Evidence collected by Amnesty International in a fact-finding mission indicates that multiple Turkish government airstrikes killed eight residents and injured at least eight others – including a child – in a flagrantly unlawful attack on the village of Zergele, in the Kandil Mountains in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The airstrikes on August 1 were part of a military campaign launched by Turkey against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) but according to information gathered by Amnesty International these residents were not affiliated with the PKK. The organization is calling on the Turkish government to launch an independent, impartial and effective investigation into the airstrikes and to publicly release the findings of their investigation.
“The recent attacks in Kandil maimed, killed, and displaced residents, destroying homes and terrifying locals in an area where no military targets appeared to be present,” said Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International who visited the area.
“The evidence of these casualties raises serious concerns about the lawfulness of the attack in Kandil, and underscores the need for any investigation into the airstrikes to be independent, impartial and to ensure accountability and reparations for victims and their families.”
Whether or not the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish government amount to a non-international armed conflict, under both the laws of war and international human rights law the killing of residents not affiliated with the PKK is unlawful.
The Turkish authorities had initially claimed the strikes were targeting PKK members at a “terrorist camp.” They have since announced plans to conduct a joint investigation into the strikes with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG).
Evidence gathered during a visit by Amnesty International to the village of Zergele three days after the airstrikes suggests all those killed and injured in the attack were not affiliated with the PKK. Amnesty International spoke to several eyewitnesses, including two doctors who rescued the wounded and three residents who consistently said that none of the dead or injured were PKK fighters and that there were no PKK fighters in the area. Those killed included a local mayor and two municipality workers.
All the witnesses who were present at the time of the attack or arrived there shortly afterwards said that the victims wore civilian clothes and that they saw no weapons on the scene. Amnesty International reviewed 10 photographs and one video from the scene that were consistent with these witness statements.
Dr. Medya, a doctor and member of the PKK, who runs a health clinic for residents, in a nearby village, described what she saw when she arrived on the scene to Amnesty International:
I saw a lot of people crying about their relatives. One woman fell down…she had hypertension. I saw someone with a wound in the head. I saw a person… [his organs had spilled] outside, [he was ]wounded, and in shock position…He [Najeeb Aziz] died. He had lost too much blood. Another one was completely burnt. Some people, how can I say, were shocked and crying…several houses completely destroyed…another clinic which is about 400 meters away, even there you could see the shells, you could see the destroyed windows, and in the mosque too.”
Dr. Medya and Dr. Derbass Salih Mohamed Ameen, an assistant doctor in the Zergele Health Center, had both travelled to the strike site to rescue the wounded in the early morning hours of August 1.
Witnesses also said many relatives and first responders who came to assist the wounded in the first airstrike were killed and injured in subsequent attacks.
Among them was Salih Mohamed Ameen, the mayor of Bokriskan, a nearby village, who was killed along with his sister, Heybet Mohamed Ameen, after he came to aid the wounded.
Residents also said some of those killed and injured included KRG Peshmerga fighters. These fighters are not involved in the clashes between the PKK and the Turkish government but rather are fighting against the group that calls itself Islamic State (IS) in other parts of the country and would be considered civilians under international humanitarian law in the context of a Turkey-PKK conflict.
Amnesty International also found no checkpoints, police stations, or fixed military positions in the village of Zergele, confirming accounts from residents who said no PKK fighters were positioned or residing in the villages. The nearest fixed checkpoints were approximately 25 kilometers and 3-5 kilometers by land respectively, on either side of the village.
A media spokesperson authorized to speak on behalf of the PKK told Amnesty International that in order to ensure civilian protection PKK fighters did not mix with the residents and that as a general practice they maintained positions at least 5 kilometers away from them.
On August 4 Amnesty International observed a few PKK fighters in the village. However, local residents and the PKK spokesman said they had arrived in the area after the strike to maintain security.
“The apparent absence of a military target within the vicinity of the airstrikes suggests that these strikes are unlawful whether or not there is an armed conflict between the Turkish authorities and the PKK. The Turkish government has displayed a flagrant disregard for the lives of local residents and failed to take necessary precautions to minimize harm to them, or to discriminate between them and PKK fighters,” said Lama Fakih.
“These attacks should be investigated, and Turkish authorities should ensure accountability and redress in the event of wrongdoing.”
Residents killed and injured in events of August 1
The interviewees told Amnesty International that the airstrikes on Zergele took place between 3am-5am in the early morning hours of 1 August killing eight people and wounding at least eight others. Witness accounts about the number of bombings that took place varied but they recalled up to 11 distinct explosions in the area that morning.
Residents, first responders and a local journalist told Amnesty International that the deceased were: Ayesha Ahmed Mustafa (married name Khedir), Karoh Mohamed Ameen (Peshmerga), Salih Mohamed Ameen (local mayor), Heybet Mohamed Ameen, Najeeb Aziz, Sama Khabat (municipality worker), Endomen Sharawonch (municipality worker), and Abdulkader Bakr (Peshmerga). They said that the injured included: Mohamed Ameen (Peshmerga) and his sister-in-law Sinur, Gerbet Ahmed, her sister Shukariya Ahmed, their mother Khadija, and their niece Chilan Rasheed, a child. Amnesty International received the names of two other individuals who were wounded but did not speak with them or their relatives and so is withholding their names.
Dr. Derbass told Amnesty International that Ayesha Ahmed Mustafa (married name Khedir), an elderly woman, was killed in the first strike which hit her home. He said that he was at home in Goljar, eight kilometres away from Zergele, when the first strike took place but that he came to the strike site shortly after 5:15am to evacuate the wounded.
According to Dr. Derbass and two other residents who were on the scene, Karoh Mohamed Ameen , in his early thirties, Ayesha’s grandson, a Peshmerga fighter, and his father Mohamed Ameen, also a Peshmerga fighter, went to the strike site to assist the wounded. Karoh was killed and his father critically injured. Mohamed’s sister-in-law, Sinur, was injured while trying to flee, a resident said. Her home was also damaged. Her husband, a Peshmerga fighter, was not at home at the time of the attack.
Dr. Medya and Dr. Derbass also separately told Amnesty International that four others living in a second home were injured and evacuated. Dr. Derbass confirmed the four injured women were: Gerbet Ahmed, her sister Shukariya Ahmed, their mother Khadija, and Chilan Rasheed, their niece. According to Dr. Derbass, one of the women worked in his clinic, another was training to work in the clinic, and the other two were students. The home that the injured women were in was owned by Rasheed Ahmed, a Peshmerga trainer, Chilan’s father, Gherbet and Shukariya’s brother, and Khadija’s son. He was not in the village at the time of the attack.
Amnesty International spoke with Shukariya and another relative who went to the strike site to rescue her and other family members from the nearby village of Bokriskan. They told Amnesty International that the four women were injured as they attempted to flee; Shukariya lost her left arm as a result of her injury, Khadija sustained an injury to the head, Gherbet lost an eye and had a shrapnel injury in the chest, and Chilan sustained a shrapnel injury to the chest.
Dr. Derbass told Amnesty International that both Salih Mohamed Ameen and his sister, Heybet Mohamed Ameen were also killed in the strikes. Both Dr. Derbass and Dr. Medya confirmed that Salih, the mayor of Bokriskan, was killed when he came to aid the wounded.
Dr. Medya said that she evacuated three people from the strike site, including Najeeb Aziz, a shop owner living in Zergele and working in Anzah, approximately 50-55 years old, who died from his injuries, and two other men.
Sama Khabat, in her mid-twenties and Endomen Sharawonch , both municipality employees, were also killed when they went to the strike site to aid the wounded according to Dr. Derbass and a local journalist. Witnesses confirmed that municipality workers wear a blue uniform and do not carry arms.
Abdulkader Bakr from Bokriskan, a Peshmerga fighter was also killed in his home according to Dr. Derbass.
Amnesty International observed that approximately 10 homes were impacted in the airstrikes, several of these homes were occupied by Peshmerga fighters and their family members. Others belonged to residents who worked in the fields.
Members of the PKK, an armed group active in Turkey, have long maintained bases in the Kandil Mountains, a mountain range in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq bordering Iran and extending into southern Turkey. There are 61 villages in the mountain range under PKK control that are inhabited by civilians who live in areas distinct from the PKK fighters, according to Mohamed Hassan, the co-chair of the Kandil Mountains municipality. He told Amnesty International that the overall population, according to a 2013 census, is about 8,000 residents.
The Turkish government airstrikes against the PKK in the Kandil Mountains began on July 24, after an attack in Turkey blamed on the PKK. The attacks against the PKK in the Kandil Mountains and attacks by the PKK on Turkish military and police in Turkey represent the most serious breakdown in a fragile peace process between the PKK and the Turkish government that commenced in March 2013.
The airstrikes came after long running tensions escalated on July 20 when a suicide attack blamed on IS killed 32 people and injured more than 80 in the town of Suruç in the Sanlıurfa province in Turkey. Two days later, two police officers were killed in a separate attack in the province, blamed on the PKK. Following the airstrikes in Kandil, the PKK has launched a number of attacks against the military and police within Turkey.