January 11-17 1996 edition of the "The European"
The pictures published on this page emerge from the brutal conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish minority in the southeast of the country.
They are the least horrifying of a set of 12 pictures passed to The European which are said to show Turkish goverment troops in the act of celebrating in barbarous fashion a victory over their Kurdish enemy. Having decapitated four Kurdish fighters, they are seen holding up the heads in triumph.
These gruesome photographs provide some of the defining images of an 11-year war that has been all but forgotten in the dramatic upheavals of the Middle East, the downfall of Soviet power and the Bosnian war.
But if genuine - and The European has been shown no reason to believe they are not - they are also graphic evidence to support those in Europe who beleive that Turkey's human rights record makes it unfit for the membership of the European Union to which it aspires.
It was that human rights record which was at the centre of the argument when the European Parliament voted on 13 December to ratify Turkey's customs union with the EU, a key step towards full membership.
MEPs aggreed by 343 to 149 to ratify the agreement, but, as Pauline Green, leader of the majority Socialist bloc, put it, "with sorrow, with heavy hearts and without enthusiasm". Jack Lang, the French Socialist MEP, who was among those who voted against, was simply indignant. He said: "My conscience would not allow me to support an economic accord with a regime of regression and repression."
According to The European's sources, the photographs were taken in the mountains in southeast Turkey's Hakkari province last April. It is a region where Turkey's borders converge with those of Iran and Iraq, a part of the world Kurds consider the heartland of their native Kurdistan. A state of emergency has prevailed there for teh past two years.
The pictures are said to show soldiers of an elite unit called the Hakkari Mountain Commando Brigade, based in the town of Hakkari, 80km north of the Iraqi border, posing in the snow for snapshots with the severed heads of four Kurds.
Whether or not the victims were members of the outlawed Marxist insurgent army known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the pictures show that some were shot and killed, while others appear to have been taken alive, their clothing torn off and their limbs bound prior to execution and decapitation.
The European has been told that when the soldiers returned to their base in Hakkari, they made copies of the photographs to show off their victory to comrades. One of them, whose name is known to The European and has been passed to the Turkish authorities, sold the pictures to other soldiers for up to 100,000 turkish lire ($2) apiece.
One of those soldiers, himself a veteran of the Kurdish campaign but repelled by the callous barbarity shows by the photographs, and by their subsequent dissemination, took the risk of sending them by post to a friend in London.
The friend, a Kurdish electrical engineer who fled Turkey two years ago, passed them on to the Kurdistan Information Center, which represents the strong Kurdish community in London - as recently as 8 January Kurdish demonstrators took workers at a Turkish business centre in the British capital briefly hostage. The information centre then contacted The European. The engineer requested that his identity be kept secret for fear of reprisals against his family still in Turkey. He said he felt it important that the photographs were published, and he insisted that they were genuine.
He said: "My friend was so socked that he felt bound to send them to London. The man who sold him the pictures was not only doing so to make money but to show off." Sympathisers made the point that had the pictures been faked for propaganda purposes, it would have made sense to issue them before the European Parliament vote.
"They are too amateur to have been staged," the man said. He showed The European a hand-written note sent with the photographs by his soldier friend. The friend wrote: "The perpetrators of this savagery were X- X- and the other soldiers of the Hakkari Mountain Commando Brigade. At that time he had the photographs duplicated and sold them for between 50,000 and 100,000 lire to make money and to show everyone: 'Look what we did to those dogs. May this be a lesson to Kurds: you will end up like this'." (The European has deleted the name of the soldier given in the letter.)
The pictures are evidence of the pitiless savagery with which the war is being conducted - by both sides, according to human rights organisations. Nearly 20,000 people have lost their lives, according to both western and Turkish estimates.
The independent New York-based group Human Rights Watch is indignant that Turkey's partners in Nato have extended generous political and military support, helping it develop a formidable arms industry and providing a steady supply of weapons, often free or at reduced cost. These range from portable weapons to helicopters, tanks and other vehicles, which it said had been used to raze Kurdish villages.
That claim in its November report is partly borne out by these photographs: according to an expert in London, the soldier shown standing alone holding the head of one victim by the hair in his left hand is carrying a G-3 rifle. Now standard issue to Turkish troops, the weapon is manufactured under licence in Turkey from the German firm Heckler and Koch. The soldier seen squatting in the snow with a longer weapon fitted with a telescopic sight is holding an SVD sniper rifle. A weapon originally manufactured in former East German weaponry handed to Turkey when Germany was unified.
Britain, the United States, France and Belgium were also named in the Human Rights Watch report.
Amnestry International, which regularly draws the ire of the Ankara authorities with its pronouncements on Turkey, said in a recent report: "Gross violations of human rights are being inflicted on civilians in southeast Turkey. Throughout the rest of the country the human rights situation is deteriorating."
Amnesty has also reported outrages by the PKK and other Kurdish groups. Last month it noted that in September and October 1994 the PKK abducted and killed 19 teachers, most of them working in villages in the Kurdish southeast. "During 1995 alone, armed PKK members have killed more than 70 civilians and prisoners," it reported. "Most of the victims are Kurdish villagers who participated in the system of government-armed village guards, and their extended families, including women and children."
Many of the Turkish soldiers fighting the war, which costs an estimated $10 billion annually, are conscripts who serve for 18 months. When they fall into the hands of Kurdish insurgents, torture in a matter of course. Execution often follows, unless prisoners can be used for propaganda purposes.
The Turkish Human Rights Foundation reported that in 1994 alone 202 journalists, writers and publishers were arrested for reports on the war, and that dozens of newspapers were closed or fined so heavily that they had to cease publication.