A still from Hakan Topal’s Still Life (all images courtesy the artist)

Still Life by Hakan Topal packs a lot into one film (parts 1, 2, 3). It is a product of Topal’s documentary based conceptual art project which focuses on the Roboski Massacre, which took place in southeast Turkey in 2012. In this infamous raid by the Turkish military, 34 Kurdish smugglers from the village of Roboski were mistaken for terrorists and killed. Still Life draws on such issues, as Kurdish independence, contemporary colonialism, and the spectacles of the so-called “war on terrorism” in general.

Hakan Topal’s new book, and you can visit his website for a PDF (image courtesy the artist)

Roboski is less than a mile from the Turkish Iraqi border — the Kurdish Regional Government border, to be precise. The village is located in the predominantly Kurdish region of Turkey, where the locals trace their origins back to at least the first century BCE. Nevertheless, World War I and the Turkish War of Independence resulted in the distribution of Kurdish-inhabited territories among the modern states of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Kurds may be geographically divided, but they maintain their cultural unity, which they have established over two millennia. This unity is particularly relevant as in each modern state they live, where their existence is denied, their history is frequently ignored, and their human rights are often violated.

Some of the families impacted by the Roboski Massacre

Like most border towns, Roboski’s economy is dependent upon cross border trade. This is often carried out as “off-the-book” trade, but with the knowledge of local authorities. On December 27, 2011, the local governor of Roboski was playing soccer with a group of kids, and some wanted to leave before the game had concluded. When the governor questioned their actions, the teenagers gestured in a way that indicated ‘you should know why.’ They would be crossing over to Iraq that evening. The following morning, a US military drone alerted Turkish Armed Forces about a group crossing the border. In an unexpected move, the Turkish military decided to launch an airstrike on the travelers. Of the 35 smugglers who were targeted, 34 died during the attack, and almost half were under the age of 18. Among them were the group of teenagers who played soccer with the governor the day prior. When the villagers requested assistance, the nearby military post refused.

Most of the deceased belonged to the Encü family. Requesting justice, they initiated a protest, questioning the authorities over their decision to strike the small group. The state undermined their requests, and ignored their grief, arguing that those who were targeted were criminals, if not terrorists. As a result, additional pro-Kurdish protests erupted in Diyarbakır, Ankara, and Istanbul, and violent clashes followed. Worried about a larger uprising, the state offered reparations for the victims. The Roboski families refused and continued to protest, as they had recently found further popular support. A relative of one of the victims, Ferhat Encü, became a member of Parliament during the local elections. The government began to harass the Roboski families and a number of them were arrested, including Ferhat Encü. They were imprisoned for long periods of time in various cities, some of which are far from their homes, and their travel documents were seized. 

The Syrian/Turkish border near Roboski

Still Life was originally conceived as a video monument project, and it juxtaposes the Roboski families with the Turkish government’s war on terror. It carefully avoids the dramatization of the families’ grief, while depicting the mechanical violence of the state as the stage for Kurdish suffering.

“As soon as a catastrophic event occurs, the media transforms the event into a spectacle through endless analysis and speculation,” Topal writes. It “morally and emotionally exploits the event” even though the event itself  “could not be represented within predefined media templates.”

An installation by the Turkish military that reads, “How Happy Is The One Who Calls Themselves A Turk,” which was a popular nationalist slogan that was first used in 20th-century Turkey.

The book argues that “to stage violence like reality television” is one of the principle tenets of the war on terror, as such a war cannot be won in a territory where the so-called terrorists are the natives. Hence, these spectacles are among the few ways in which the state can legitimize its war. Topal states that “Even if a tentative peace is reached after long negotiations, a destroyed social, civic and economic infrastructure takes years to rebuild. At the same time, ongoing military deployment in crisis zones is used as an ideological tool to indoctrinate young soldiers and their families. While war is used to keep the working classes under control, war industries benefit the most from these ongoing conflicts.” For example, one of the functions of the Turkish military is to help seize water and land from native inhabitants, while gradually forcing the local Kurdish population to relocate. The army builds so-called security dams, supposedly to prevent floods and help support irrigation, but they are in fact strategically constructed “new tools for the government to systematically reimagine the composition of villages, towns and cities.” Likewise, the military is engaged in building kalekols (castle posts), which monitor and direct Kurdish movement. Already living between borders and states, the Kurds view these structures as nothing more than the symbols of violence.

An aerial shot showing the words VATAN written on a hillside.

Meanwhile, honest and compassionate dialogue about the Kurdish people’s status in such a scenario becomes impossible. In the case of the Roboski massacre, for example, the state was incapable of understanding why families wanted to identify who ordered the attack. Instead, Turkish government members wondered why their offer for reparations was rejected. The Roboski families have clearly stated that due to historic feuds among Kurdish groups, there are clear guidelines regarding how such ‘blood money’ should be handled in the Kurdish community. First, the suspect must be identified and must publicly apologize. Committees made up of members from both sides must then decide the proper amount of reparations. Villagers claim that the state did not take this into consideration. No perpetrator was ever identified. The reparations were determined in a public showing by the Turkish President, not to alleviate the pain of family members, but to garner popular support. Hence, Roboski families continue to protest each week, and have done so for over six years.

Hakan Topal’s Still Life was published with funding from the Prince Claus Fund For Culture and Development. A book launch event will be held Friday, May 4 at 3pm at Room UL104, University Center, The New School (63 Fifth Avenue, Greenwich Village, Manhattan). All proceeds from the book will be donated to the Roboski families. 

Murat Cem Mengüç is a freelance writer, artist and a historian who holds a PhD in history of MENA. He is the founder of Studio Teleocene, and currently based outside of Washington, DC.