Life in a “State of Exception”: Kurdish Memories of Southeastern Turkey in the 1990s

The “State of Exception” (in Turkish, Olağanüstü Hal-OHAL) was imposed in 1987 and lasted until 2002. It targeted the Kurdish regions of Turkey, including rural areas/villages and the cities of Diyarbakır, Bingöl, Elazığ, Hakkari, Mardin, Siirt, Tunceli, and Van. The “state of exception” was a regime in which the state apparatus, specifically the police and military, could not be legally questioned and state representatives as “super mayors” were protected by special anti-terrorism legislation (in the tradition of, but arguably even exceeding, those of South Africa and Northern Ireland). Thus, they took their decisions with total impunity, outside of the normal legal or human rights conventions. Most of these operations were undertaken by “persons unkown” and were, as a rule, publicly denied. It is for this reason that a project to reconstruct the memories of those who suffered during this period is absolutely essential.

According to official numbers (which may well be underestimates) 3,428 villages were forcibly evacuated, creating a flood of people heading towards cities like Diyarbakir, Mersin, Istanbul, and Izmir. Whole villages, livestock and surrounding fields were destroyed by fire, in the presence of their inhabitants, who were then forced to flee. Almost 17,500 people were “disappeared” – most were killed and their bodies have not been recovered or returned. Their murderers were unidentified and have not yet been brought to justice. No-one was judged for these operations. Although some military figures are now under arrest for these activities, the “state of exception” with its special anti-terrorism acts justified every unlawful operation at the time.

Even though the OHAL regime was officially ended in May 2002, key elements of the legal apparatus that was developed during that long period still exist and are still in operation. Since April 2009, thousands of mainly Kurdish activists and politicians have been imprisoned. There was even a surge in the numbers arrested toward the end of 2011, including Turkish journalists and academics from non-Kurdish regions, including Istanbul. This indicates that the “state of exception” continues in some form or another even today in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.

The special regime that was implemented in Southeastern Turkey from 1987 to 2002 is known as Olağanüstü Hal (OHAL), roughly translated as “State of Exception”. The consequences of OHAL are still visible in the region and there is a strong perception in the southeast of Turkey that it is in effect even today. OHAL was a military rule administered by civil authorities. The regime resulted in many human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, torture, destruction of villages, forced migration, forced conscription into paramilitary groups (koruculuk sistemi), etc.

The purpose of our project is to reveal the consequences of the OHAL regime on the Kurdish people, to make public the human rights violations to which they were subjected, and to disseminate their collective memories of the OHAL regime. The experiences of places like South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Guatemala demonstrate that it is necessary to confront the past for a reconciliation process to play its part in regional conflict resolution. We believe that the successful completion of this project will contribute to such a reconciliation process in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.

The 60 in-depth interviews we will conduct in the field will give a detailed account of the OHAL regime. We will conduct 30 interviews in Diyarbakır, 15 in Mardin, 15 in Mersin, 10 in Tunceli. These are the cities that were either ruled under OHAL regime or received considerable amounts of rural people who were forced to migrate as a result of persecution.  We decided to use the following parameters to analyse the OHAL regime:

  1. Living in OHAL

-Reaction to OHAL; silence, victimhood, fear, hopelessness, flight and political involvement

-Youth; growing up under the violence of OHAL, cultural assimilation (Turkification of Kurds), forced schooling in Regional Boarding Schools (YİBOs)

-Political socialization of the OHAL generations

-Common feelings in OHAL; new forms of solidarity, new social values, and re-organisation of everyday life.

  1. Memories of Violence

– Extrajudicial killings in Kurdish collective memory and commemorations

– Discovery of mass graves

– Memory of deserted villages

– Memory of “OHAL children”

– Women’s memory, “Saturday Mothers” and the disappeared in Turkey

– Transmission of OHAL experience from one generation to another

  1. A traumatised people

– The experience of collective trauma and associated individual traumas

– Post-traumatic stress disorders

– Lack of security; definition of security and traumatic effects of “state security”

 -Uninterrupted trauma; the trauma of forced migration, new city life, adaptation, poverty, etc.

– Fear of constant surveillance, criminalisation of victims

– Stigmatisation of Kurdish people as “dangerous citizens”

  1. In search of truth

– Coming to terms with the OHAL regime

– Reckoning with the past

– Creating conditions for peace and reconciliation

– The possibility of constructing truth commissions