Since Turkey restarted a bombing campaign targeting separatists, there have been allegations of civilians killed by airstrikes. Gaining rare access, IRIN went to investigate.
Article and photos by Chloe Cornish
The village of Zargali nestles in northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains, close to the Iranian border. More than an hour’s drive from the nearest town, the road hairpins beneath stark cliff faces and through orchards.
Despite harsh summer temperatures, it is green and pleasant, split by a river edged with walnut trees.
But on 1 August, the peace was shattered as Turkish warplanes bombed the area as part of their assault on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a separatist group based in Iraq that aims to carve out an independent Kurdish region in southern Turkey.
In a visit undertaken by few foreign journalists, IRIN travelled to the village to see the damage caused. While Turkey says the strikes are focused purely on hitting the militants, the PKK say they had no fighters in the area.
Whatever the truth of these claims and counter-claims, ordinary people appear to have borne the brunt of this particular air assault. Mohammad Hassan, co-president of the local municipality, said eight civilians died and 16 more were wounded. No fighters were killed, he said.
“I told him not to go to the village,” 26-year-old Rebwar said, describing the last time he saw his friend Karokh. “But he said, no, I have to.” Karokh was visiting a neighbouring village when the first airstrike hit his family home in Zargali, killing his mother. He rushed back to the house to try to help his father.
“Actually I wanted to go with him,” admitted Rebwar. “But my family said no.”
Twenty minutes later, as the rescuers rushed to free the wounded from under the debris, a second airstrike hit the same spot.
“It was a catastrophe. There were lots of dead bodies. The human flesh was burning and smelled horrible. I saw Karokh’s leg sticking out from under the rubble,” said Rebwar. “He was a very good man.”
Two fronts or one?
Karokh’s death highlights the stark differences between the US-led coalition and Turkish policies in the region – he was a member of the Peshmerga, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region’s fighting force, often singled out as a key Western ally in fighting ISIS.
Late last month, Turkey announced it would begin bombing the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria after agreeing a deal with the American government. At the same time, it began a new bombing campaign against PKK separatists living in exile in the mountains of northern Iraq, signalling the full collapse of a ceasefire agreed in 2013. PKK militants are also accused of a series of suicide bombings and targeted killings in Turkey, as well as the sabotage of an important oil pipeline.
Since the campaign began, however, there have been dozens of attacks on PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdistan’s northern region, but just a handful on Islamic State in Syria, raising concerns that Ankara has used the threat of the Islamists as an excuse to target old foes.
For the rural community of Zargali, the impact of this campaign has been dire. Ava Shin, a doctor at the village’s small medical clinic, was attending to the victims of a bomb attack on a different village when Zargali was hit. She confirmed the double-strike.
“I saw one of [the dead]. His intestines were spilling out,” Shin said, miming the injury. “He was still alive but in shock and losing lots of blood. He died in front of my eyes.”
“[Another] is in a coma now. I saw someone with a head injury, one person who lost an ear. Another lady lost four family members.”
A PKK spokesperson, who calls himself Zagros, gave IRIN access to the bomb site. The PKK mans checkpoints along the valley and journalists cannot gain access without their consent. He said there were five houses there that had been flattened.
There was no trace of the structures except smashed concrete. Heavy pieces of shrapnel from the bombs were visible amongst the rubble. Zagros pointed to the spot where the victim of the initial strike had been found. He said she was an elderly lady, consistent with Rebwar’s account that this was Karokh’s mother.
“No. Not at all. Of course PKK fighters came to help the injured at that time. I myself came and helped,” insisted Zagros. “But I don’t live in this village.”
“We don’t have bases nearby. Our bases are in the mountains. We don’t use villages as bases. Where is the nearest one? I cannot tell you!” he laughed.
Zagros said that the PKK did not expect the airstrike in Zargali. “Everybody knows this is a village. We are not fighting Turkey here. People here are living their lives. They are not the ones to pay for the fighting.”
In a statement, Turkish officials said: “all targets are chosen in areas where, based on actionable intelligence, it is concluded with certainty that there are no civilians.”
“It is known that there are no civilians at the Zargali terrorist camp in question, also that high-level PKK members were present there during the operation.”
Although IRIN saw little evidence to suggest that Zargali was or is a “terrorist camp”, the target for the Turkish strikes cannot be entirely discredited, as PKK fighters are known to travel in the local area.
“We don’t have the power to resist them,” said an elderly man in the next village, talking about the PKK guerrillas. “We told them 100,000 times not to come into the villages – but still they’re coming.” Kurdistan Regional Government President Barzani also called on the PKK to leave the area to prevent further loss of life.
For many of the residents, this attack was the last straw. This is the second time in two years that these villages have suffered a Turkish air offensive. They have also been mortared by Iranian forces and bombed by Saddam Hussein. The protection of the mountains makes it a fruitful place to farm, but it has also historically been a useful hiding place for guerrillas.
Since the attack, approximately 900 people have fled Zargali to Warta, a sub-district further west, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Um Bahram is among those planning to quit her village next to Zargali, saying she lives in constant fear. “We are really scared even being here now, just waiting for the drone sound,” she said, pointing out the cracks in their house that she says were caused by the blast from the airstrike. “But we came today because we have work to do on our farmland.”
“We will have dinner and leave before sunset.”
“My nephew was killed,” she said. “They are all our people, our tribe.”
Ten-year old Zahra stood close to her mother. “For several days my daughter couldn’t eat anything, she was so scared and shocked,” said Um Bahram. “My husband went to Diana (a town nearby) to find us some place to live in... It will be very difficult. But what can you do? It is to save our lives.”
Sabah Ibrahim is a teacher at Zargali’s primary school. “We evacuated the first night of Turkish airstrikes, around 4am. They came twice after that. We saw lots of airstrikes before, but it was never like this.”
After windows smashed over his sleeping family, Sabah rushed outside to see if his car was on fire. It wasn’t his car. The entire hillside was burning, and the trees around his car were alight. Racing to recover the vehicle, he found a girl lying unconscious in the road, thrown by the force of the blast. The bomb had landed some 250 metres from Sabah’s house. Among his walnut trees, a charred trunk remains.
“They even bombed the river channel,” he said, disbelievingly.
“I have a seven-year-old daughter; her mentality, her psychological health has been distorted by this fighting,” said Sabah, rattling his prayer beads. “During the night she wakes up and starts to cry. We do our best to calm her by saying that nothing’s happened and it will never be repeated. But we can’t be sure – we just want to help her.”
Fifty local children attend his school, but “if the war continues, it’s impossible to have a school.”
Sabah’s family has moved further up the valley, living in a house with three other displaced families. An NGO came to deliver blankets and mattresses to them. “We need a shelter to live in. We don’t need mattresses and blankets”. Sabah refused to take the aid he didn’t need.
Although they won’t stay long in case the drones and planes return, Sabah showed IRIN his damaged property in Zargali. The ground is littered with shards of glass where the bomb blast shattered the windows. Two of Sabah’s female cousins were seriously injured by shrapnel and are being treated in Erbil. One is now blind.
“I just started to create my nice garden and clean the environment. Look how beautiful it is here. I would cry for myself.” There are small rose plants and rows of tender purple basil.
Sabah suspects that the Turkish had faulty intelligence, and that they were hit by mistake. Others blame two houses in the village that they say have become a PKK intelligence cell, with visitors coming there from Turkey and Iran.
"We don’t like any parties to use us as a tool in their conflict, to use the civilians in their fight,” said Sabah. “We just want to live in our villages peacefully like everyone else.”
With the villagers reporting a lack of affordable accommodation in nearby towns, one UN aid worker suggested that they would have the option of living in one of the camps for displaced people. A few hundred kilometres away, the Turkish government’s aid agency runs a camp for Iraqis displaced by ISIS violence.
“Turkey has also established or facilitated the establishment of four camps... in northern Iraq, hosting 40,000 displaced people,” said Faruk Kaymakci, ambassador to Iraq. “Since the very beginning of the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, Turkey has provided humanitarian assistance to Iraq, supports Iraq in fighting against Da'esh (ISIS), as well as in overcoming the humanitarian crisis.” Istanbul will host the World Humanitarian summit in 2016.
IRIN left the village amidst the crackle of walkie-talkies reporting that a helicopter was in the air nearby.