investigation of the alleged coup plotters – some of them current and former military officials – is helping shed light on some other dark chapters in Turkey’s recent past. This is particularly true in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast, where the Ergenekon case has given new life to the issue of the people who went missing during the 1980’s and 90’s, when Turkish security forces were locked in a bloody battle with the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Human rights groups estimate that some 5,000 extrajudicial killings were committed during this period and that some 1,500 went missing, mostly at the hands of state elements.
“The Ergenekon investigation has allowed people to talk about their feelings and ask for their rights, especially if they have missing relatives. It has encouraged people to talk about the past. People feel safer to talk about what happened,” Tahir Elci, a lawyer in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, which was also the scene of extreme violence during the 1980’s and 90’s, told me during a recent visit there. “Kurdish society knows very well the people who are now in jail. We know what they did. Now the rest of Turkish society is going to learn.”
In recent months, excavations of suspected mass graves and at cemeteries holding what had initially been ruled unidentified bodies have been conducted in several locations in the southeast, with the digs yielding bones that are now undergoing DNA testing. At the same time, numerous families have asked Turkish prosecutors to reopen their relatives’ dormant cases in the hope of finally resolving the question of what happened to them.
Outside the town of Cizre, near Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq, I met Ata Ergul. His brother Hasan went missing on April 23, 1995, when plainclothes policemen picked him up while he was riding his tractor home. This past April, following information given in testimony by a former member of JITEM, a police unit believed to be behind many of the disappearances and unexplained killings in the southeast, the Ergul family started looking at old files of unclaimed bodies found in the region. In one of the files, they found pictures of a body that resembled the missing Hasan. Since then, they were able to convince a local court to have the body, buried in a potter’s field, exhumed and sent for DNA testing, which proved positive. This past June, Ergul’s family was finally able to give their relative a proper burial.
“Before, we were scared to say anything, but because of [the Ergenekon] investigation we saw other people asking about their missing relatives. We realized we were not alone,” the 41-year-old Ata told me, sitting in the courtyard of his missing brother’s house, shaded by a massive grapevine.
“It’s unbelievable that these people are in jail,” Mr. Ergul continued, talking about some of the military and police figures now in jail as pat of the Ergenekon case. “These people were the gods of this region. We’re not surprised by the names of those arrested, but that they’re in jail is unbelievable. It’s like a dream.”
“We hope that all those who are responsible for the killings stand before a judge,” he added. “Our pain and sadness are very deep.”
Back in Cizre, I met with Nusirevan Elci, director of the local bar association in, who these days finds himself more and more dealing with families now ready to look for their missing. Last December, sensing a change, Elci’s office decided to start writing petitions to local prosecutors to reopen the files of the missing. Since then, some 120 families have come asking for help. The bar association has also pushed investigators to start excavations at several suspected mass graves, with more to come.
“We tried to do these investigations before, but the empire of fear was still very strong here. We had to force families to talk about who they lost. They were not only afraid, but they were also hopeless about getting any results,” Elci said.
“Ergenekon is a big opportunity for Turkey. The state needs to look at its past and come to terms with it,” he added.
If the Ergenekon trial allows Turkey to actually do that is questionable. But as the new search for the missing in the southeast shows, the case is already unraveling much more than just the coup plot that it initially set out to investigate.