Journalist Faruk Encü, refugee in Switzerland: ‘I cannot be bought’
This is the first story of a trilogy. Later this week the stories of imprisoned journalist Nedim Türfent and from Nurcan Baysal, who continues to write from Diyarbakir.
When asked if he is getting psychological help in the asylum seekers’ centre where he is waiting for his asylum application to be processed, Faruk Encü says: ‘No. I don’t want it. I don’t want to forget what I have experienced. I want to tell what happened In Kurdistan when I was there just as raw as it was.’
Encü arrived in Switzerland by plane on 5 May 2017. First he was kept at the airport for twenty days, after which he was taken to a centre where he is now passing his days following the news from his home country via internet. ‘I would like to start learning German’, he says in a phone interview via Messenger, ‘but that’s not allowed until you have a refugee status. Besides following the news, I sometimes play music with other Kurds here, and we can make our own food. That’s all.’
At night, Faruk Encü often relives his most dangerous days as a journalist in the southeast of Turkey. He was working as a volunteer journalist for Dicle, which is one of the almost two hundred media now forcibly closed by the government. In December 2015, he went to the town of Silopi to report on curfews that the government had declared. He was in the company of two members of parliament for the HDP, Ferhat Encü (his cousin) and Aycan Irmez. The curfews, imposed in several towns and cities, marked the start of the city wars between the Turkish army and the YPS, youth legions aligned with the PKK. They raged across the Kurdish regions from late 2015 until the spring of 2016.
Soon, the group got stuck in a house close to where the fighting was. Several neighbourhoods were shelled by the army, one strike after another. ‘Every night’, Encü recalls, ‘there were messages coming in that people had died or were wounded. We tried to get ambulances to the scene, which often didn’t work because the authorities wouldn’t let them pass. It was like a war movie. We heard the shelling, there was fire, death.’
Then, they were contacted by one of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. A house had caught fire and the woman living there had gone outside to go to the house next door, where her daughter lived, to get help and to get water. She was shot, reportedly by a sniper – since there was a curfew, nobody was allowed on the streets. The woman was lying on the street, heavily wounded, and needed to be taken to hospital as soon as possible. Faruk Encü: ‘The streets were open, the ambulance could come, but it was not allowed to pass. Her son kept in touch with us, he could see her lying there through the window of his house but he couldn’t do anything. After some twelve hours it was clear that she had died.’
The MP’s gave up on an ambulance and instead tried to get a municipal funeral car to take the dead body away and bring it to the morgue. Again, the authorities didn’t give permission. And again, the woman’s family was watching, unable to do anything. If they had gone out, they could have been shot as well. ‘Her name was Taybet Inan’, says Encü, ‘but we called her Taybet ana, mother Taybet. She became the mother of all of us.’
It was a full seven days before a hearse was allowed to come. Encü considered going to the scene to take pictures of the body, but in the end it was decided to ask the hearse driver to take pictures, since he had permission to be outside and Encü didn’t. Encü: ‘He took some photos but a soldier demanded the phone and deleted them. I managed to retrieve them. I asked Taybet ana’s son if he gave permission to share the pictures with the media. He did, so I passed them on to Dicle.’
The photos, only published by Kurdish media and shared via Twitter and Facebook, sent a shock wave through the Kurdish community. Taybet ana became a symbol of the indiscriminate violence of the Turkish state during the city wars. Violence and human rights violations that would later also be documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations. The violence was not only disproportionate in Silopi: populations of other towns under curfew also suffered.
The story didn’t end there for Faruk Encü. Some two weeks later, he was back in his home town, Gülyazi. He was detained and taken to the police station. Instead of the rough questioning he expected, the local commander made him a proposal. Encü: ‘He started talking about how he was a Kurd too, and that it would be better for me if I left journalism behind and accepted an income from the state as a village guard (state-armed and -paid auxiliaries in the fight against the PKK, FG). I told him that I would never take money from the state. That I was not in journalism to earn money but to give a voice to my people.’
A thick file
They let him go, but soon he was detained again. At the police station, it turned out they had put together a thick file on him. ‘All kinds of posts from my Twitter account was there’, he remembers. ‘The pictures of Taybet ana were there as well. And posts in which I had mentioned the word ‘Kurdistan’, or ‘Botan’ (the Kurdish name for the most southeastern region of Turkey, FG). They told me they would throw the file away if I would start working for the state as an agent. I told them I would never turn against my own people. Then they sent my file to the prosecutor.’
For Encü, it was an easy decision not to take the state’s ‘offer’ to become an agent. Six years ago, on 28 December 2011, he lost twentysix members of his extended family in the massacre of Roboski. They were in a group of almost forty men who were involved in cross border trade, a traditional way for the people of Gülyazi and Ortasu (the latter’s Kurdish name is Roboski) to make a modest living in a region plagued by underdevelopment and unemployment. As the group was about to cross back into Turkey with their goods, it was bombed by the Turkish army. Thirty-four people, most of them minors, lost their lives.*)
It was a few days after the massacre that the writer of this piece and Faruk Encü met for the first time. He was not even twenty years old then, raging with grief-driven anger then over the loss of his family and the brutality of the state. He had been involved in a physical attack on the governor of the district, who had come to the village soon after the massacre but who was, as a state representative, obviously not very welcome. Encü spent four months in pre-trial detention but later the case was shelved by the prosecutor.
Growing older, Encü decided to become a volunteer journalist. To contribute to the family income, he sometimes worked as a driver or went to smuggle on the same route where the massacre had taken place. The smuggling came to a halt more than two years ago, when the peace process between the state and the PKK, which started in early 2013, collapsed in the summer of 2015. Faruk Encü says: ‘Ever since, more people in the village have become village guards. Especially young men. It causes tension in the community, as it especially hurts the families who lost men in the massacre, although even some men in the families affected have become village guards. Do you know they call them ‘special security’ now, and provide the members with a uniform? Of course, it is true that there is not much other work left, but still, for me, it is unacceptable to work for the state. I cannot be bought.’
But the soil under Encü’s feet was heating up. Via Twitter, he was threatened by accounts connected to the state security forces. One of the threats read: ‘We should have killed you that day in Silopi’. One day, during the curfews, he was detained seven times. Then, in November 2016, his cousin and MP Ferhat Encü, who had been the spokesperson of the Roboski families until he was elected to parliament in June 2015, was arrested. Faruk knew he was next. ‘I didn’t want to be in jail again, with twenty, thirty guards hitting me and subjecting me to psychological torture.’
He did not take the dangerous route to Europe via West-Turkey and the Aegean Sea to Greece. But he doesn’t know the details of his escape either. ‘I was provided with a passport. All went smoothly at Istanbul airport. The first flight was to Moscow, then to Cuba, then from Cuba to Switzerland. Yes, Cuba, you heard that right. Don’t ask me why or how, this is how it went.’
So now, he waits. Some two weeks ago, he missed the commemoration of the Roboski massacre. It was the most sobre commemoration to date, with the state giving no permission for a big ceremony at the graveyard. There were so many checkpoints on the road to the village that many people couldn’t reach it. The state of emergency, which was declared after the botched coup of 15 July 2016, is ongoing and doesn’t allow for any public gatherings. ‘I followed the commemoration via internet and I was a commentator for a Kurdish TV channel’, Faruk Encü says. ‘I talk to my family roughly once a week. I can’t reach them as often as I want since they don’t always have electricity – you know the village and its problems. I miss them, I miss my land.’
The new year started badly for Faruk Encü: the state took the old case of the attack on the governor off the shelves and continues to pursue a prison sentence against him and several others. It can’t touch him anymore now that he is abroad. ‘It is all part of the psychological warfare of the state against the Kurds’, he says. ‘And of course that affects me. My spirits are very low.’
As soon as he has a residence permit in Switzerland, he doesn’t only want to start learning German but he wants to continue journalism as well. He is making plans, although he has no means yet to start working on then. Encü: ‘I can’t even write things down because I don’t have a computer. But I want to write a book about everything that happened. And you know, I am thinking of trying to make a short film too. Maybe half an hour. About the son of Taybet ana, who was looking at his mother dying and decaying on the street through the window of his house. It should be filmed from his perspective. What do you think? Would it be a good way to tell the story?’
Later this week in this trilogy, episode two: a letter from imprisoned Kurdish journalist Nedim Türfent.