TURKEY: HDP MP Çelik points finger at “pro-state” groups as questions about murdered Chaldean couple go unanswered

MAHRE, MARDIN, Turkey – In the latest turn of events in the kidnapping and murder case of the elderly Chaldean couple Shmuni and Hirmiz Diril, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) issued a statement on one of its affiliated websites in which it denied any involvement in the case and claims the perpetrators are likely “counter-guerrilla” forces:

“On 11 January, the Chaldean couple Şimoni and Hürmüz Diril disappeared from their village Mahre. On that day, these two civilians were kidnapped and killed by three persons carrying out counter-guerrilla activities in the region. The bodies of these two civilian compatriots were thrown into the Hezil River.”

The couple went missing from the mountainous and historically Chaldean village of Mahre in Şirnak province on 11 January 2020. One of the couple’s sons found the mutilated body of Shmuni Diril on 20 March in a riverbed near their village of Mahre after the deep snow blanketing the village had melted, uncovering her body. Shmuni had been dead for some time. And it is not the first drama in the family.

The village of Mahre has a history of forced migration and displacement. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish military declared area encompassing the village part of a forbidden military zone during the fierce armed conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK. The villages inhabitants were forced to leave their homes, many of them, including the Dirils, relocated to Istanbul.

Out of love for their village and its history and longing for the mountains, Hirmiz and Shmuni returned from Istanbul to Mahre when conditions allowed but only to find a tragic fate. A fate they now share with the two grandchildren of Shmuni’s uncle.

The two children, Ilyas (12) and Zeki (16), were detained in the 1990s when traveling to visit Mahre. They have not been heard of since. No arrests were ever made related to their disappearance. Like the case of Shmuni and Hirmiz, it is unclear how hard Turkish authorities pursued the case, if at all.

Also read: The case of Shmuni and Hirmiz Diril has more questions than answers

The PKK statement raises new questions as to why the Dirils were kidnapped and by whom. While only the body of Shmuni has been discovered, the PKK statement refers to Hirmiz as being dead as well. It is unclear if this is an assumption of if the PKK know more about the fate of the Dirils.

The only assumed eyewitness, an elderly Chaldean man who also lived in the otherwise empty village, testified that he had seen three individuals who looked like members of the PKK entering the village and taking the Dirils away. The PKK had dispersed hideouts in the region and moves around the area. PKK members active in the area from time to time called on the elderly couple for bread and food.

According to Syriac Member of Turkish Parliament Tuma Çelik (HDP), the couple and their neighbor were not on good terms. “This person, who is known not to be on good terms with the Diril family, initially testified that the Diril couple had been kidnapped by three PKK members,” said Çelik. “Then he changed his statement and said that the couple was alone when they left their home.”

Çelik, who has been following the case closely, commented on the case in a virtual press conference with journalists of Agos, Bianet, and Gazete Duvar. In the press conference, Çelik indicated that he doesn’t think the perpetrators will be found amongst the PKK but in the camp of pro-state actors:

“… I definitely do not think that it was done by the organization. I also do not believe that it was done by the instruction of the state. But, the fact that such an incident took place in an area where the state dominates 24/7 and the developments that occurred after that make one think that it was a kidnapping carried out with the ones who lean on the state or groups within the state in one way or another. If the state and the authorities there want it, they can bring this incident into the open clearly. If they do not make the necessary effort to bring it into light, then, it means that there is something else going on here.

Turkey has a criminal record in terms of missing persons, disappearances, and unidentified murders. The recent incidents remind us of the 1990s. The alleged counter-activities in this case of missing couple, the confidentiality orders issued for the file, the investigations not opened, and the contradictory witness statements all leave a question mark in our minds.”

Çelik has visited the area several times since the disappearances to bring the case to the attention of the relevant authorities. Already in April he raise the case in Turkish parliament. “To find Hirmiz Diril, a full and comprehensive search needs to be conducted,” said Çelik in his parliamentary address. “By bringing the case to parliament, I call and the urge authorities to take urgent action to find Hirmiz Diril.”

But Turkish authorities have so far kept the status of the case a secret. In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, one of the couple’s sons, Remzi, a Chaldean priest, remarked that, “from the start and under the pretext of harsh winter conditions in the mountainous area, no real search was carried out and no proper investigation was done.”

“Turkish authorities only flew twice over the area with a drone,” said Father Remzi. “That was all.”

Remzi blames Turkish authorities for showing little interest in his parents’ disappearance. Le Monde concludes that Turkish police and security forces have been negligent and have done little thorough investigating. Turkish authorities wanted to make little of the disappearances even when it became apparent something was amiss. According to Çelik, a confidentiality order has been imposed on the case by the prosecutor’s office, restricting what little information there is about the case from the public.

In an interview with Bianet news agency, family member George Diril confirmed the authorities’ position:

“We constantly asked state authorities for help. But they were not sincere and a confidentiality order was imposed on the dossier. On the day when this order was issued, authorities came to the village. It was an utter show: They circled the house, took pictures and left. Then, news was circulated that ‘a search was carried out despite harsh weather conditions.’ But no search was done. Our voice was not heard. No one cared.”

Region of conflict

In its statement, the PKK also says that “blame was put on the PKK for this inhuman crime against the ancestral people of Mahre” by Turkish authorities. Allegations back and forth are not uncommon between Turkey and the PKK, who have been embroiled in a bloody conflict dating back to the 1980s.

In its struggle for Kurdish rights, the PKK carries out armed attacks and bombings against the institutions of the Turkish state and military. Although the organization primarily focuses its attacks on the Turkish military, suspected attacks have also hit civilian targets. In response, the Turkish state from the 1980s onward has increasingly militarized the country’s southeast. At the peak of the fighting in the 1990s, state-sanctioned campaigns of disappearances and extrajudicial killings were the norm. Turkish authorities filled its security gaps by aligning prominent Kurdish families and tribal chieftains with the state and recruiting so-called “village guards”. Another response was pushing its U.S. and European allies to list the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Peace talks between the government and the PKK, which began in 2013, officially broke down in 2015. The subsequent fallout led to a return of regular operations between the two forces. According to some analysts, Turkey’s political and military establishment feared the spreading of a de facto autonomy in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast where many local, municipal, and provincial positions were held by the reformist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

On 17 July 2015, after scuppering the Dolmabahce Agreement — a 10-point plan negotiated in February 2015 between the Turkish government and HDP aimed at establishing a long-term strategy for peace — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated to the media:

“There is a government. So there is a political party with its grassroots [from the PKK]. If there is a step to take for the future of our country, this should be made in parliament. There cannot be an agreement with a political party that is being supported by a terrorist organisation.”

The HDP is routinely accused by Turkey’s nationalist and Islamist parties as being an extension of the PKK its members and after the collapse of the peace talks, Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) began removing elected HDP mayors and administrators from office — often imprisoning them — replacing them with state appointed trustees.

From the PKK’s perspective, there were fears that the Turkish state was using the ceasefire to expand military positions in the southeast and prepare for the resumption of military operations. In a public statement, the Kurdish Communities Union (Koma Civaken Kurdistan, KCK) — the transnational political body of which the PKK is a part — laid out its criticism of the Turkish government:

“The Turkish state has used the ceasefire not for a democratic political solution but for preparing for a new war and strengthening its hand in this future war, by building dozens of military posts, roads and dams for the use of the military, and committing cultural genocide.”

Caught in a web of violence

The Diril case is more than a tragic one-off missing persons or murder case. It is one in a long list of disappearances and murders with unanswered questions and an absence of justice. The Disappearance and murder of the Dirils is a single piece of a larger mosaic of violence. The Syriac heartland of Tur Abdin in southeast Turkey has a long and troubled history. From the Ottoman genocides of Syriacs (Arameans-Chaldeans-Assyrians), Armenians, and Pontic Greeks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the unsolved killings and forced village evacuations of the 1980s and 1990s, the Christians of Tur Abdin have been caught in a web of violence spun over centuries that has left their numbers in the mere thousands.

Also read: Platform Turabdin statement in Diril missing and murder case: “We Are Not Prey!”

A 2012 New York Times article on the Syriac town of Beth Zabday (Azech or Idil in Turkish) strikingly exemplifies the historic and contemporary emptying of Syriac towns and villages in Tur Abdin, their native inhabitants pushed into emigration by pro-state Kurdish tribes. Processes which began in Formerly a majority Syriac town, the number of Syriacs began to decline in the 1980s after state-backed Kurds from surrounding villages targeted the takeover of the town. They succeeded.

“In Azech, which held out against a siege by surrounding Kurdish villages for months in 1915, the final push in the age-old power struggle over the town began in 1977, when Mayor Sükrü Tutus was deposed by the Turkish authorities in what his successor, Abdurrahman Abay, today freely acknowledges was a rigged election.

‘The military commander, the judge, the district governor – they encouraged me to run and they helped me to win,’ said Mr. Abay, chief of the powerful Kecan tribe … ‘After the election, I received a telegram from Egypt, from Anwar al-Sadat. It read: “I congratulate you on the Muslim conquest of Idil.”‘

The takeover brought the dramatic shift in the town’s demographics that was completed in 1994, with Kurds from the surrounding villages moving in as Syriac families sold up and joined the rising flow of Christian migration from the Tur Abdin to Europe.”

After the murder of re-elected Mayor Sükrü Tutus in 1994, the Syriacs living in Beth Zabday, today, can be counted of one hand.

According to the European Syriac Union in its 2019 Turkey country report, harassment, random arrests, and unsolved killings of Syriacs are not novel and random. The report lists 45 names of murdered Syriac persons between 1987 and 1998 whose cases remain unsolved. It also states that in 1987 there was still a strong Syriac presence in Tur Abdin. In 1998, this number was down to a few thousand. Today, there are an estimated 3,000 Syriacs left in Tur Abdin.

The European Syriac Union report claims the recent arrests of a Syriac monk and the mayor of the Syriac village Arkah (Üçköy) over terrorist allegations are just the most recent example of a history marked by harassment, intimidation, and murder. A history that, given the trajectory of Turkish politics and international indifference to the plight of the countries minorities, is unlikely to change anytime soon.