Kurdish families fight for justice for those killed by the Turkish state

Defaced graves in a Kurdish graveyard
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Content Warning: graphic descriptions of state violence and disrespect for the dead

In 2021 and 2022, I was part of two delegations to Bakur, the part of Kurdistan that lies within Turkey’s borders. The delegations were comprised of people from different groups and organisations in the UK, including the Canary, the Industrial Workers of the World union, anti-repression groups, and the Kurdistan Solidarity Network. We conducted interviews with people from different organisations in the region.

One of these organisations was the Amed (Diyarbakır) branch of MEBYA-DER, whose full name is ‘Aid and Solidarity Association for People Who Lost Their Relatives in the Cradle of Civilizations’.

MEBYA-DER is comprised of Kurdish families who are collectively demanding justice while fighting against the Turkish state’s assimilationist policies, which seek to destroy their identity and struggle both in life and death. Its main aims are to ensure the return of their relatives’ bodies and proper research into the cause of their death, and to campaign for justice against the state’s inhumane attacks on the dead.

A member told us:

The state pursues psychological war, especially against the families of martyrs.

Remembering the fallen

Defending the memory of the fallen and carrying on the struggle that they gave their lives for is a practice that exists across the world. In Kurdistan, nearly every family close to the Kurdish Freedom Movement has lost at least one person. The martyrs and their sacrifices are central to the political, social, and spiritual history that is written and lived by millions of people in the movement.

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The importance of the martyrs is also recognised by the Turkish state, which identifies them – and the traditions surrounding them – as a threat. The state frequently desecrates individual bodies, often in highly violent and misogynistic ways, and damages or destroys entire graveyards beyond its national borders.

One member of the association told us:

I am a mother of three martyrs. I was charged [and threatened] with three years of prison, but not sentenced. The only thing that happened in my life is that I had three children who were killed. They indirectly and, actually, directly tell us: you either die or are imprisoned if you don’t obey. We cannot talk about human rights, democracy, or justice [of the state] – only violence and repression. Of course we fight back.

Recovering bodies from the hands of the state

Another member of MEBYA-DER told us:

Our main aim is to reach martyrs’ bodies, because the state creates a lot of problems to reach them.

The bodies of those killed in the conflict are often “returned in pieces”, or are never returned to their families at all. There are massive delays before the bodies are returned, and before the necessary DNA testing can be carried out in order for relatives to identify their loved ones. One of the mothers told us:

264 cemeteries were excavated to allegedly test DNA from the bones, but later on they found that the bones taken from the graves were actually used in the roads as a material.

In other instances, the military or state would publicly present parts of the bodies to intimidate people and to create provocation.

Last month, one father picked up the remains of his son – a civilian killed by the state during the 2015 siege of Sur in Amed. The bones of Hakan Arslan were handed over in a white bag to his father, mimicking the degrading treatment of the remains of Agit İpek, Mahsum Arslan, and other guerillas who were sent via the post in storage boxes and white bags to their families.

Children’s bodies decapitated

One of the mothers in MEBYA-DER said:

Some friends here have family members who were martyred and at the same time they have someone in prison. They witnessed many brutal cases of state violence against the dead bodies and the prisoners. I have seen that some of our children were decapitated – this was done after they were killed.

All of these actions of the state are extensions of colonial violence into the grieving process. Even ceremonies are weaponised, with severe limitations on attendance and armed entourages of the military and police.

The mother continued:

Only three family members can attend the ceremony. The police escort you to the cemetery and you are not allowed to wash the bodies, which is important in Islam.

Investigating the causes of death

One of the biggest struggles is determining the causes of death, with limited access to specialist equipment and no institutional recourse to carry out tests. According to one parent:

When I talk about my son who was martyred, he died with 16 others in Dersim. When we found them, there were no wounds. We were able to get only 3 bodies out of the 16 martyrs. They were killed by chemical weapons. When their bodies were found, their eyes were completely filled with blood.

Since the state knows that these chemicals can only be analysed up to a certain point after death, they refuse to give up the bodies. It has been 4 years. There were many attempts within those 4 years, with no response.”

In 2019, a photo of 13-year-old Mohammed Hamid Mohammed covered in horrific burns went viral. The attack happened in northeast Syria during the military offensive named ‘Operation Peace Spring’ that Turkey launched against the region. His burns are widely considered to be from white phosphorous. However, nothing has happened since then to hold the Turkish state to account.

Steve Sweeney, an English journalist, travelled throughout South Kurdistan in Iraq during 2020 and 2021 to investigate reports of chemical weapons being deployed by the Turkish state. In interviews he conducted with local shepherds, civilian families, and military personnel, Sweeney recorded various accounts of acute pathology symptoms consistent with chemical weapon attacks, and the deaths of people and livestock. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has declined to investigate.

“even the dead are attacked.”

Cemeteries are often attacked by the state and vandalised, especially if they contain the graves of Kurdish guerillas. Members of MEBYA-DER showed us the photographs, below, from a cemetery in Lice, Amed province, taken in 2021. The cemetery is known to contain the remains of many people who died in the liberation movement.

A defaced grave in a Kurdish graveyard
A Kurdish cemetery with desecrated gravestones


According to one member of MEBYA-DER:

 The Turkish state has announced all Kurdish struggle, and indirectly the Kurdish people, as terrorists.

In early March 2021, two female board members of MEBYA-DER – Meryem Soylu, 79 and Hatun Aslan, 71 – were arrested for ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’. Meryem Soylu was sentenced to six years and three months in prison in March 2022.

Meryam Soylu
Meryem Soylu – sentenced to six years in prison – Picture from ANF


This is what thousands of individuals are charged with for participating in legal civil society organisations. There are 10,000 Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey, most of them jailed for phoney terrorism-related charges.

One mother in MEBYA-DER told us:

We are doing demonstrations and gatherings to raise awareness. Before, we used to protest in [offices of] the Bar Association, now we protest outside the courthouses and prisons and do press conferences. We do everything we can through social media as well. Even though I haven’t done anything, the state comes twice a month to raid my house because of my family [who are martyrs].

These actions are also taken by organised mothers in Istanbul, Van and Batman. Known collectively as the Saturday Mothers, they undertake public sit-in protests and vigils, often for hundreds of weeks at a time, against the enforced disappearances of their relatives and other grave injustices.

Imprisoned for involvement in legal organisations

In November 2021, co-chair of MEBYA-DER Şeyhmus Karadağ (below, right) was sentenced to 6 years and 3 months in prison. One month later, co-chair Yüksel Almas (below, left) was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Yüksel Almas
Yüksel Almas (left) and Şeyhmus Karadağ (right) – Picture via ANF


Yüksel Almas was imprisoned because she attended commemorative events for the martyrs murdered by the state, and for giving interviews and speeches. She spoke publicly about the burning of her native village by the Turkish army in the 1990s, the torture carried out, and the process of fleeing.

She demanded that the perpetrators of extra-judicial executions and forced disappearances are brought to justice, that the state reveal the locations of mass graves, and that they hand over the abducted bodies of those killed in the Kurdish liberation struggle.

This is a state strategy of making legal organisations effectively illegal by bringing baseless terrorism cases against their members person-by-person. Once enough members have been convicted, the state can brand the entire organisation as ‘terrorist’ and outlaw its existence. This attack is not limited to MEBYA-DER. A member of the organisation told us:

“It doesn’t matter which organisation it is – all face this.

Prison as warfare; isolation as a weapon

The prisoner solidarity organisation TUHAD-FED (Legal and Solidarity Associations Federation of Prisoners and Convict Families) told us how prisoners were kept without proper nutrition or access to healthcare, and were being tortured. While prisoners are individually repressed by the prison, it is also designed to destroy the ecosystem of the community. This is a microcosm of the state’s enclosure of Kurdish society, with the words “we are living in a prison” being echoed by several people we met during our time in the region.

In a country where it is both illegal to criticise the president and the state – something as small as a social media post or a flyer for a student march has serious consequences. Many people we met had cases due to these types of actions.

TUHAD-FED told us that Turkey is testing a new ‘S-type’ prison system that relies on isolation as the main method of control. It is a secretive programme with little public information. Prisoners are kept alone. This is a development on the F-type prison system introduced in 2000, in which two prisoners are kept together per room and communal time is severely restricted.

This contrasts with the ward-style prison system which comprises the majority of the prisons in Turkey –  people spend time together as a group, and may have the ability to interact with between six and 20-or-more people at a time throughout the day, depending on the prison type.

In 2000, there was massive resistance within Turkish prisons against the introduction of the F-type system. It was recognised as a method of psychological warfare imported from advanced capitalist states like the US and UK as a direct method to break the organisation of prisoners.

At least 816 prisoners carried out death fasts. 122 people were martyred during the fasts, and others died in military occupations of the prisons when the state tried to crush the resistance. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) publicly approved of the F-type’s introduction.

The founder of the Kurdish movement, Abdullah Öcalan, has been incarcerated on the prison island of İmralı since 1999. For most of those 23 years, he has been kept in solitary confinement, a procedure that is internationally considered to be torture.

One MEBYA-DER member reflected on how Öcalan’s treatment is a mirror for the treatment of Kurdish people:

Isolation of our leader is complemented by isolation of our culture, language, our legal activities, and the state creating obstacles for our work.

As elections loom, tension increases economic crisis

With elections planned for June 2023, Erdoğan’s attempts to maintain his 20-year regime are relying increasingly on nationalist and colonial policies of “eradicating the terrorist threat” through desperate attempts to crush the democratic structures of the Kurdish movement, and all of the left. Meanwhile, Erdoğan is positioning himself as a necessary geopolitical actor and a peace-maker between Russia and Ukraine.

Inflation in Turkey at the time of writing is officially at 83%. Independent organisations put the number at 181%. 1 in 5 young people are unemployed. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government is being hit by a series of highly publicised corruption scandals, particularly in relation to the mismanagement of the economy and bribery attempts by high-level advisors close to Erdoğan. The thin veneer of democracy may be beginning to fracture even for people who have previously supported the 20-year-long dictatorship of AKP.

As these crises of the state unfold, organisation across Kurdish society continues. As one member of MEBYA-DER told us:

We will fight until we get our freedom in every sense. Until our leader is released. Until we get the freedom of language and culture. Let our voices be heard wherever you are!

Featured Image via MEBYA-DER (With permission)

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Get involved

  • Sign the petition for the removal of the PKK from the EU’s list of terrorist organisations.
  • Build solidarity and knowledge of the Kurdistan freedom movement in your unions and organisations.
  • Investigate weapons deals in your country and plan disruption: who is supplying what to Turkey?
  • Watch out for calls to campaigns and protests on Rojava Information Centre and Kurdistan Solidarity Network media.


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