The only survivor of an airstrike that killed 35 villagers in Turkey’s Southeast, near the border with Iraq, has said there was no chance that the Turkish jets dropping bombs could have mistaken the villagers for Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists.
Thirty-five people were killed last Wednesday when the Turkish air force targeted an area near the Iraqi border in Şırnak’s Uludere district. The government and the military have confirmed that all of the dead were civilians smuggling in goods from northern Iraq and not a single PKK member was among them. Intelligence failure has been blamed for the deadly error, but the explanation so far has not satisfied anyone. The military is conducting its own probe into the airstrike while a civilian prosecutor also launched an investigation last Friday.
The only survivor of the strike was Servet Encü, who said the villagers have been using the same route to trade with Iraq for decades. “If I can’t go today, I’ll go tomorrow. If one village doesn’t go one day, another village will. This is our trade. Our great-grandfathers did the same thing. We have to do this because of poverty. We have no other income. We do this to make TL 50 a day. We only bring in diesel and tea from the other side. Nobody uses these routes besides us. The traders on the Iraqi side bring their goods to the border. We go from this side and buy them and sometimes have to walk two or three kilometers.”
He also denied news reports claiming that the smugglers traveled to the northern Iraqi towns of Sina and Haftanin. “The Iraqi merchants bring the goods closer to the border for us. We have been doing this for 15 years, and the border area is always open. Sometimes the soldiers would come, sometimes they wouldn’t. There are about four or five different passages along that route.”
Encü said the villagers back home had warned them that Turkish soldiers had blocked the road. “We were coming back. So when we neared the border, they called us on the phone, told us the path was blocked by soldiers. They told us not to come. We told them, all we have is diesel, we don’t have any weapons. We went on. Soldiers stopped us. We then started going back in the opposite direction. This was when F16s started bombing us. All my friends are dead, only I survived.” He said the strike briefly stopped, which is when he noticed that some of his fellow villagers were badly injured, but it started again. “There were three strikes. I tried to hide in the snow. I called the villagers right after the attack. They saw a terrible scene when they arrived. All the bodies were burned as if someone burned them with gas.” He said half of the 36 people in the group died in the first strike, while the second one killed the others. “A small boy, about 12 years old, and another one who was 14 were among the dead. There were people, very young people about 17. I was the oldest one in the group; I am 31. They were all students, and were trying to make money to go to school. Some of them went to school in Bitlis, some in Diyarbakır.”
He said last Wednesday saw an unusually small group. “Normally we would go with 100, sometimes 150, mules. This is not the PKK’s route. They would sometimes confiscate the stuff villagers brought back, but they always knew. Why is it they haven’t made this mistake before? Everyone knew the villagers brought in cigarettes and diesel from across the border. The soldiers knew it. They should stop finding excuses. And the district governor knows, and the commander knows, everyone knows. The herons [unmanned aerial vehicles] spot what’s going on. The PKK comes with at most six or seven mules.”
Encü said not a single Turkish official has called him after the attack. “Some officials only visited one family in the village. They didn’t even offer condolences to the other 34 families.”
He said, “This is not like in the old times. Now is the age of phones, television and the Internet. No one can hide what they did. Three ministers came to our village and visited one single family who lost a child. I was going to run if they had summoned me. But they didn’t. And they didn’t visit. God left me alive so that I can make sure they get the justice they deserve.”