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  • Haunted by Debt:Calculating the Cost of Loss and Violence in Turkey
  • Zerrin Özlem Biner (bio)

This essay is concerned with debt-producing mechanisms that exist between the Turkish state and Kurdish citizens. Focusing on lawsuits known as “compensation recovery cases” (rücu tazminat davaları), I argue that the Turkish state uses the legal devices to transform reparative justice mechanisms into debt-producing mechanisms that create new compulsory bonds between the state and Kurdish citizens. Here, debt refers to the material and intangible relationship that the Turkish state has established with Kurdish citizens through which militaristic state violence transforms itself into forms of dispossession. Through this process, Kurdish citizens come to be haunted by repression in both the space of loss and reiterated violence and the space of (un)anticipated debt. What does it mean to imagine loss as debt? Who is indebted to whom? In this current context of extreme violence that could result in the death of all of the subjects living under curfew, how can we talk about debt as a type of relationship between the state and the Kurds? How does living in debt blur the boundaries between the violence of the present and the future?

The military conflict between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – “PKK”) spans three decades. It has claimed the lives of more than 45,000 civilians, militants and soldiers, resulted in thousands of casualties and disappearances, led to the forced evacuation of nearly 4,000 villages and towns, and caused the displacement of millions of people as well as the formation of ethnic, social and political enclaves in contemporary Turkey.1 Following the unilateral ceasefire declared by the PKK, which was triggered by the arrest of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999, the state sought to capture the effect of violence and harness the political and moral values of Kurdish citizens. In an effort to control the sphere occupied by the PKK under the surveillance of transnational organisations such as the European Union, the state produced contradictory policies. These ranged from the enactment of reforms aimed at introducing democratisation, rehabilitation and reparation to military operations and serial acts of legal repression including the imprisonment of human rights activists and political militants aligned with the pro-Kurdish party. In the post-1999 period, the state never explicitly acknowledged its violent practices under emergency law. Nor did it offer an official apology for economic and moral injuries that had devastating effects, particularly on the lives of Kurdish citizens. There was no attempt to establish a political and social mechanism for revealing the “truth” and identifying the perpetrators and victims of the 1990s. Instead, the state eluded accountability for violations of citizenship rights by crafting legal devices that would respond to claims of material damages and losses under the scrutiny of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)2

In 2004, the Turkish parliament passed the “Law no: 5233 on Compensation for Losses resulting from Terrorism and the Fight Against Terrorism”. The law was designed to compensate citizens who had incurred material damages as a result of the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish Armed Forces between 1987 and 2004. The compensation law applied to all civilians except for those who had been convicted under the Anti-Terror Law because, by legal implication, their alleged acts of terror were presumably the cause of the damages and losses in question. In addition, damages that had previously been covered through monetary or other forms of aid granted to returnees were deducted from the award, and damages already covered by decision of the ECHR could not be addressed under the new legislation.3

Compensation was awarded by mutual agreement between the applicants and the provincial committees (known as Damage Assessment Commissions), which were staffed by local public officials and the governor of the province in the conflict zone. Through these ‘friendly settlements’ (sulhname), applicants were awarded compensation in exchange for renouncing their right to litigation. As stated in the preamble, the compensation law was not derived from the recognition of the accountability of the state, but rather, from the “doctrine of social risk based on the objective responsibility of the...

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