‘I am sure the state is behind it’, says Kadriye Ceylan. Her son, Tolga Baykal Ceylan, disappeared in August 2004. He lived in Istanbul, where he was studying, went on a short holiday to the small town Igneada and never returned home again. Gone. Kadriye has no hope left that the state will ever listen to her. So she, and a group of other people who have a close relative that disappeared, throws bottles in the sea with messages in it. ‘Maybe somebody will find them’, says Kadriye, ‘and read what we have to say.’
The lack of hope that the fate of the disappeared will ever be unveiled, is in the end what hit me the most today. I went to Igneada, a coastal town close to the Bulgarian border, with the Committee against Forced Disappearances of IHD, the Human Rights Association (Turkey’s biggest human rights group). And of course a few ‘Saturday Mothers’ were there too – the Saturday Mothers are mothers (and wives and other relatives) of disappeared persons, who hold a sit in-protest in Istanbul every Saturday to ask attention for the faith of their loved ones. A good way to get some articles and footage in the press again, because the sit-ins on Saturday (this weekend the 333th was held!) are not enough news anymore for media.
Many of the disappearances took place after the 1980 coup, and in the eighties and nineties when the fight between the state and the PKK was at its bloodiest. People were dumped in wells, under bridges, in fields, in mass graves. One of the women I spoke to yesterday lost her husband, when halfway the nineties he was taken away from home in the southeastern province of Urfa by gendarme and never seen again. Another woman lost her son. They found him again, dead and heavily tortured, but no responsible person for his death was never punished.
The case of Kadriye Ceylan is somewhat exceptional: her son disappeared, but it’s not hundred percent sure that the state is behind it. It could be that he drowned, or was killed by criminals outside the state. But the thing is, Kadriye’s appeals for a thorough research were never taken seriously. Kadriye: ‘Shortly after he disappeared, they called me that they found a dead body on the beach. This body had been in the water for days so it was hard to identify it. The body was definitely wearing my sons swimming pants, but later it turned out it was not my son. To me it means that they had my son or his body in their hands but couldn’t admit it. But they soon came up with another story: he went to Bulgaria. When Bulgaria denied that officially, yet another story came up. He was seen on American TV. I watched the footage, but it was blurry. Why would my son be in the States? For the state it was clear though: Tolga went abroad and the case was closed.’
Tolga’s case was recently investigated by a special parliamentary commisiion on disappearances. Kadriye is cynical about it: ‘It took them only three months to conclude that the state had nothing to do with his disappearance. He was not taken into custody, they said, so that was it.’ Her hope to be heard some day is now in the bottles that she trew in the Black Sea. Also the other women I talked to, and one man who’s brother disappeared, had no hope whatsoever that the truth about the disappearances would ever come out. They lost it, in the years and years of searching and applying to all possible authorities.
But, is there really no hope at all? I’m not sure about that. Last Friday in the province of Dersim, officially named Tunceli, three mass graves were opened, fourteen years after they were created. The state has tried to stop the opening of the graves for years, but a court finally decided it was about time to open up and give families the remains of their loved ones. These were graves of PKK-fighters who died in a battle, but there are (mass) graves with (Kurdish) citizens too. And more of them are being opened in recent years. It’s a sign that the attitude about disappeared is changing.
Another sign is the increasing amount of information about the activities and victims of Jitem, a secret anti-terrorism unit of the military police, that is held responsible for the disappearing and killing of many PKK-fighters, Kurdish citizens and intellectuals. Another sign: there is a parliamentary commission that investigates (some) disappearances. It’s all by far not enough, but facts is that these developments that were unimaginable years ago, and they could be the first steps on the long and undoubtedly troubled road to clarification.
But the emotions of the families of the disappeared are lead by other facts. The fact that their son, their husband, their brother, is gone. The fact that their bodies are never found, or if they were found, they were often clearly tortured to death. The fact that they have appealed to authorities again and again but got no sufficient answers whatsoever. The day of the disappearance, they lost a loved one, but it was also the day they started losing every faith in the authorities of their own country. Both their sons/husbands/brothers and their faith are gone forever.
The Human Rights Association wants Turkey to sign the UN treaty against disappearances. That treaty defines disappearances as a crime against humanity, and such crimes can’t be barred anymore by lapse of time. Considering the very long road Turkey still has to take before the state is ready to reveal everything that happened, that seems indeed a necessary step. A step I’m afraid Turkey is not yet ready to take.