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The endless search for Turkey’s disappeared

It was a cold day in Diyarbakır, the largest Kurdish-majority city in Turkey’s southeast, when I met Adnan Örhan at the local Human Rights Commission (HRC) office. Örhan is one of the directors in charge of the group’s commission on forced disappearances.

I had met him before, unaware that his family’s story was just like that of thousands across Turkey’s southeast that lost loved ones through forced disappearances in the 1990s.

“We are from the village of Zara (Çağlayan in Turkish), from the hamlet of Adrok (Deveboyu),” Adnan began. When his father, uncle and cousin disappeared in 1994, Adnan was at his first year at a boarding school in Lice, a district of Diyarbakır province.

The village is on the border of the districts of Kulp and Lice, and the Turkish military frequently torched villages at the time to root out separatist Kurdish guerrillas.

“All of the surrounding villages had been burned,” he recounted. “They came to our village as well. At the time, I was home with my family. They told my father and uncles to pack up and leave town. My father had two brothers. They all worked in agriculture and livestock. ‘We won’t leave the village, we have nowhere to go,’ they responded.

“There was a police station south of the village centre. My father decided we could set up a tent outside the police station, reasoning that we could stay safe, prove that we were civilians, not guerrilla fighters, and continue working the fields and animals. We set up camp outside the police station. I was the oldest of six children. We lived in the tent for 10 to 15 days.

“They used chemicals to burn our homes, so the men decided we should set up our tents beside our burned houses. We gathered our animals, went to our destroyed homes, and set up camp. It was May 24, 1994. When we woke up to take the animals outside, we saw soldiers approaching our tent. My mother told my father and uncles to go hide, because men who were arrested at that time were not set free. My father objected, asking, ‘How could we leave you?’ The soldiers came, and demanded identification from the men. My father, one of my uncles, and my 17-year-old cousin Cezayir provided their identification. The soldiers spoke to their commander over their radios.

“We learned that they reported to the commander of a brigade from the central Anatolian city of Bolu. The soldiers asked him, ‘Commander, Mehmet Selim Örhan, Hasan Örhan, and Cezayir Örhan are here, should we bring them in?’ The commander said yes. My whole family objected fiercely. The commander reassured us, ‘We are from Bolu, we are not familiar with this area, bring them in and we will release them later.’ We still refused. The third time they become firm and violent, hitting my sister with a rifle and making her go deaf. They took our men and we never heard from them again.”

“About two weeks later, some villagers came and informed us, ‘Civilians were killed on the Kevrekok side of Kulp. You should go and see if your family is among them.’ My other uncle, Salih Örhan, went with a few other villagers.

“I wanted to go too. They would not take me. They got in a pickup truck and left, and I will never forget how I ran after the truck until it disappeared,” Örhan said.

My uncle and the others found that the civilians who had been killed were wearing guerrilla uniforms, put on over their civilian clothes. The bodies were burned beyond recognition, and the villagers returned empty-handed.

“My father carried a cigarette case with a distinctive mark that he would take out to roll his own cigarettes. One of the villagers saw this tin and said that one of the bodies belonged to my father,” Adnan recalled. “This has never left my mind.”

The Örhan family applied everywhere for help and launched a legal complaint. In 2003, the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty of violating the right to life of Adnan Örhan’s father, uncle and cousin. But the bodies were still missing. In 2005, another family applied to the prosecutor’s office to search the area where the bodies were seen.

The prosecutor’s office exhumed the bodies and sent the bones to Istanbul for forensic examination. On hearing of this, Adnan Örhan thought back to the villager who had said he had seen his father’s cigarette case and applied for DNA testing. The results revealed that one of the bodies belonged to Mehmet Selim Örhan, and another to Hasan Örhan.

Adnan later travelled to the area and found witnesses. One of the witnesses recounted seeing a helicopter flying to and from the area where the bodies were found, before eventually leaving in the direction of Diyarbakır.

“We heard gunshots and screaming, and saw smoke,” the witness said. “There was a strong smell, and then silence. In the morning, the children went out to graze the animals and ran back screaming. Villagers went to investigate, and found the bodies.”

The victims appeared to have been shot and then burned. The village headman reported the bodies to the authorities. The prosecution and gendarmerie arrived on the scene three days later, had the villagers dig a pit, and deposited the bodies inside.

Yet the Örhan family still could not retrieve their bones.

“After the DNA results we experienced bittersweet happiness. The bones were found, and we could at least bury them in real graves. We waited for the bones for two years, from 2007 to 2009. Apparently they were sent from forensics to the Kulp prosecutor’s office, which had gathered them in a bag and buried them in the cemetery of the nameless. We announced we would report the Kulp prosecutor’s office, and after two years they informed us that the bones were in Lot 76 of the cemetery. The bag contains eight people’s remains. Three are from our family, and five are from the Bulut family. Cezayir’s bones, and the bones of two members of the Bulut family, were never found. We believe those bones are still in the grave,” Adnan Örhan said.

“We sent a petition to the Kulp prosecutor’s office saying, ‘You have already caused us so much pain, at least stop meddling with our bones.’ They responded in 2009 that they would not be reopening the grave, and we were never able to recover our bones.”

The bones cannot be recovered. They are still in a bag, in the cemetery of the nameless in Kulp. But in 2014, Örhan filed a criminal complaint against the Bolu brigade commander with support from the HRC and renowned human rights lawyer and activist Tahir Elçi, who was killed in 2015.

The prosecutor called a few witnesses to extend the statute of limitations on an event that had occurred two decades prior, but that was all.The criminal complaints hang in the air and no indictments have been filed. Nearly five years later, the Kulp prosecutor’s office has yet to provide a response.

Örhan has not given up. “I still have hope. Maybe a brave prosecutor will appear and acknowledge the documents, the witnesses, the allegations,” he said.

His father’s disappearance turned Örhan into a human rights activist. Now, he fights for the families of all those disappeared in those dark years.

“I experience the same feelings at every press conference for every victim of forced disappearances,” he said. “I lost my father. He loved me very much.”