Monuments to Ceylan Önkol


No significant efforts were made to resolve the issues Turkey's Kurds face in the country immediately following the armed conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s. Although the precise number of people killed in the conflicts is still unknown, it is known that tens of thousands of people were killed—thousands of them civilians and many children. Reports from human rights organizations estimate that 501 children were killed from 1988 to August 2012. According to a report by the Diyarbakır Bar Association, 22 children have been killed and 27 injured by being hit by state security forces' armored vehicles since 2011 alone. The report also indicates that 45 children have been killed and 135 injured as a result of exploding landmines and from other materials of war left behind from the conflict (Diyarbakır Bar Association, 2022). Enes Ata, Mahsum Mızrak, Nihat Kazanhan, Cemile (Cizîr) Çağrıga, Helin Hasret Şen, Rozerin Çukur, Gurbet (Selma) Kılıç, and Xezal (Gezal) Beru are only a few of the children killed as a result of the disproportionate use of force by the military and security forces in Turkey's Kurdish provinces in the 2000s (Soydan, Nakçi and Görücü, 2022).

Ceylan Önkol is one of the many children who was stripped of her right to life when she was killed at the age of 12 on September 28, 2009, while grazing her family's livestock near the village of Şenlik in Lice, Diyarbakır. According to testimony from villagers and Ceylan's family, Ceylan was hit by a mortar shell fired by the Turkish Armed Forces who said they thought she was a PKK guerilla. The Turkish Armed Forces claimed there was no military activity in the area at the time. Based on the initial autopsy results, state officials argued Ceylan's death occurred as a result of her touching an explosive substance with a metal sickle. According to Dr. Ümit Biçer, a forensic medicine specialist in Kocaeli University's Department of Medicine, however, the autopsy was done incorrectly and Ceylan was killed while in a defensive position. According to Dr. Biçer's report, at the time of the explosion, Ceylan had not touched any explosive material on the ground. After the explosion, the authorities' approach and procedures were far from the seriousness and sensitivity required by the gravity of the incident. Ceylan's family and other villagers waited at the scene of the incident next to Ceylan's shattered body for around six hours as they thought there could be evidence there. The Turkish Armed Forces, however, did not allow the prosecutor to visit the scene of the incident for three days, as they claimed it would pose a security risk. Despite lawyers for Ceylan's family bringing this irregularity to the court ‘s attention in the following months, no investigation was launched into those responsible for the decisions that had the ability to hinder findings in the case. Since prosecutors were prevented from coming to the village where Ceylan was killed, her family took her mutilated body to the nearby gendarmerie station, which caused indescribable psychological trauma to Ceylan's, mother, brother, relatives, and other villagers witness to it. As for the soldiers in the military unit close to where Ceylan was killed, they were prevented from communicating by telephone with anyone outside the military unit immediately after the incident. 

The legal process launched following the killing of Ceylan Önkol did not engender any confidence among Ceylan's family, human rights defenders, or activists who tracked it that justice had been served or that the truth would be determined. Government reports also did not address the military's role in Ceylan's death. The prosecutor’s office announced that confidentiality would be applied to the case and refused to inform lawyers about the legal proceedings. Due to this, Ceylan's family brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), although the court ruled in favor of the Turkish state, having found no violation to the right to life. In 2019, Turkey's Council of State made the decision that the administration was at fault for Ceylan's death and rejected her family's request for nonpecuniary damages, deciding instead that the family be paid financial compensation. The Önkol family appealed this decision. At the end of the appeal process in 2021, the court ruled the Önkol family be paid 283,000 TL in pecuniary and nonpecuniary damages. The court also found that the Interior Ministry was 90 percent at fault for the killing of Ceylan Önkol. Despite these rulings, no one has been prosecuted for the killing of Ceylan Önkol. On April 30, 2014, the Lice Chief Public Prosecutor's Office, which had conducted the investigation, concluded that the evidence and reports in the file were insufficient to identify the perpetrators and thus included a permanent search warrant in the file. 





The primary reason for the projects of remembrance dedicated to Ceylan Önkol was the reaction of her family, human rights defenders, and activists to her murder and the resulting legal process that failed to produce criminal charges. After Ceylan's burial, a group of artists visited Ceylan's family in a show of solidarity in October of 2009. In 2010, on the anniversary of Ceylan's killing, a group of activists and politicians, including AKP MP Zeynep Dağı, attended the ceremony in memoriam at Ceylan's grave. Many BDP-run municipalities developed a series of remembrance projects to keep Ceylan's name alive in the collective memory. A park built in 2009 in Özalp, Van, was named Ceylan Önkol Park following the request from the local population. Attempts to keep Ceylan's name alive by naming parks after her were also made in other Kurdish provinces. The next year, the Kayapınar Municipality in central Diyarbakır built a park dedicated to Ceylan and other Kurdish children who had been killed, opening to the public on July 10, 2010. About a month later, another park named Ceylan Önkol Women's Park opened in Lice, Diyarbakır. The park contained a statue of Ceylan's mangled body with her mother that was dedicated to the memory of all women killed in war. Ceylan's mother and relatives attended the opening ceremony for the park. Following the re-ignition of the conflict in 2015–2016, the AKP-led central government removed the elected district governor in 2017, and appointed a trustee who then had Ceylan Önkol's name removed from the park. The park was then named after Fırat Sımpil, a 13-year-old who was killed in a bombing by the PKK while on his way to the market on August 30, 2015. This was extremely problematic in many respects. Firstly, the central government acted against the principles of democracy by removing the duly elected district governor and appointing a trustee of its choosing. Secondly, instead of building a new park in memory of Fırat Sımpil, the state held the lives of two children who both were killed in the conflict in opposition to one another. This is a stark example of the state's reflex to see itself as a side instead of claiming responsibility for the deaths of civilians and children in the conflict, as the responsibility for Ceylan's killing lay with the state while that of Fırat's killing lay with the PKK.

While work in remembrance of Ceylan continues in order to maintain the struggle to attain true justice, they also are a recognition of the pain experienced by Ceylan's mother and relatives. Actions, visits, and the memorial projects done in Ceylan's name make her family feel they have a certain amount of solidarity. These memorial projects continue in three modes. First, mostly as a series of collective actions such as visits to Ceylan's grave and demonstrations; second, as parliamentary questions Kurdish MPs submit to the chamber to reveal the truth about Ceylan's killing along with proposals to establish an investigative commission to force the state's hand to act; and third, as ongoing activities for tangible projects of remembrance that complement each other in order to keep Ceylan's memory alive and maintain the fight for justice. These remembrance projects have led to Ceylan Önkol becoming a symbol of the systemic, oppressive state policies Kurdish children are subjected to. This has happened to such an extent that in addition to the work by her family, those active in the Kurdish political movement, human rights defenders, and activists, famous musicians such as Nazan Öncel, Sezen Aksu, and Tarkan have shown support by composing songs about Ceylan Önkol.

One of the greatest difficulties encountered in the entire process was the state's official policy, which conceals the truth about Ceylan's killing and prevents justice from being served. Another challenge is the ongoing pressure on Ceylan's family from the central state. The military report prepared on Ceylan's death includes statements that claim her family is connected to the PKK, that they did not want justice from the courts, and that they held state officials responsible for Ceylan's death only because they wanted more financial gain. No one has taken responsibility for Ceylan's death and no state body has recognized the family's anguish. On the contrary, state institutions have made great efforts to silence the family so they don't lay blame on the Turkish Armed Forces. Our own experiences have shown us that an environment of peace is of the utmost importance to realize projects of remembrance, as after the flare up of the conflict in 2015–2016, the government increased pressure on memory studies on the state's grave human rights abuses in Kurdish provinces.