Will hunger strikers die in vain?

What’s going on?
Since 12 September an increasing number of inmates in Turkish prisons have been on a hunger strike. Recently, on 15 October, a huge new group of prisoners joined in, exactly how many is not clear, but at least 628.

Who are these prisoners?

Kurds, mostly political prisoners. Many of them are imprisoned (on remand) for the KCK case, but people who have been in jail for much longer are also joining. Let me mention especially today that even the imprisoned elected mayor of Van, Bekir Kaya, has joined the hunger strike. His city was hit by an earthquake exactly one year ago today.

What is the aim of the hunger strike?
There are two demands. 1. PKK leader Öcalan must be accepted as part of the political solution to the Kurdish issue, 2. Education in mother tongue.

Why do they choose hunger strike? Isn’t that what you do when you really have no options left?
Yes, but the people joining feel that that is exactly the point the situation in Turkey has come to. Many of the prisoners were not involved in any crime, but fought peacefully for the Kurdish cause. They are for example journalists, mayors, municipal workers, students, union workers and academics. But it is not because of their own situation that these people started a hunger strike. Their own release or acquittal in the court cases against them is not part of their demands.

Aysel Tugluk during a sit-in to support the hunger strikers in Diyarbakir, 16 October 2012.

They feel the political process in Turkey towards a solution for the Kurdish issue has come to a stalemate. Öcalan has not been permitted any meetings with his lawyers since 27 July 2011, and has only seen his brother once, recently. He is the most important Kurdish leader in Turkey, and the Kurdish movement feels (and I agree) that there can be no solution to the Kurdish issue without him being part of it. But if he is not even allowed to see his family or his lawyers, if earlier negotiations between the state and the PKK have been broken off and seem unlikely to be resumed any time soon, if year-long demands to talk to Öcalan are not heard, what can the Kurdish movement do? They want to stick to peaceful action, and yes, in that case a hunger strike is the option you turn to when you feel no other options are left.

Also when it comes to the other demands of Kurds, there is no or hardly any progress being made. Yes, there is ‘Kurdish as an elective class’ now in state schools, but that is not what Kurds want, and it is also not what will help preserve the language. And the government doesn’t seem to have any intention to broaden language rights in education. A good indication of that is the fact that YÖK (the state controlled Board for Higher Education) suddenly cut the amount of master students at the Faculty of Living Languages (read: Kurdish) at Mardin University from 500 to 250. This university is supposed to educate the Kurdish teachers of the future. Besides that, in every political party there is strong resistance to full education in Kurdish. The topic cannot even be debated. And by the way, talking Kurdish in school is still strictly forbidden – only the kids who follow Kurdish classes (2 hours a week) are allowed to speak it, and only during that class.

All the politics they have been made for all these years, have only landed them in jail. So where can you go from there?

Doesn’t sound like these demands are any time soon met, does it?
True.

So when some hunger strikers started on 12 September, it’s not much longer till people will die?
It sure looks like that. Some seem to be in serious health condition already. But the prisoners on hunger strike don’t accept visits anymore, not from their families and not from their lawyers. It would ask too much from them physically to come to the visitors or the lawyers room to meet anybody. They need to stay put as much as possible.

And how does the government react?
Not at all.

And the people in Turkey?
Most of them don’t know about it. The TV and papers are not or hardly reporting it. Turkish channels do report about it when there is a demonstration, when people keep vigil, march or sit-in to support the hunger strikers (and there are a few of them every day!), but only when it gets out of hand (usually because the police starts using tear gas) so they can show ‘violent Kurds’ on TV. That’s how Kurds are framed in general in the media and it’s no different now with the hunger strike. So people don’t know, or they don’t give a damn.

So what’s the point of it all? Turks don’t know or don’t care, the government doesn’t react and the demands are unrealistic. People will die in vain!
That’s how you could think. But that is certainly not how it is perceived in the Kurdish movement. For close to thirty years now, the Kurdish struggle has claimed many lives. In the eighties and nineties, Kurds died, and also held hunger strikes, to demand things that seemed impossible at the time. Now Kurds are no longer called mountain Turks, the extrajudicial killings that happened all the time in the nineties are over, the existence of Kurds is being recognized. The people who fought and died before, either while carrying arms or committing themselves to peaceful struggle, contributed to what has been reached in thirty years. When in time the current demands of the Kurdish movement are met, the people on hunger strike now have contributed to that achievement.

At a sit in in Diyarbakir last week, I shortly talked to independent (BDP) MP Aysel Tugluk. I asked her why the hunger strikers have demands that will definitely not be met before they give their lives. She said: ‘We don’t formulate our demands based on what the government may be willing to give. We have our demands and they just need to be met.’

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