Cizre, Turkey – Shop owner Emre Tatlisoz’s home was once three stories high. Today, it is nothing more than a pile of rubble.
The house next door is equally unrecognisable, as is the next one, and the one after that. The streets of Nur Mahallesi, a neighbourhood in Cizre in southern Turkey, have been hard-hit by clashes between Turkish government forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters.
A 24-hour curfew was imposed on the town of about 130,000 people last December, and was only lifted this month. Residents who had fled the violence were allowed to return to Cizre on March 2, but many quickly discovered they had little to come home to.
“This was not sudden. It is hard see it, but we had imagined this in our fears,” Tatlisoz said as he surveyed the destruction. “This is why we were asking the world to look at us, but we were ignored by the media.”
He told Al Jazeera that he first planned to stay in Cizre despite the curfew, but left after his neighbour’s home was hit by shelling, and he saw a sniper shoot and kill a man in front of his house.
“Fleeing was a risk, too, with my young children … and we left under constant shooting over our heads,” Tatlisoz said.
Turkey launched a widespread security operation against the PKK, a Kurdish nationalist group that Ankara, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organisation, in July 2015.
PKK fighters have taken responsibility for deadly attacks on Turkish forces and police after a recent ceasefire between the group and the Turkish government collapsed last summer. The decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK has killed at least 30,000 people.
The recent operation was focused largely on Kurdish-majority areas in southern Turkey.
The Turkish army claimed that more than 600 PKK fighters were killed in Cizre alone. Turkey also informed the United Nations that 205 members of the police, gendarmerie and military were killed between July 20 and December 28, 2015.
A Turkish police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera that the goal of the recent operation was “to kill PKK terrorists and anyone who will support their ideology.” Turkish officials say the fighting was focused on neighbourhoods that housed barricades built by local fighters.
But Ali Ihsan Su, the governor of Sirnak province where Cizre is located, said the Turkish authorities did not distinguish between civilians and fighters.
They attacked callously and mercilessly, without distinguishing between military, police, women, men, old or young.
“They destroyed houses by placing explosives from the kitchens to the bedrooms,” Su said. “They attacked callously and mercilessly, without distinguishing between military, police, women, men, old or young.”
Earlier this month, Tesmeen Yildiz, a woman in her 60s, stood outside her home waiting for neighbourhood boys to bring her son’s charred remains up from the basement. Her son insisted on staying to watch over the house, she said, and he died when the home was attacked by Turkish forces. Yildiz maintained that her son was not a member of the PKK.
Videos and images shared by Cizre residents showed Turkish forces opening fire on civilians. A video shot by local journalist Refik Tekin – in which a group of civilians carrying white flags are fired upon – went viral in late January, and led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, to call on Turkey to investigate the shooting of unarmed civilians.
“The authorities must take great care to protect human rights when conducting military or security operations. If state operatives commit human rights violations, they must be prosecuted,” Al Hussein said in a statement.
Amnesty International also warned that “the Turkish government’s onslaught” in Kurdish towns and neighbourhoods put 200,000 lives at risk and amounted to collective punishment.
Despite being able to return home, many residents of Cizre said they were planning to relocate to nearby towns, or seek shelter with relatives elsewhere in Turkey. Those who do plan to remain will face an uphill battle to rebuild.
An official with the Turkish prime minister’s office told Al Jazeera that the government has “pledged to launch public housing projects and provide financial assistance to communities affected by terrorism”, but he did not provide further details. Asked about allegations of human rights violations by the Turkish government, the official did not directly respond, instead noting that the PKK’s violence “did more harm to the Kurds” than anybody else.
Some neighbourhoods, including Sur Mahallesi, Cudi Mahallesi and Nur Mahallesi, have become virtually uninhabitable. Rows of houses and apartment buildings have collapsed, and the structures that are still standing have broken pillars and parapets, burned bricks and bullet-scarred walls. A large school near the city centre, which locals said was used by Turkish security officers, has been reduced to rubble, while a garden near the building is filled with ash.
“We have no money, no furniture, no income. How will we feed ourselves? Where will we sleep?” asked Cihan Zaman, a pharmacist who lived in Cudi Mahallesi. “We have travelled back in time.”