Fighting for the Right to Heal

In 2016, 14 health workers tried to help civilians trapped in Turkey's besieged town of Cizre. Today, Erdogan's government wants to jail them for this act.

A Kurdish man looks at the destroyed houses and shops in Cizre, March 2, 2016, Turkey. Cagdas Erdogan / Getty Images

If Incilay Erdogan is stressed, she doesn’t show it. In the morning, a trial which could put her behind bars for years will begin. But she spends the evening laughing with friends, drinking tea, and breaking into spontaneous dance. “When they told me the court case was here in Mardin, I couldn’t have been happier. What a beautiful place to face judgement.”

It’s not the first time Incilay, who lives in Istanbul, has visited the region. In February 2016 she was part of a group of fourteen health professionals from across Turkey who assembled a voluntary ambulance crew in Mardin. Their goal was to reach the Kurdish-majority town of Cizre, one hundred kilometers to the east.

At the time, Cizre was facing one of the harshest curfews in modern history, imposed by the Turkish army to root out militants of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). With hundreds of civilians trapped in the city without access to health care or basic supplies, the Trade Union of Employees in Public Health and Social Services (SES) and the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) put out a call for volunteer medics.

“When I heard the phone calls from people trapped in basements, asking us if it was safe to drink their own piss, I knew it was my medical duty to respond,” says Sadık Mulamahmutoğlu, who joined Incilay on the volunteer team. Apart from their work as doctors, Sadik and Incilay help run a jazz bar in Istanbul’s Taksim neighbourhood. Still, they put all their activities aside to help the people of Cizre.

Just a few years ago a peace deal between the PKK and the Turkish government looked increasingly possible. Erdogan needed Kurdish votes to secure power and many Kurdish militants were focusing their attention on the Rojava project, south of the border. However, Rojava’s growing strength combined with a changing electoral situation delivered Erdogan the hand he needed to abandon talks and begin a military operation to stamp out the PKK.

Cizre was one of many villages across the region where young Kurdish activists dug in, building barricades in the streets and refusing government orders to surrender. The response was swift and brutal. A blanket curfew was imposed while heavy military and long-range snipers took positions on the hills surrounding the village. By the end of the seventy-nine day curfew, many parts of the town lay in ruins.

“Cizre was a lesson — not just for Kurds but also for those who took part in the Taksim square protests and anyone opposed to the Erdogan regime,” Incilay says. “If you resist, we can and will crush you — that’s what the government is telling us.”

Calculated Neglect

Arriving at Mardin airport the day before the trial, we’re swept into a small Renault by Derya, a TTB member and biochemist at the local hospital. She blasts Kurdish ballads from the stereo as we speed along the steep motorway to the ancient fortress city. “My father — Turkish, my mother — Kurdish. Me — confused,” she laughs. Derya recently moved back to the Kurdish region to reconnect with her roots after years living in Ankara.

We squeeze into a small Mardin restaurant where the accused workers, union leaders, and NGO representatives have assembled. Sweating over the stove is Mustafa Benli, a former tax officer who lost his job in the purge of public workers launched by Erdogan after the failed coup in 2016. “We make a point of eating here to support our dismissed comrade,” Derya tells us.

Salih, our interpreter, chimes in: “I was also recently fired from my job as Kurdish professor at the University here … but at least now I have time to translate books into Kurdish — I just finished translating Orwell’s 1984. Now this is a book our people need.”

Over lunch, the workers discuss the difficulty of developing a legal strategy for a politically motivated case. The government’s claims rest on the fact that, because the requests for health assistance came from the PKK, the volunteer ambulance journey to the region represents a form of participation in a terrorist organization. However, the health workers announced their plans publicly — and advised the Ministry of Health and the Interior Ministry before their arrival. Despite this, once in Mardin they were detained by police and refused entry to Cizre. They never managed to help the dying civilians who the government says were terrorists.

Serdar Kuni, a medic from Cizre, tears up as he remembers living through the seventy-nine-day curfew. “They would shoot at anything that moved: men, women, and children alike. Helicopters, heavy artillery, a full-scale siege. Many of Cizre’s health workers perished. The army even converted part of our hospital into a base.”

The full scale of loss may never be known. Despite calls from the United Nations for an international investigation, the government consistently restricts foreigners and NGOs from entering the area. Malzumder, a Turkish human rights group which managed to collect some testimonies after the end of the curfew, believes the number of deaths is in the hundreds.

Most casualties occurred in the city’s basements. Witnesses claim the army stood by, blocking the entrances as one building with seventy people inside went up in flames. “Their charred remains were removed along with the rest of the rubble and dumped into the Tigris river. Many families received little more than a few burnt bones to bury,” Kuni tells us.

Medical Ethics on Trial

A golden bust of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, sits perched above the courtroom, surveying the scene as the defendants filter in. The judge, a stoic, businesslike man in his mid-thirties gently raises his hand for silence. Incilay is the first to take the stand. “Doctors like us have been responding to calls for help since the time of Hippocrates. On trial here today is the very principle of medical ethics,” she tells the room.

One by one the workers testify as the judge sits attentive yet poker faced. At the end of proceedings, he announces the trial adjourned and the workers free on bail until December 26. The date of the next hearing is important. On November 13th,  the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) began its hearing of a case brought by survivors of the Cizre curfew. Many of the accused doctors gave evidence for the case and believe a ruling against the government will strengthen their hand in their own trial.

Incilay seems relieved. “In other cases I’ve had judges literally snoring while I spoke. At the very least he seemed to be listening!”

The health workers debrief at the SES Union’s office in Mardin. The walls of the office are covered with smiling photos of dead union activists. One poster displays the faces of over one hundred comrades murdered in the 2015 bombing of a union rally in Ankara.

SES co-President Gönül Erden reads out letters of solidarity from other unions and workers across the world. “We are not alone. The government is under huge economic and diplomatic pressure right now and our international partners will be leveraging this power to lobby for all of these charges to be dropped,” she tells the crowd of assembled supporters.

Later, back in Istanbul, we perch on chairs haphazardly arranged in front of Incilay’s bar. A stream of musicians, activists, doctors, filmmakers and unionists swarm her with hugs and “welcome homes.” She sips on Budweiser, laughing with friends late into the night. As we get up to leave, I ask how she remains so relentlessly positive. In one swift motion she finishes her bottle, throws her bag across her shoulder and cracks a crooked smile. “For us, as long as you believe resistance is possible, you know that hope is possible. The struggle doesn’t stop with me, or this case, or with Cizre. The struggle continues.”