Kurdish Conscripts Confront Impossible Odds In Turkey


Sheri Laizer in France – | Special to Ekurd.net – 1 March 2016 –  While the PKK and PYD/YPG fighters officially constitute the main targets of the Turkish military, the pro-Kurdish lobby is also under fire.

Commentators, including myself, forecast a deepening crisis in Turkey and the wider Kurdish region – unless ‘peace’ talks resume and the sustained assault on the pro-Kurdish HDP’s members and supporters cease. Conversely, the Turkish government appears to have little will to backtrack to the sunnier climes of diplomacy and instead emphasises intensified military action.

Following the Ankara bombing attack on 17 February, Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, claimed that a member of the PKK’s sister organisation, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) had been responsible for the fatal explosion.1 Salih Muslim, the party’s leader rejected the accusation and the ‘evidence’ of a Syrian ID card found at the scene. Two days later, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) a PKK splinter group, is said to have claimed responsibility. Reuters reported: “The Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) said the bombing was in response to the policies of President Tayyip Erdoğan and said it would continue its attacks. It said the bomber was a 26-year old Turkish national born in the eastern city of Van. 2

The attack that left twenty-eight people dead was carried out just two days after the 17th anniversary of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s capture and can be understood to be part of the message to the Turkish state from the militants responsible. In their own words their website announces in broken English, “The attempts and eternal self-sacrificing efforts to solve the Kurdish problem with democratic and peaceful methods which had been unilaterally carried on for seven years by our leader have had no response… Because we are a people, which have a risk of destruction and we are in a war. TAK’s call for youths: You can do all kind of big or small actions of burning and destruction. You must do Turkey worse than France. We are giving initiative to you. You are free. We call brave and heroic Kurdish youths for the more. Struggle together. Our number had been increased three times than last. Our people have hugged us. Since last year, a lot of person had joined our organization from HPG and different segment…  3

Clashes occurred between Turkish security services and ordinary Kurdish demonstrators in numerous locations as happens annually in commemoration of Öcalan’s capture and continued imprisonment. 15,000 Kurds demonstrated in Strasbourg calling for him to be freed. Meanwhile, recruitment to the PKK and PYD, in Syria, is enjoying new levels of Kurdish support and by their own account, also to TAK. The youth response can be directly linked to the upsurge in Turkish military action against the PKK since Turkey’s bombing campaign of PKK bases in both Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan since August 2015.

Ömer Önen, head of the HDP’s Diyarbakir branch, asserted “We refuse to let [Erdoğan] drag us into a war for his own politics…There’s collective punishment and psychological warfare against Kurds, and the people are scared.”4

Following the second round of elections in Turkey held on 1 November 2015 that enabled the ruling AKP party to continue in government (having failed to form a coalition), the ‘peace process’ with the PKK entirely collapsed. Military operations against the PKK began almost immediately. Violence seriously escalated across Turkey and particularly in the Kurdish south east thereafter.

Traditionally, spring presents increased opportunities for the Turkish military to strike Kurdish guerrillas inside Turkey, as also in their bases in northern Iraq/Kurdish Regional Government area, and increasingly, the PYD’s People’s Defence Forces – YPG. Spring operations may likely be imminent with greater deployment of land forces after the snows melt.

Compulsory military service a precarious issue for Turkey’s Kurds.

All males in Turkey must be registered for service upon turning twenty.5 Compulsory military service has long been a precarious issue for ethnic Kurds. Turkey does not recognise conscientious objection.

Today’s Zaman reported for 2014 “Fortunately, about 630,000 Turkish men turned 21 years of age in 2014. As a result, there was just enough manpower to fill the conscript ranks last year because education-related deferments, health and disability issues, family obligations, sexual orientation and draft evaders significantly chip away at the number of men available to serve.“ 6

Despite a high number of Kurdish draft evaders that flee Turkey or join the PKK, Kurdish conscripts risk being posted into conflict zones to fight against their fellow Kurds according to Kurdish lawyer, Feride Laçin, speaking with Kurdish media group, Rudaw. (Laçin is also a member of the pro-Kurdish HDP).7

Even to make such statements critical of state violence against Kurdish targets is to place the speaker at risk of death whether by Turkish nationalists or state agents. Veteran Kurdish lawyer, head of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, Tahir Elçi was shot dead by an unknown assailant firing from amongst the crowd that Elçi was addressing in a press conference in Diyarbakir on 28 November 2015.

“We don’t want guns, clashes and operations in this historical area, which has been a cradle to many civilizations,” Elçi appealed just moments before the gunshot that killed him.8


Two policemen were also shot. To date no one has been charged. Elçi’s brother pointed the finger at the state. “The state has various tricks, with all of which we are familiar from throughout the history of Turkish Republic. My brother was killed for demanding peace and being an opponent. When in trouble, the state commits massacres against intellectuals and opponents. The AKP government is doing the same thing today. My brother wasn’t caught in gunfire, but was deliberately targeted and shot dead. There is one single thing clear; my brother has been murdered by the state.” 9

“Peace” is a dirty word in Turkey because the state prefers to present the conflict as one of a just military combatting Kurdish terrorism dressed in the mantle of “separatism.”

Historically, Kurds in particular face an extremely high risk of suffering human rights abuses and even death when conscripted as soldiers. These deaths are still being covered up by military sources as ‘suicides’, ‘accidental shootings’, ‘accidents’ and ‘training casualties’ according to sources. Kurdish conscripts face endemic racial prejudice, daily humiliation, demeaning jobs, beatings, torture, and suspicious deaths dressed as ‘suicides’ that are then not being adequately investigated.

“Many irregularities have been revealed about the deaths. Some of the soldiers were apparently shot in the back or in the back of the head. Some were shot more than once, and then right-handed soldiers were found with bullet wounds on left temples. It was found that some even had undergone surgery to hide head wounds before their funerals.”10

Kurdish private, Mahsun Yap, from Dersim (Turkish, Tunceli), died during compulsory military service in the Edirne infantry brigade in 2013 11.  He had told his family of the numerous abuses he was suffering in the first six months of his service at the hands of his senior officers including deliberate sleep deprivation, being beaten, and kept under constant pressure such that he tried to flee but was found, captured and taken back to barracks. An initial military report claimed that ‘“he was hit by a military vehicle.” A further statement then claimed, “the military vehicle overturned, three soldiers were squashed and Masum Yap died.” Afterwards, military officials at the Istanbul Forensic Institute said that “he died due to internal bleeding,” according to Ergin Doğru, head of the Dersim branch of the former BDP 12(Peace and Democracy Party, the forerunner of today’s HDP, closed down on in April 2014 on allegations of links with the PKK.13 14

Kurdish absconders and draft evaders are generally perceived as being sympathetic to the PKK for having failed to perform military service willingly. Military service is considered by Turks to be undertaken as a sacred service for the ‘motherland’ (Anavatan). The difference in attitude immediately sets Kurds apart and renders the Kurdish individual liable to increased interrogation, punishment in a military court relative to the location of his military service branch and increased personal risks when sent as a conscript to perform military service after the completion of the statutory punishments.

The position had already become so serious in the 1990s that author, Nadire Mater, published the biographical accounts of what 42 conscripts had witnessed in her book Mehmed’in Kitabi, later translated into English, as Mehmet’s Book (an epithet for the Turkish solider affectionately tagged “little Mehmet”). The book set forth the plethora of violent abuses that soldiers were witness to, or had themselves committed when fighting in the predominantly Kurdish south east against the PKK.15 In 2005, the book was republished in English as Voices from the Front – Turkish Soldiers on the war with the Kurdish Guerrillas.16

More recently, research under the title of “suspicious deaths in the military” (in Turkish, Şüpheli asker ölümleri ) yields a host of documents. An article published in 2012 headed “Whose work are the thousands of suspicious deaths in the military?” (Askerde binlerce supheli olum kimlerin eseri?) begins by describing suspicious deaths in military service dressed as suicides at the beginning of 2012 asserting, “We entered the first days of the New Year with the news of “suspicious deaths during military service once again.” Several case details of specific suspicious deaths are then set forth. 17

Last year, the CHP again raised the issue of “suspicious deaths in military service” presenting a formal request for parliament to investigate. Hulya Karabağli writing for news T24.com observed in a long article, “Antalya CHP MP, Dr Niyazi Nefi Kara, presented a request to parliament to investigate why soldiers lost their lives during military service in suspicious deaths, suicides, weapons misfiring, accidents, training casualties and such like. Relatives who had lost loved ones in military service had founded the Association of Families Victim of Suspicious Deaths and Soldier’s Rights and other such organisations. Their reports and legal efforts still remained without resolution and said that trust in the TSK (Turkish Armed Forces) had been lessened both for the families and for our citizens responding to their call up…”

The MP underlined that in a verdict brought by the European Court of Human Rights in July as Turkey had taken no steps to prevent such deaths and no adequate investigation had been carried out, Turkey was in breach of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The right to life was being violated. Despite all efforts, physical and psychological violence in military service continues.18

Yet another of the numerous articles published in Turkish claims “90% of the so called suicides in military service are of Kurds. “The Istanbul branch of the Mazlum-Der association held a meeting in its branch headquarters on the issue of suspicious deaths in military service and ongoing human rights abuses in the army. Mazlum-Der’s Co-ordinator, lawyer, Mazlum Orak, emphasised that investigations into the suspicious deaths that occurred during military service were obstructed by the military hierarchy and that the verdicts given did not serve the interests of justice. “The military prosecutor, civil prosecutor and Military Court protect one another” he said.

One example given is that of Murat Oktay Can, a Kurdish conscript found dead in his guard hut on 5 September 2009 in the Kurdish region of Saritaş, Hozat. A military service prosecutor claimed the soldier had shot himself in the head and his death in the hut was a suicide.19

The original source for the article appears to have been Diyarbakir News published on 6 January 2012. 20 Can’s death was reported as one of a number of ‘suspicious deaths’ in military service at the beginning of 2012.

The Chief of Staff counterclaimed that the main reason soldiers ‘committed suicide’ owed to ‘existing psychological problems brought from outside.’

Mazlum Orak asked rhetorically “since soldiers have psychological problems why are weapons being put in their hands?”21

In one case of so-called suicide during military service the family of the victim from the Kurdish town of Mus, pursued legal remedies over their son Uysal Doğan’s suspicious death for almost three years. It was reported on 14 April 2015 that instead of getting the justice they sought the army sent back their son’s blood stained clothes in a bag after closing the case as lacking grounds for further investigation. The victim’s father, Rize Doğan, stated during a press conference convened in parliament with CHP member, Hüseyin Aygün, that “for 2.5 years instead of supporting us the Chief of Staff sent back my son’s blood stained clothes…

The Soldiers’ Rights Initiative hosts a Turkish language website, askerhaklari.com that takes account of reports from former conscripts. It recounted that “Based on the number that was announced in May 2012, in the last 22 years, 2,221 conscripts have committed suicide. This equals 100 conscripts per year or one conscript for every three or four days.”22

Rize Doğan, the victim’s father, emphasised that in cases where the army was claiming that the victims were ‘suicides’ these young men had suffered no prior problems such as to take their own lives.

“Our children do not commit suicide – would not commit suicide” he said. “The military came out with a piece of bullet afterwards. That wasn’t enough so next they presented us with a verdict of ‘no grounds for investigation’. That still wasn’t enough, so the next thing they did was to send is back a bloody bag. It is a shame, a sin. What are they trying to say by sending a bloody bag to the families? Is it to say that the evidence file is closed, that this means there is no more evidence?

The military courts prefer to close their cases rather than to investigate. The Chief of Staff did not even agree to grant our family an appointment to meet with us nor did they express any condolences. Nobody has accepted responsibility. It is the family that is responsible because they sent their son to perform military service.”23

Turkish military war drums

Turkey’s return to a war footing with the PKK, attacking the organisation’s known areas of civilian support within Turkey, its bases and camps in Iraq, and its sister organisation, the PYD, in Syria, means increased risks to ordinary Kurds on the street but even more to those Kurds made to perform military service. Kurdish conscripts confront impossible odds and real risks of being sent to fight against their fellow Kurds in the conflict zones.

Alevis and socialists – likely to be viewed as non-believers – also face generalised discrimination, physical risks of violence and untimely death during military service amidst the Sunni Turkish majority.

A new generation of Kurds is joining the PKK and PYD guerrillas to fight against both ISIS and the Turkish military after a potential diplomatic settlement had gained ground only to be sidestepped – and not for the first time. While the fighters officially constitute the main target of the Turkish military, the pro-Kurdish lobby remains under fire.

President Erdoğan pairs censorship with military domination. According to a Freedom House report published in 2013, Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media and Power in Turkey, over the last seven years the AKP government had restricted the freedom of the media through “intimidation, imprisonment and wiretapping.”24

Last year, summarising conditions in 2014, Freedom House observed: “Conditions for media freedom in Turkey continued to deteriorate in 2014 after several years of decline. The government enacted new laws that expanded both the state’s power to block websites and the surveillance capability of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Journalists faced unprecedented legal obstacles as the courts restricted reporting on corruption and national security issues…

“A measure adopted in April, the Law Amending the Law on State Intelligence Services and the National Intelligence Organization, granted the MİT much greater powers, including the ability to access any personal data without a court order. It also gave MİT personnel immunity for legal violations committed in the course of their work, and criminalized reporting on or acquiring information about the MİT. Media workers faced up to nine years in prison for publishing information from leaked intelligence material…

Censorship of content occurs both offline and online. Sensitive topics include Kurdish issues, the Armenian genocide, and subjects deemed offensive to Islam or the Turkish state…As part of the Third Judicial Reform package in 2012, all prior bans on publications were voided unless renewed by court order prior to a January 2013 deadline. Most of the prior bans on leftist and Kurdish publications were renewed.25

The military and intelligence services are given a free hand to accomplish what the legislation aims to achieve, simultaneously distorting and clamping down on the ground while maintaining the complicity.

1[1] http://www.turkeyanalyst.org/publications/turkey-analyst-articles/item/510-terror-likely-to-strengthen-turkish-militarism.html
2[1] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-blast-kurds-idUSKCN0VS245
3[1] zelal-dengtavzagros.blogspot.fr/2006/05/tak-teyrebazen-azadiya-kurdistan.html
4[1] www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/08/turkey-kurds-pkk-syria/401624/
5[1] http://www.indexmundi.com/turkey/military_service_age_and_obligation.html
6[1] http://www.todayszaman.com/op-ed_paid-exemptions-and-falling-fertility-rates-mean-challenges-ahead-for-turkeys-military_368398.html
7[1] http://rudaw.net/NewsDetails.aspx?pageid=191587
8[1] http://time.com/4128696/tahir-elci-kurdish-lawyer-assassination-turkey/
9[1] http://kurdishdailynews.org/2015/11/28/a-elci-my-brother-was-murdered-by-turkish-state/
10[1] http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/28112013
11[1] http://www.evrensel.net/haber/72990/kislada-bir-asker-daha-kazara-oldu
12[1] http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/28112013
13[1] http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4d622c7a2.pdf
14[1] http://medya-24.com/haber-8624-bdp_kapandi_._demirtas_bombalayip_veda_etti.html
15[1] http://www.idefix.com/kitap/mehmedin-kitabi-guneydoguda-savasmis-askerler-anlatiyor-nadire-mater/tanim.asp?sid=GFI8OOXKTK2K2S0XRK4S
16[1] http://bianet.org/bianet/human-rights/72337-voices-from-the-front-mehmets-speak-out
17[1] http://www.odak-direnis.com/askerde-%E2%80%9Cbinlerce-supheli-olum%E2%80%9D-kimlerin-eseri/
18[1] http://t24.com.tr/haber/chpden-askerlikte-supheli-olumler-icin-meclis-arastirmasi-talebi,319070
19[1] http://www.siverekname.com/haber/intihar-ettigi-soylenen-askerlerin-yuzde-90i-kurt-666.html
20[1] http://www.haberdiyarbakir.com
21 Ibid.
22[1] Rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/28112013
23[1] http://www.imctv.com.tr/tsk-supheli-sekilde-olen-askerin-kanli-elbiselerini-aileye-gonderdi/
24[1] https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Turkey%20Report%20-%202-3-14.pdf
25[1] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/turkey


Sheri Laizer, a Middle East and North African expert specialist and well known commentator on the Kurdish issue. She is a contributing writer for Ekurd.net. More about Sheri Laizer see below.