Varto is a little town of the Mush province, 30 miles north of the chief place, north-west of the lake of Van. Away from the main roads, it lies 4500 feet high on the first slopes of the Bingöl range (8000 ft) amidst a former Armenian country. According to Kévorkian and Paboudjian's work, Les Arméniens dans l'Empire ottoman à la veille du génocide (1992, p. 500), Varto (Goumgoum in Armenian, Gimgim in Kurdish) was in 1914 a city with about 700 inhabitants, whom only 80 were Turks and 45 Kurds. There was there a church and a school. Today, 10,000 inhabitants, mostly Kurdish, partly Alevite, live in Varto, where there are no longer traces of the Armenian past. In August 1966, the town was ruined by an earthquake which killed about 3,000 persons.
The population's evolution is typical of these troubled regions. Since 1984, the villagers, harassed by one or the other side, often expelled by the “security forces” of the state, went to the townlet of Varto, which grew from 2,800 inhabitants (1965) to 8,700 (1985), 11,000 (1990), and 16,000 in 2000. Then, a part of these migrants moved again, to settle in one of the main cities of Western Turkey, like the district of Gaziosmanpasa in Istanbul. In 2008, Varto's population had fallen back to about 10,000 inhabitants, and the district had only 31,000 inhabitants in 2012, compared to 42,000 in 1990. Until 2016, the municipality was in the hands of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) but both co-mayor were removed from duty and arrested on charges of “supporting a terrorist organization”.
Forty miles north of Varto, Hınıs, nowadays included in the Erzurum province, was in 1914 a prosperous Armeno-Turkish city (Khnus) with 8,000 inhabitants and a cathedral (Kévorkian and Paboudjian, 434). Its evolution was exactly similar, with a population of 5,200 in 1965, growing to 12,000 in 1985, 16,000 in 1990 and 27,000 in 2000, falling back to 10,000 from 2007 on.
Varto and Hınıs, like the majority of the small towns in south-eastern Turkey, were wholly de-structured by the 1915 genocide and plunged into poverty and under-development, due to the entire loss of the social life's frames. At the end of the XXth century, they fell into the confrontation between the Turkish “security forces” and the PKK.
The PKK's armed insurrection begins in August 1984. As soon as October 4 in the same year, general Evren, chief of the state since the 1980 coup, pays a visit to the region to announce, among other decisions, that the villagers would be given weapons, and to warn the population against the danger of the “breaking the unity and concord” of the country. In 1986, Varto and Hınıs are the seats of the PKK's regional headquarters. In May 1987, along with military operations, denunciations and wide-scale arrests get deep unrest in the region.
Repeatedly then, in 1992 and 1993, Varto suffers troubles, like rocketing towards public buildings, and, according the terms used by the authorities, “attempts of incitement to confront with the security forces” and “coercion undertakings over the population” from the PKK. Along with these events, wide-scale arrests, again, are operated in March 1992, and, reportedly, some weapons and ammunition caches discovered, including rocket launchers, hand grenades, long-range rifles, explosives.
In October 1992, the media echo an attack by the PKK, right in the centre of Varto, killing one person, and injuring three others. But, according to Mehmet Sever, the President of the local section of the People's Labour Party (HEP, a legal pro-Kurdish party), there is no evidence the PKK to have attacked Varto, nor to be at the origin of the casualties. As underlines Sever, the forces of the state have never taken into account the civilians, and the population, as a whole, no longer trusts in the state's “security forces”. Mehmet Sever's doubts are based upon what happened in Sırnak two months earlier when such an “attack” had been staged by the security forces themselves (click here).
On May 24, 1993, in a trap set up by the PKK near Bingöl, 33 unarmed soldiers, basic service conscripts, were purely and simply shot down. Presumably, the attack was decided by a dissident of the PKK, Semdin Sakık (alias Zeki Parmaksız). But the circumstances were highly negative for the PKK, who had just decided a unilateral ceasefire two months earlier, and when the state, then led by Turgut Özal, was likely to search for a political conclusion to the war. The ambush and its tragical ending provided then the general staff with a good reason to “clean the mountains”.
The troubles, henceforth, never end, neither in Varto nor elsewhere. In June 1993, the local head of the Motherland Party (ANAP, centre-right) is shot down. Arrests and “neutralization” of PKK activists and guerrillas follow one another at a sustained pace: just in Varto or in the surroundings, two guerrillas are killed on February 7, 1994, three on March 17, again seven the day after, and seven more in August. Almost every clash is followed by the demolishment or arson of houses or even of whole villages. In February 1995, Sait Zambak, the right-hand person to Abdullah Öcalan, is arrested; he was then one of the PKK's heads for the region of Varto, what highlights the strategical importance, for the rebels, of this little town. As insecurity grows, the freedom of movement, by night, is limited. Given the opposing pressures of the PKK and of the "security forces", the denunciations and mutual control, the atmosphere becomes pernicious.
The situation in the whole south-east of Turkey is appalling. A report published by the Republican People's Party (CHP) on January 14, 1996, assesses the number of the destroyed villages to be near to thousand, and of the displaced population to be around 300,000. Another report, published by the Motherland Party, criticizes the methodical slaughter of the cattle by the security forces, supposed to place the guerrillas into difficulties, and underlines the critical over-population in the towns of the South-East, where, often, eight to ten families must live in a single house.
On September 19, 1996, in this atmosphere made even heavier by the political tensions of the moment, the media report a violent clash, right in the centre of Varto. With a peremptory tone, Milliyet's account gives no place to any doubt: the PKK has besieged the town. According to the daily, “the guerrillas have randomly shot the houses” with long-range rifles and rocket launchers and targeted the town's public buildings. The clash has lasted until the evening, and a security guard, member of the special teams has been killed in front of the seat of the National Security. Eleven persons were injured, all of them, according to Milliyet, members of the security forces: but it was no longer heard of them thereafter. The vali of Mush orders a severe curfew and the blockage of the city's exit points. Reportedly, five “terrorists” would have been killed, and rocket launchers and ammunition would have been found in a house: but these “spoils of war” - weapons and corpses - are not presented to the press reporters as is customary.
Yet on September 20, the media present the same account of the event and “validate” Milliyet's report of the day before. When the curfew is partially lifted, Varto's inhabitants discover the damages: there are everywhere countless bullet impacts on the houses, the hay supplies have been burned and the cattle slaughtered. Five men are under arrest, charged with “help and assistance to a terrorist organization”, and thirty others are questioned. The account given by the daily Hürriyet is precise and peremptory. One detail is worth a remark: instead of using the “reported past tense” (with the suffix -mis) which infers that the utterer has not witnessed what he describes, the account uses the simple past tense (with the suffix -di), used to describe something the utterer has personally witnessed, or something being absolutely sure and confirmed.
"They'll face the state". The authorities regain possession of the town. Hürriyet, September 20, 1996
So, under the title “Return to normalcy in Varto”, Hürriyet asserts the PKK to have attacked the town with about fifty men on Tuesday 17, around 10.30 pm, helped by many local accomplices. The assailants apparently had attempted to raise the PKK's flag on the Administration building (kaymakamlık). And no doubt for Hürriyet that the hay has been burnt, and the cattle slaughtered, by the "terrorists".
On September 20, members of the “special teams” patrol in the streets, while the state authorities, the vali, the security director and the garrison general commander visit the town to reassure the population. The media express one and only voice: the assailants were fifty to sixty, there was a weapon cache in at least one house. Five persons are under arrest, a hundred still being questioned.
The reason for the media's unanimity is rather clear: the military staff has summoned the journalists, who have simply reproduced the statements of the military command. According to the vali, the town has been attacked twenty times within some months only. But, if some twenty attacks would actually have occurred within a couple of months, is it possible that the national media hadn't reported them, or worse, that they were even not informed of them? In their defence, it must be said that in such a context of warfare, for an event in a remote town to be known to Istanbul's redactions, a communication operation by the army is necessary, which provides ready-made stories and, sometimes, images. Anyway, the sum of the allegations reported in the media on September 19-21, forms what I will label as the first narrative.
The images presented in the media by this time confirm the state's strategy of intimidation, in order to regain control of the region. Incidentally, the word “state” (devlet), when uttered or written by a Kurd, does not generally denote an institution aiming to protect, educate, attend the population, but an all-powerful, all-pervading and repressive system: in southeastern Turkey, “the state” is the name of the enemy – and this same conception of the state prevails on both sides. In that mindset, on September 20, Hürriyet publishes a picture showing the local authorities walking the streets, with among them the garrison commander in combat fatigues. The picture caption is highly explicit: “They'll find the state in front of them”. The words are in line with other expressions used on both sides, for example when former prisoners say: “In jail, you are facing the state” or when members of the special forces tagged in the streets of “conquered” districts of Kurdish towns in 2015: “The state is here”; or else, conversely, when you enter a district controlled by the PKK, when you are said: “The state doesn't enter here”.
Another representation of “the state” is provided by Hürriyet, showing how progresses the “return to normalcy in Varto” with the picture of three members of the “special teams” roaming about, wearing a bulletproof vest and wielding an assault rifle: whatever the reality of the events, they behave like an occupying force, and they reign by the fear they inspire. In a lapidary manner, the picture caption summarizes the “first narrative”: “The nice region of Varto recently was attacked by the terrorists. As the assailants intended to raise their flag on the kaymakamlık building, the security forces have broken their enthusiasm and quickly took control of the situation. Shadowed by the special teams and their arms, Varto recovered a regular life.” Let us point out that during the preceding summer several flag affairs happened in Turkey, so the daily's staff had chosen to present the event as, again, a flag affair.
As it is in line with the state's narration and doxa, this first narrative only will remain in the public's mind. Anyway, the majority of the citizens will have access only to this version of the facts, as it was broadcast by the mainstream media, complacent with the authorities. This narrative does act because it produces a “truth”, a discours de vérité (Foucault) precisely aimed to mask the reality of the facts. It acts while breeding fear of the state and perpetuating tension, helping to legitimize the stationing of troops and of the special teams, and to support the system of the “village guards”. It nourishes warfare.
A second narrative, however, appears after a week. On September 26, Cumhuriyet publishes an inquiry by Celal Yılmaz, who tried to give some light to the affair by questioning the inhabitants of Varto about these five days of unrest. The Kemalist daily clearly accuses the "special teams" of their extreme toughness towards the population of Varto, suspected as a whole of having sympathy for the rebels, if not supporting them. According to the collected testimonies, the fighting - or at least the shooting - began around 11 p.m. on Tuesday, 17, and went on until the morning. Since the entire population was confined in their homes, there is no direct testimony about the clash itself, if it occurred ever. No witness quoted by Cumhuriyet claims to have seen PKK combatants.
At 5:30 a.m., members of the special teams harshly entered the houses, accusing their occupants of complicity. People were taken out from home, hands on their necks, and sent, at the double, to the Security building: about 600 people were ordered to lie on the ground while being insulted, while the shooting continued in the streets until 11 a.m.
The “suspects” were confiscated their documents and divided into several groups: young, elder, students, before to be released at 5 p.m., apart from fifty persons. The interviewed witnesses do not believe in a clash with the PKK: “It hasn't nothing to do with the PKK. Everything is to be imputed to the special teams. Their aim is to break the existing good understanding among us. If a clash had occurred, how could you explain that there were no casualties [apart from the policeman in faction] after a twelve-hours lasting clash?” At this point, the Varto affair, then, strangely looks like that of Sırnak (August 1992), even if less serious.
Compared to the first narrative, these Varto hot days obey different modalities and causalities. What happened perhaps was not a clash between Turks (the army) and Kurds (the PKK) but could apparently stem in an attempt to oppose the Sunni Muslims to the Alevites of the region. In fact, it was rumored, a while, that only the Alevite's houses would have been targeted – what the vali esteemed it necessary to refute. This point can easily be verified, but the mayor (CHP) of Varto, Nazım Aykalı, implicitly confirms his suspicion and trouble by insisting on the good relations between Alevites and Sunni's in his town, who “live in peace together for centuries”. “[The Alevites], he continues, are at 100% literate. They know very well peace to be a necessity. What happened results of a provocation by well-known militias, of a mafia-like organization.”
For the mayor, the district's former administrator (kaymakam), Turan Atlamaz, an Islamist, is responsible for the present atmosphere, for having pushed the communities against each other. “In Varto, he says, they tried to implement the Tunceli scenario. [In order to illustrate the recent events] some scenes actually shot in Mush or Cizre were presented on the TV. In the scene where a so-called combatant of the PKK climbs a mast to raise his organization's flag on Varto, it's, in fact, an employee of the telephone company climbing a pole to repair a line!”
It is no doubt possible to ascertain what was effectively shot in Varto – if something was shot: it is not yet the time when everyone can shoot pictures and movies on his phone. A lack of videos does not mean the non-existing of a combat, nor the absence of PKK combatants. Nevertheless, following Cumhuriyet and the mayor of Varto, one would lean toward provocation, a simulacrum of combat played by "security forces" supported by the army, its equipment and heavy weaponry, a simulacrum intended to maintain tension over Varto and its region, so that militants, combatants and sympathizers would never feel safe there.
Let us remember that a policeman, in faction at the entry of the Security building, was shot dead. His identity has been disclosed: Serdar Ulusoy, from Nigde (central Anatolia). This point is perhaps the only unquestionable one in the affair. From this precise fact, it was possible to build the official narrative, according to which the supposed-to-be assailants' aim was this Security building; thus, the sentry's death, the unique victim, would be the logical consequence of the event.
On September 27, a third narrative emerges in the media, almost unnoticed, since, precisely, it is the day of Zeki Müren's funeral (link: http://www.susam-sokak.fr/2016/06/esquisse-n-63-1-zeki-muren-le-paradoxe-1.html). Thus, Milliyet (but on page 19 only) unveils an account based on the only irrefutable fact, the sentry's death. But according to this version, it appears to be properly a murder, being at the origin - and not an outcome - of the event. A deputy of Istanbul, Mehmet Fuat Fırat (Refah Party, Islamist), is the source of the new account. Here is what the daily tells, under the title "The allegations of the RP deputy Fırat": in reality, the sentry, Serdar Ulusoy, is said to have been shot dead by one of his colleagues, in front of the home of a prostitute who was at stake in a violent dispute between police officers. In order to cover up the blunder, the other members of the "special teams" are said to have opened fire everywhere and sounded the alarm to simulate an attack and a clash. According to Fırat, they, themselves, destructed hay supplies and cattle: "The guerrillas would never do that, the deputy says, they need it too much.” Indeed, the PKK could not survive on scorched earth, and, for the movement and its fighters, to destroy resources rather than use them would be, from a military point of view, absurd.
The day after the shooting, the people of Varto discover slaughtered horses and burnt hay stocks (Sabah, September 20, 1996).
So, on September 28, as a response to the deputy's allegations, and, allegedly, as a conclusion of the questioning of the “suspects”, the Director of the Mush security forces presents a new official version of the Varto affair: the attack on Varto would have been carried out by seven guerrillas with the help of a local schoolteacher.
Milliyet's editorial staff then decides to send back reporters to Varto, to confirm or infirm the deputy's allegations, since, if his version is right, the woman's testimony is required. The reporters find her, and, as she is not aware of the deputy's revelations, they inform her, probably with “delicacy”, so that she is struck down by a heart attack and taken immediately to the hospital. Her daughter expresses her anger to the journalists and rejects the deputy's account: this gossip emerged because their family lives right next to the place where the policeman was killed. Whatsoever, this narrative “3 bis”, published by Milliyet on September 30, attests to the reality of the critical fact, the murder of a policeman. Of course, this story is denied, in turn, by the General Director of the security, Alaeddin Yüksel, who holds on to the official version of the facts and, again, points out the role of the schoolteacher, who is now in jail.
And finally, ten days later, in a report on the situation in the South-East, the Islam-inspired NGO Mazlum-Der denounces the incursion of the special teams in Varto and corroborates the account of the deputy Mehmet Fuat Fırat (Milliyet, October 10, 1996).
Mehmet Fuat Fırat's family background explains why the truth was – perhaps - revealed by this Refah deputy from Istanbul – who died in 2011. He himself exposes it in a fourth story that is only incidentally related to the others. Fırat is from Hınıs, a small city, not far from Varto, I presented here-above. He was the deputy of Erzurum (1973-1977), then of Istanbul (1995-2002, passing in 2001 to the centre-right Motherland Party ANAP). Above all, he comes from a large family of opponents to Kemalism; he was the eldest son of Sheikh Ali Rıza Efendi, himself the son of Sheikh Said, the famous leader of the 1925 Kurdish insurrection, in which Varto played a key role. After the execution of Sheikh Said, Ali Rıza had become the head of the tribe, and as such was constantly persecuted by the Kemalist power: sent to Isparta (central Anatolia) and then to Kırklareli (Thrace) with his family, he never lived a normal life.
So, no wonder this Member of Parliament and Kurdish high dignitary to be perfectly aware of what is happening in Varto and in the entire South-East. Because of his involvement in commercial activities, of his family background, and his connection with the world of Kurdish tribes, one can be sure that he has an excellent network of informers.
By divulging his truth about Varto's blunder, he sows doubt about the seriousness and discipline of the "special teams" and questions the "discours de vérité" produced by the state authorities. His account is embarrassing for the military power because it challenges the capacity of the state to hold its troops. His political intention is clear: his own family background directly links him to the Kurdish movement in its religious-conservative aspect (the revolt of Sheikh Said), to the resistance to the racist conception of “Turkism” by the Kemalism, and to the conservative movement of the Democratic Party in the 1950s. As a member of the Refah Party, he advocates with his party an amnesty and a peaceful solution to the conflict, opposing the army's views. Like the first story, the third, enlightened by the fourth, is intended to act on events, on politics, on warfare.
The question that always arises for the historian is that of the truth; the historian's, the journalist's golden rule is the crossing of sources. Here we have several accounts from several very separate sources. The first is probably contrived. During the period, several false attacks of this kind have occurred, each of them hidden under a "discours de vérité", the most serious being that of Sırnak in August 1992. Both the second (which establishes a similarity with the case of Sırnak) and third accounts are credible. The third is that of the covering-up of a blunder. Each of them aims to act.
In the present case, it is perhaps not so important to know where the truth lies, since it is a small event compared to the horrors of this war which is going on for thirty-five years now. For the different versions together establish, despite their differences, the supremacy of the forces of law and order in the region; the "special teams" do what they want. If the second story is true, it establishes that these forces can arbitrarily stop the normal course of life in a city for several days; it relates facts tinkered or invented for the needs of the military propaganda. And if the third account were true, it would show how the civilian authorities are subjugated at the point that they are unable to control these forces, which are here, for a few days, actual occupying forces. Unfortunately, these forces, in the eyes of the population, represent the "state", and the state here is synonymous with the enemy; one can then understand how serious the situation is since there is no longer trust in the authorities since they are no longer protective as they might and should be.
About twenty-five years after this case, I wonder what became of these men who ruled the lives of South-East Turkey. Despite of the growing influence of the Kurdish movement and its legal or illegal organizations, “the state” is still reigning with the means of an increasing violence. And the tough guys of all kinds of special forces (presently, the PÖH and JÖH, of which I will talk about in another article), certainly holds sway on the society. Where are now those who have been demobilized, what do they do? What has become or will become of these mercenaries who were roaming, who still roam, in the streets of the Kurdish towns? They certainly are addicts to power, they use to behave with arrogance and are almost sure of their impunity. They have learned to fight and kill. How did they negotiate their know-how? Have they become quiet citizens living a normal life, peaceful policemen, or security guards in shopping malls, or have they become mafia or gangsters? These characters have been permeating Turkish society for decades now, they haunt the country, what are the consequences?
“Iste PKK kampları”, Milliyet, May 8, 1986
“PKK yine kan döktü”, Mahmut Tekin, Milliyet, May 11, 1987
“PKK, 8 ilde komite kurdu”, Milliyet, June 25, 1987
“6 PKK'lı öldürüldü”, Milliyet, October 12, 1992
“Devlete güven tartısması”, Milliyet, October 15, 1992
Cumhuriyet, January 14, 1996
“Refah'ın Hakkari raporu”, Sabah, February 22, 1996
“Hakkarili göçmenler ‘köklü’ çözüm istiyor”, O.A. Büber, Yeni Yüzyıl, February 22, 1996
“Varto'ya PKK baskını”, Milliyet, September 19 , 1996
“Varto vartayı atlattı”, Zaman, September 20, 1996
“Varto'da yaralar sarılıyor”, Sabah, September 20, 1996
“Varto'da normale dönüs”, Hürriyet, September 20, 1996
“What is this new offensive against PKK in Tunceli?”, Ilnur Çevik, Turkish Daily News, September 25, 1996
“Vartolu olçeyi terk ediyor”, Celal Yılmaz, Cumhuriyet, September 26, 1996
“RP'li Fırat'ın Varto iddiası”, Milliyet, September 27, 1996
“PKK kılavuzu ögretmen”, Milliyet, September 28, 1996
“Vartolu olay kadını kalp krizi geçirdi”, Milliyet, September 30, 1996
“Yüksel'den Fırat'a tepki”, Milliyet, September 30, 1996
“Varto'da Özel Tim suçlanıyor”, Milliyet, October 10, 1996
Kévorkian Raymond H., Paboudjian Paul B., Les Arméniens dans l’Empire ottoman à la veille du génocide, Paris, Les Editions d’Art et d’Histoire, 1992, 603 p.
http://ararat-welat.blogspot.fr/2010/07/mehmet-fuat-frat-ile-roportajseyh-ali.html (entretien publié le 20 juillet 2010 mais réalisé du temps où Fırat était député du RP)
Other articles on the war:
On susam-sokak.fr (in French):