If you don’t put yourself in jail

The last 33 prisoners in the main case of the KCK trial in Istanbul were set free last Thursday. Some twelve days before that, in the wee hours of the morning, 48 defendants in the main KCK trial in Diyarbakir were set free. Halfway through March all the lawyers in the KCK ‘lawyers case’ were released, and later that same month eight of the remaining fifteen journalists in the KCK ‘press trial’ walked out of jail.
I believe, in a way, these people were never imprisoned. Nor are the remaining hundreds of KCK suspects really inside.

Muharrem Erbey in his office in Diyarbakir
Muharrem Erbey in his office in Diyarbakir

Last week, I talked to human rights activist, lawyer and writer Muharrem Erbey. He was one of the persons released this month from Diyarbakir prison. Just ten days after having been locked up for four years and four months, he was sitting behind his desk as if he had been working there forever. ‘This is where they came to take me into custody’, he said. ‘I lived here with my family at the time. Now we have moved to another house, with a garden, and I keep this as my office.’

No break from work, after the prison ordeal? ‘I have spent some days at home, and many visitors were coming to welcome me. But now I am accepting cases again.’ He was not bored in prison, he said. Since English PEN was diligently campaigning for his release, he got dozens of letters from all over the world every week. He wrote a book (three historical love stories), started to learn English, read many books. He rubbed the palm of his left hand underneath his pinky with his right thumb: ‘In prison I learned about reflexology. This helps to release stress, did you know that?’

Constant danger

Being an active member of the Kurdish movement means you always live with the possibility that at any time the state can come and put you in jail. It’s been like that for decades. After talking to many Kurds who have been inside, it seems to me that being aware of this constant danger has gotten somehow into the genes of every member of the movement. The way to deal with it: don’t lock yourself up psychologically.

BDP MP Selma Irmak explained it to me when I talked to her a few days after her release from Diyarbakir jail last January. She also didn’t take a break after the prison gate opened for her, not even one day. She said: ‘If you don’t put yourself in jail psychologically, then the prison walls are not important and it doesn’t matter that you are physically jailed. Of course freedom is very beautiful. To see the sun go down, to see the children, to sit with them and chat, to get up in the morning and say ‘good morning’ to the ones you love.’

Selma Irmak with her colleague MP Faysal Sariyildiz. They were released on the same day. This picture was taken some ten days later at a rally in Van.
Selma Irmak with her colleague MP Faysal Sariyildiz. They were released on the same day. This picture was taken some ten days later at a rally in Van.

She continued: ‘You know, as a human being you have to have a target, a goal. My goal is a beautiful and better life, with more honour and more freedom for Kurds, their culture, their language, in a country that they can call theirs. A life with pride. Where the children smile more beautifully and don’t die. I do everything for that.  It gives meaning to my life, but it comes with a price. Somebody gets disturbed and they put me in jail. But my intellect, my thinking goes with me, you cannot put that in jail. That’s why being in prison is not so important.’

And I think back to the student that I talked to a few years ago, in Van. He spent a few weeks in jail before he was released for the rest of his trial, also related to the KCK. He laughed when he talked about his time behind bars. I asked him why. He said: ‘We were not depressed in there or anything, or stressed out. I shared a cell with several other students. What we used to do, for example, was that one of us would postulate a proposition, and then we would discuss it. Or we would read a passage from a book and talk about what it meant. I developed myself there in a way I couldn’t have done outside.’

Nose, eyes, cheeks, mouth

Muharrem Erbey told me something similar. Going back into yourself, not hindered by the everyday life distractions from the world outside. It’s strengthening. The horror of course was, he says, missing his family. ‘My oldest son, now twelve years old, can name only three memories he has of me. And my youngest, now seven, didn’t know me when I came out. My wife was waiting outside prison, and the boys were sleeping in the car. We woke them up after my release. Ever since, the youngest has been touching me.’

He showed where and softly touched his nose, his eyes, his cheeks, his ears, his mouth, his hands. ‘While I was inside, my boys could only visit me once a month for one hour. They stole these years from us.’

These years can never be given back to all these people who spent, and are still spending, all these years in jail for political reasons, used as pawns by the state. But I now understand why none of them takes much time off after their release. Their lives hadn’t stopped when they were inside. Their struggle didn’t stop. They only adjusted it to the circumstances. After release, they do the same again. They persist chasing their goals. Inside or out.

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