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Saturday, 20 August 2011

Family Feud That Turned Wedding Into Bloodbath

Turkish leaders condemn 'tradition' that led to the village massacre of 44 people who had gathered to celebrate marriage.

The sheep had been slaughtered and cooked, the women had daubed their hands orange with henna, the children were decked out in their best clothes.

The night was supposed to be a time of celebration for the inhabitants of Bilge, a Kurdish village set in the hills of south-east Turkey. Relatives had gathered to hear the former village chief Cemil Celebi give his consent to the marriage of his 20-year-old daughter, Sevgi. There was supposed to be dancing, laughter and prayers for the future of the young bride and groom.

But just after 9pm, as men and women filed into separate rooms for prayers, masked assailants forced their way into the green-painted house and opened fire with machine guns.

A wounded person is taken to the hospital after an attack in a village near the city of Mardin.

"The village imam was at the head of the room, a young man from Ankara, and the village men were lined up behind him on their prayer mats," one resident recounted. "They were mown down in rows." Another recalled: "They shot through the windows and the door. The people inside had no chance."

A 20-year-old girl who survived by hiding under a bed described a similar scene in the women's room. "They started spraying the place with bullets," she told Turkish television. When the attackers had finished, they cold-bloodedly began inspecting the bodies to make sure everybody was dead.

"We cannot believe what we have been through," said Bedia Akbulut, the wife of the village teacher, who has lived in Bilge for four years. She and her husband Sadik were lucky not to be among the dead. On good terms with the Celebis, they had been invited to attend the ceremony. Then Sadik had overslept. "When we heard gunshots, my husband immediately switched off the lights," his wife said.

The shooting lasted no more than 10 minutes. When it had finished, the couple rushed across to the Celebis' house, and into a bloodbath. Forty-four people, including the bride, a baby and five young children, were dead. Another six were injured. In fact, with the exception of the 20-year-old hiding under the bed, only one person survived unharmed, a high-school student who hid under the body of his brother.

By the end of Monday night's attack, a quarter of the population of Bilge had been wiped out. Turkish officials announced yesterday that they had caught and detained eight people after one of the worst attacks involving civilians in the modern history of Turkey.

Breathing an audible sigh of relief that this was not the work of Kurdish separatists, whose murder of ten Turkish soldiers last week has left fragile hopes of peace looking ever more shaky, officials were swift to link the killings to the diehard tribal customs of some parts of the Kurdish south-east.

"This can be understood as a blood feud between two families," Interior Minister Besir Atalay told a news conference. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan added his condemnation: "No kind of tradition can justify this killing, no conscience can justify this kind of pain." So did President Abdullah Gul. "Such a primitive cruelty that opened deep cuts in our conscience is inexplicable," he said in a statement. "Everybody should think seriously about tradition, blood feuds and animosity standing before human life."

Unnamed residents in Bilge said the killings had been carried out by one part of the Celebi family, as revenge for one of their sons being passed over as the groom in favour of another man, Habip Ari.

Turkish television reported that one person had died back in the early 1990s, when a blood feud had erupted between the family of Mr Ari, and the assailants' family. The feud had eventually been patched up, but Cemil Celebi's choice of groom for his daughter may have reopened old wounds.

Yet many analysts said they were unconvinced by efforts to explain the Bilge bloodbath with tired old clichés about misogynistic feudalism and the irremediable backwardness of the Kurdish people. Blood feuds, they pointed out, rarely result in the deaths of more than three or four people, let alone 44. And furthermore, while tribes have no qualms about butchering women deemed to have sullied the honour of the family, the mass murder of women and children as they pray is in complete violation of standard tribal law.

What may have aggravated the violence is the government's Village Guards programme, set up in 1985 to create and arms local militia to fight alongside state security forces against the Kurdistan Workers Party. Critics despair of the vast quantities of weapons that the state-sponsored initiative has pumped into the region.

Back in Bilge, residents were still reeling from the shock. "I am ashamed to be from here, this is brutality, it is like a natural disaster," Mahmut Yildiz told Reuters. "I don't know how we will be able to live in peace."

Apart from the wind, the only sounds to be heard was the chug of four bulldozers digging mass graves for the dead, and – from a field behind the graveyard – the high-pitched dirges of the Kurdish women. The men, meanwhile, were at the local hospital morgue, waiting for their relatives' bodies to be released. When they return, Cemil Celebi's backyard, decked out for a wedding, will be put to use for a wake.

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