Along the highway that runs through southeastern Turkey toward Iraq, wells poke up through the cornfields: a pastoral image, yet these well shafts are thought to hold a dirty secret. They’re being opened up by an excavation team, working under armed guard, as it searches for the remains of hundreds of civilians who vanished during the conflict between Kurdish separatists and Turkish security forces in the region during the 1990s. These “death wells,” it seems, may have made the perfect hiding spots for the bodies of victims.
In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government to fight for an independent state. Since then, an estimated 40,000 people have been killed in southeastern Turkey. In the mid-’90s, when the conflict peaked, villages were razed and civilians suspected of separatist sympathies vanished. The German magazine Der Spiegel reported some were dumped in the wells, while others were doused in acid and left in fields as a warning.
Many point their fingers at Jitem, a secret unit within the Turkish gendarmerie. While Jitem’s existence has never formally been acknowledged, its alleged founder, Veli Kücük, was arrested last year in a sweep that netted alleged members of Ergenekon, an ultra-nationalist group accused of plotting to overthrow the Turkish government. Kücük is now on trial, and Kurds are watching closely.
Pressured by Kurdish families seeking to learn the whereabouts of their loved ones, lawyers have been petitioning for a thorough investigation, including opening up the wells. “Our first demand is to find the bones of the missing,” says lawyer Abdulaziz Tokay. “But the most important thing is to identify those responsible for their disappearance, and punish them.” Already, some bones and cloth have been recovered.