It was an autumn day 25 years ago in the small Kurdish town of Vartinis (Altınova), in Muş province. The military was conducting operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the mountains close to the town and one soldier and one PKK member were killed. Passing through the town with the body of the dead soldier, witnesses said Gendarmerie Commander Bülent Karaoğlu shouted to the people of Vartinis:
“Tonight I will burn this town, I will destroy you”.
The people of Vartinis nervously waiting for night to fall. It was 3 am when the soldiers returned. They knocked on all of the doors and demanded the men to come to the town square, tied up their hands and forced them to kneel. The soldiers then set the house of the Öğüt family on fire, witnesses said.
Nasır Öğüt and his pregnant wife Eşref Öğüt, were sleeping at home with seven of their children; Şirin, age one, Çınar, two, Cihan, three, Aycan, six, Şakir, seven, 12-year-old Sevda and 17-year-old Sevim. Their eldest daughter, Aysel, was staying at a neighbour’s house.
As the fire took hold, the children tried to escape. But witnesses said the soldiers had locked the doors from the outside. The children went to the windows, but soldiers beat them with rifles butts, to stop them getting out. Neighbours ran to the house to help, but soldiers kept them back, the witnesses said.
Aysel Öğüt, 18 at that time, said she watched the killing of her family from the neighbor’s house. Villagers said nine people, seven of them children, were burnt alive in the Öğüt home. The bodies were unrecognisable and buried together.
Nasır Öğüt’s brother tried to take the perpetrators to court but gave up when he received death threats. Aysel Öğüt, the only surviving member of the family, demanded an investigation be opened in 2003, but the Muş prosecutor’s office rejected her application, saying the PKK was responsible.
She applied for a investigation repeatedly until a prosecution was opened in 2013, 20 years after the massacre. A case was filed against Gendarmerie Lieutenant Bülent Karaoğlu, Gendarmerie Senior First Lieutenant Hanefi Akyıldız, Special Operations Chief Şerafettin Uz and Gendarmerie Staff Sergeant Turhan Nurdoğan on charges of “causing multiple deaths of individuals by deliberately burning a house”.
The trial opened in December, 2013. The defendants said they either did not remember the incident, or said the PKK started the fire. Many witnesses told the court the soldiers burnt the house. But in June 2016 all the defendants were acquitted.
Why am I telling you this today?
After the verdict, Aysel Öğüt took the case to the Supreme Court. Last week, the Supreme Court overturned the acquittal, which means there is a small hope that the soldiers will be retried.
But most likely, the case of the Vartinis massacre will be closed, just like those of other massacres in Turkey. While looking at the only remaining photograph of the Öğüt family, it is scary to think that those who burnt those children alive remain at large.
In the 1990s, rights groups estimate there were thousands of extrajudicial in the Kurdish region of Turkey. How many of those who carried out these crimes are walking among us? They make up our society. Perhaps they drive our children to school or work in an office, perhaps they own the local restaurant we go to with our family. As a society, are we okay living with these people?