From the start, it was a tragedy on an unprecedented scale: 34 civilians, most of them minors, blasted to pieces by Turkish jets on Dec. 28, 2011, on a well-worn smuggling trail in Uludere, Şırnak province, as their caravan was returning from northern Iraq laden with oil containers.
The victims’ families and their community are still reeling from the shock, but the impact of the debacle, for them and for the rest of Turkey, has been further magnified by what can only be described as a cover up, which has come to define the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s embrace of the state and its institutions.
A year after the event, little has been revealed officially about the chain of events that led to the massacre of impoverished villagers, wrongly identified as “terrorists.” In the villages of Roboski and Bujeh (official names, Ortasu and Gülyazı), the communities are demanding justice. They may have to wait a while. Parliament and the government set up inquiries, prosecutors are investigating the event, but the publication of official reports has been postponed. By all accounts, state officials are unwilling to shed light on the disaster and few people now expect that a convincing explanation will be forthcoming.
Human Rights Watch has just issued a statement, titled “Turkey: No Justice for Airstrike Victims,” urging the government to shed light on the Dec. 28 disaster. During talks its researchers conducted with opposition deputies who are members of the inquiry sub-commission in Parliament, they were told that the “General Staff’s Office, the Ministry of Defense and the National Intelligence Organization [MİT] have refused to cooperate fully with the inquiry and failed to answer questions or to provide certain documentation the sub-commission requested.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan must have grasped the horror of the situation, because when he chose to express his opposition to abortion earlier this year, he made his point by comparing terminations, which he clearly viewed as an abomination, to the Uludere massacre. But his unease in the face of the tragedy has not prompted him to issue a heartfelt apology. Instead, before waiting for the outcome of the investigations, he defended the army for taking the “necessary steps.”
Later, the prime minister, disturbed by criticisms of his government, blamed the media for exploiting the incident. He even hinted at an international smear campaign after The Wall Street Journal suggested that when the Predator drone spotted the smugglers advancing with their mules, US intelligence officials had proposed having a second look, only to be rebuffed by their Turkish counterparts.
The victims’ families were paid compensation, but no government officials have visited them. In recent days, the prime minister has said that an apology could be issued “if necessary.” It is unclear what, in his view, would make it “necessary” at this late stage.
Turkey’s history is sadly littered with dark episodes that officialdom sought unsuccessfully to consign to the fog of history. But the lack of accountability acts like bacteria on the open wounds and prevent them from healing. Instead, they fester in the society.
Nothing can compensate for the loss of life, but identifying the people who gave the order to launch the air strike, bringing them to justice and issuing an official apology to the grieving community would at least signal that the authorities valued the young lives that were so tragically cut short, they share their families’ pain and they are determined to do their utmost to ensure such blunders are not repeated.
Instead, a year on, the mishandling of the whole issue suggests that Turkey remains a place where civilians can be killed with impunity. The authorities’ attitude will also do little to restore the Kurds’ trust in the Turkish state. A further twist of tragic irony is that some of the victims came from families of village guards, who had taken sides with the Turkish state in its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Unless the government wakes up to its responsibilities and lifts the lid on this tragic episode, Uludere will be remembered as a watershed moment when the AK Party chose to follow tradition and protect the state rather than its citizens.