In 1990, a lawyer in Siirt bought a fax machine and began to send scores of petitions from communities who had been burned out of their homes to Turkish prosecutors, government authorities, and the outside world, including Helsinki Watch (now Human Rights Watch). The petitions touched on many details that are still distinctive elements of the displacement picture: the villagers' economic difficulties in the cities, the authorities' impassive refusal to respond to their complaints, the theft of villagers' lands, and the frustrated longing to return home. In July 2001, a decade later, still banished from their homes and living in poverty, the authors of the two petitions cited above met a representative of Human Rights Watch in the office of the nongovernmental Siirt Human Rights Association. They asked for their names and the names of their villages not to be revealed in any publications for fear of reprisals at the hands of the authorities. The police were watching the premises and during the course of interviews, entered and questioned the association's staff.
When Abdulkadir A1 from village L sent out his original petition to return to his village he was summoned to the police station and reprimanded. "I was afraid, but continued applying to the authorities for a year. I went to the provincial governor (vali) and the soldiers repeatedly. They told me that I could not return unless I brought twenty men ready to take up arms as village guards." He returned to the village and tried to resettle three times, but was moved out each time. "The village guards from the neighboring village had their eyes on our land, made constant complaints about us, saying that PKK2 militants were visiting us."3 Finally, in 1995 the soldiers told him that he should leave within seven days because the village was to be burned. He left for Siirt and the village was destroyed.
He now lives with his eight children, one of whom is disabled, in two rooms in Siirt. He survives with the help of a disability payment and handouts of fuel and food from the city council, currently run by the People's Democracy Party (HADEP), which has a largely Kurdish membership. He told Human Rights Watch: "I have fields in the village but they are being used by the village guards. I have legal title to my land, but I am afraid to open a case in the courts." He was detained and tortured in 1990 because of complaints made by neighboring village guards, and he is not keen to repeat the experience. "The village guards have suggested that if I do not open a case, they will give me access to a bit of my land."
He had never received any news from the authorities about the Village Return and Rehabilitation Project, the government return program that is supposedly the solution to his problems. Two members of his village went to inquire about possible return but the local governor (kaymakam) told them that they could not return "until the order comes." The local governor would not promise him anything in writing.
Mehmet M,4 displaced from village G, has also tried to use official and legal channels of redress, with a similar lack of success. In 1990, he and his wife put the youngest of his eight children into sacks on donkeys and walked from the scene of the burning village to Şırnak, a day's march. He took the registration number of the vehicles of the soldiers who burned his village, and made a complaint to the local prosecutor, but heard nothing more: "Perhaps the prosecutor gave a decision not to prosecute. We do not know."5 His wife recently died, and he and the remaining family now live in Van in a house he built on waste ground. They live a meager existence supported largely by their eldest son, who works on construction sites in Istanbul. He told Human Rights Watch, "We cannot eat well or go to the doctor."6 He is keen to receive the official go-ahead to return to their village and has repeatedly submitted petitions. He showed Human Rights Watch a copy of an application he submitted to the Interior Ministry in April 2000, to which he has received no reply.