Memorials to Ceylan Önkol

After decades of intense armed conflict in the 1980s and 1990s, no resolution of the Kurdish question in Turkey was forthcoming. The civil war in the Kurdish region caused the deaths of approximately 50,000 people, among them thousands of civilians. Of the civilians killed in the course of the civil war, the number of children has been quite high. According to human rights organizations in Turkey, from 1988 to August 2012, the number of child victims of war was 501. Ceylan Önkol, age 12, was one of the victims who did not have a chance to grow up. She was killed on September 28, 2009, while grazing her family’s animals near the Şenlik village in the county of Lice, Diyarbakir. Villagers and the family claimed that Ceylan was hit by howitzer fire; possibly she was taken for a Kurdish guerilla. The military, meanwhile, claimed there had been no military activity in that particular district. After an autopsy of Ceylan’s body, state authorities claimed the explosion took place when Ceylan accidentally set off a grenade with a pruning hook. According to an independent medical report, the autopsy was conducted incorrectly. It argued that Ceylan’s death could not have been caused under the scenario described by state authorities, since the evidence indicated she had not had contact with any material on the ground at the time of the explosion. The aftermath of the murder is as significant as the killing itself. Ceylan’s family and other villagers waited nearly six hours with her broken and shattered body, hoping it could be used as evidence; but the military refused to provide the prosecutor access to the crime scene for three days, saying the region was not safe. Although Ceylan’s lawyers took this issue to court in the following months, the soldiers who had tried to manipulate the judicial process in this way ultimately escaped prosecution. Because prosecutors could not come to the scene, the family of Ceylan Önkol and villagers had to bring Ceylan’s remains to a gendarmerie station near the village, causing serious psychological harm to her family members, especially her mother. The military headquarters near the village limited its soldiers’ right to talk to their families on the phone, increasing suspicions that the military was attempting to cover up its role in the murder of Ceylan Önkol.

Judicial proceedings, in this case, have not given Ceylan Önkol’s family a sense that justice has been or will be done. Government reports denied any military role in the killing. Nevertheless, prosecutors at first declared the case classified and refused to give the investigation file to the lawyers for Ceylan’s family. More importantly, almost four years after the murder took place, prosecutors had not yet commenced a suit, claiming they were still investigating. The family’s lawyers then brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The peace process between Turkish state and the PKK lasted around 2,5 years from 2013 to 2015, giving hope that the conflict could end peacefully for the first time in Turkey’s history. However, during the period leading up to the June 2015 elections and after elections, the peace process completely collapsed and the parties went back to fighting. When the conflict re-escalated, the State turned to fiercely criminalizing the Kurdish movement, political actors, as well as Kurdish memory. One way this was done was through appointing trustees to replace appointed majors in Kurdish populated cities. These trustees systematically removed and destroyed memorials, parks and monuments built by Kurdish municipalities. It is in this context that Ceylan Önkol’s name was removed, to be replaced by Fırat Sımpil, a 13 year old child who was killed by a bombing attack by PKK on August 2015.

Status
Completed
Date
2010
Owner
Form
Scope and Purpose

The sense of injustice perceived by the family and Kurdish people is the main reason behind the emergence of memorials dedicated to Ceylan Önkol. Following her death in 2009, various municipalities in the Kurdish region began efforts to keep Ceylan’s name alive in the collective memory of society. In November 2009, the mayor of Özalp (in Van) announced that local people had called for a children’s park to be named after Ceylan Önkol. She was memorialized in the names of parks in other cities of the Kurdish region as well. The following year, Kayapınar Municipality in Diyarbakir constructed a park dedicated to the memory of Ceylan Önkol and other Kurdish children killed in the course of the armed conflict. The park was opened on June 10, 2010. A month later, in July 2010, the construction of Ceylan Önkol Women’s Park (Ceylan Önkol Kadın Parkı) began in Lice. The park opened on the first anniversary of Ceylan’s death. In this park, a monument symbolizes Ceylan and her mother together, as well as other female victims of the war, and also depicts what happened to Ceylan’s body. Moreover, her family members attended the opening of the park and the unveiling of the statue. Just after Ceylan was buried, in October 2009, a group of well-known artists and actresses visited Ceylan’s family and her grave to show solidarity with the family. In 2010, on the anniversary of her death, relatives of Ceylan, activists and a parliamentary deputy from the AKP (Zeynep Dağı) visited  Ceylan’s grave to commemorate her.

On the other hand, after going back to the conflictual process in 2015-2016, the name of Ceylan Önkol has been removed  from the park in 2017 by a centrally appointed trustee that replaced the elected mayor. Her name was replaced by the name of Fırat Sımpil, a 13 year old child who lost his life in a bomb attack as he was going to grocery on August 2015.  This was a problematic policy at a number of levels. First, it was carried out as a result of an anti-democratic intervention carried out by the centrally appointed trustee which overran the political will locally represented by the mayor. Secondly, instead of opening a second park for Fırat Sımpil, the fact that the State replaced his name for Önkol’s indicated that the State used the lives of two children in taking a side in the conflict.

Impact

While memorials dedicated to Ceylan aim to further the struggle for justice, they also enable her mother and other relatives to gain recognition for their suffering. Demonstrations of sympathy and attention, through visits and creation of memorial sites, allow the family to feel a degree of solidarity. The campaign for justice for Ceylan Önkol employs a three-fold strategy. First, various collective actions have been organized in both the Kurdish region and in Istanbul calling for justice. These collective actions include visiting the grave of Ceylan on the anniversary of her death. Second, parliamentary deputies have tried to force state authorities to provide factual information through parliamentary questions and have demanded investigative commissions that would reveal the truth about her death. Third, concrete memorialization projects emerged in a complementary fashion, solidifying the struggle for justice by honoring Ceylan’s memory and her family. Through the creation of memorial sites, Ceylan became a symbol of harm inflicted upon Kurdish children by the government.

Challenges

One of the main challenge throughout the process of struggle for justice has been the actions of state authorities, which have refused to reveal the truth about the incident or punish the people or institutions responsible. Another challenge has been the state pressure on Ceylan’s family. The report prepared by the military accused the family of being affiliated with the PKK and alleged that they wanted money from the state, rather than justice. Thus in addition to denying responsibility for the murder and refusing to recognize the suffering of the family, the state seems to be trying to silence the family and keep them from denouncing the Turkish Armed Forces for perpetrating her murder. On the other hand, Turkish experience shows the importance of peace for the realization of memorialization projects. This became evident when pressures on Kurdish memory escalated with the escalation of conflict in 2015-2016. The removal of Ceylan Önkol’s name from the park took place in this context where Kurdish politics and memory has been targeted in widespread and systematic fashion.