Turkish families seek answers over relatives’ disappearances

Sumeyye Yilmaz explains how her husband, Mustafa Yilmaz, was taken by men outside the family home in Ankara. (AFP)
Updated 13 September 2019

Turkish families seek answers over relatives’ disappearances

  • Cases of missing people have been rare in Turkey since the 1990s, and activists are concerned by the rising number since 2016

After 100 days behind bars over accusations of belonging to a Turkish “terrorist organization,” Mustafa Yilmaz was relieved to be back with his wife and daughter and allowed to return to work. But his problems were far from over. On Feb. 19, six weeks after his release, he disappeared.
His wife, Sumeyye Yilmaz, says CCTV footage shows him being confronted outside their home after leaving for work and taken by two men before a black van passes by.
She fears he is now being held by “deep state” operatives and possibly tortured.
Yilmaz is one of 28 men that rights activists and lawmakers say have been disappeared by security forces since a failed coup in July 2016.
Twenty-five of them have since reappeared — either they turned up in the custody of the authorities or near a mountain somewhere in Turkey — but Yilmaz and two others are still missing.
The activists and MPs say that many of the 28 were tortured — the government says it has a zero-tolerance policy toward torture.
“Why is my partner not being released? What do they want to do? Is he still alive?” Sumeyye, 27, said in an interview with AFP, as their two-year-old daughter played nearby.
“In the first few days he was taken, my daughter would ask ‘Where is he?’ But now she has stopped. She’s a child, she’s forgetting,” she said, through tears.
Yilmaz, 33, was one of six men who disappeared within a few days of each other in Ankara, Istanbul, the southern city of Antalya and the northwestern province of Edirne in February.
All of them had been accused of ties to an Islamic organization run by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara claims ordered the 2016 attempted coup.
On July 28, the families were told that four of the missing were being held by Ankara police. Yilmaz and another man, Gokhan Turkmen, were not among them, which hit Sumeyye particularly hard.
“The period after July 28 was like hell for me,” she said. Both Mustafa and Sumeyye were accused of ties to the Gulen group — a charge that has seen tens of thousands of people arrested or stripped of their jobs since the coup bid. The couple denies the claims.

SPEEDREAD

Yilmaz is one of 28 men that rights activists and lawmakers say have been disappeared by security forces since a failed coup in July 2016.

However, Mustafa, a physiotherapist, was arrested last October and sentenced to six years in prison. He was out pending an appeal when he disappeared.
The nightmare began for Sumeyye when she received a call from her husband’s employer at around 11:00 a.m. to say he had not shown up for work.
First, she called hospitals, and even at one point feared he could have run off.
But she became suspicious when the authorities showed little interest, and she says the police are still not doing enough to find her husband.
“No effective investigation ... or procedure has been started,” Sumeyye said, adding it was “still not too late” to find him.
Human Rights Watch says the six men taken in February were “forcibly disappeared” and the four who re-emerged have been denied lawyers.
It said their wives had described them as traumatized.
Lawmaker Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, of the pro-Kurdish leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party who spearheaded a social media campaign to try to find the six, said he believed they had been tortured. “They were in a wretched state. When the families asked where they had been, the men said: ‘Close this issue, leave it alone’,” said Gergerlioglu.
Those who took them wanted “to interrogate them for a long time,” he added. The four men have since been formally charged over suspected Gulen links.
“I assume that the goal here is to spread terror” among suspected Gulen supporters, said Ozturk Turkdogan, head of the Turkish Human Rights Association.
“Obviously our main suspect is the state,” he added.
Turkdogan said the disappearances often followed a similar pattern, particularly the use of black VW Transporters, according to CCTV images or witnesses.
Contacted by AFP, no comment was provided by the Ankara public prosecutor’s office and police, while the Interior Ministry did not respond to requests.
Cases of missing people have been rare in Turkey since the 1990s, and activists are concerned by the rising number since 2016.
Since the four men’s reappearance, another case has come to light. The family of father-of-three Yusuf Bilge Tunc, 35, have said he was taken by unknown individuals on Aug. 6.
Tunc was accused of Gulen ties — claims which he denied — and fired from his job at the state agency overseeing the defense industry.
His family says police claim to have no information on his whereabouts, but that one officer suggested he had run off.
“For the sake of argument, let’s say that there was a problem between us ... why would he not say anything to his parents?” asked Tunc’s wife, who did not wish to be named.
“The most painful thing in the world is not knowing what has happened to him.” Like Sumeyye, they have appealed for help from the European Court of Human Rights and the UN.
Tunc’s wife also claimed police had not bothered to search his car when it was found four days after he went missing. “I never thought this kind of thing could happen to us,” she said.


Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

Updated 11 min 27 sec ago

Camel herding in Western Sahara a passion with pedigree

  • In the Western Sahara, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing
  • "Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” says herder

DAKHLA, Western Sahara: In the Oued Eddahab desert in Western Sahara, Habiboullah Dlimi raises dairy and racing camels just like his ancestors used to — but with a little help from modern technology.
His animals roam free in the desert and are milked as camels always have been, by hand, at dawn and dusk.
When camels “feed on wild plants and walk all day, the milk is much better,” said the 59-year-old herder, rhapsodizing about the benefits of the nutrient-rich drink, known as the “source of life” for nomads.
But Dlimi no longer lives with his flock.
He lives in town with his family. His camels are watched over by hired herders and Dlimi follows GPS coordinates across the desert in a 4X4 vehicle to reach them.
He is reticent when asked about the size of his herd. “That would bring bad luck,” he said.
He prefers to speak of the gentleness and friendliness of the animals he knows like his own children.
“Camels can endure everything: sun, wind, sand and lack of water, and if they could talk, you’d easily hear how intelligent they are,” he said.

A camel is silhouetted against the sunset in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara, on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


"The desert knows me"
Dlimi comes from a long line of desert dwellers from the Ouled Dlimi tribe.
As tradition dictates, he lists his ancestors going back five generations when introducing himself.
“I know the desert and the desert knows me,” he said.
Like elsewhere, the nomads of Western Sahara are settling, following a shift from rural to urban living.
“Young people prefer to stay in town,” Dlimi said, and herders now mostly come from neighboring Mauritania, whose desert north is traversed by caravans of up to a thousand camels.
Even they “often demand to work in areas covered by (mobile phone) network signal,” he added.
The population of the nearby town of Dakhla has tripled to 100,000 in 20 years, with growth driven by fishing, tourism and greenhouse farming encouraged by Morocco.
In this part of Western Sahara, development projects depend entirely on Rabat.
Morocco has controlled 80 percent of the former Spanish colony since the 1970s and wants to maintain it as an autonomous territory under its sovereignty.
The Polisario Front movement fought a war for independence from 1975 to 1991 and wants a referendum in which the people of Western Sahara choose between independence and integration with Morocco.
The United Nations has been trying to negotiate a political compromise for decades.
Like many in his tribe, Dlimi has family members on the other side of the Western Sahara Wall separating the Moroccan controlled areas from the Polisario controlled areas.
He favors loyalty to Morocco while others back independence, he said.
Tribal affiliation trumps politics, though.
“Tribes are tribes, it’s a social organization,” he said. “There are very strong links between us.”
To “preserve the past for the future,” Dlimi started a cultural association to conserve traditions from a time when there were no borders and “families followed the herds and the clouds.”

A camel herder guides his flock in the desert near Dakhla in Morocco-administered Western Sahara on Oct. 13, 2019. (AFP / FADEL SENNA)


The irony
While Dlimi loves the desert, he does have one complaint: “The camel dairy industry is valued everywhere in the world except here.”
Camel milk is trendy with health-conscious consumers and the lean meat is excellent, Dlimi claims.
Today though, it is small livestock farming that is the main agricultural focus, in response to what non-nomadic Moroccans tend to eat.
The 266,000 square kilometers (106,400 square miles) of Western Sahara under Moroccan control hosts some 6,000 herders, 105,000 camels, and 560,000 sheep and goats, according to figures from Rabat.
In other arid countries, including Saudi Arabia, intensive farming of camels has taken off.
But, while Moroccan authorities have undertaken several studies into developing Western Sahara’s camel industry, these have not so far been acted upon.
Regardless, a local adage holds that he who has no camel, has nothing.
“Some say that Saharans are crazy because when they have money they spend it on four feet,” Dlimi jokes.
For him, 20,000 dirhams ($2,000) spent on a camel is a safe investment.
But it is also a consuming passion.
His Facebook page and WhatsApp messages are filled with talk of camel husbandry techniques, research and racing.
Racing “is a pleasure and it pays,” Dlimi said.
Since the United Arab Emirates funded construction of a camel racing track at Tantan, 900 kilometers (560 miles) to the north, racing animals have appreciated in value and can sell for up to 120,000 dirhams, according to Dlimi.
To train his racing camels, Dlimi chases the young animals across the desert in his 4X4.
The technique has made him an eight-time champion in national competitions, he said.
But camels can be stubborn, Dlimi stressed, telling of how he once sold his best champion for a “very good price,” but the animal refused to race once it had changed hands.