How many Turkish soldiers and PKK fighters really die? ‘We never make propaganda’
On the video (as you see, the link is dead, but it can now be found here) we see a road leading along a mountainside. A few cars and mini buses pass by. Voices can be heard, voices of the ones recording the video. At the moment an armoured military vehicle, a Cobra, passes, there is an enormous explosion. Black and white smoke, pieces of metal and asphalt fly around, the vehicle is totally destroyed. ‘Bijî serok Apo’, a man’s voice says, ‘Long live leader Öcalan’, followed by a smirk. The same day, 19 August 2016, Turkish media report this incident: five soldiers wounded, of whom two seriously, and one civilian death. A one year old boy reportedly received a light head injury.
Units of the Kurdish armed group the PKK usually carry a camera with them with which they record attacks on army and police posts in the southeast of Turkey. These videos appear on the website www.gerillatv.net (now moved to https://www.gerillatv.org and it may move again, but can usually be re-found with a search on 'gerillatv') days or weeks later, depending on the logistics. Then you can watch and compare. On which date was the attack, and what did Turkish and Kurdish media write about the number of victims? How trustworthy do the assorted numbers seem to be?
That an armoured vehicle gets blown to smithereens but five human bodies survive that same blow seems, to put it lightly, unlikely. And where do the civilians mentioned by the Turkish media come from? Civilian vehicles were not around at the moment of the attack, so mother and child must have been inside the Cobra– also rather unlikely. Turkish media provide a photo too. The wreck that can be seen in it is without a doubt not the same as the one on the video. The picture, whereever and whenever it was taken, does however support the narrative that survivors were possible.
According to the PKK eight soldiers were killed in the attack on the Cobra. At the end of the video a text says that the bodies were picked up by army helicopters. Unfortunately this was not recorded and broadcast. Apparently the guerrillas were able to count the bodies, or the number of eight deaths is a guess, based on the number of soldiers fitting in such a vehicle.
Anyone wanting to know how many soldiers and PKK fighters are dying in the renewed war between the Turkish army and the PKK that resumed in the summer of 2015, soon stumbles upon the statistics of the International Crisis Group (ICG). The international organisation that analyses conflicts and suggests solutions, has been keeping a tally since 20 July 2015. All casualties whose names can be defined based on public sources, make it into the tally. The names are verified based on pictures, reports of funerals and interviews with families of those who died. Names that cannot be confirmed by other sources, end up in the statistics as ‘unconfirmed’ – those can only be found in the tally of civilian deaths, not in the tally of dead soldiers and PKK militants.
According to the ICG, since July 2015 858 members of the security forces lost their lives in battle. These were not only soldiers and policemen, but also so-called village guards, Kurdish civilians who are armed and paid by the state to help in the fight against the PKK. The count for dead PKK members now stands at 1,021. Included in that number are also militants of the PKK offshoot TAK (which carries out attacks in cities in the west of Turkey and for example claimed responsibility for the huge bomb attack in Istanbul on 10 December, in which, according to the authorities, 44 people died, mostly policemen) and of the YPS, the youth group that fought against the army in Kurdish cities in the southeast of the country at the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016. The PKK doesn’t count TAK- and YPSdeaths on its website www.hpg-sehit.com, because according to them the groups are not at all or not completely under their control.
A graveyard for PKK fighters in the mountains in northern Iraq. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
It is remarkable that the ICG counts more PKK deaths than the PKK itself, but that the organisation doesn’t seem to doubt the numbers the Turkish authorities give about their own fatalities. Berkay Mandiraci, who keeps the tally for the ICG, says: ‘Of course, the reasonable doubt principle applies to both sides, but our standard of only including named casualties claimed by each side for their own casualties, we believe, gets us as close as one can get to credible, impartial, non-propaganda geared figures.’
Numbers that both sides give about casualties on the other side are not doubted at all among their own supporters. The Turkish army mentioned in May 2016 that since 24 July 2015 a staggering 7,078 PKK fighters were ‘rendered ineffective’, and with every bombing of PKK camps in the north of Iraq and with every clash on the ground in southeast Turkey the count goes up not unusually by dozens at a time.
In PKK camps, where the author of this piece is staying long-term while writing a book about the organisation, the numbers the Turkish authorities quote are at best ignored. Guerilla Mizgîn, 41 years old, can’t help but laugh hard when, in late November 2016 at a base close to the Iraqi city of Kurkuk, she sees on a Turkish TV channel that ninetyfour of her fellow fighters have been killed in a Turkish bombing on the mountains in north Iraq. ‘It’s a bombing!’ she exclaims. ‘Ninetyfour deaths, how on earth can they know that? They’re making it up!’
There is indeed no substantiation of the numbers. And the Turkish government is under no pressure from public opinion to provide any. The average citizen accepts whatever the authorities offer, often with great voracity. Foreign journalists only ask the Turkish government for more information so they can state in a sentence at the end of their articles that the government didn’t react to requests for more information. The writer of this piece hasn’t made an effort to get a reaction from the Turkish authorities. After all, they consider her a propagandist and a threat to public security, order and health.
A politician of the opposition party HDP, which has its origins in the Kurdish political movement, says on condition of anonymity: ‘In my opinion these official figures of the Turkish armed forces are too incredibly high to believe. A blow of such dimensions on the PKK would mean the annihilation of its total combative human capacity. But the PKK is there, still inflicting very heavy blows on the army and police forces.’
On annihilating guerrilla fighters in their camps in the Qandil mountains in the north of Iraq he says: ‘Unless they are statically positioned in compounds, barracks and villages, thousands of guerrillas cannot be killed through air strikes. The PKK with its mobile warfare strategy is not as vulnerable to airstrikes as the armed forces claim’
Tens of thousands of family members
And the PKK? It publicizes footage of attacks, but also doesn’t substantiate the figures they state. Like with the attack on 19 August: what is the claim of eight deaths based on? Why isn’t their count recorded and broadcast as well?
It’s interesting to see that guerrillas don’t doubt for even one second the deaths the organisation claims to have on its conscience. The atmosphere while watching the news on the PKK-affiliated channel Stêrk TV, which broadcasts from the Belgian town of Denderleeuw, even makes asking critical questions seem a bit indiscreet. So when Stêrk TV reports dozens of dead soldiers where the authorities state, say, three deaths, I don’t ask: ‘Do you really believe that?’, but: ‘Do you always believe all the numbers that Stêrk reports..?’
Yes, answers every guerrilla, and in recent months I have asked this to several individual fighters and groups of guerrillas. Heval Hêlîn (heval means ‘friend’, ‘comrade’, and is the term with which guerrillas refer to each other), who for years delivered news to the Kurdish press agency ANF, based in the mountains in north Iraq, says: ‘We are not the Turkish government. We never make propaganda.’
Paid into silence
But how, I ask, can the government hide dozens of deaths every year? Over the course of the thirty-three years the war has been raging since the first PKK attack in 1984, we would be talking about thousands of ‘disappeared’ dead soldiers, policemen and village guards. How do PKK fighters explain this? A group of female guerrillas at a base near the refugee camp of Maxmur in Iraq (where Kurds from Turkey live after fleeing to Iraq in the 1990s, when the Turkish army destroyed their houses) speaks with one voice and says: ‘In contracts of professional officers it is stated that the state isn’t obliged to publicly announce their deaths. Families of dead soldiers are paid into silence by the state.’
Funeral of a Turkish soldier in Batman, July 2016
I reply that Turkish families are big and that their explanation would mean that tens of thousands of family members are being silenced and not even one of them has leaked a story to the press, not in Turkey and not abroad. That’s not believable, is it? There is always one person who doesn’t accept the injustice, isn’t there? There is always one person who decides to finally speak out, right? The guerrillas talk about the deeply rooted nationalism in Turkey, about how according to the state and many of its citizens every Turk is born as a soldier, and that loyalty towards the state, especially in military families, is enormous.
But they say something else as well. About state boarding schools, where children from age ten or eleven can go, for example when they live too far from school to travel back and forth daily. The guerrillas say: ‘The state selects boys, who are then taken away from their families and are brought up in such boarding schools. The ties with their families are broken and they are raised fully loyal to the state. This has been going on for decades, on a large scale. When such boys become men and die as a soldier in action, there is nobody to ask questions. They are buried in silence, and that’s that.’
That young Kurds were indeed forcibly assimilated as nationalist Turks in state boarding schools, has been documented, but is mostly known from the days when there were hardly any schools in the southeast of Turkey and the existence of Kurds was completely denied. Whether it is an ongoing practice and on what scale, cannot be verified in any way.
Position as commander
In camps in the Qandil mountains and around Kirkuk other guerrillas tell the same story. When one afternoon I drive through the Qandil mountains with heval Zagros, who is in charge of the PKK’s press contacts, I ask him about it. Does he believe his organisation’s published numbers, without reservation? Yes, he does. ‘Commanders’, says Zagros, ‘count the deaths from a distance or, if possible, from close by. When they are not fully sure of the number of deaths, you see that this is mentioned, or they state the dead bodies they have counted and add that there are possibly more deaths if they have reason to believe that there are.’ And those commanders, I ask, they never pile it on a bit? He laughs: ‘No, they really don’t. Anyone caught doing that can forget about his position as commander.’
But, well, who will catch them?
Zagros also says that there are examples of contracts in which officers agree with stipulations that their death may not be publicly announced. Guerrillas took such contracts from dead officers’ uniforms. I enquire about it at press agency Firat (ANF), but they can’t find a copy of such a contract in their archives. I inquire about it with people who know the Turkish army better than I do, but they don’t want to comment.
The anonymous HDP politician says: ‘Yes, the Turkish army contracts ‘specialized sergeants’ who accept to remain anonymous in case of death. But I am not convinced that the majority of Turkish army losses are hidden in this way as the PKK spokespersons argue. It is true that the majority of the ‘special operations’ personnel are comprised of these specialized sergeants, but they do not comprise the majority of the combat troops in the southeast. The bulk of the army and gendarmerie is still comprised of ordinary foot soldiers whose deaths cannot be concealed from their families.’
I refuse to conclude that the truth must be ‘somewhere in the middle’. The truth is hidden somewhere in this tangled mess. And as long as this war continues, it will remain hidden. Only if, one day, a peace deal between both parties is signed and the unavoidable truth and reconciliation commission starts working, can the lies be separated from the facts.
However, it doesn’t look like peace negotiations will start any time soon. President Erdogan and his people in the AKP government continue their efforts to ‘annihilate the separatist terrorist organisation’ – the rhetoric is more than thirty years old and long since superseded by reality. The negotiating table is getting rusty in the basements of Erdogan’s immeasurable palace. Until the table is brought out, unfolded and dusted off, both army and PKK will live with their own narrative of what’s happening. It helps to keep the morale high.
Header picture: A wall covered with PKK fighters who died in action, at a graveyard in the Qandil mountains. Photo: Fréderike Geerdink
Fréderike Geerdink is embedded with the PKK, but didn’t engage in any agreement with the organisation about what and where she publishes, and how. The organisation hasn’t asked and doesn’t get insight or any say in the topics Geerdink writes about. Articles are also not shown to the PKK before publication.