Roboski: Murdered for the Crime of Being Impoverished Kurds

On December 28, 2011, the Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink was in Istanbul when the Turkish army massacred members of a Kurdish convoy transporting goods between Turkey and Iraq. Witness reports revealed during the investigation that it occured with the knowledge of the authorities. The government of northern Kurdistan made sure that people remained absorbed in their daily life, away from political and armed activities. However, authorities decided to launch air strikes against a group of people, who were predominantly minors and were crossing the border in the town of Roboski in Şırnak province. As a result, all 34 members of the group who are no more than impoverished villagers were massacred. Nineteen among them were 18 years old or under.

Days after the massacre, Frederike decided to investigate the attack, portrayed by Turkish media as a suspicious incident linked to a group of rebels, or in best cases, the result of a mix-up between smugglers and “rebels”. As a result, Frederike published a book titled “The Boys are Dead” on the history of the Kurdish question in Turkey which she commenced and concluded by bringing up the massacre of Roboski asking the important question: Where these people really killed because they were Kurdish?

This question would later prompt the author to work on a separate field investigation that lasted almost a year throughout which Frederike remained among PKK fighters in several mountainous strongholds. Her book was published in Dutch in 2018, and later in English in early 2021 under the title “This Fire Never Dies.”

The Roboski massacre was a turning point in the Dutch journalist’s career. She did not rely on reports, choosing instead to learn more about the region of Roboski while she moved from one home to the other within the small town whose residents she became well acquainted with. Among the massacre’s victims was a man named Osman Kaplan. Frederike came to know his family quite well and spent much time with them, as she did with families of other victims. Mahmoud was Kaplan’s youngest son who was only five at the time. When Frederike saw him outside his parents’ home, he was climbing a tree oblivious to the events that have unfolded.

On the anniversary of the massacre, Frederike Geerdink sent a message to Mahmoud Kaplan via the Kurdish Centre for Studies:

Utrecht, 23 December 2021

Dear Mahmut,

You were just five years old when I met you for the first time. ‘Six, six!’ you shouted, but your big sisters Sinem and Esra were sure it was five and laughed at you, the little one. You couldn’t bother too much, being the little bouncing ball that you were: with your friend – what was his name again? – you were climbing on the broken blue living room door and swinging back and forth. When your mom sent you outside to play, you ran out, jumped and grabbed a branch of the tree that was in front of the house and continued swinging. “Aapje”, I called you, Dutch for ‘little monkey’. You looked at me and said: “Aapjûh”, perfectly pronounced. Do you remember?

You didn’t know what had happened just three months earlier, on 28 December 2011. What changed for you that day was that suddenly, your dad wasn’t around anymore. That he had been bombed to death by the Turkish army, together with 33 other border traders when they were about to cross into Turkey again – how could anybody explain that to you?
That’s one thing I remember, that your mom, Pakize, told me that she and the rest of the adults didn’t really try to explain to the children what had happened. You kids put the pieces of the puzzle together yourselves, combining everything that happened in the village with the reports on TV. But you only put the pieces together in all the years after that. Your sister Hülya, seven years old on that day I first walked into your family’s house, explained that in a story I read two, three years ago. She said that she learned over the years what had happened, and she wondered how it was possible that she, a child, knew, but that the government still didn’t seem to understand. She’s seventeen now. Does she know already that the government knows perfectly well what happened and that the mass murder was deliberate, and that they don’t care?

You may have been small, dear Mahmut, and running, jumping and bouncing around, but there were moments that you suddenly hushed. That was when you, or somebody else, like your mother or grandmother, held the big framed photo of Osman Kaplan, your dad, which was usually at commemorations. Your lively body would immediately sit down quietly, your eyes would lower in sadness, your happy smiling face would stop moving, your mouth closed. Your head would bend down. Even now when I recall that image, my heart goes out to you.

I have not called your family often enough since I was thrown out of Turkey in September 2015. A few years ago, we talked on the phone, remember? You asked me when I would come again. Really, if I could I would be there tomorrow, but Turkey still won’t let me in. Do you know that I was planning to travel to Roboskî the day after the Turkish police detained me in Yüksekova? It was almost Eid al-Adha. And it was war again, after Erdoğan ended the peace process after two years. I wanted to spend the holidays with your family and the other villagers. I wondered what the end of the peace process meant for Roboskî. For every day life, and for the families’ call for justice.

Ever since, the border trade has stopped. Would you have engaged in it if it had still been possible, despite what happened to your father? At fifteen years old, you surely would have felt old enough for it, like the nineteen boys who died in the massacre. I heard that several men again started earning an income by signing up as a village guard for the state, however much they despise the system. Did your older brother, Özkan, opt for that? I can’t imagine he’s 22 years old already.

In an online article of a few years ago, I read that you were the one of the children who asked your mom the most questions about your dad. Your mom told the journalist that you were the most introvert of her five children, that you visit your father’s grave every day and keep asking why he was murdered. When I came to the village for the first time, five days after the massacre and three months before I met you and your family, I asked the families of the victims the same: “Why did this happen?” You know what they answered? “Because we are Kurds.”

As a journalist, I couldn’t take that answer for granted. I wanted to understand why they said that, and explain it to my readers. And after all my investigations, all the interviews, all the searching in historical sources, all my visits to the village, I concluded exactly the same: your father, Osman Kaplan, and the 33 others, were murdered because they were Kurds. You must be in the middle of your journey of discovering what it means to be a Kurd in Turkey. You are learning in an incredibly hard way. You are not alone, dear Mahmut. An incredibly loving family, a village, a nation, a whole movement is with you.

And I am with you too. May my heart shrivel if I forget Roboskî.

Take care, Mahmut. We’ll meet again!

Fréderike

Author

  • Frederike Geerdink

    Journalist, writer and speaker focused on power structures, and those who want to tear them down. She works in Kurdistan and the Netherlands and is the author of 'This Fire Never Dies', (2021). Her previous book, 'The Boys are Dead: The Roboski Massacre and the Kurdish Question in Turkey', (2015) was nominated for the Brusse Prize.

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