PARIS — At first, it sounded like a horror story torn from the pages of American tabloids: the corpses of three women were found on the second floor office of an apartment building on Jan. 10. Two of the women had bullets holes in the back of their heads, the third was shot in the stomach and the forehead.
But this was here, in Paris, and just down the street from La Gare Du Nord, the city's main train station. Multiple murders don't happen often in the French capital. Guns, while very gradually becoming more common in parts of France, are rarely used by anyone other than authorities. Sometimes though, they are used by hit-men, terrorists, or hit-men hired by terrorists.
So when suited men pushed a bright blue gurney holding a small, limp corpse past journalists and passersby in the working class 10th arrondissement on Thursday afternoon, it brought home how different gun violence is here. This wasn't a random crime, a brutal robbery, a mentally ill person, or someone bullied until they retaliated, aided by easy access to guns. This was, as French authorities quickly recognized, a triple execution, almost certainly by a professional killer, apparently using a silencer. The triple murder was so discreet that in a multi-floor building, no one noticed when it happened. The women were, police believe, killed at around 3 p.m. on January 9, but their bodies were not found until after midnight.
Over the next 24 hours, French authorities -- including its anti-terror brigade -- quickly pieced together the key elements of what happened. Their ongoing investigation highlights the international political intrigue and the broader stakes surrounding this attack. Two of the three women were prominent members of France's large Kurdish immigrant community, 90 percent of whom come from Turkey, and the executions took place just as the Turkish media were reporting that Ankara and the militant Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) had come to an agreement aimed at ending nearly the three decades of violence that have claimed as many as 45,000 lives. The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, France and the European Union.
One of those killed was Sakine Cansiz, 55, a well-respected figure in the Kurdish exile community and, Turkish authorities say, a founding member of the PKK. Some Kurds in Paris believed her to be close to Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently serving a life sentence in Turkey. Ocalan, who has apparently softened his attitudes on violence since his arrest, is apparently leading the peace talks with the Turkish government from his jail cell. Those talks are said to aim for a step-by-step cessation of hostilities: the PKK is to stop its attacks in March and, soon after, the Turkish state will restore the rights of its Kurdish minority, as well as satisfy some other grievances. It is unclear how the triple murder might affect those negotiations.
A second victim was Fidan Dogan, 32, who ran the Kurdish information center where the bodies were found. She was a representative of the Kurdistan National Congress, which is a Brussels-based coalition of supportive organizations across Europe. The third victim, Leyla Soylemez, is described as a recently arrived twenty-something Kurdish activist. She may well have been in the wrong place, with the wrong people, at the wrong time. Various friends and colleagues told French media that Dogan and Cansiz were aware enough of the dangers they faced in the one-bedroom apartment that acted as the unmarked office for the information center that they made sure to never be alone there, but that may have merely meant a larger death toll when one or both of them were targeted.
Shock over the executions has been sharp. Almost immediately after the discovery of the bodies late at night by friends and colleagues -- who suspected something was up when they noticed the lights were on in the office but the women weren't answering their phones -- word spread quickly through the city's Kurdish community. By morning on Thursday, hundreds of Kurds had gathered outside, in front of quickly installed police barricades. One of the many protest signs said: "We are all PKK!" Another read: "Turkey the assassin, [President] Hollande the accomplice!" Others called for a political solution to the Kurdistan problem. Many protesters, some with tears in their eyes, waved Kurdish flags.