Kurdish boys killed as tensions rise in Cizre
‘Please help me find who killed my son,’ Ayse Kazanhan sobbed, sitting on the brightly carpeted living room floor, shaking back and forth.
‘My son didn’t do anything. I can’t understand why they did this. He was a very special boy.’
Last month, 12-year-old Nihat Kazanhan was fatally shot by unknown gunmen in the predominantly Kurdish city of Cizre, in southeastern Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
He was one of at least six people – mostly youths – who have been shot dead since late December last year.
His death was the latest in a string of tragedies which threaten to undermine the fragile peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish-Kurdish guerrilla group designated as a terrorist organization by the US and European Union because of its three-decade insurgency for self-rule.
On 14 January, hours before Nihat was killed, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, called for calm in Cizre, four months since the latest crisis began. He warned his loyal followers not to fuel a conflict that has already claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Later that day, Nihat was playing on the street on the outskirts of the city near his family’s home with six other children when he was allegedly shot by police who were on patrol, according to witnesses and family members.
He immediately fell to the ground before a friend put him in a car and rushed him to hospital. Activists, pro-Kurdish media and witnesses also claimed the police fired teargas and plastic bullets that hit the car Nihat was in.
‘The police tried to stop them from getting to the hospital. Another police officer came and tried to get rid of the evidence,’ Mehmet Emin Kazanhan, Nihat’s father, claimed.
‘If there wasn’t police present, we believe they would have just made him disappear. When we watch the news and it says the police didn’t kill our boy, that really hurts us.’
Nihat made it to hospital alive but died 10 minutes later. He was allegedly shot in the back of the head with a five-centimetre plastic bullet.
He was one of nine children and was in sixth grade; he loved to play outside with friends. However, the last couple of months of Nihat’s life had been marred by fear: he had stayed home from school for the last 40 days, scared of police and security forces.
‘Last year my son and some other boys were out playing when the police came and took them to the police station,’ Mehmet recalled. ‘The police held a knife to his throat and told him they’d cut his penis off.’
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu insisted Turkish security forces were not behind the child’s death – that they had fired neither bullets nor teargas. But at the end of January, in an unprecedented move, a police officer was arrested as part of the investigation into Nihat’s death. But for the family, the pain is far from over.
‘[It wasn’t just] one police officer did this. Who sent them? Who told them to kill my son? Why did the government and police say they didn’t kill my son? We want to know everything,’ Mehmet insisted.‘Nothing is going to change, but we want to find out who did this.’
As in the worst days
Cizre, in the Sirnak province, has historically experienced high levels of state violence and support for the outlawed PKK.
As in the worst days of violence in the 1990s, when clashes between militants and police were frequent, locals are rushing home before darkness falls and ditches have been dug around neighbourhoods to prevent security forces from entering.
The crisis here began in October when protests erupted in the southeast over the government’s refusal to aid the Kurds defending Kobane.
At least 35 people lost their lives in the worst outbreak of violence since Abdullah Ocalan announced a ceasefire in 2013. While many believe the jailed leader may call an end to his party’s armed struggle next month, others are fearful that the ongoing unrest in Cizre could unravel the peace process.
While Kobane has since been liberated after a four-month struggle, others here believe Cizre could in fact be the next Kobane.
‘I went to the hospital, there were people everywhere. When I asked where my boy was, they took me to the morgue’
‘They are worse than ISIS – they kill children,’ one resident said. ‘They only kill Kurdish people.’
A week before Nihat was killed, another local, 14-year-old Umit Kurt, was shot dead as he walked home from work. Umit’s father, Abdullah Kurt, speaks about his son with pride and passion.
Hanging on the wall of the family’s living room is a large photograph of Umit, right next to a picture of Ocalan.
‘He was a very lively boy. He found a job as an apprentice painter and everyone told me what a lovely boy he was – working and looking after the family,’ Abdullah said.
‘We were eating dinner when someone knocked at the door. My son answered the door and told us Umit was shot – that he was gone. I went to the hospital, there were people everywhere. When I asked where my boy was, they took me to the morgue. They pulled the sheet back and when I saw him, I knew it was Umit.’
Umit and another young boy left a construction site not far from the family’s home on the evening of 6 January. The boys went off in different directions and Umit continued walking alone down a dark street.
Earlier that day, residents had refilled a trench that barred entrance to Umit’s neighbourhood but less than an hour later, several armoured police vehicles entered, according to residents.
Gunfire and teargas echoed throughout the streets; Umit was hit from the back, a bullet piercing him right near his heart. It killed him instantly.
‘There’s only one word: Kurdish. It’s because we’re Kurdish,’ Abdullah said angrily. ‘The Kurdish people want real peace and freedom. My son never wanted to fight. If this violence continues, Cizre is going to be worse than Kobane.’
Early last month, Cizre Public Prosecution Office decided to classify any state findings into Umit’s death, with no explanation, leaving more unanswered questions. But for the family and other residents, the killings are no secret or surprise – they will just be added to the list of unsolved murders.
‘Until I die, I will work on finding out who is responsible for my son’s death,’ promised Abdullah.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.