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Kurdish Anger Simmers as Turkey Accused of Killing Unarmed Teenagers

VICE News visited Cizre, southeast Turkey, where fearful Kurdish residents accuse the state of shooting dead several children and young militants have set up armed checkpoints.

by Jake Hanrahan
Jan 21 2015, 4:10pm

Photo by Phil Caller

On January 6, a 14-year-old Kurdish boy was shot dead by special forces in the town of Cizre, southeast Turkey.

Umit Kurt was killed as he walked home from his job as a painter and decorator at around 5pm. He was passing through an area previously controlled by the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), the youth wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The neighborhood had just been opened up after a peace agreement made with the local police and a PKK order to stand down.

The YDG-H has been acting as a paramilitary force in Cizre for the last few months and has closed off several Kurdish neighborhoods with armed checkpoints and patrols. The group's members, mostly in their teens and early 20s, told VICE News they've been doing this to protect their streets after gun battles broke out in December between them, the police, and the Turkish Hizbullah group, Huda Par (no relation to Lebanon's Hezbollah).

Photo by Phil Caller

After several days of intense fighting, the YDG-H agreed to put down their weapons on January 6 and allow the roads into their neighborhoods to be unblocked. The day the YDG-H stood down, however, the authorities moved in. Police water cannon trucks and military APCs pushed into the Cudi area of Cizre, as the special forces allegedly opened fire. Three people were wounded and Umit was killed.

A recent human rights bar association report stated that the attack on the 14-year-old was specifically targeted. Umit was unarmed and, according to locals, was not a member of the YDG-H or any other armed groups.

'The only justice for my son, is that what happened to Saddam and Qaddafi, happens to Erdogan.'

I went to speak to Umit's family five days after his death.

Inside the modest family home in one of Cizre's Kurdish neighborhoods, uncles, cousins, and Umit's elder brother sat on the front room floor in mournful silence. Abdullah Kurt, Umit's father, walked in clutching a framed picture of his boy. He shook my hand and smiled. Stoic as he was, the pain showed clearly in his eyes.

"Umit was a very good son," Abdullah told VICE News. "He would come into the room even if there were 20 people in here, and say 'as-salamu alaykum' to everyone. People liked him more than me — he was so funny."

Photo by Phil Caller

Umit was shot with a single bullet. It entered through his back and passed straight through his heart.

I asked Abdullah how he felt when he saw his young son in the morgue. "It's a very hard feeling when you see your son growing up in front of your eyes, being good to his father and mother, and then suddenly he's been killed." He paused and looked down at the picture. "We lost Umit's body but his soul is still with us."

It has been reported that a police investigation into Umit's death will be held in secret. I asked Abdullah if he felt the Turkish government would bring justice for his family and his sadness turned quickly to quiet anger. "The only justice for my son, is that what happened to Saddam (Hussein) and (Muammar) Qaddafi, happens to (President) Erdogan."

Abdullah's animosity toward the Turkish state is understandable. His thoughts are also shared by all of the people that VICE News spoke to in Cizre. Many in this small town, just five miles from Syria, feel that Erdogan's "New Turkey" is targeting the Kurds especially.

'Stalingrad. Welcome to Kobane': Inside the Syrian town under siege by the Islamic State. Read more here.

The 14 million Kurds living in Turkey have endured a history of brutal oppression at the hands of successive national governments. Yet, in some ways, Erdogan's treatment of the minority has actually been an improvement when compared to previous Turkish leaders. He's eased off on banning the Kurdish language and has at least negotiated with the PKK. That's not to say he's the harbinger of equality though. Unemployment in Kurdish areas is nearly twice the national average and Erdogan's government has recently arrested journalists and students for criticizing his ruling right-wing AKP party.

To make matters worse, when the battle for Kobane between Kurdish forces and Islamic State militants broke out in September 2014, Erdogan chose not to help the Kurdish forces. Instead he bombed PKK fighters on the border with Iraq, claiming they'd attacked Turkish troops. Turkey has received over 170,000 refugees from the besieged town.

Tension among Turkish Kurds can be felt all throughout the south of the country, though the situation in Cizre is especially fragile. At least five Kurds, all under the age of 20, have been shot dead in the streets in the last two weeks. This hardly legitimizes the notion of a "peace" agreement in this tightknit community and the bloodshed is one reason why many people seem so in favor of having armed teenagers patrolling their streets at night, and not the police.

One thing Abdullah was adamant about was that his son was by no means involved with the YDG-H. Yet he refused to condemn the group, even when I mentioned that if they hadn't been in the neighborhood then the police might not have come in with their guns in the first place. And Abdullah insisted that the YDG-H were needed for protection.

"The future of the Kurds will be decided by the Kurds," he said, before leading me into the next room.

Inside, Umit's mother, Nafiya, was sat down on her son's bed. His childhood teddy bear was still propped up in the corner. Umit had laid here only five days ago and now he was in a grave. Nafiya was distraught.

'This checkpoint is called Umit Kurt.'

"When the Turkish state sees a child on the street they simply fire and leave them on the road," she said. "My lovely, young boy. What was his crime? What was the reason?"

I sat down next to her as she spoke in a whisper while cradling a picture of her son and told me about the day he was killed. "[The special forces] just stopped and aimed at him. Someone came to my door — a child. He said Umit is injured and in hospital. I said that Umit had been at work, where would he get injured? The boy told me my son had been shot. I went to the hospital and when I saw my son, it was like the world had ended.

"I uncovered his face. His injury was in his chest. His heart. (The bullet) had exited through his heart. My sweetheart was lying there. I couldn't believe my son was killed."

Photo by Phil Caller

Umit was likely dead before he even got to the hospital. "I wish to god for no one else to go through what I went through," Nafiya continued. "May god demand answers for this tragedy from the Turkish state. I'll look for justice as long as I'm alive. I just want to know why. He was just a worker. We're poor — we're just tenants."

I asked Nafiya if she had any reason to believe that Umit was a part of the YDG-H. "My son was a good boy," she replied. "He had nothing to do with the YDG-H." The grieving mother said she believes the Turkish state will claim her son was a militant to deflect blame for his death.

"The killing was unjust, but the state is big and we are small," Nafiya added. "What can we do but set ourselves on fire? Sometimes I say I'll set myself on fire in this house."

When we finished speaking, Nafiya kissed the picture of Umit and began to weep, and the family came in to comfort her.

* * *

After speaking with Umit's family I wanted to see where he'd been shot. It turned out that a member of the YDG-H had been present on the day that he was killed — albeit in his civilian clothes, and not the fatigues he wears for the 7pm to 7am shifts on Cizre's 12 YDG-H checkpoints.

"I saw it all," he told VICE News. "I can take you there." So we drove to a nearby checkpoint, where two masked men approached. They held AK-47s and wore green fatigues similar to those worn by the YPG — the PKK-affiliated People's Protection Units who are fighting in Syria.

"This checkpoint is called Umit Kurt," one of the men told me as we shook hands.

"Umit Kurt worked around here. He was a painter and decorator. We weren't aware of anything (about to happen). The street opened and the enemy (Turkish special forces) entered. When the enemy approached, our martyred comrade Umit Kurt came onto the street — he didn't know the enemy was there, so he started to walk home. The enemy were over there next to that white car."

Photo by Phil Caller

The militant struggled with his gun as he pointed out with one hand where the government forces had been when they opened fire. "Our friend went to run this way and they started shooting. He went that way, trying to get home. He was martyred over there."

The man led me a few yards away to a lamppost, the spot where young Umit died. On the wall to the right was a spray painted stencil of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. "A bullet hit him here and he fell to the ground. The enemy, our oppressor, shot him. It was the special forces."

By now a large crowd of children and teenagers had gathered. They all knew about Umit's death and none of them seemed intimidated by two men dressed in paramilitary fatigues brandishing assault rifles in the middle of the street in what was still pretty much daylight.

"The people are behind us. They appreciate what we're doing. We are not terrorists. We are PKK, we're guerrillas. We're protecting our people, we're demanding our land. This is Cizre — this is Kurdistan. Let the Turkish state know that we opened the roads when our leader told us to, and they shot a child."

* * *

The day after I left Cizre on January 12, another child was shot dead. This time it was 12-year-old Nihat Kazanhan. Reports are conflicting, but eyewitnesses state that police moved into the Yafes area, also where Umit was killed, and began firing. Nihat was hit in the head and died that day in hospital.

Cizre's Kurds blame the shooting on the authorities, while the police, in their autopsy report, blame the YDG-H. They state that the round found in Nihat's head was a plastic shotgun shell, which is not used by the police, but often found with armed groups. The police insist that they weren't even in the area at the time. An investigation is ongoing.

While with the YDG-H, I only saw them actually use their guns once, during a clash with riot police and special forces. They returned fire after shots were fired in our direction. The last time I saw police use their guns, however, was when they fired tracer rounds into the sky on the day that the checkpoints stood down for a second time — on Ocalan's direct orders. The PKK leader released a written statement from his prison cell calling for calm in Cizre.

A young boy, maybe 10-years-old, came up to me that night pointing at the tracer. "Kalashnikov," he said excitedly. "Turkish provocation!"

Photo by Phil Caller

In response to Umit's death, the PKK fired an RPG round into an armored police truck two days after his killing, wounding the two police officers inside. There are also reports that a second rocket attack in Cizre was carried out by the PKK on a government building on January 16. This one was apparently in response to Nihat's death.

There are now concerns that the situation in Cizre will disrupt the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government and reignite a war which claimed more than 40,000 lives from 1984.

While the PKK claims it is still dedicated to peace, it seems that YDG-H actions are spreading across Turkey.

Small explosives were found planted in Istanbul on January 18. One, placed on a statue of Kemal Ataturk, was diffused in the Maltepe district and another went off in Millet Avenue in Fatih. There were no casualties, but the YDG-H claimed responsibility for the bombs, stating that they were in response to what is happening in Cizre.

A documentary about Cizre and PKK youth is coming soon to VICE News.

Follow Jake Hanrahan: @Jake_Hanrahan

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