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Kurdish villagers are dying at the hands of a war the world has ignored for too long

Because we didn’t pay attention to the thousands of Kurdish villages Turkey destroyed in the 1990s, the Turkish state still believes it can act largely without scrutiny

Kathleen Kern
Sunday 16 December 2018 18:54
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Family mourning Himdat Osman Darwish – a Kurdish villager killed during a bombing – by his grave
Family mourning Himdat Osman Darwish – a Kurdish villager killed during a bombing – by his grave

We arrived in Barmiza village one year to the day that the Turkish military bombed the car of 20-year-old Himdat Osman Darwish as he was driving to work. Other civilians were on the road as well – not PKK guerilla fighters, the ostensible reason that Turkey uses for bombing these areas where Kurdish villagers live. Himdat left behind a wife and four-month-old son.

Dressed in black, the women of the village gathered with the family’s mothers and sisters in observation of the anniversary of Himdat’s death. The men told us how the 13 Turkish military bases on the hilltops around Barmiza are strangling the village – bases built inside the internationally recognized borders of Iraq.

They detailed what appears to be the Turkish military’s current strategy to empty Barmiza of its inhabitants: villagers who take their flocks more than 400 meters in the direction of any of the thirteen bases are at risk of getting shot or bombed.

Dozens of Kurdish villages along the border are facing an identical situation. Both Iran and Turkey also bomb these villages from across the border, because guerillas resisting their governments make their homes in Iraqi Kurdistan’s mountain caves.

European and US allies of Turkey – because of lucrative weapons contracts and because it serves as an attractive location to base Middle East military operations – do not seem to care that the warplanes they sell to Turkey drop bombs on Kurdish civilians, nor that Turkey seems to have a long-term plan of re-establishing its Ottoman Empire.

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“They want us to disappear,” Sumaz, our Kurdish colleague, had said that day as we discussed Turkey’s displacement of more than ninety villages closer to the border in 1995.

But we knew she was talking about something more sinister and overwhelming. By 2003, human rights groups estimate that Turkey had destroyed approximately 4000 Kurdish villages in Turkey.

More famously, Saddam Hussein destroyed around 5000 Kurdish villages in Iraq, culminating in his notorious Anfal campaign during the 1980s, in which 182,000 Kurds died and more than a million were displaced.

Himdat’s mother, Shema appeared in the doorway. Leaning against the frame, eyes downcast, she broke into our conversation to ask us if we needed anything else, because she was preparing to leave with the women for the cemetery.

I winced when the freelance photographer traveling with us asked if he could follow them, but she stood taller in her black clothes – a color she would now wear for the rest of her life, according to Sumaz – and nodded her head in urgent agreement.

When we arrived at the cemetery, the mourning ritual had begun. Shema was singing a traditional Kurdish dirge, in which the mourner recounts the attributes and actions of her beloved.

Every so often, her strength gave out and she vented her grief in wordless anguish while older women tended to her. Himdat’s father, who had accompanied us to the cemetery, crouched away from the group in his green workman’s overalls, his back hunched in solitary mourning, wiping his eyes.

Two Kurdish members of our team prayed through their tears.

I glanced at the Turkish military base overlooking the cemetery, one of the thirteen that made it so deadly for the villagers to tend their flocks and fields. Perhaps Shema was willing to have the photographer record this occasion of mourning so that her son’s death would not become another of thousands in the ongoing Kurdish genocide that passed unnoticed.

After another attack of sobbing had wracked her thin body, she drew a breath. Her pale brown eyes met ours. “Do you see? Do you see how much we loved him?” they seemed to ask.

The next day we visited the family of Dunya Rasheed. Dunya died this June in a mortar attack near a Turkish military base as she gathered seeds from the kanger plant (also known as gundelia) with other villagers from Halania.

We had shared Dunya’s story widely through our internet platforms, along with a family photo of her with her brother’s disembodied hand resting on her shoulder.

I had looked at her amiable face so often, that when I had a chance to travel to Iraqi Kurdistan last month, I wanted to ask Dunya’s family what she was like as a person.

I had no intention of reviewing the tragic events of her death. But her mother, after sharing briefly how sociable, smart and respectful she was, slipped into an altered state and, as though she could not help herself, began in a monotone detailing what happened on the day she died.

She said that Dunya at first didn’t want to go collect the seeds, and her father said she could stay home. That she changed her mind, because all her friends were going. That her mother had brought her an extra bottle of water and told her to drink, because the day was hot, but she said she was fine. That her daughter’s body had floated into the air in an explosion of dust when the mortar hit her.

That her son had placed his sister’s body – its arm, shoulder and leg ripped away – on his mother’s chest so she could hold her. That after the Turkish soldiers collected the mortar fragments, they ordered the family to say that a landmine had killed her.

Kurdish journalists never contacted the family about Dunya’s death, and Dunya’s father bitterly complained that he had seen no mention of it in any Kurdish publications. (The Kurdish political parties control all the major media and the KDP, which controls the region where the family lives, is friendly to Turkey.)

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“When an American woman was killed in Duhok, the whole world knew,” he said. The fact that his oldest daughter’s murder by the Turkish state would pass unnoticed still gnaws at him, because her absence has left such a giant wound in this family.

“If Dunya were here, it would be different,” her mother finished. “She would be happy you were here. Everyone loved her. Everyone who knew Dunya is like me now. All of her teachers. All of her friends. She was so different, so lovely; God didn’t want me to have her. She is always in front of my eyes. This has been a great disaster for all of us.”

Here is a picture of Dunya. Her name means “world".

Dunya Rasheed (Christian Peacemaker Teams: Iraqi Kurdistan)

Both the Talmud and the Quran have some variation on the saying, “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world.”

Because the international community did not pay attention to the thousands of Kurdish villages Turkey destroyed in the 1990s and the unknown number of Kurds it killed and disappeared, the Turkish state believes it can kill a Kurdish civilian here and depopulate a Kurdish village there largely without scrutiny.

But for Himdat and Dunya’s families, for the hundreds of families mourning the losses of their loved ones and their villages in the last two decades, Turkey has destroyed, and continues to destroy, entire worlds.

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