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Turkey's Kurdish minority unearths justice at last

By Yigal SchleiferCorrespondent / August 15, 2009

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.

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"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.