Diyarbakir, Turkey – Suleyman Aydin stood in front of an enormous Turkish flag wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a son he has not seen for five years.
As he describes it, when Ozkan was just 15 he was kidnapped by the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey, the United States, and 28 European nations list as a “terrorist” organisation.
“After school, he was coming home,” Suleyman explains, “and they intercepted the children, and took them somewhere ‘for a picnic’. They tricked them.”
Ozkan is now, his father believes, somewhere “in the mountains” in the range that spans Iraq, Iran and Turkey where much of the PKK is based.
Though Suleyman hides this from his other children when they ask about their older brother, “We say he’s gone to Istanbul, that he’s found work. These little lies to console them.”
In a tent in Diyarbakir, about 1,500km (932 miles) southeast of Istanbul, are dozens of other parents sitting in front of pictures of their missing children. They are part of a protest that has now lasted more than a year. Known as the Diyarbakir Anneleri – the “Diyarbakir Mothers” – about 130 families are said to have joined them at some point.
And, sitting opposite the provincial office of the HDP – The People’s Democratic Party – they claim it is not only the PKK that has taken their sons and daughters, but the country’s largest pro-Kurdish political party as well.
“They [PKK] first brought him here,” says Suleyman, “and from HDP they took him to the mountains.”
It is an accusation the HDP rejects. On the mere practicalities, Hisyar Ozsoy, the HDP member of parliament for Diyarbakir, told Al Jazeera the claims lack credibility to “think that people who want to take the youth to the mountains, that they would use the HDP HQ, which is being surveilled by 200 police officers 24/7”.
There is, Ozsoy argues, a more important broader political point besides. “The pain and suffering of these people is being manipulated,” he continues, “as part of an effort – not to resolve the Kurdish issue – but to carry out a smear campaign and criminalise the HDP.”
The Turkish government has repeatedly accused the party of having links to the PKK, which the HDP has always denied.
Coinciding with the period in which the families’ protests have taken place has been a wider squeeze on the HDP too. Forty-seven of its 53 mayors elected in March last year, for example, have since been removed by decree, with many imprisoned, charged or convicted on terrorism charges.
The Human Rights Watch has argued that “cases against HDP politicians provide the starkest evidence that authorities bring criminal prosecution and use detention in bad faith and for political purposes”. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of the party in February, “everything they do constitutes a crime”.
In a country where 90 percent of the media is estimated to be owned or close to the state, the Diyarbakir Anneleri has as such become a regular feature. Appearing on the steps of the HDP office, explaining what has happened to their children, and alleging the HDP’s involvement, they appear dozens of times a week in Turkish newspapers or TV news. They have also been visited by a number of high-profile figures: various ambassadors, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, and President Erdogan’s wife.
Access is also strictly controlled by police. After Al Jazeera was allowed to speak to some of the families, each interview was shadowed by two uniformed police officers and one in plain-clothes filming the encounters. Interweaved in the families’ stories, too, were echoes of political lines levelled at the HDP and beyond: “They are American lackeys”; “Our state is a great state”; “God Bless the Interior Minister”.
‘Feel the pain there’
In Diyarbakir, an HDP stronghold, suspicion of the protests was not hard to find. As one young man in Sur, the city’s old town, told Al Jazeera: “Those families? It’s a lie. They’re Erdogan-ists.”
For his part, HDP’s Ozsoy acknowledges the families’ grief as genuine. “Of course, when a family, when they are trying to find their children. Of course, if you are a human being, you feel the pain there.”
Yet he alleges also the government’s manipulation goes further than merely promoting the families’ cause. “We know those people are being paid. They are being paid salaries,” he claims. “They are fed by the police. They are transported by the police.”
The interior ministry declined to comment directly on the allegations, but told Al Jazeera, “The mothers in Diyarbakir have launched their protest independently.”
‘We just want our children back’
It is a story, therefore, that not only speaks to the pain caused by Turkey’s failure to find lasting peace in its restive southeast, but the politicisation of that pain as well.
Since the PKK began its armed uprising against the Turkish state in 1984, more than 40,000 people have been killed and thousands disappeared. According to the International Crisis Group, at least 5,076 people have died since the collapse of the peace process in 2015.
Minors are known to have joined the PKK and its regional affiliates in other countries as well.
A Trafficking in Persons Report published by the US State Department in June notes the PKK’s continued recruitment of children in Iraq. Last year, the United Nations also reported the use of more than 300 children by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the Turkish government considers as the Syrian wing of the PKK.
Within Turkey itself, while teenagers have been recruited by the PKK, how they joined – willingly or by force – and how many is still disputed. As the US State Department concluded in March this year, “authoritative data on PKK youth recruitment remained unavailable”.
None of which, of course, is a comfort to the families outside the HDP office, who – despite the politics swirling above them – are bereaved nonetheless.
Fatma Akkus has not seen her daughter, Songul, for six years.
“So good, so compassionate,” Fatma says of the 14-year-old girl who, she believes, was groomed for recruitment while working in a textile workshop. With her voice strained and tears in her eyes, she says, “We just want our children back.”