How a referendum in Turkey tore apart a village and a family
The warning signs were evident long before the residents of Yabanardi began lining up to cast their ballots at the hilltop village’s tin-roofed school. After a particularly nasty political campaign, each side was convinced that no less than the future of the Turkish republic hung in the balance. Many suspected that the opposition — their friends, neighbors and relatives in a village of barely a couple hundred people — were ready to steal the vote. “When I arrived at the school there were eight or 10 armed people waiting,” the mayor, Hidir Yildiz, recalled in an interview with Al-Monitor.
A stocky man with a thick, gray mustache, the mayor is a staunch supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP. On that fateful April 16, 2017, the mayor stood firmly behind Erdogan’s referendum push to consolidate his power. “I’ve voted for Erdogan ever since he came to power. My supporters vote for him, too,” the mayor said. “Right now, the only solution to Turkey’s problems lies with the AKP.”
Those were fighting words for other members of the Yildiz family. The leader of the “no” camp in Yabanardi was the mayor’s older brother, Abdurrezzak Yildiz, whose partisans avidly support the country’s largest Kurdish party. They felt the government had only stepped up its repression of the minority group following the failed coup attempt against the president in July 2016.
As the hamlet’s residents made their way to the school, both factions set up camp inside the classroom housing ballot box 1115, the only one for the entire village. Hidir Yildiz insists that voters felt intimidated by his brother’s supporters. Alarmed, he called the local military garrison. Several soldiers arrived 20 minutes later. “Because of the fear they are causing, the villagers are not coming out to vote,” the mayor told their commander. “We cannot live like this.” Abdurrezzak Yildiz’s family denied the mayor’s allegations that they posed any sort of threat. Apparently convinced, the soldiers refused to intervene, according to the mayor.
A few hours later, Abdurrezzak Yildiz’s daughter — who is also the mayor’s daughter-in-law — arrived at the polling station. The moment Havva Yildiz attempted to cast her vote was the beginning of the family’s undoing. As she extended her arm to drop her ballot, the mayor intervened. “She had folded the envelope,” the mayor recalled. “I told her to unfold it and drop it in the box that way so that it would fit.”
Alarmed, Havva Yildiz screamed and slapped her father-in-law “with both hands,” he recalled. The mayor blames a misunderstanding. But a mobile phone video that appeared on the Internet months later shows that the envelope was not folded, lending credence to accusations that he was trying to see how she had voted. Almost immediately, a fight broke out among family members. As concerned villagers removed Abdurrezzak Yildiz’s entourage, the mayor bolted the school’s metal door from the inside.
What happened next is under dispute.
Ozlem Yildiz said she heard screams. She remembers sprinting to find her husband, Mehmet Yildiz, the mayor’s son, about to be lynched among the schoolyard’s thorny bushes. “I threw myself over him so that they couldn’t beat him up,” she told Al-Monitor. “As I was about to pull him away from the mob, I suddenly heard gunshots.”Mehmet Yildiz had fatally wounded his uncle Abdurrezzak and his cousin, Seyhmus — Abdurrezzak’s son.
Two witnesses who did not want to be identified challenged Ozlem Yildiz’s account in an interview with Al-Monitor. Mehmet Yildiz, they said, entered the schoolyard with a gun hidden under his vest. He started shooting without provocation, they said, and was attacked in retaliation. “Did Mehmet take the gun from them? Did it fall from someone’s waist? Did Mehmet own it? I’m not sure how it happened,” his father said.
One thing, however, seems clear: The poisonous political climate in the village had played a part in the Yildiz family’s bloody unraveling, which would claim one more life before day’s end. During Mehmet Yildiz’s initial deposition, a gendarmerie commander asked him to explain his actions. “I shot them for the state,” he answered, according to court documents. “I know I’ll serve prison time.”
Longtime grievances among the Yildiz family were an open secret in Yabanardi, a relatively lush piece of grazing land two hours west of Diyarbakir in Kurdish-heavy southeastern Turkey. The mayor and his brother did not get along, according to family members on both sides of the divide. Their arguments were personal as well as political.
As Yabanardi’s elected head, or mukhtar, Hidir Yildiz serves as the local power-broker and liaison to Ankara for the hardscrabble village of about 40 stone and concrete homes. While most villagers rely on remittances from younger relatives who have migrated to Germany or large Turkish cities, the mukhtar enjoys additional income from the state, which has the power to suspend him. In Yabanardi, Hidir Yildiz’s status is further highlighted by his imposing home at the end of the single dirt road that cleaves the town down the middle.
“In small villages with a very strict hierarchical structure, incidents like this have always broken out in election times,” said Ilter Turan, an emeritus professor of political science at Istanbul Bilgi University. “Such incidents are not particular to this referendum,” said Turan, though he added that the nationwide number of violent incidents linked to the April 2017 vote was actually rather low.
In Yabanardi, however, the heightened tensions and acerbic rhetoric surrounding Erdogan’s policies exacerbated family divisions to the breaking point.
The Yildiz family belongs to a Kurdish minority known as the Zaza, whose language differs from the more commonly spoken Kurmanji Kurdish. The Turkish government’s renewed crackdown on the Kurds following the breakdown of peace talks in 2015 outraged many Zazas, including Abdurrezzak Yildiz’s side of the family. With the resumption of hostilities between the military and the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the declaration of a state of emergency following the July 2016 coup attempt, the overbearing influx of soldiers and police was particularly noticeable in Turkey’s southeast.
Three months after the failed coup, Erdogan announced plans to hold a referendum on his longtime vision to replace Turkey’s nearly century-old system of parliamentary democracy with one that gave the president more power. The package of 18 proposed constitutional changes included eliminating the post of prime minister, giving the president more power to appoint top judges and increasing the number of seats in parliament.
The following month, Ankara expanded its war against the PKK to the country’s main pro-Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). As Yabanardi headed to the polls, the party’s Zaza co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, remained in prison on terrorism charges, along with several of the party’s members of parliament. For HDP supporters such as Abdurrezzak Yildiz and his son Seyhmus, it had become impossible to vote “yes” on a proposal to hand Erdogan yet more power.
That political backdrop and the history of violence between the state and the PKK dating back decades make Turkey’s Kurdish heartland fertile ground for political violence, according to criminal sociologist Can Kozanoglu. “Southeastern Turkey is the region of the country where the highest levels of social tensions have been endured for the longest amount of time,” Kozanoglu told Al-Monitor. “If someone in her neighborhood draws a gun, the child of a middle-class family in Istanbul could be traumatized, but for a kid who lives in a southeastern village, his parents sleeping with a Kalashnikov by the wall is just normal.”
Even for children who grew up around guns, seeing the bleeding bodies in the school courtyard was deeply traumatizing. “I was shocked to see my great uncle Abdurrezzak dying on the ground,” 13-year-old Dilek Yildiz, the daughter of murder suspect Mehmet Yildiz, recalled in an interview. “Everybody started to cry, because the deceased were our close relatives.”
The village was to witness one more death on Referendum Day. As Idris Yildiz prepared to take his mortally wounded relative Seyhmus Yildiz to the hospital, his vehicle came under machine-gun fire. Idris Yildiz was killed. One of Seyhmus Idriz’s own brothers, Mehmet Emin Yildiz, is a suspect in the ongoing investigation into that shooting, according to a defense lawyer for Abdurrezzak’s side of the family, Mehmet Emin Aktar. Mehmet Emin Yildiz may have mistakenly thought that the murderer was trying to escape the scene of the school shooting….