Governors block return
Nearly all of the villagers who spoke to Human Rights Watch had submitted many petitions for return to governors, prosecutors, and gendarmerie commanders. The authorities have responded to mass petitions organized by Göç-Der or HADEP by stating that they will only accept individual petitions from heads of families, yet individual petitions rarely elicit any response.
Now governors are insisting that villagers apply using a special printed form. This requires the applicant to tick a box indicating the reason for their original migration and gives alternatives ranging from "employment" and "health" to PKK-instigated "terror." Most of the displaced were moved by gendarmerie against their will, but there is no option to reflect this on the form. Worse still, recent copies of the form require the respondent to sign a declaration that: "I left my village as a consequence of the pressure of terror. I am going to return. Since there is no pressure of terror in my village, I want to return to my village without making any material demand upon the State." In February 2002, the former inhabitants of Düzcealan applied to the governor of Tatvan, Bitlis province, to return. They reported that the governor told them that they would only be permitted to return if they signed statements that the PKK had forced them to leave the village. The villagers state that it was actually the state forces that wanted them to leave, and that they resisted this pressure until a locally-based armored division of Turkish troops launched an artillery and rocket attack in December 1993, in which one villager, Kasım Çaçar, was killed.111
Villagers are reluctant to collude in the official cover-up of the illegal forced displacement by signing such declarations. They also know that by signing, they will probably lose any chance of making a claim against the state for compensation for the abuses they have suffered. At the same time, the temptation to sign is strong. If they do sign it may open the way to their early return; if they do not, they know that they may be struck off any central register of the displaced, forfeit the chance to get even the most meager state assistance to return, and perhaps never be permitted to go home.
Giyasettin G of village K, burned by security forces in 1993 said, "This year we wanted to go back. Some villagers have gone back. The authorities said to them you are going to have to sign a form. They had to fill in the form saying that the village was burned by the PKK. The local governor said to us, `If you say the government did it, we will not let you go back.' We said `If that is the condition, we will not fill in the form. Why should we lie? It wasn't the PKK.'"
Government officials have used the reputation of the World Bank in order to persuade villagers to sign documents that excuse the state from responsibility for destroying villages. A villager told Human Rights Watch:
The promised rebuilding never happened, but presumably the petitions are still on file.
Veli V, of village D, near Mardin, described other strong inducements to sign:
The headman of a village in Diyarbakır province described another confrontation with the authorities over the forms:
Tahsin T115 of village F, near Kulp in Diyarbakır province, was indignant:
On June 25, 2002 Vedat Haran made a formal complaint to the Diyarbakır branch of the Human Rights Association, stating that while traveling from Lice to Diyarbakır he had been taken out of a bus at a checkpoint by gendarmes who required him to sign a document stating that the PKK had burned his home village, Arıklı. He reported that when he refused, gendarmes obliged him to sign using a combination of threats and force.117
In July 2002, the displaced inhabitants of Bağarası, near Derik in Mardin province, who had repeatedly applied to return home, reported that the Derik local governor had told them that they would be permitted to return if they signed documents stating that the PKK had burned their village. The villagers, who refused to sign, were driven from Bağarası in 1993 by village guards and soldiers.118
In August 2002, inhabitants of Senarli village in Mardin province told the lawyer Serdar Talay, president of the Diyarbakir branch of Göç-Der, that they had submitted petitions to return to the local governor, who refused to give permission unless they signed prepared petitions. They refused and were not permitted to return.119
Hasan H120 of village T, near Muş, described in detail how gendarmes burned his home in 1993 and took five villagers into the fields and executed them. In spite of this, he was prepared to put his name to the state's false account in order to get back home:
Seventy-three families from Ulusu and İnceler villages, near Pervari in Siirt province, evacuated in 1990, reported that they had submitted eight petitions to return to the Siirt provincial governor, to which they had received no reply. Their most recent petition, on March 20, 2002, received the response that "Investigations as to whether the said villages are suitable for settlement are continuing."122 In 1994, 151 villages and 800 mezra were forcibly evacuated in Tunceli province. In 2001 the local governor gave permission for thirty villages to return. In 2002, he gave permission for a further twenty villages. In June 2002, the local bar association sought permission for 166 families to return to a further thirty-one villages, but only four of these were opened for return.123
On the positive side, some provincial governors have established provisional programs for return, and some include systems for supplying building materials to returning villagers to assist in reconstruction. Unfortunately, their implementation is patchy and uneven, and includes dubious practices. An example is the "Village return project specification" (Köye dönüş projesine ait şartname) that the Muş provincial governor's office distributed to villagers applying to return. Villagers appreciated the offer of assistance but found the conditions in the "specification" unreasonable and gave a copy of it to Human Rights Watch. The specification requires villagers to build their new houses up to the damp-proof course level before a "Village Return and Rehabilitation Commission" would decide whether or not to supply reinforcing steel, cement, and bricks. The specification does not describe the criteria that the commission would use in making its decision. For extremely poor villagers, this would mean a considerable gamble since they would have to make a substantial investment in excavating and laying the foundations of their houses (and presumably laying water, electric, and sewage services), on land to which they did not have title, with no guarantee that they would receive assistance with materials for the rest of the building. In addition, the specification left substantial expenditure to the prospective householders, since it contained no provision to supply doors, windows, stairs, bathroom and plumbing materials, or roofing materials.
Villagers' confidence in this speculative venture was further undermined by the Muş governor's uncertain past record on fulfilling promises. The specification assumed that the villagers would supply free labor. This reflects a rough and ready division of cost that is reflected in much official thinking around the return projects. The TSBD director indicated that when designing its pilot scheme for the Village Return and Rehabilitation Project, the TSBD had also assumed that villagers would provide unpaid labor. This would be a convenient economy for the government, but it is hardly reasonable to expect villagers to invest their time and effort (without accident and sickness insurance) in remedying the consequences of illegal acts committed by state officials. Some officials justified the practice of supplying materials on the grounds that the state just could not afford the whole cost, but it was also presented as a precaution against "abuse" of the grants by villagers who might reconstruct their rural dwellings while continuing to live in the urban centers.
This suspicion of potential "fraud" was clearly the motivation for an extraordinary provision included in the Muş specification that reserved the governor's right to confiscate the property. Article 8 of the specification states that the houses must be built and inhabited by the owners. If the property is put to any other use (presumably, put out to rent or used as a temporary residence), the provincial governor's office was empowered to seize the house until the villager repaid, with interest, the cost of materials supplied.
Villagers in other provinces reported that governors were providing some communities with bricks and cement, or in other cases, windows and doors. Again, they expected villagers to provide free labor. Human Rights Watch was told that in some villages, such as Şaklat, Diyarbakır province, only villagers particularly favored by the authorities received building materials. Some villagers were required to sign blank pieces of paper on receipt of materials, or were promised materials that never arrived.
In carrying out the original displacement, state officials avoided using the formal powers to move populations that exist under Turkish law. The state of emergency region governor had legal authority under Decree 285 (see above, section on domestic and international law), but none of the villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch had documents to show that they had been moved using these powers, which would at least have provided them with some legal or administrative status, as well as financial support and housing.124 The state chose not to use those powers, preferring to carry out the displacement in an entirely arbitrary and extralegal manner. Governors are now managing the return process in much the same way, apparently in order to avoid committing an administrative act that could form the basis of litigation. If villagers are permitted to return, they are only informed orally.
This creates problems when the villagers leave the civilian world of the cities and arrive in the militarized countryside ruled by the gendarmerie. Abdulvahap Ertan, a lawyer and board member of the Van branch of the HRA told Human Rights Watch,
The armed forces present a more threatening obstacle to return even than the civilian authorities. Outside the cities, police duties are entirely in the hands of gendarmes, the same military units that carried out the original displacements. Many villagers told Human Rights Watch how they were turned back by gendarmes after receiving official permission to return.
Giyasettin G of village K, near Lice in Diyarbakır province, said that he had tried to visit his village in order to tend his land on several occasions, but was repeatedly turned away by the local gendarmerie:
In 1995 gendarmes burned the home and fruit trees of Ahmet Hamdi H127 at village H, Eruh, Siirt province. His hopes were raised when the local governor arranged a survey for possible return. Soldiers surrounded the village in the early spring of 2001 and the Siirt provincial governor inspected the remains of the settlement and then said that he would consider making provision for reinstating the infrastructure. Ahmet H. told Human Rights Watch:
Some of the confrontations with gendarmes are extremely tense, particularly for villagers with recent memory of extrajudicial executions and "disappearances" in these areas. Yılmaz Y of village B, Diyarbakır province described what happened when he went with his brother to test the water for possible return:
Yılmaz Y filed an official complaint against the gendarmes, but in March 2002, the public prosecutor gave a decision not to prosecute.
In some areas, participation in the village guard system is still a condition of return. In May 2002, the military approached villagers of Çatıkuru and told them that their safety could not be guaranteed unless they put up ten village guards. The village guards would be armed but not paid.130
Several villagers told Human Rights Watch that gendarmes permitted villagers to return in return for bribes in kind and cash. An elderly woman from a village in Diyarbakır province, said:
Any discrepancy between the civil authorities' undisclosed program for return and the gendarmes' equally undisclosed agenda puts villagers in an extremely precarious position. Details of a confidential military document reported in November 2001 suggest that the villagers' fears of possible consequences of return without military authorization are well justified. Dated September 11, 2001, and signed by General Şevki Aksu of the Land Forces Internal Security Brigade Command No 2, it stated that military operations are constantly in progress in the Hani, Kulp, and Lice districts of Diyarbakır, that difficulties may arise in distinguishing PKK from villagers, and that "Citizens should be warned and informed that [the army] will not be responsible for any misfortunes that may result during the course of operations."132 A substantial number of villagers have come to an arrangement with the authorities that permits them to visit their villages daily or seasonally in order to cultivate their crops to produce some income, but not to stay. This gives the villagers a valuable foot in the door for return, but it is a tense and risky venture, particularly since the authorities never provide the villagers with clear written permission to be there. Stray villagers are frequently picked up by patrols and threatened, ill-treated, or worse. For example, Kavaklı village in Hakkari province was forcibly evacuated in 1993. In October 2000 three villagers who had gone back, with permission from Hakkari Provincial Gendarmerie Headquarters, to collect walnuts from their lands were found shot dead with their hands tied behind their backs. The official account, that the three had been killed by the PKK, was partly based on inconsistent accounts by a fourth villager who survived. In his first statement to the prosecutor, he said that the group was accosted by unknown persons in the dark, who fired shots. He was wounded but escaped. In a second statement contained in the gendarmerie's report, the villager said that the group had been captured by PKK militants who tied their hands and then shot them. It appears that the fourth villager may have been pressured to give an account that exculpated the gendarmerie. Relatives who returned to the area to recover the bodies reported that as they entered Kavaklı gendarmes guarding a nearby bridge fired on them.133
Several communities who have resettled their homes have been displaced a second time as a consequence of a divergence of attitude between the civilian and military authorities.
Semsettin S134 is headman of village Y, near Lice, Diyarbakır province, which was burned by government commandos from Bolu in 1993. He told Human Rights Watch:
Villagers from Ünlücü village in the Çatak district of Van province alleged that one week after they had been allowed to return to their village on May 17, 2002, soldiers and village guards forced them to leave again. They reported that soldiers from Büyükagaç Gendarmerie Station had ignored the written permission to return that the villagers had obtained from the governor, and confiscated their construction materials. The village was originally forcibly evacuated in 1999.136
For these people village destruction is not something of the distant past but a vivid recent experience. A displaced villager in Istanbul from Tuzkuyu village near Siirt expressed intense anger and fear as he described the aerial bombing of Tuzkuyu in August 1997: "Thanks to Allah, we were in the fields collecting hay. I saw helicopters and counted sixteen jets. Scores of people were killed: Abdulkerim Deli, Şükrü Deli, Abdurrahman Deli, Kasım Yıldız, Halil Karanfil, Emine Yıldız, Kadir Yıldız, a boy about ten years old, Selahattin Özçelik, Nefiye Özçelik, Azize Özçelik, a girl about ten years old, Süheyla Özçelik, Mehmet Ali Ovat, Aziz Ovat, Yalçın Ovat, and many others."137 The attack on the village followed the killing of two soldiers in a PKK attack nearby. An incident resulting in security forces casualties also provoked Turkey's most recent village destruction. After a gendarme was killed by a landmine in the Beytuşşebap district of Şırnak province in July 2001, gendarmes drove out the inhabitants of the villages of Asat and Ortaklı that were near the scene of the explosion. Villagers detained and interrogated in this operation reported that they were raped with a truncheon and subjected to electric shocks.138
Villagers considering return are even more afraid of village guards than they are of the gendarmerie. The village guard system has been recognized for years as a corrupt and destructive institution. The April 1995 report of the Turkish Parliament's Commission on Unsolved Political Killings confirmed that village guards were involved in a wide range of lawless activities, including killing and extortion, and called for abolition of the village guard system. There are about 90,000 village guards in southeast Turkey, earning 139,000,000 TL (U.S.$84) a month.139 Villagers are extremely wary of heading back into an unstable countryside where their former neighbors, sometimes from rival tribal groups, are paid and licensed by the government to bear arms. The government armed the village guards and permitted them to acquire considerable de facto power in the region. Human Rights Watch heard accounts from several provinces that village guards had taken over the lands vacated by the displaced, stolen timber, or exploited the land by renting it out to others.
Returning villagers have had considerable difficulties recovering their lands from village guards. In June 2002, inhabitants attempting to return to Kaçan and Evrek villages in the Beytüşşebap district of Şırnak were reportedly turned back by a village guard chief from the nearby town of Mezra. The villagers applied to the local governor but were forced to return to Van where they have been living since they were forcibly displaced in 1994.140
Security forces drove the Elhan family out of their home in Suluca village, Muş province, in 1998. They went to live in Izmir, but returned in May 2002. On July 28, six local village guards reportedly beat Maşallah Elhan wıth sticks and then shot out the doors and windows of the Elhan's home, seriously wounding fifteen-year-old Netice Elhan.141
Villagers turned out of Akdoruk village near Kulp, Diyarbakır province, in 1993, returned in the spring of 2002. One of the villagers, Mahmut Coşkun, stated that the community had applied to the local governor in Lice for permission to return, and then to the Lice gendarmerie headquarters, the Interior Ministry, and the state of emergency governor's office, but received no response.142 The villagers decided to move on their own initiative, and pitched tents so that they could live in the village while repairing their homes and bringing their fields back into cultivation. On July 17, village guards and soldiers attached to the Zeyrek gendarmerie reportedly beat the Akdoruk villagers, and tore down their tents.
The inhabitants of Yolveren village, near Beşiri, Batman province, are members of the Yezidi sect, whose numbers in Turkey are dwindling. They were driven from their homes and seven families sought asylum in Europe. In 1996 twelve village guard families occupied their homes. In 2001, the Yolveren inhabitants decided to return. They opened a case at Batman Primary Court in June 2001 and, rather unusually, received judgments that their homes should be restored to them and the illegal occupants should pay compensation. The village guards initially refused to comply, but finally handed back the village on December 18, 2001 on the understanding that the claim for compensation was waived. Three families returned on December 28, 2001.143
Others were not so fortunate. Şahreddin Sancar and his wife Newroz Sancar, also Yezidis, were displaced from the village of Harmanlı, near Nusaybin, in the 1990s, and found asylum abroad. In their absence, their lands were taken over by the family of a local village guard chief. Inspired by government assurances concerning village return, the Sancars returned to Turkey, moved back to their village at the beginning of March 2002, and resumed possession of their fields. On March 11, the couple disappeared. The following day, shepherds found the body of Şahreddin Sancar in his car, ostensibly the victim of a road accident. But three weeks later, villagers found the body of Newroz Sancar in a dry well, bound hand and foot. The circumstances of their deaths have not been adequately reported.144
A displaced villager from a settlement near Malazgirt, in Muş province, told Human Rights Watch that the civil authorities have been unwilling to take action regarding land-theft by village guards:
Ferdi F of village P, Siirt, described similar official heedlessness:
Veli V of village D near Mardin also reported that village guards had stolen timber and farmed his land:
Eight destroyed villages near Siirt (Payamlı, Çimenbaşı, Avanos, Bölüklü, Kasircelo, Sidada, Kuşdalı, and Bilgili) have been rented out by the village guard chief of the neighboring Çizmeli village to nomadic graziers of the Kirivan tribe. A displaced farmer from one of those villages told Human Rights Watch:
Eleven villagers from Alaca village, near Kulp, "disappeared" after gendarmes marched them onto a helicopter in 1993. The rest of the inhabitants are still displaced, scattered over the cities of eastern Turkey. One told Human Rights Watch:
Another inhabitant from the same village said that a month and a half after the villagers had submitted their petitions, the gendarmes confiscated tractors being used to steal the timber, but then resold the tractors back to the villagers at a low price. He told Human Rights Watch,
A farmer displaced from a village near Çınar, in Diyarbakır province described a similar expropriation:
Village guards do not make idle threats. Şefik Ş,153 swathed in bandages, uncovered bullet wounds in his legs and arms as he told Human Rights Watch:
The village guards shot Şefik Ş and he fell to the ground. "I really thought I was going to die. One with the kalashnikov was going to shoot, but they said `Look, he is going to die anyway, so we won't bother.' I also assumed I was going to die. As I lay there I thought about my children." A relative picked him up and drove him to a hospital. Şefik Ş made a formal complaint and one of the village guards was arrested. Following this, Şefik Ş was visited by other village guards who urged him to abandon his complaint. As of June 2001, he had refused to do so. He told Human Rights Watch,
The Alkan family was forcibly evacuated from Koruklu village, near Tatvan in Bitlis province, in 1996. They returned in spring 2002, but were repeatedly harassed by village guards. Tahir Alkan went to the local gendarmerie to complain but was turned away and made a formal complaint to the public prosecutor in Tatvan. On October 12, a group of seven village guards reportedly attacked Tahir Alkan, stabbing and severely wounding him.155
On July 9, 2002, three villagers-Yusuf Ünal, Abdurrahim Ünal, and Abdulsamet Ünal-who had recently returned to Nureddin village (Kurdish name: Nordin) in Muş province were killed by village guards. On July 1 they had applied to the local governor and gendarmerie for permission to go to their village and stay temporarily in order to gather their hay crop. According to eyewitness Dilaver Demir:
Fourteen village guards were arrested in connection with the killings. Courts have been very reluctant to convict serving members of the security forces, including village guards, for criminal offences such as ill-treatment, torture, or murder.157
Southeast Turkey has been a battlefield for fifteen years, during which both sides in the conflict used anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines. According to press reports, hundreds of people-many of them children-were killed by landmines and unexploded shells or rockets between 1992 and 1998.158 Villagers considering return therefore understandably seek some level of reassurance from the authorities that at least the immediate vicinity of their homes has been cleared of explosives.
A villager who had returned, with government assistance, to the former village guard community of Beşbudak told Human Rights Watch that soldiers had spent a month checking the area for mines before it was reoccupied. The local governor of Çatak province mentioned that the asphalting of roads was a priority as a protection against mining,159 and the deputy provincial governor of Van confirmed that within his area of authority, villages would be cleared of mines before reoccupation by villagers.160
But several villagers told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had given permission to return while giving no information about mine-clearing. A villager from Yamaç village in Muş province said that his community had been told that they would receive assistance with building materials from the provincial governor's office once they had brought construction up to damp-proof course level (see above), but said that they were uneasy about setting to work: "We suspect there are mines because there are traces of excavation. The military used it as a base in the winter times and we have seen unexploded ordnance among the ruins. We have received no confirmation that it has been cleared of mines."161
Inhabitants of eleven villages in the Berwar district of Hakkari, evacuated in 1996, applied to the office of the Van provincial governor asking that their villages be cleared of mines and that they be given assistance to return. In early 2002 the governor reportedly called the headmen of the villagers to his office and told them to reapply, saying that in their new applications, they should not mention mine clearance or assistance.162
Hülya Kaçar, recently returned to the evacuated village Derebaşı, near Silopi, was killed in April 2002 when she stepped on a landmine while collecting kenger, wild artichoke, with a friend, Teybet Arsu, who was seriously wounded.163
124 Some initiatives have been taken to provide housing in cities for displaced villagers, but again these were mainly for those forced to leave because they had participated in the village guard system and were targeted for attacks by the PKK. See for example, the Yalım Erez Lodgings outside Van described in section on Municipal Efforts to Relieve Hardship, above.
139 Figures given by Prof. M. Salih Yıldırım, parliamentary deputy for Şırnak. Reported by Cumhur Kılıççıoğlu, in "Silahları Çocuklarına Miras Kalmasın" (May their weapons not be their legacy), Bianet news agency, January 24, 2002.
149 The gendarmerie restrict access to certain areas they consider sensitive, but such measures are de facto. Other than exercise areas and grounds attached to army posts, there are no officially prohibited military zones.