Mohammed Ekinci still has nightmares.
“We were standing here,” he says, gesturing to a small garden in front of the Amara Culture Center in Suruc, southern Turkey.
“Everyone was running,” the tall science student says. “They were covered in blood. I could see body parts in the trees we were screaming for help. I still hear those screams I can’t sleep or study anymore. I’m like a crazy person now.”
A member of the Socialist Youth Associations Federation, or SGDF, 24-year-old Ekinci was one of a growing number of Western students forging links with Kurdish youth groups in both southeastern Turkey and in the town of Kobani on the Turkey-Syria border, the latter the site of major fighting between Islamic State and the U.S.-led coalition in late 2014 and early 2015.
At noon on July 20, 2015, 32 of Ekinci’s friends — who had traveled to Suruc to help rebuild Kobani — were killed by a suicide bomber.
“At the time we all thought it was ISIS,” Ekinci says. “But after some time, and now, thinking about it, lots of things don’t make sense. When we were screaming for help, people ran out on to the street but the ambulances weren’t allowed in to help the injured. It is all so wrong. Now, when we see Turkish Special Forces, we think they’re linked to ISIS. So was it ISIS or the Turkish state? What’s the difference?”
Following the Suruc bombing, Selahattin Demirtaş — the leader of the pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party — blamed the Turkey, claiming that “officials in Ankara gently pat the heads of ISIS.” Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party party denied the accusation.
The following day the PKK retaliated with an attack on Turkish soldiers, the next day Kurdish militants shot dead two Turkish policemen in their homes in Sanliurfa, a Kurdish city in eastern Turkey.
On July 21, 2015 — the day after the bombing — Turkey launched air strikes on strongholds of the Kurdish PKK party in Turkey and in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. The PKK in turn, carried out a campaign of car bombings targeting Turkish police and soldiers.
The fragile, two-year-old Turkey-PKK ceasefire instantly dissolved and the region descended into violence not seen since the 1990s.
Now seven cities and 21 towns in Turkey are under curfew. Five of these are under 24-hour curfew — a practice Amnesty International calls “collective punishment.”
Government forces are using heavy weaponry, including armored vehicles, against PKK guerillas who, according to residents, have been preparing for war in civilians areas ever since Turkey’s June election, which saw the pro-Kurd HDP party gain ground.
In Sur, Diyarbakir, residents have returned home to find their businesses in the UNESCO-listed ares destroyed by government tanks and bombs. At least 487 civilians have died in the curfew zones since August 2015 and many families are still waiting to reclaim bodies of relatives scattered in morgues across the region.
Social media accounts linked to Turkish special forces have circulated photos depicting the naked dead bodies of female guerillas lying in public streets.
Human rights groups have challenged Turkey’s practice of closing down whole cities and towns.
Government officials claim the curfews are necessary prevent terror attacks, but HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş has called the restrictions “war crimes.”
“There are obvious war crimes being committed,” Demirtaş said. “We need more help. The city centers are being shelled by government forces. When we demanded access to the towns to retrieve the bodies of those killed in the fighting or get ambulances in to help the wounded, we were refused.”
In Diyarbakir’s Martyrs’ Graveyard, keffiyehs in Kurdish colors flutter from the gravestones of those killed fighting in the curfew areas. The average age listed on the gravestones is 22. Fresh bodies arrive on a weekly basis. One woman complained that imams are being prevented from facilitating proper Islamic burials. And many families can’t even claim the bodies of their loved-ones who died fighting the government.
In Sur, Mahmut Simsek helps those trying to locate the bodies of Kurds killed while fighting for the YPS “civil protection units” that are aligned with the PKK.
“Sometimes it takes a week, sometimes 10 days and sometimes they never find the bodies,” Simsek says. “We now believe that this is the final war for us Kurds. This war will be everywhere, in the cities, the mountains even in the western part of Turkey. The Suruc bombing was the beginning. More young people will die.”
The European Union has just signed off on a €6-billion deal with Turkey that would curtail the flow of migrants from the Middle East, but many Kurds say they fear that Ankara will direct this money into the war on the Kurds, as many refugee camps are under the control of Turkish forces.
Ekinci, the Suruc bombing survivor, claims that Turkey’s clamp-down on protest movements and youth gatherings will only fuel violence in both the Kurdish east and the liberal west.
“I’m worried this year there will be more and more attacks, but I will continue to go to protests,” he says. “They think if they keep killing us we will be afraid but we won’t let them. ISIS and the government can’t stop us from making our voices heard. Suruc will not be the end.”