Turkey is refusing to allow the remains of a dozen of its citizens who were killed battling Islamic State (IS) in Syria to return home, say local officials and family members. The dead were members of Kurdish militant groups and have seemingly been affected by a change in border policy that comes as Ankara cracks down on its own Kurdish population.
The 12 bodies, plus that of a German citizen also killed fighting IS, have been in the back of a refrigerated truck on the Iraqi side of the Habur border crossing near the southeastern town of Silopi since July 27, in temperatures of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. All were fighting as part of the US-backed Syrian People's Protection Units (YPG), although two had links with Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Turks killed while with the YPG in the past have typically been returned to their families via the same route and bereaved relatives gathered in Silopi to collect their dead. But despite their pleas and campaigning by local officials, border guards have refused to allow the truck to pass, citing orders from the local governor's office and directly from Ankara.
Kevin Joachim, a German reported to have died in clashes with IS last month, is among the dead and Berlin is understood to be engaged in diplomatic efforts in order to secure his return home. The German Foreign Ministry said it was aware of the case but was not able to discuss details for privacy reasons.
The YPG has proven to be one of the most effective groups battling IS on the ground and receives direct and widespread support from the US-led coalition which is launching airstrikes on the jihadists. Turkish leaders view it with hostility, however, due to its affiliations with the PKK.
Ankara launched a twin-pronged attack targeting IS and the PKK on July 24, after an IS bombing killed 32 pro-Kurdish activists in the border town of Suruc and the PKK reportedly killed two Turkish police officers which it claimed were IS collaborators in retaliation.
But the airstrikes have since been aimed almost entirely at the PKK, targeting hundreds of the group's targets in Turkey and across the border in northern Iraq. The Kurdish militants have responded by escalating their own attacks, including a suicide bombing in Agri province that killed two Turkish soldiers and injured dozens of others on Sunday.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also called for members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) to be stripped of parliamentary immunity, accusing them of links with the PKK. In the June 7 general election the HDP exceeded the 10 percent vote threshold required to secure a parliamentary presence for the first time. In doing so, it blocked Erdogan's ambitions of securing a "super majority" for his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which would have granted vastly expanded powers to his office. Kurdish activists and politicians see the crackdown, including the situation in Silopi, as being a form of revenge for blocking the president's plans to consolidate his dominance of Turkish politics.
The YPG have since accused Turkish forces of firing on its positions and conducting reconnaissance flights over its territory, acts that the group described in a statement released on Saturday as "provocative and hostile."
A regular flow of traffic was crossing into Turkey via the Habur gate on Sunday, passing the more than four miles of trucks backed up in the heat and dust waiting to enter Iraqi Kurdistan. A group of local Kurdish politicians assembled nearby, where they have been campaigning to retrieve the bodies.
In the past, YPG casualties had been repatriated to Turkey with no issues, Salih Gulenc, co-chair of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP)'s Sirnak province branch told VICE News. The dead were typically taken to Silopi for autopsy then released to their families. This last happened on July 15, he said.
Gulenc added that authorities at the border told them the decision not to allow the 13 to pass came from the prime minister's office in Ankara, and that Sirnak governor Ali Ihsan Su would not acknowledge their repeated attempts to make contact. Su's office did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.
Mustafa Cakir, an employee with an insurance company often involved in repatriating remains, told VICE News via telephone that he had travelled to Silopi from Antalya to retrieve Jochim's body at the request of the German consulate, but left after five days when local border guards told him that they had been told by both the prime ministry and local governate not to let the remains across.
A week previously, he said, he'd picked up the body of slain Australian YPG figher Reece Harding. "Before it was normal, there were no issues," he said.
Family members of the dead also travelled to the area as soon as they heard the news and have since waited days in the hope of returning with their corpses. Many carried pictures of their lost relatives in uniform.
Ali Coskun, 44, a large grey haired man from Mardin whose nephew Ferit gave up his job as a civil servant to join the YPG in 2013, said that he'd come to Silopi as soon as he heard of Ferit's death. "It's been eight or nine days. We have dug his grave, everything is ready, we need only his body," he told VICE News, stressing that Ferit had taken up arms specifically to battle IS. "He wasn't fighting in Turkey, but against IS. They've been there eight days, waiting in the back of a truck. We want our bodies home, not waiting in this heat."
34-year-old Niyaz Yildiz, whose nephew Ragib, 24, was killed while fighting IS in Hasakah, also arrived in Silopi more than a week ago. He clutches a small picture of Ragib, who he says went to join the YPG halfway through a civil engineering degree at Diyarbakir's Dicle university.
"We supported him all the time and we are proud of him. He was a university student and he went to fight against brutality and tyranny," he told VICE News.
YPG spokesman Redur Xelil confirmed the details of the case to VICE News and criticized Turkey's hostility to men and woman fighting an enemy which Ankara too describes as a terrorist group. "Turkey claims it's fighting IS, but these are people who were killed fighting IS too. This is a contradiction and raises questions about Turkey's foreign policy... we hope the international community will help put pressure on Turkey to allow [the dead fighters] to return to their homeland."
On Friday, several hundred people, including Gulenc and a number of politicians from surrounding regions, marched to the border gate to protest the situation. Leyla Imret, 28, the mayor of the nearby town of Cizre told VICE News that police had used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd.
Meanwhile, another nine Turkish YPG dead are now being blocked from entering Kurdish Iraq from Syria via the Senalka crossing point, where they have been held for the past three days, according to family members. Turkey has more positive relations with Iraqi Kurdistan, and many believe the decision to block access is the result of pressure applied by Erdogan to Iraqi Kurdistan president, Masoud Barzani.
Among this group is the remains of 41-year old Naim Bilik's younger brother Firhat. "My brother was fighting against IS, not Turkey," he told VICE News. "But keeping his body is a crime no matter what. The [Turkish authorities] continue to torture Kurds even after they're dead. We just want our own family member back."
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