Security problem deepens with ambulance crisis in Turkey

Security problem deepens with ambulance crisis in Turkey

U.S. Senator Hiram W. Johnson said in 1917 that the first casualty when war comes is truth. Johnson was an isolationist, against the U.S. entry to World War One. In the same year as he uttered those words, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson led his country into the Great War in the old continent.

When I read Cansu Çamlıbel’s interview with Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch (HRW), I recalled Johnson’s wise words.

After contacts with Turkish government officials, opposition parties - including the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) - local human rights organizations, and civil society groups active in Turkey’s east and southeast, Roth said the following: “It is very hard to get to the bottom of the facts. We were focusing particularly on getting medical access to injured people in a basement in Cizre. We were getting completely different stories from different people we spoke to about whether it was the government or the PKK that was not allowing in care. We don’t know what’s happening. But I can state the principle that both sides have a duty to commit to medical care to the injured. If there is an urgent military necessity it can be delayed for a short period. But in this case we are talking about hours. Some accommodation should be found to let injured people access medical care.”

Roth was talking about what has become known as the “ambulance crisis” in Cizre, a town near Turkey’s border with both Syria and Iraq. Cizre is the site of a rise in acts by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in recent months, to which security forces have reciprocated with the heavy use of force.

The PKK claimed “self-rule” in three neighborhoods of Cizre, digging ditches, raising barricades and starting an armed campaign to prevent state forces from entering those areas. The same thing happened simultaneously in a number of other districts in southeastern Turkey: Sur in Diyarbakır province, Silopi in Şırnak province, and Nusaybin in Mardin province.

The “ambulance crisis” started to unfold early last week, when Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu said they were receiving emergency medical calls in Cizre but were unable to enter the area due to fears that the ambulance would be attacked by militants. According to government reports, PKK members kidnapped an ambulance and killed its driver in a similar situation in September 2015 in the nearby town of Beytüşşebap. Last week, another ambulance was set alight in another southeastern town, Batman. 

Müezzinoğlu said the authorities had contacted those who called the emergency services and gave the name of HDP deputy Faysal Sarıyıldız. They asked the trapped people to bring those wounded closer to the ambulance, so the health personnel would be out of shooting range. 

President Tayyip Erdoğan has intervened in the debate, saying officials suspect that this may all just be a trap, adding that he is not even sure whether there actually are any wounded people in the basement.

As reports started to come that 23 people were trapped in the basement of a house in the PKK-controlled area, and that one of them died, three HDP MPs started a hunger strike in Ankara in protest at “government negligence.”  Şebnem Korur Fincancı, the head of Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation (TİHV) and herself a forensic medic, said it was the government’s duty to provide health services to all citizens: A similar line taken by HRW’s Kenneth Roth.

Yesterday, on Jan. 23, there were more reports of clashes and killings in Cizre (and other hot points), but still no solution to the basement crisis had been found as of the early evening.

Security problems are deepening in southeastern Turkey, fueled by the civil war in Syria and the instabilities in Iraq - both aggravated by acts of terror in areas controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Turkey is additionally worried by the expansion in areas along the Turkish border in Syria by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is a sister organization of the PKK.

Every day there are reports of causalities: Soldiers, police officers, PKK militants, and ordinary people caught between two fires. It is not only HRW director Roth; we, the journalists of this country, have precious little information to rely on, as it is practically impossible to get into areas hit by clashes and operations. Once again, truth is among the causalities of conflict.