Dr. B.K. was performing her rounds at Cizre State Hospital when she heard the sound of gunshots.
“The nurses from the first floor came rushing through the door saying that security forces were downstairs,” she said. “We could hear gunfire on the roof, as well as from the first floor. We moved all the patients into the corridors, away from the windows and tried to use shelving units as shields. The hospital was under attack for the whole night.”
Dr. B.K. was working in Turkey’s restive southeast in the summer of 2015 when hostilities broke out between Kurdish youth militias and Turkish security forces. Dr. B.K., originally from western Turkey, had no idea that she would complete her medical residency in what she calls a virtual war zone.
In April and May 2016, PHR conducted field research into reported human rights violations committed over the past year of civil unrest in Kurdish-dominated southeast Turkey. PHR’s report, “Southeastern Turkey: Health Care Under Siege,” details the persecution faced by health professionals treating the sick and wounded in towns under 24-hour lockdowns known as “curfews,” and other grave human rights violations being committed against residents of the southeast with absolute impunity.
Turkey's southeast has been under a de facto state of emergency for the past year. Turkish authorities placed cities and towns under round-the-clock curfews while Kurdish fighters and Turkish security forces clashed in the streets. Both sides committed human rights violations, and victims have been unable to seek justice. The nationwide state of emergency declared on July 20 after the failed military coup to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government only deepened the threat of further instability, suffering, and impunity in the country.
In order to prevent more loss of life, Turkish authorities must cease unlawful practices that obstruct access to health care, and commit to investigating all allegations of human rights violations committed since July 2015 in the southeast. Even more importantly, the suffering and abuses committed in the southeast must not be ignored in the wake of Turkey’s national upheaval after the attempted coup.
Of particular concern is the dismissal of nearly 3,000 judges in the first few days after the coup attempt, which have stripped the judiciary of the little independence and impartiality it had left in the government’s quest to erase any and all dissent. The judiciary was often the one safeguard preventing human rights defenders in Turkey from being imprisoned, and a last small hope for justice for those in the southeast who have been detained, displaced, or killed during the past year of fighting.
Sitting in a café in Istanbul, Dr. B.K. described the destruction she saw in the streets of Cizre, one of the southeast’s most devastated towns. She recounted the killings of dozens of people under a six-day lockdown of the entire city in September 2015. A friend of hers at the hospital, a nurse named Eyüp Eren, was among those killed, allegedly shot by police on his way home from the hospital on September 25 of last year.
Eren’s death, like hundreds of others, has not been investigated. In fact, crimes committed over the past year may never be investigated, as the government appears to be covering-up or destroying evidence. In one case, more than 100 people died after being trapped in a series of basements in Cizre, and instead of gathering evidence to find out what happened, government officials bulldozed the buildings.
Besides failing to investigate human rights violations, Turkish military officials have contributed to the deterioration of the health care system in the southeast. In cities under curfew, the Turkish military took over state hospitals, turning the facilities into headquarters and barracks for security forces. In turn, the military occupation of these hospitals – often the only remaining health facilities in operation in cities under curfew – deterred local residents from seeking health care. The result: dozens of preventable deaths as Turkish security forces impeded access to urgent medical care for wounded and sick residents.
Turkish authorities have also targeted health care workers with legal actions. Authorities have charged them with crimes such as “making terrorist propaganda,” and “being part of an illegal organization,” or subjecting them to administrative inquiries by the Ministry of Health for participating in protests calling for peace in the southeast, or in some cases, for treating suspected rebel fighters.
As a result of prolonged unrest, the health care system in southeast Turkey has deteriorated, with many family health centers – residents’ primary public health provider – destroyed, and others struggling to re-open with inadequate staff and resources. It will require roughly one billion Turkish liras – or $340 million U.S. dollars – to rebuild destroyed infrastructure. In the meantime, local residents, many who have lost their homes, are still displaced. They will continue to struggle through ongoing unrest and violence with little hope for remedy, reparation, or justice for human rights violations committed during the fighting.
Turkey must uphold its human rights obligations, and the international community must hold the government accountable for its crimes – otherwise, thousands in Turkey’s southeast will continue to live in fear of further death and destruction, without hope for justice for those who have already fallen victim to the violence.