After decades of denial, assimilation and repression of the Kurdish population by the Turkish state, the Kurds, estimated to constitute 15 to 20 percent of the overall population of Turkey, began to demand recognition in the late 1950s. However, the state did not tolerate these peaceful demands and increased the level of repression, furthering the radicalization of the Kurdish movement’s goals and methods. In 1984, after the 1980 military coup, the Kurdish movement began a guerilla war against the Turkish state. The armed conflict between the Kurdish guerillas and the Turkish state intensified in the following years, and the 1990s witnessed a bloody civil war during which tens of thousands of people from each side died and millions of Kurds were displaced from their homes. As human rights violations by the state security apparatus increased dramatically, the level of activity by human rights associations in the Kurdish region also increased, despite many incidents in which human rights activists were targeted by state forces. Although the armed conflict brought no political victory for either side in the 1990s, peace negotiations began quite late in the conflict, after 2009. Despite interruptions along the way, the peace process is still in progress. As the conflict between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state continued, an attack by PKK guerillas using mines planted near the oil wells within the city limits of Batman killed four people: Sadi Özdemir, the former president of the Human Rights Association’s Batman branch; Salih Özdemir, a former executive of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP); Sofi Özdemir, a member of the Özdemir family; and Sedat Özevin, the former president of the Batman Bar Association. Details of the incident are still incomplete. It is believed the activists had gone to the oil wells in a car to investigate the reasons for an explosion and fire in the petroleum fields, and to provide help in case it was needed. Unfortunately, the PKK guerillas were in the midst of an operation to damage property; they had neutralized four security guards protecting the petroleum field, considered the car a possible threat, and therefore activated additional mines they had planted. The four victims were activists who had worked for years in human rights advocacy. After the incident, the PKK apologized to the victims and their families, claimed they were initiating an investigation into the guerillas, and then announced that the perpetrators of the attack had been taken into custody.
Scope and Purpose
The murder of four activists generated great anger against the PKK in the city of Batman, since they had struggled for the rights of the Kurds. Some of them had even been tortured by the police and pressured by state authorities after defending victims of state violence. Serhat Temel, the mayor of Batman and a member of the BDP, decided to create a memorialization project that would commemorate these victims. The municipality first contacted the families of the victims to gain their permission. The memorial was then unveiled in September 2012, in front of a large crowd, in one of the parks in the city center. The names of the victims were written on placards affixed to the memorial, and it included the inscription, “Those who are in the hearts of their people are immortal.” Close relatives of the victims, prominent political figures in the Kurdish region such as MPs and mayors, and many other people participated in the ceremony.
The first crucial impact of the construction of this memorial was the recognition of the suffering of the victims’ relatives. Hülya Özevin, wife of Sedat Özevin, stated that “The way people lived is much more important than the way they died. As the people most harmed by the war, they are looking forward to peace.” Sabri Özdemir, the brother of Sofu Özdemir, read a poem written by his elder brother. Another impact of this memorialization project involves society at large. In the past, in many cases of violence it was almost impossible to identify the penetrators, so that both parties to the conflict blamed each other. This is one of the rare cases in which the Kurdish movement admitted wrongdoing, apologized to the families, and promised to prevent similar rights violations in the future. During the opening ceremony, Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, said that “If the war is protracted, dirtiness proliferates,” and then highlighted the urgent need for resolution of the Kurdish question that would eliminate the reasons for such incidents.
Since the PKK and the BDP represent two different political organizations fighting for a similar cause, they are generally seen as two faces of the same coin by the state and mainstream media in Turkey. As the armed conflict, continues, the government and the media have used the Batman incident to demonize the Kurdish movement and discredit it among the Kurds. Indeed, a headline in the media about this memorialization project read, “The PKK Killed and the BDP Erected a Monument.” So the main challenge after the incident was to avoid instrumentalization of the situation by the political parties for their own purposes. Nevertheless, truth was revealed and the awful incident was transformed into a message of peace through memorialization.