Ormanici, South East Turkey : 20 years on
20th February 1993.
Ormanici. 5am. Soldiers, dressed in white camouflage, descend on a small Kurdish village nestled in the mountains. Doors are kicked in. People are pulled from their beds at gunpoint. Homes are burned, livestock killed and families separated. As the terrified women seek sanctuary in nearby caves, the men, after being forced to lay facedown in the snow, are blindfolded. Then, chained together, they are made to march, many barefoot, through the mountains to imprisonment and torture.
Little is known about the fate of the village or the villagers today. It is understood that some families have drifted back to the village but for the most, it’s thought they never returned.
So what does it all mean?
In some respects international justice has been done. In 2004, judgment was handed down in the European Court of Human Rights in favour of the villagers who, with the help of a Kurdish lawyer, Tahir Elci (who is now the Chairman of the Diyarbakir bar), and a UK team of lawyers, won their case for reparation for the destruction of their village and their torture and inhuman treatment at the hands of the Turkish military and police authorities. Despite facing many barriers, every villager either in person or via a representative, gave evidence at the fact finding hearings in Ankara. They travelled for days by foot, cart or other means. Most were unable to read or write and many had never been away from their locality before.
The case concerning Ormanici and many others taken after the gross violations of human rights which took place in South East Turkey in the early 1990’s, changed the architecture of the European Human Rights case law. Principles established in these cases are still being applied now. However, 20 years on, what has the litigation in Europe actually meant to the villagers? Many will have since died. The children present on that day will have grown up. The young people, one of whom had both feet amputated due to frostbite following the walk through the snow, could now be settled with families of their own. It is impossible to say. What we do know is that the villagers, some 10 years or so after the attack, were awarded compensation but by then, many had drifted off and were difficult to track down.
There is much that can be said about the on-going tensions between Turkey and the Kurds. It is now particularly topical due to the imprisonment of Kurdish lawyers and other professionals, and the new dialogue between the Turkish authorities and the Kurdish separatists. But what has changed since the villagers of Ormanici lost their homes, livelihoods and way of life on the 20th February 1993? For a small community of people with little education and resources it is difficult to see that receiving compensation some 10 years later would do anything to really compensate them for what happened.
The villagers of Ormanici, and those who represented them in Turkey were brave pioneers. Their case was an inspiration to others who have used the much maligned European mechanism to seek justice. The Law Society in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, is to host a conference looking at both the 1990’s cases (of which Ormanici was, although the largest in terms of applicants, just one of many) and the more recent prosecutions of some of those involved in orchestrating the attacks.
Although the Turkish cases in the 1990’s created important European precedents, it seems that Turkey has a long way to travel to reconcile its relationship with its largest minority population. Let’s hope that the journey towards that reconciliation has now begun in earnest.