When members of the special Turkish police unit Jitem arrived at night, Kurdish inhabitants of southeast Turkey knew there would be another disappearance. Investigators are now looking into the activities of this allegedly disbanded secretive organization from the 1990s — and the ‘death wells’ where its victims were hidden.

Things had been going well for Nimet Karaaslan and his new business. But when the Kurd opened up his little restaurant in the spring of 1993 in Cizre, a city right near Turkey’s border with Syria, men wearing dark sunglasses and carrying submachine guns paid him a visit. "Give us your restaurant," they ordered him.

The men were part of Jitem, a special unit of the Turkish gendarmerie charged with "intelligence gathering and counterterrorism," and they made themselves at home in Karaaslan’s restaurant. They practiced with their weapons, and they set up a center for interrogating and torturing people. The restaurant was in a good location. From the front, you could look out over the snow-covered peaks of the Cudi mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, where units of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separist group, are still entrenched today. From the back, you could look out over the Tigris River, which separates Turkey from Syria.

The Ipek Yolu Highway, the Turkish name for the Silk Road, runs right past the front of the building heading toward Iraq. And behind it there is a sea of chest-high, green corn broken by the occasional well. The wells turned out to be great places for getting rid of the bodies of those who were executed.

For years, people in the surrounding villages kept quiet. And then, in 2002, the army lifted the region’s state of emergency, and the men from Jitem disappeared. For a long time, people thought that speaking about Karaaslan’s restaurant increased their own chances of disappearing.

But, since March, the area has been home to backhoes and salvaging equipment. What was once unheard of is now happening in southeastern Turkey — in Cizre, in Silopi, in Kustepe and wherever else local lawyers have filled a petition to have the "death wells" opened. Turkish officials have now started to dig for the remains of Kurds who have disappeared. But the digging also means working through one of the darkest chapters in this country’s history, when Turkish security forces waged a dirty war against supporters of the PKK and its suspected supporters.

Shot ‘Like an Animal’

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of civil rights activists, politicians and businesspeople suspected of having ties with the PKK were kidnapped and murdered. No one knows their exact number, and it was only in rare cases that the victims were even identified. Many corpses were dumped into wells; others were doused in acid and thrown into fields. The horror of the sight was meant to serve as a deterrent. But the majority disappeared without a trace and are still listed as missing.

One of the missing is the Kurdish construction worker Ramazan Solmaz. His wife Piroze last saw him on January 15, 1993. "He was on his way to work when they caught him," she says. "That’s all I know. There are no traces, no clues. I’d just like to know where his body is. I just want to bury him." Piroze and a friend have put their faith in Cizre’s bar association. "My husband, Selahattin, was shot in broad daylight in 1998 right on the street," say her friend, who is wearing a pitch-black version of the traditional Kurdish gown. "Just like that. Like an animal."

At the time, the women didn’t even think about filing a criminal complaint. In Cizre, confronting those in power had its consequences. The powerful included not only the soldiers and the people from Jitem, but also members of the radical-Islamic Turkish Hezbollah, a militant Kurdish organization unrelated to the Lebanese Hezbollah. The war between the Turkish army and the PKK raged in the mountains surrounding Cizre. But in the city itself, it was this group that held power over life and death. A brutal leader of this clan named Kamil Atak once let himself be nominated to become mayor. As local politicians will tell you, the former shepherd used to take pleasure in "feeding" his captives to his Hezbollah fighters.

Spreading Fear and Anxiety

Even after the state of emergency was lifted in 2002, Atak remained under the protection of state security forces. Just over two months ago, on March 23, police arrested Atak as part of a nationwide operation after he garnered the attention of investigators working on the "Ergenekon" case. Soon after Atak’s arrest, authorities also arrested Cemal Temizöz, a colonel in the military police, who also sowed fear and anxiety among the inhabitants of Cizre.

"Ergenekon" is the name of a place in popular Turkish mythology, but it is also the name given to a conspiracy of networked ultra-nationalists. Roughly 150 of its members are now standing trial in Turkey. The former soldiers, police officers, journalists, professors and everyday Mafiosi stand accused of having planned a coup against the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The trial has been going on for more than six months. It is the most explosive trial in recent Turkish history.

Among the accused is Veli Kücük, the retired general who allegedly founded Jitem. Kücük’s arrest in January 2008 was the most sensational event of the year. As things have turned out, though, the kind-faced grandfather appears to be untouchable. It is still hard to tell whether the military used Kücük as a sacrificial pawn or whether the generals in Ankara believed he had become too powerful.

Jitem’s Bestial Interrogation Methods

For the top brass in Turkey’s military forces, the issue of Jitem remains taboo. The government continues to deny its existence. According to the semiofficial version, at least, the organization served as something like a "counterguerrilla" force against the PKK that completed its mission long ago and has since been disbanded. The last fact seems to have been confirmed by former Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, when he claimed in a television interview that Jitem "no longer" existed.

By far the most comprehensive reports of Jitem’s activities can be found in the memoirs of the organization’s former agents. One of them is Abdülkadir Aygan, who now lives in Sweden. Aygan tells a shocking tale of having first been a member of the PKK before being recruited to work for Jitem. "We used to murder people at night during the long hours when the soldiers weren’t around," Aygan says, describing Jitem’s activities. "Many of the people we captured had been indicted by a court or the gendarmes," he adds. "But many of them had also been denounced by their completely normal fellow citizens. No one survived an interrogation by Jitem people."

The Fate of Hasan Ergül

Other former henchmen of the state, such as Tuncay Güney and Yildirim Begler, are now talking about the war against the PKK. From the safety of exile in Canada, Sweden and Norway, men like these recount the names of the victims and the places where their mass graves can be found. They describe the bestial interrogation methods and the orders to kill that always came "from the very top." They talk about how the gendarmes would bathe the dead in acid baths and make them disappear in wells. And they never fail to mention the type of cars the Jitem usually used: white models of the Renault 12-based "Toros" manufactured in Turkey between the 1970s and 1990s. When the angels of death appeared in their white cars, inhabitants knew that one of their friends or neighbors would be disappearing soon.

The case of the disappeared Kurd Hasan Ergül exemplifies the vividness of these Jitem veterans’ revelations. On May 23, 1993, the farmer from the village of Cukurca got on his tractor with his three-year-old son to drive to the hospital in a nearby city. But they didn’t get far. After stopping at a nearby gas station, Ergül was surrounded by three vehicles that blocked his path. The men who got out of the car weren’t wearing uniforms. They dragged Ergül off his tractor and forced him into the back seat of one of the cars. They drove off, leaving the crying boy behind.

It would be years before Ergül’s relatives finally became aware of his ultimate fate. They learned it when they heard the confession of former Jitem member Abdülkadir Aygan, who spoke about how Ergül was strangled to death, put in a sack and dumped into a remote lake.

Seeking Certainty and Closure

In the end, all the searching and inquiries of Ergül’s brothers had been in vain. But after Aygan’s confession, they did succeed in figuring out where Ergül had been dumped, where fishermen later hid his body and where his unidentified corpse had been buried in an anonymous grave not far from the lake. "Now we’re waiting for the results of a DNA test," says Ergül’s brother Ata. "Then we will finally have some certainty."

This is a sign of progress — but there are also contradictory signals coming out of Turkey. For the first time, the country seems prepared to come to terms with its recent past. But even though light is now being thrown on the dirty war waged during that period, the war between the Turkish military and the PKK continues to rage. In military terms, the separatist movement has been significantly weakened, and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been in prison for years. But it is still capable of launching deadly bomb attacks, such as the one in late April, when a remotely denoted bomb threw a military vehicle into the air, killing nine Turkish soldiers.

The government avoids talks with the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), which has channels of communication with the PKK. Instead, in recent weeks, the government has preferred to impose order high-handedly by arresting more than 200 DT politicians.