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The mules targeted by armed forces

Two mules Image copyright Getty Images

When people talk about "mules" engaged in smuggling they usually mean people, but in a remote corner of Turkey it is the four-legged variety that carries illicit goods across the border from Iraq. Now it seems these animals are paying the price.

Warning: This story contains pictures that some readers may find upsetting.

Far to the east of Ankara, 1,300km (800 miles away), Turkey's border with Iraq winds through dry, mountainous country. Kurdish villages dot the hills, connected by stony tracks and pot-holed roads.

For decades, the badlands of Sirnak have been the scene of skirmishes between armed Kurdish separatists and the Turkish army. Lately, though, the army's gaze has shifted to smugglers, and a few weeks ago it reportedly gunned down 25 unaccompanied mules.

After I saw photos on social media of the animals lying dead or injured on a snow-clad hillside, I decided to head out to the remote village of Uludere, to find out if the rumours were true.

Sadly, I think they probably are.

When I arrived, the villagers crowded round my car, happy to see me but angry too. They wanted to know why it had taken so long for a journalist to make the trip up their mountain.

I soon learned that here and in neighbouring villages, smuggling cigarettes and fuel is really the only game in town. The villagers don't see anything wrong in it, it's a matter of survival. "We do not call it smuggling," said one man. "It is trade."

The Turkish government sees things differently. It says a billion boxes of unlicensed cigarettes enter the country every year, a trade that costs the Turkish economy $3bn (£2bn).

Uludere is already well-known in Turkey for an incident that occurred in December 2011, when two F16 jets strafed a convoy of smugglers, killing 34 people. The government said it had believed it was targeting Kurdish militiamen.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Kurdish villagers marching in Uludere in December 2014, on the third anniversary of the airstrike

After that, local smugglers decided the journey to Iraq was too dangerous. To their relief, however, they found their mules were smart enough to make the 24 km (15-mile) trip to the border by themselves. All the keepers needed to do was set them off down the right track with empty saddlebags, and they would come back loaded with contraband. The illicit trade continued.

But early in the morning of 23 March, a group of men went out to collect wood. They were enjoying a tea break, they said, when they heard shots. "We hurried to rescue the mules," one man told me. "We were holding the animals by the reins - we were that close - but they kept shooting at them. We barely escaped."

The army did not permit me to come within reach of the site of this incident. But all the villagers have pictures and videos of the mules on their phones, which they took when they were finally able to return to the spot.

Image copyright Uludere villager - used with permission
Image caption Slain mules lying on a mountainside
Image copyright Uludere villager - used with permission
Image caption The mules were seemingly not killed by marksmen, but sprayed with bullets

The writhing animals are pictured one after another, in a row. They had not been killed cleanly by marksmen but were seemingly sprayed with bullets from automatic weapons. Some were injured, but survived. The villagers told me about one mule that was hit by several bullets, which nearly severed its leg.

The villagers say more attacks followed in the days after 23 March, and continue to this day.

Image copyright Uludere villager - used with permission
Image caption Not all the mules died in the onslaught

Ugly, doughty and tough, the mule is indispensable in Sirnak - you might say it is the region's answer to the Toyota Landcruiser. They are sold for anything between $4,000 and $10,000 (£2,600 - £6,600).

For the villagers, the animals are more than just a means of transport. They are all named, and each animal's personality and lineage is known to everyone. I could point to any mule and one of the local children could tell me which horse was its mother, and which donkey its father. "This mule is more important than my sons," one man told me, with only a whiff of exaggeration. "He is one of the family."

Image copyright Uludere villager - used with permission
Image caption The killing of mules has continued - this picture was taken after the incident on 23 March

Some villagers believe that smuggling has nothing to do with the deaths of their animals - the Turkish army simply want to terrorise their community, they say. "Why don't they kill mules on the Iranian border?" one of them asked.

Turkish animal rights activist Sevgi Ekmekciler says that two months ago about 100 mules were indeed fired on near the Iranian border. But because these animals were shot at from a greater distance - possibly to avoid starting a border spat with Iran - they were scared away, not killed.

One day early in April, a group of Uludere villagers made the 60 mile (100 km) journey to the regional capital, the town of Sirnak, to protest outside the town hall. They were dispersed with tear gas.

At a meeting with animal rights groups, Sirnak's governor, Ali Ihsan Su, denied that the army had targeted the animals. The mules were frightened by gunfire and fell from the mountainside, he said, adding that the best thing the villagers could do if they were concerned about the animals would be to stop using them for smuggling. Ekmekciler thinks both the the army and the smugglers should be held accountable.

But for these Kurdish villagers, ethnic and family ties supersede political boundaries, and it seems unlikely they will heed the governor's warning. "Half my family is on the Iraqi side," said one villager. "The army killed my mules and my cousin. I will not leave my children to starve. Even if they kill all my mules, I will buy others, and I will keep smuggling."

Additional reporting by William Kremer. Shahdi Alkashif spoke to the Fifth Floor on the BBC World Service. You can listen to the programme on iPlayer or get the Fifth Floor podcast.

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