By Pauline Latil and Ecem Nazlı Üçok
For more than 35 years, Turkey has been involved in an armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish Armed Forces. The PKK has been classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and US since the early 2000s.
A suicide bomb attack in 2015 re-escalated the four-decade-long conflict, causing a resurgence of violence in the Kurdish regions of the country. Between the mid-1980s and 2012, it was estimated that 35,000 lives were lost across 14 different cities in the Eastern part of Turkey. More recently, the country saw 5,031 deaths and injuries from explosive violence between 2011 and 2018, of which 66% (3,345) were civilians. 92% of these deaths were caused by IEDs, according to AOAV's explosive violence monitor.
According to the NGO Minority Rights, Kurds constitute around 18% of Turkey's population, making them the largest ethnic and linguistic minority in Turkey. Predominantly located in the Eastern and South-Eastern Anatolia region, the Kurdish-populated area, particularly its rural regions, have been experiencing low-intensity armed conflict as well as political tension and socio-economic adversity since the mid-1980s. The early outbreak of fighting in 1984 between the government and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) led to over one million Kurds being forcibly evicted from rural and urban areas in those regions, according to the NGO Minority Rights.
In 2015, violence with the PKK resumed after the Suruç bombing,a suicide attack carried out in Gaziantep, a Kurdish town located near the Syrian border. According to the BBC, the terrorist act was first blamed on the Islamic State, but Kurds later accused the Turkish government of orchestrating the attack. The PKK shot dead two Turkish policemen in response, and Ankara resumed airstrikes on PKK positions in both Turkish and Iraqi territories, triggering a spate of tit-for-tat violence.
Between 2014 and 2015, Turkey saw a 7,682% rise in civilian casualties caused by explosive violence. In 2018 and 2019, AOAV recorded 209 deaths and injuries from explosive violence in Turkey, of which 132 were civilians. Most of these deaths and injuries occurred in towns and areas bordering Syria.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has estimated that there were 953,700 Kurdish internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Turkey as of December 2014. Several NGOs have reported extreme human rights violations in Turkey, including unsolved murders, kidnappings, disappearances in custody, forced migrations, ill treatment, torture, insult, and forced village guarding.
Impact on Children
According to reports from the Human Rights Foundation in Turkey (HRFT), 77 children lost their lives between August 7, 2015 and August 16, 2016 in the fighting. 11 of these were in Diyarbakır, 1 in Hakkari, 63 in Sirnak, and 2 in Mardin. The age of these children ranged from 0 months to 18 years. During the clashes between August 7, 2015 and August 16, 2016, children were subjected to the following violations of the right to life: targeting by snipers, use of firearms by security forces and members of the organization, denial of access to treatment for children injured by firearms, and inability to control an ordinary illness (high fever, diarrhoea).
Another cause of injuries and death in children was unexploded ammunition, or 'conflict waste.' 13-year-old Fırat Simpil, for instance, lost his life in the explosion of a bomb laid on the road during the passage of the police soldier team in Silvan District of Diyarbakır on August 30, 2015, as reported by the HRFT. Another bomb attack, carried out on the District Police Department building in Çınar district of Diyarbakır on January 14, 2016, killed 2 police officers and a 4-year-old girl named Mevlüde İrem Çiftçi.
The HRFT reported that, following these events, "hundreds of thousands of youths might have been exposed to direct or indirect conflict-related incidents, such as combat; physical injuries; the death or injury of family members, relatives, or significant others; separation from family members, relatives, or friends; or residence or school changes." Several NGOs also reported incidents by the Turkish government such as unfair prosecution or imprisonment of Kurdish children.
In 2015, the Educators for Peace Initiative reported that 325,000 children were left without access to education that year due to the conflict and the destruction of infrastructure.
In 2019, two scholars at Koç University published findings on the well-being of children living in the East of Turkey, identifying the "prominent risk factors for the psychological well-being of children living in a low-intensity armed conflict zone, rather than a full-blown war." A 2004 Basak Culture and Art Foundation report linked Kurdish children's forced migration to problems in adaptation, language and communication, psychological well-being, and an increased instance of dropouts from schools between 1986 and 2005.
In February 2017, the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights published a report claiming the Turkish authorities refused to investigate civilian deaths, accusing residents of supporting terrorism, and asserting that investigators had been denied access to these areas.
State media and internet shutdown caused a lack of news coverage of the events between August 7, 2015, and August 16, 2016, leading to a silencing of Kurdish counter-narratives. There has been wide-spread reporting of the repression of the press in Turkey in recent years.
Seeking to strike PKK fighters on the other side of the border, Turkey has launched a series of trans-border attacks over recent years. These airstrikes by Turkish forces have led to the displacement of an estimated 180,000 people in North-East Syria, of which 70,000 are children. According to a report by the UN, about 75% of these refugees are women and children, some of whom are, "requiring psycho-social first aid and support, after witnessing explosions and shelling and living in fear in midst of the fighting."
Furthermore, some experts have drawn attention to the lack of long-term academic research into the insufficient primary healthcare setting in Turkey, particularly noting the significant developmental delay of refugee children. According to the 2018 Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, a study on the Syrian refugees already present in Turkey reveals that 17% of Syrian children refugees under the age of 5 are stunted or too short for age, indicating chronic malnutrition, compared to 6% of Turkish children of the same age. Little research exists detailing the mental or physical state of children in the Kurdish parts of Syria bordering Turkey.
A striking lack of research and media coverage prevents a clear understanding of the situation on the ground and of the local populations -- in particular, children -- in the regions affected by explosive violence in this conflict. While human rights organisations have made efforts in some areas, there is a need for deep qualitative and quantitative research into the impact of conflict on children in the region. Further academic research should also prioritise the impacts of forced migration on child health and development.
For more research on the impact of explosive violence on children, please visit AOAV's category page on this matter here.