CPJ Dangerous Assignments: Sirnak 1998

Sirnak—Like other journalists before me, I was taken to the southeast on a trip organized by the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff. Most of our time was spent in and around Sirnak, a border garrison town that has become symbolic of all the problems of that region. Nowadays, the principal landmark in Sirnak is the building where an edition of Siyaset Meydan [a political talk show] was broadcast – a symbol of the new spirit of openness and transparency.

The first time I spent a night here was in April, 1991. I was trying to return to Cizre but was told it was too dangerous to travel after dusk. I was kindly offered a bed by someone whom I had met on the mountain tops at a time when thousands of Iraqi Kurds were fleeing to Turkey. I was hunting for news. He was searching for relatives.

That night he showed me a photo album of a teenage relative from Zahko who had come to Turkey on holiday the previous summer. That very day he had discovered her in one of the make-shift refugee camps on the other side of the border. As we talked we heard army gun and tracer fire outside.

As a courtesy, my hosts suggested I might like to have the less dangerous seat near the wall and away from the window, much in the way my own mother would insist that she and not the guest use the chipped saucer.

I returned to Sirnak at a time when Oktay Eksi [a normally conservative editorial writer for Hurriyet] shocked his readers by accusing the state of having organized the death squad that killed Musa Anter. At that time “openness and transparency” meant something different. There were few windows left, and entire walls of the governing party’s headquarters had been blown away after a night in August when Sirnak was surrounded by troops determined to flush out the PKK.

I recall talking to the town’s deputy mayor, a retired civil servant who had been co-opted to the job. He closed the door to his office against prying ears before confessing that he was afraid to stay, but could not afford to move elsewhere.

I wrote after that visit: “Fear in Sirnak is entrusting the future to the PKK, whose cadres still read Stalin and which is fighting not just the Turkish army but fellow Kurds across the border. Yet the government which says it recognizes the Kurdish reality will not admit that part of this reality is fear of the torturers and the employees of the state itself. Using a time-honored method of concealing their embarrassment, the army awarded a medal to the commander in Sirnak who opened fire on the city he was supposed to defend.

“If we could have spoken the truth, then this never would have happened,” said the deputy mayor in 1992. I remembered his wisdom on my trip to Sirnak last week. Fear in Sirnak then meant not being able to call for reconciliation without being accused and intimidated by either side.

The bullet holes have all been plastered over in Sirnak. The army says it has embarked on a campaign to “win the hearts and minds of local people.” It now faces criticism that if anything it is doing too much for local people, thus creating a culture of dependency. This is a long way from behaving like an army of occupation.

By chance I ran into my host from my first trip to Sirnak in 1991. He said things weren’t too bad now, but he also motioned at the crowd of security men surrounding our tour group. Now wasn’t really the best time to talk, he said.

It was an infuriatingly brief exchange. Was he genuinely afraid of talking to me? If so, it would contradict everything I was seeing and being told. Or was his fear simply a precaution, a habit left over from darker days? I want to believe that slowly and confidently, Sirnak and the rest of Turkey are learning to speak the truth. The alternative is to repeat the terrible incidents of its recent past.