Turkey's Disappeared: The Pain of the Past and New Dangers

August 4, 2011

Turkey, more than most countries, is a place where forgetting the past has become a central component of national culture.   This August 30, the International Day of the Disappeared, is a time when Turkey should renew its efforts at uncovering and facing some of the uglier pages of that past in the hopes of creating a freer, more democratic future.

Kurdish women hold portraits of their missing sons during a demonstration against the killing of 12 Kurdish rebels by security forces. © Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

Although many mass graves in Turkey can be traced to the beginning of the century, a map recently published in the daily, Radikal, highlights the startling extent of such sites dating from the 1990’s, when the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish nationalist, PKK, or Kurdish Workers’ Party, burned hottest.  The bodies of thousands were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves.

As I have noted in previous postings, Turkish officialdom has been shockingly lackadaisical in investigating and preserving evidence from those graves which have been uncovered.  Although Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan has shown a willingness to meet with families of the disappeared, little action on the ground has occurred.   Bones from these mass graves – evidence in murders – is routinely destroyed.

In one recent case, the municipal government began using a known mass grave site as a public dump.  The families of the disappeared, however, do not forgetForty thousand marched this past Spring to draw attention to the problem, though this remarkable event received little attention.  Their demands are the most human: to bury their loved ones; to honor their memories by seeking justice; to prevent new crimes by committing Turkey to signing the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Cengiz Aktar has noted:

The lack of memory is a national feature of [Turkey]…You know, if you don’t have a memory of the Armenian genocide, you won’t have a memory of the killings of Kurds and others. So, I think the insistence for truth and reconciliation is extremely important to make sure the Turkish society will one day become a normal one, by being capable of facing its history.

In a summer which has seen a sharp upsurge in violence between the Turkish government and the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, it may be a particularly good time to remember, on August 30, that Turkey has an unhappy stake in the annual commemoration of the International Day of the Disappeared.

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