The road to Cizre: Entering the site of a massacre (OP-ED by RT correspondent)
It is emotionally crushing to walk the smashed streets of Cizre’s bombed-out Mahallesi neighborhoods. In the few short months since last December, when the 24-hour lockdown was first imposed by the Turkish state on the town’s predominantly Kurdish population, the violent level of destruction has been so total and so indiscriminate that many structures are now totally decimated. Those buildings that do still stand are on the verge of collapse, with gaping holes blasted in their walls from shelling. You’d be hard pressed to find a square meter of brickwork that hasn’t been strafed with machine-gun fire. Objects lying everywhere in the debris remind you that this area was once home to thousands of people: the partially melted controller for a child’s remote control car; neckties hanging on one of the remaining walls of a gutted bedroom; dozens of woven rugs that once adorned the rooms of a five story apartment block lying mingled together in what is now a pile of rubble. The sweeping scale of the devastation and suffering leaves you numb.
Before we entered Cizre I could never had guessed what we would find there. In the days previous we had been laying low in the nearby city of Diyarbakir, trying not to draw the attention of the Turkish police. We held out waiting for almost a week for the press clearance that would grant us access to the areas under curfew, all the while hearing the sounds of gunfire and explosions from the military operation underway in the city’s central Sur district.
With Turkey-Russia relations almost at breaking point, Turkish authorities are openly hostile to journalists from Russian media organizations filming in the Kurdish southeastern regions of the country. For this reason we had to operate under a different name. I was gambling on the authorities merely seeing me as British journalist and not taking the time to do a thorough background check. I had formatted my phone, deleting any trace of my life in Russia, and left my RT press identification, Russian bankcards and any other potentially incriminating items back in Moscow. As an added precaution, I’d also changed flights and rechecked-in in at least one other country before entering Turkey. But as we experienced, it isn’t just the Russia-affiliated press that face difficulties working in the Kurdish region. Journalists from European publications deemed by the Turkish authorities to be sympathetic to the Kurds are finding themselves in the position of persona non grata too. Each day we’d hear of people being detained, deported and, in many cases, banned from entering Turkey for five years. Though it goes without saying that the worst affected are the Kurdish and Turkish journalists who risk life and limb to document what is happening here. They are routinely harassed and face the wrath of both the security services and their own government.
It was early afternoon on the sixth day when we received the call from Diyarbakir’s press and information office. We’d been approved. With that we grabbed our gear and headed for the Sur district. However, even with press accreditation that guaranteed us access to the area, special forces members at the main checkpoint denied us entrance. When I insisted that we had been given permission to film the already hostile officer dealing with us began issuing threats and ordered us to leave the area at once.
With sunset due in around four hours we decided to make the 250 kilometer drive to Cizre and try our luck there. But with the overnight curfew scheduled to come into effect at any point between 6-7pm we didn’t have a lot of time, so we floored it down the dusty highway to Cizre that runs alongside the border with Syria. As we passed the city of Nusaybin we saw two great plumes of smoke billowing out into the sky over the skyline from another Turkish military operation underway there too. I had wanted to try to enter the city, but locals had warned me off. I was told that with newly unleashed and particularly brutal fighting underway in the area, the Turkish military would be only too happy to have something bad happen to a foreign journalist in order for them to blame it on the Kurds.
Our driver was nervous about entering Cizre. He had every reason to be. A couple of days previously he’d made the same trip early in the morning with a writer from a French magazine. When entering through the first checkpoint they’d been hauled out of the car at gunpoint and brutally questioned for hours by Turkish special forces agents who even went as far as to accuse them of being spies. After our experience of being denied entry to Sur we knew Cizre was a gamble, but one that we had to take regardless.
On arriving at the main Cizre checkpoint, a look of relief came over our driver’s face. The special forces officers weren’t there. For whatever reason, perhaps because of the lateness in the day, they were nowhere to be seen. Instead we had our IDs checked by cheerful local police who appeared to be more interested in trying out their English language skills with me. They looked quickly in the boot of the car where they found my press flak jacket and helmet, which they joked were heavier than their own, and didn’t bother checking inside the vehicle where I had our little HD camera in my rucksack stashed under the passenger seat. To our amazement we were promptly waved through and allowed to drive on into Cizre. I can only assume they thought I was a print journalist; Turkish security services in the region are notoriously rigorous at checking camera equipment and footage - especially when it comes to foreigners.
As you drive into Cizre, the first few streets you enter through are the least damaged.
Streams of bullet holes from automatic weapon fire mark lines up the walls and skirt across smashed shop fronts. But taking a left at a local petrol station, you are suddenly faced with the full nature of the destructive campaign that took place here.
Smashed residential houses in the plateau that rolls out towards the surrounding mountainside stretch off as far as the eye can see. Local residents sift through what remains of their old neighborhood largely in total silence save for the odd muted greeting when they cross each other’s path in the street. The violent silence is what gets to you most about Cizre. Partially because you can imagine the vibrant atmosphere of this once densely populated area on a warm sunny evening such as this, but mainly because you can’t help but hear the earth shattering destruction that reduced the place to rubble.
At first the residents we saw thought I was Turkish, mainly because I was wearing my blue press flak jacket and helmet. The only video journalists they’d seen so far had been from Turkish and Kurdish media. Of the two, only the Turks wear body armor, and mainstream Turkish media is hated by locals for their bias towards Ankara – often broadly describing the victims of the crackdown as ‘terrorists’. As soon as they realized I was British, I was shown around the worst of the sites of destruction and brutality by a group of furious residents. They eventually led me to our most gruesome discovery: the second basement where 45-50 Kurds were reportedly burned to death.
As well as hearing horrifying accounts of beheaded corpses I was also shown a room covered in bullet holes and dried blood along with what I was told were clumps of brain matter sprayed across the ceiling. This was reportedly where a group of Kurdish defense fighters were executed. According to local residents, the most brutal members of the Turkish security forces who had taken part in the crackdown had long beards and "looked like Daesh".
Whether these were actual ISIS members seems unlikely though not impossible – Turkey is renowned for its co-operation with the extremist terror group operating just across the border in Syria. A number of people I spoke to during my time in south-east Turkey warned me about units of extremely aggressive bearded security services personnel who spoke Turkish badly and had unusual accents. A more likely explanation is that these feared ‘bearded fighters’ were Turkmen rebels – now established as Ankara’s favorite allies in the Syrian conflict – from the other side of the infamously porous Turkey-Syria border.
Suddenly local residents told us we should leave. Police had been seen heading in our direction. Given the sensitive nature of the footage we’d filmed, we didn’t waste any time in making ourselves scarce.
By the time we reached the checkpoints it was dark. On the way through I slumped down in the backseat, pretending to be asleep so the guards couldn’t see my face. With the large volume of traffic leaving Cizre for the start of the nighttime curfew we weren’t stopped and managed to slip away into the night unchecked.
William Whiteman, RT