Cizre, Turkey — In August 1993, a farmer from a village near this dusty town on the banks of the Tigris rode off to a nearby village and never returned. The only indication Nadir Nayci's family had of what happened to him was the return of his horse, which came limping home the next day.
"We haven't had any happiness since my father disappeared. We're always wondering where he was taken and ... what was done to him," says Ramazan Nayci. "I'm hoping his bones will be found. We want to know that our father has a proper grave, a place we can visit and pray at."
For Mr. Nayci – and other relatives of 6,500 Kurds who either disappeared or were killed during Turkey's 15-year war with separatist Kurdish guerrillas, which was concentrated here in the country's southeast – that possibility is suddenly closer than ever. The catalyst is a high-profile investigation of a plot to overthrow Turkey's government, which has landed formerly untouchable military figures in jail, emboldening Kurds to uncover the injustices of a not-so-distant past.
In June, the first missing person's case was successfully resolved as part of a wave of searches inspired by the so-called Ergenekon investigation, named for the shadowy right-wing group with ties to the military that it is targeting. The recently discovered remains of another Cizre farmer, Hasan Ergul, missing since 1995 after allegedly being picked up by a plainclothes policeman, were identified and his family buried him in their village.
Then in mid-July, locals whose relatives went missing filed a lawsuit against a former military man arrested in the wake of the Ergenekon case, claiming he was involved in the disappearances.
"The Ergenekon investigation has allowed people to talk about their feelings and ask for their rights, especially if they have missing relatives.... People feel safer to talk about what happened," says Tahir Elci, a lawyer in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.
"Kurdish society knows very well the people who are now in jail," he says. "We know what they did. Now the rest of Turkish society is going to learn."
Investigation sparks change
Only 20 miles from Iraq's border, Cizre was right in the middle of the fighting between the guerrillas of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces, a war that claimed an estimated 40,000 lives between 1984 and 1999. Human rights groups estimate that 5,000 extrajudicial killings were committed and 1,500 went missing, mostly at the hands of state elements.
In recent months, excavations of suspected mass graves and cemeteries holding bodies that had initially been deemed unidentifiable have been conducted in several locations in the southeast, yielding bones that are now undergoing DNA testing.
The spark for this change has been the Ergenekon investigation, taking place mostly in Istanbul and Ankara, which has already resulted in the arrest of some 200 people, among them retired four-star generals and prominent politicians, journalists, and academics.
Based on secret testimony and gathered evidence, prosecutors say the plotters planned to bring down the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) by sowing such chaos, through terror attacks and high-level assassinations, that the military would be forced to assert control of the state.
Reopening files of the missing
The head of the local bar association in Cizre, Nusirevan Elci, these days finds himself more and more dealing with families ready to look for their missing loved ones. Last December, Mr. Elci's office decided to start writing petitions to local prosecutors to reopen the files of the missing. Since then, some 120 families have come asking for help. The bar association has also pushed investigators to start excavations at several suspected mass graves, with more to come.
"We tried to do these investigations before, but the empire of fear was still very strong here," says Elci. "We had to force families to talk about who they lost. They were not only afraid, but they were also hopeless about getting any results.
"Ergenekon is a big opportunity for Turkey," he says. "The state needs to look at its past and come to terms with it."
Muharrem Erbey, a serious-looking lawyer who directs the Diyarbakir office of Turkey's Human Rights Association (IHD), is quick to point out that the excavations of suspected grave sites now taking place were not initiated by the state's prosecutors.
"They are happening because of our own hard work, by the pressure of the families that have been pushing for this," says Mr. Erbey, whose desk faces five large framed photographs of former IHD chiefs whose murders in the 1980s and '90s are still unsolved.
Not afraid to ask anymore
The home of Hasan Ergul, the farmer whose remains were recently identified, stands just outside Cizre, in the small village of Cukurca. This past April, following information given in a newspaper interview by a former member of a police unit believed to be behind many of the disappearances and unexplained killings in the southeast, Ergul's relatives started looking at old government files of unclaimed bodies found in the region.
In one of the files, they found pictures of a body that resembled the missing Hasan. They were then able to persuade a local court to have the body exhumed and sent for DNA testing.
"Before, we were scared to say anything," says Ata Ergul, sitting in the courtyard of his missing brother's house, shaded by a massive grapevine. "But because of [the Ergenekon] investigation, we saw other people asking about their missing relatives. We realized we were not alone.
"It's unbelievable that these people are in jail," Mr. Ergul continues, referring to some of the military and police figures now jailed as a result of the Ergenekon case. "These people were the gods of this region. We're not surprised by the names of those arrested, but that they're in jail is unbelievable. It's like a dream."
"We hope that all those who are responsible for the killings stand before a judge," he adds. "Our pain and sadness are very deep."•