Murdered by the state, and remembered till justice is done

The swallows are about to leave their nest. Father and mother swallow encourage their little ones to take the dive into the bigger world, despite all the dangers out there. Every now and then, I see the adult swallows try to scare off the cats that come too close to the nest. It’s their way to give their offspring as much chance in life as possible. I go take a look at the nest a few times a day, and wait a bit. I’d love to see the little ones take their first flight.

Palamutbükü, Datca peninsula – which is where the nest is, located in a corner of the ceiling of the hotel where I am staying for a short holiday – is paradise. I look at the birds, I swim in the sea, read a book, have a glass of wine at night. And of course I follow the news.

Another state murder

The sorrow over the loss of 301 lives in the Soma mine isn’t even over yet and then the news comes in of two other deaths inflicted by the state, this time in Istanbul: Ugur Kurt and Ayhan Yilmaz. The incident in which they were killed was connected to another state murder: Berkin Elvan, who eventually died on 11 March of this year, after having been in a coma for months after being hit by a teargas canister in June last year, is remembered in his neighbourhood every Thursday. The police could have decided to back off, but they didn’t.

‘Will you organize a ceremony for every death?’, Erdogan asked in a speech, adding: ‘They died, and that’s it.’ No, sir: they did not just ‘die’, they were killed. Killed by the state. The mine workers because of negligence, the otherss because of brutal police violence, which is getting even more out of control because of impunity.

For average citizens who die of natural causes, no mass commemorations are held. Not right after they die, not on every anniversary. Remembering them is a private matter. But for the ones the state killed, it’s different.

Until there is justice for the victims

On 13 May 2015, people will remember the 301 deaths of the Soma mine, not only in grief but in anger too. On 22 May 2015, people will publicly remember Ugur Kurt and Ayhan Yilmaz. Soon, on 3 June 2014, the first deadly victim of last year’s Gezi protests, Abdullah Cömert, will be remembered. After that Ethem Sarisülük (14 June), Medeni Yildirim (28 June), Ali Ismail Korkaz (10 July), Ahmet Atakan (9 September) and Hasan Ferit Gedik (30 September).

These commemorations will go on until the day that there is justice for the victims. And it doesn’t look like that day is getting any nearer. The court cases that have started against the policemen who are responsible for the individual deaths over the last year don’t promise serious results. And who truly believes that the bosses of Soma Holding will be held responsible for the death of their workers, or that any government official, like energy minister Taner Yildiz, will step down?

Musa Anter, Hrant Dink

History doesn’t inspire confidence either. Turkey still remembers countless murders that everybody knows were committed by the (deep) state but the truth of which has never officially come out.

On 9 January we remember Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Dogan, Leyla Söylemez, murdered on that day in 2013.

On 19 January, we remember Hrant Dink, 2007.

On 5 May, the Dersim massacres of 1937 and 1938.

On 6 May, Deniz Gezmis, 1972.

On 2 July the victims of the Sivas massacre, 1993.

On 6 and 7 September we remember the Istanbul pogrom of 1955.

On 20 September we remember Musa Anter, murdered in 1992.

On 28 September we remember little Ceylan Önkol, murdered in 2009.

On 24 October, we remember Ugur Mumcu, killed in 1993.

On 21 November, little Ugur Kaymaz, 2004.

On 28 December, we remember the 34 deaths of the Roboski massacre, 2011.

The list is close to endless. The Baran Tursun Foundation has been constantly updating a list since 2007 and the list now contains 157 names. Fraksiyon has a list of children killed by the state, starting in 1988.

Uprising, terrorism, civil coup

State murders go back to the early days of the republic, when opponents of Atatürk lost their lives. Murders have continued ever since and the state always had an excuse. In Dersim there was an ‘uprising’ (only there wasn’t: the people tried in vain to defend themselves against the mass slaughter they knew was coming), in the Southeast there was ‘terrorism’ (although it was a matter of human rights from the beginning), during the Gezi protests it was a ‘civil coup’ that needed to be put down.

It shows that, although many people call Erdogan ‘Ottoman’, the Prime Minister is in fact very much a child of the Turkish Republic. Under his authority and to keep him in power, citizens are murdered – despite all the excuses, and that is always the reason behind all the state murders of almost the last hundred years. Whoever was in power, Atatürk, Erdogan, or anybody else.

What is happening in Turkey now makes clear that all the so called democratization packages and policies are nothing but superficial. I knew that already, and it’s sad to see it confirmed again and again. I will only believe democratization has started when all these countless murders get solved, if those responsible get punished if still alive, if the state apologizes sincerely and if the history books get changed.

Then, the state will finally do what it is supposed to do: not protect itself, but its citizens. An important task, because it’s a dangerous world out there. No swallow hands its children over to the cats.

An identity that endangers their life

‘Could it be the work of one individual?’ That is the question that occupied my thoughts in recent days. Four elderly Armenian women have been brutally attacked in Istanbul. And whatever the outcome of the police investigation – if any – there is one thing I am sure of: it is not the work of an individual.

The facts: in early December, an 87 year old woman of Armenian descent was found battered in her apartment. She was hospitalized for two weeks and lost vision in one of her eyes. On December 28, Maritsa Küçük, aged 84, was found stabbed to death in her apartment in the same neighbourhood, Samatya. At the beginning of January, on the day the Apostolic Christmas is celebrated, another woman of Armenian origin was saved from three individuals who attempted to kidnap her. And last week, 80 year old Sultan Aykar was attacked in her home, also in the Samatya neighbourhood. Samatya is known for its Armenian population, and it also has an important Armenian church.

Traitors

The police have so far not made any arrests. It could be that the attacks have been carried out by one person alone, and that it was a coincidence that the victims were Armenian. Even if that is the case, though, that is not the whole story. From which ever angle you look at it, this is again a tragedy for the Armenian community in Turkey. Also if the perpetrator(s) didn’t mean to specifically attack Armenians, this affects the community as a whole.

A community that has been treated as second class citizens for decades now in this country, and that is seen by many as  ‘traitors’. Kids learn it in school: Armenians are the enemies ‘from within’. It all dates back to more than a century ago, during the First World War. Armenians aspired to have their own country, and being Christians, just like Russians, who were fighting the Ottomans, they were collectively seen as enemies. We all know about the genocide that followed.

That’s what Turkey does to ‘enemies from within’: they are considered outcasts, they are never seen as full members of Turkish society and sometimes, they get killed, and then many people don’t really care. This month six years ago, Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was murdered, for the very same reason these women are being attacked now: being Armenian. The difference of course is that Dink spoke out and these women were just leading quiet lives, but their identity is the same. An identity that endangers their life.

Indifference 

Not only the hatred against Armenians is deeply rooted in this country, also the indifference towards the way they are treated is. That was shown in another way this week. PM Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet and replaced four ministers. One of the those he sacked was Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin. He was not what you call an asset for the country (read about him in this blog post), so that in itself was good news. But who was he replaced with?

The new Interior Minister is Muammer Güler. He was the governor of Istanbul in 2007. Yes, when Hrant Dink was killed. He was one of the officials who ignored the clear threat to Hrant Dink’s life. He became an MP after that, which effectively closed off any serious investigation into his responsibility for Dink’s death because he got parliamentary immunity. And now he is being promoted to minister.

Don’t be surprised if also these attacks on Armenian women will not be thorougly investigated.

Esteemed by society

The Prime Minister of a country dealing with huge problems both inside and right on its border, who spends his energy criticizing a TV series. Funny as it seems, the way the ‘problem’ of this highly popular TV series, “Magnificent Century”, is being handled at the moment isn’t very funny at all. Far from it. The law being drafted to ban the Magnificent Century is the sister of the infamous penal code article 301, which makes ‘insulting Turkishness’ a punishable offense.

The law, or more precisely an extra article in the law concerning media watchdog RTÜK, is ready to be sent to parliament. It’s expected that The Magnificent Century, about the life and especially the loves of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, will disappear next year. The series, is Erdogan’s verdict, doesn’t show enough of the political and military triumphs of the Sultan and too much of his interest in the feminine beauty in the harem. The bill reads: ‘Historical events and figures that are highly esteemed by society cannot be shown in a way that humiliates, belittles or distorts them or doesn’t reflect their reality’. Do you see that phrase, ‘that are highly esteemed by society’? It worries me. A lot.

Atatürk is highly esteemed, of course

It will be up to RTÜK, a state institution with only politicians as board members, to decide which historic events and figures that comprises. The state and the Members of Parliament in the board are strongly rooted in Turkish nationalism. They will define what society esteems highly, as the state has already done for so long. Atatürk is highly esteemed of course, as are for example the Turkish army, Ottoman history, Members of Parliament in general and the Prime Minister and the President in particular, and the War of Independence.

Where popular TV can play a big role in breaking the imposed sanctity of these highly esteemed events and figures, and advance democracy by letting people make up their own minds about all the information they get through several different channels, the AKP says: let the state once again decide for you how you should look at our history. Let’s not welcome new interpretations, new visions, new angels. Let’s not sometimes laugh about historical figures, get some amusement out of them, amaze ourselves, get angry, or whatever.

Protect the greatness of Turkey

What worries me even more: how about historical events and figures that are not highly esteemed by society? It’s apparently okay to humiliate, belittle and distort those. Anybody can go ahead with, to name a few, humiliating, belittling and distorting the Armenians and Greeks who once lived in Anatolia in large numbers. It is okay to not show the reality of events like the Armenian genocide, the burning of Izmir, the Istanbul pogrom or the Dersim massacre. Actually, some of these events are actually on the list of ‘historical events esteemed by society’, but then described the way the state prefers to look at them.

In practice, you can say, this situation has already been the reality for ages. True. But putting it down in a law is quite something else. Not only will it lead to high fines and subsequently to self censorship, and not only is it a blow to democratization, it also strengthens the already strong and weakens the already weak. The law is a way to protect the greatness of Turkey, Turks and their official history, and once again leaves the ones that suffered in that history to their fate. It makes the new RTÜK law article basically the sister of the infamous article 301 of the Turkish penal code, in force to this day, which makes it punishable to ‘insult Turkishness’. People have died because of it.

Armenian church gets a real place in Diyarbakir

I do remember the church from before the restoration. I remember feeling sad about an Armenian church in the middle of the old city of Diyarbakir being totally dilapidated. The people once attending mass there were murdered in 1915, the witnesses of their former presence in the city destroyed. So it was really good to see the church of Surp Giragos (almost) fully restored now, and full of people attending a piano recital by Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan.

The church dates back to the fifteenth century and is built out of the big black stones that are so typical of old buildings in Diyarbakir. The church doesn’t look like a stranger in the city but fits in perfectly. Its renovation started in 2009, under the jurisdiction of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate. It was paid for with funds from Armenians in Turkey and abroad, and with financial contributions from the Diyarbakir and Sur (the old town) municipalities. The mayor of Sur, Abdullah Demirbas, has been a strident advocate of the rights of minorities in Diyarbakir, as has Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir.

Armenian-Canadian pianist Raffi Bedrosyan playing in the restored Surp Giragos church, 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge.

What I find remarkable is that both Demirbas and Baydemir have called on Armenians and other minorities to return to Diyarbakir. They want a city with cultural diversity, like in the old days. Baydemir was present at the concert, with his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, and in his speech he repeated his appeal. He got applause for it.

Also present in the church was a group of elderly Armenians from the United States on a ‘roots trip’. Over the weekend, they attended a mass at the Armenian church on Akdamar island, in Lake Van, not too far from Diyarbakir. I talked to one of the women from the group during the concert – yeah, sorry, it wasn’t all silent anyway, people were walking in and out of the church and were whispering, kids couldn’t keep quietly, which really all just added to the good atmosphere – and I asked her what she thought of Baydemir’s call to return to Diyarbakir. ‘I think it’s amazing’, she whispered in excitement, ‘considering all that has happened here in the past’.

But of course I wanted to know if she would ever consider living in the land of her ancestors. ‘No’, she replied without thinking. ‘Not because of the Turks of course, that would be no problem. But you know’, she continued, seemingly not talking only about herself but about other people like her as well, ‘we have very comfortable lives in the States, we are not prepared to give that up.’

Diyarbakir mayor Osman Baydemir calls on Armenians to return to Diyarbakir, his wife, lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, translates his words to English. Pianist Bedrosyan behind the couple. 10 September 2012. Click to enlarge. (and sorry for bad picture quality…)

After the concert, I talked to an Armenian who now lives in Kusadasi, on the west coast of Turkey. He was originally from Siirt province, east of Diyarbakir. I asked him if he would return to his roots permanently. ‘Oh I come here all the time’, he answered. ‘My life is in Kusadasi now, but my daughter lives here, I have family in Siirt, in Kurdistan (he meant North Iraq, FG), in Syria, in Canada. That’s how it is with Armenians, they are spread out all over the world because of what happened in this region. I will keep coming here and the concert was good and the place is beautifully restored, but I won’t come back to live here.’

The church is not in use as a place to have mass every Sunday, for that there are too few Armenians left. And the wish of the municipality to have more Armenians in the city again is not likely to be fulfilled any time soon. But there will be a concert in the church from now on every month, it was announced. That’s great: it will give the historic building a real place in the vibrant city of Diyarbakir.

Here is a really good pic of the church during the concert, on the site of Diyarbakir municipality. (I’m on the right, fourth bench from the back, second from the right ;-))

Mor Gabriel, Alevism and the ECHR

‘We will fight this decision all the way to the European Court for Human Rights’. It’s a sentence you hear often when injustice is done once again in a Turkish court, or when you talk to people who feel they have been treated unjustly by the state. Way more often than not, the ECHR rules in favour of the plaintiff and the Turkish state is convicted. The unfortunate thing is: both the Turkish government and Turkish judges often just don’t care about a ruling of the ECHR.

The latest case attracting a lot of attention, and which will be taken to the ECHR, is the case of Mor Gabriel, a Syrian Orthodox monastery in Midyat in Southeast Turkey. It was established in the year 397 and is the oldest surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery in the world. It has been in legal battles since 2008, when locals claimed the monastery was using lands that they needed for raising cattle. A lower Turkish court ruled in favour of the monastery, but the state took over the prosecutions and finally won: the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled the lands of Mor Gabriel belong to the state. That is against all logic, since the monastery can prove they have been paying taxes for many decades and they have all their paperwork in order.

An exception rather than a rule

The ECHR will probably take some years to rule that Turkey is wrong and should grant Mor Gabriel the property rights they have. That will be a well deserved victory for the monastery, but I doubt if it will change anything in the way Turkey handles religious minorities. In essence, that means that if you are not a Sunni Muslim, you have no rights in Turkey.

International law has precedence over national law, but the carrying out of rulings of the ECHR can’t be ensured. Parties to the treaty, of which Turkey is one, should just have the decency to implement the rulings under their national laws. Turkey doesn’t have that decency – not that other European countries always have, by the way, as you can read here. But Turkey makes carrying out ECHR rulings an exception rather than a rule.

The whole humilitation again

There is a very recent example of that, concerning another group in Turkish society that is not Sunni Muslim: the Alevi’s. A court ruled that two Alevi children must attend the obligatory religious classes in secondary school, even though the ECHR already ruled years ago that Alevi children cannot be forced to. The religious classes teach the Turkish state version of Sunni Islam, which differs from Alevi beliefs. The two children concerned were, after a legal battle, exempted from religious classes in primary school, but now have to go through the whole humiliation again. The local court just rules that the religious classes are ‘constitutional’ and that’s it.

How the state considers religions other than Sunni Islam was also confirmed by Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag, who said Alevism is not a separate religion, that the Alevi are Muslims and that all Muslims can go to the mosque for prayers. That’s why the AKP has been building mosques in villages where mostly Alevi live – nobody attends those mosques, because the Alevi use cemevi as houses of worship. Not permissible, ruled a Turkish court earlier this week. You can go to a cemevi, but you are not allowed to call the place a ‘house of worship’, only a ‘cultural centre’. Compare that also to how the Mevlevi Order has been reduced to being a cultural activity instead of the spiritual belief it really is.

Current and ancient

On the first of August, the constitutional commission of parliament will convene again. I’m not very optimistic about any progress there. The mindset that everybody in Turkey is not only a Turk but also a Muslim, and more precisely a Sunni Muslim as the rules of the Turkish secular state is rooted too deeply for all members of the commission to accept that all religious groups in Turkey need the freedom to express their faith however they wish, treated with respect from the state for not only their current houses of worship, but also their ancient ones.

Historic handshakes

Usually a handshake only becomes historic when a remarkable deal has been made between two sworn enemies. Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. Reagan and Gorbachov. Not in Turkey. Here, it’s already historic when two political opponents, CHP leader Kilicdaroglu and Prime Minister Erdogan, finally shake hands and talk for an hour about the biggest problem the state has faced in its entire history. The nation’s papers speak of a ‘historic step’, a ‘historic breakthrough’ even. Sorry, I have tried, but I really don’t see much reason for optimism here.

Some people see reason to be optimistic because the leaders of the two biggest parties now both recognize that there is a Kurdish issue that needs to be solved through democratic means. I’d almost say: isn’t that a reason to be pessimistic? After almost a century of oppression of Kurds and almost thirty years of horrible violence claiming thousands of lives, the two biggest parties sit down and agree to see what they can do to solve the problem. Is it only that far that Turkish politics has advanced? Okay, better late than never, but to see it as a sign of hope – no. That it is only now happening says something about their stance so far, doesn’t it?

All parties in parliament

The starting point of the talks between Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan was a ten point roadmap towards solving the Kurdish issue, put together by the CHP. One of its important aims is to establish a parliamentary commission of wise men and women to search for solutions. Nothing wrong with that, of course. The point is, though, both leaders immediately stressed that support is needed from all parties in parliament. While saying that, they very well knew that the ultra-nationalist MHP will never support it. The MHP says there is no such thing as a Kurdish issue, there is only terrorism. The AKP and the CHP say they will keep pressuring the MHP, for months if necessary. For months? A great way to lose momentum.

If Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan are serious about this, why did they not start neglecting the MHP as soon it made clear they refused to cooperate, which was right after the Kilicdaroglu-Erdogan talk? Why does Kilicdaroglu propose to not speak about ‘the Kurdish issue’ but rather about ‘terrorism’ to get the MHP on board? Why give a party which by a policy of denial places itself outside the political arena the power to redefine the issue yet again as a terrorism problem? If you say your goal is to solve the problem, how can you then possibly avoid even defining it honestly?

Nationalist truths

Maybe they need the MHP as an escape route. What if Kilicdaroglu’s party in the end doesn’t back him up? Not out of the question, since he is not that solid in his position as party leader. There are many staunch Kemalists in the CHP who could not live with the fundamental changes that are needed in, for example, the constitution to really solve the Kurdish issue.

And Erdogan? He is unchallenged as party leader, but is he strong enough as the country’s leader to push through changes? You could say ‘yes’, since he has done so in reducing the power of the military. But this is something else. Weakening the military was not a controversial issue among the voters, and he only angered people who were already against him. But his voters are not only pious, middle class Muslims, as they are usually defined, they are also nationalist. Like the average Turk: the state has been very successful in making people believe the nationalist truths the Turkish republic is built on, coming together with the slogan ‘one flag, one nation, one language’. No party in Turkey can survive without being nationalist. The MHP thrives on it, but the AKP and the CHP are in essence nationalist as well. Does Erdogan dare to alienate his voters? Or will he find a way to convince them – maybe just by telling them this is what needs to be done?

Outside parliament

What also worries me is that the CHP and AKP suggest they could solve the matter just by themselves if the other parties in parliament don’t want to cooperate. To do that, they could for example set up a commission outside parliament. One: the only place where the Kurdish issue can be solved is inside parliament. Two: the issue cannot be solved by talking about Kurds, but only by talking with Kurds. In other words, with the pro-Kurdish BDP.

The BDP has stressed several times that they support the idea and are open to talk. So why do Kilicdaroglu and Erdogan still suggest they can work on the problem as just the ‘two of them’? Why don’t they – soon! – meet with BDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş and shake hands with him and agree to work together? Why haven’t they done that already? Are they already afraid of the consequences of their handshake? Afraid that shaking hands with the BDP would suggest they admit they will have to talk with the PKK too, something that they know needs to be done but can’t easily ‘sell’?

Civilians and soldiers

Apart from the questions that can be raised, there are facts. Daily realities. They are another reason for me not to be hopeful. The arrests in the KCK probe continue: earlier this week, ninety (!) medical students were taken into custody and almost on a daily basis BDP officials are taken from their homes. This week, the mayor of (earth quake stricken) Van was arrested, sparking demonstrations. There are ongoing clashes between the army and the PKK, many of them never making headlines in the Turkish media. Soldiers and PKK fighters die, and this week a young boy was killed by a police bullet at the funeral of a PKK fighter. Last week, at several universities in Turkey, nationalist groups attacked Kurdish students, who were not protected by the police but arrested instead. Let’s not forget Uludere. The PKK has started kidnapping civilians and soldiers again, sometimes one, often groups of three to ten people. The tension, the frustration, the anger among Kurds is rising.

Did Erdogan and Kilicdaroglu speak out about these things? We know how Erdogan deals with Uludere – read more here and here. Erdogan supports the KCK trials and does so rather passionately. Kilicdaroglu never spoke out strongly against the KCK probe, about racist violence against Kurdish students, about the AKP policies that have increasingly treated the Kurdish issue as a terrorism problem over the last year or so. And from these men we now have to believe they are sincere about solving the Kurdish issue? Forgive me for being somewhat sceptical.

The state’s worst enemy

But of course I hope I am wrong. Who knows, one day we might look back and define this as one of the crucial developments on Turkey’s road to a solution. Maybe Erdogan will be President then. Will he, as the highest representative of Turkey, shake hands with the state’s worst enemy, who is imprisoned on Imrali island now but who – everybody knows it – needs to be part of the solution? Unimaginable? It is. Now. But historic handshakes always were.

The queen and the pioneer

President Gül paid an official visit to the Netherlands this week, to commemorate 400 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries. The Queen and the President both disappointed and surprised me.

1.
You could say the visit was a bit overshadowed by our national clown and racist politician, Geert Wilders. He was against the visit to begin with, because of Gül being President of an ‘Islamic country’ – that’s how ridiculous it gets these days in Holland. But Wilders is officially supporting the Dutch government, making sure it has a majority in Parliament to carry out policies. So even though Wilders is not in the government, what he says has to be taken into account by the government. So if he shouts something to humiliate Gül or Turkey, the government cannot lash out at him too hard, so afraid are they of losing his support and thus their decision-making power in Parliament. The government has been taken hostage by Wilders, you could say.

President Gül openly took exception to Wilders’ racist ideas. (He was not taken seriously by some; you can read an opinion article I wrote on that here.) I’m pretty sure the Queen does not agree with his views either, but in the Dutch monarchy, the Queen has no power to speak out about her own opinions. She has to always stay above party politics. But in the end, the Queen did speak out. At least, that’s how I interpret the news that came in on Wednesday, the second day of the visit: the Queen has decided to pay an official visit to Turkey, as early as June. It surprised me, and I applaud her for it. I think it is a way for her to take a stand against shallow, populist opinions.

2.
Maybe I will get a second chance to meet the Queen and the President in June. I thought I was going to shake hands this week, but that didn’t happen. Quite a hilarious story, actually.

I’m also in the Netherlands for a few days, partly in relation to Gül’s visit. Gül and Beatrix opened an exhibition on Tuesday in Amsterdam: ‘Dutch pioneers in Turkey’. The exhibition consists of 18 portraits of Dutch people who live as ‘pioneers’ in Turkey: a big picture and a short text. I was one of the pioneers, and therefore invited to the official opening.

I invited my mother to come with me. We are both totally not lovers of monarchy or in any way fans of the Dutch royal family, and I even support abolishing the monarchy. But I’m a curious woman, so I thought it would be interesting to experience how such openings go, what instructions you get about addressing the Queen and the President, things like that. Besides, I love dressing up, and saw a great opportunity here.

So we showed up right on time at 5.30. We were a bit surprised that nobody checked our invitation and that we got no instructions whatsoever. The invite was strictly for two, but when we saw the relative chaos, mum and I concluded we could easily have taken dad along too. Anyway, we wait for what’s to come, till a friend of mine shows up, also dressed up, also with her mother. She says: ‘Hey, did you hear? The Queen and the President aren’t here, they opened the exhibition at 3 with a very small group of invited guests. This is only for the other people involved.’ Many people misunderstood and were surprised.

So that’s how it goes. As just a simple pioneer, you can’t make it to Group 1; you only make it to Group 2. Small disappointment, but mainly very funny. We had a good laugh, a few drinks, and a great evening anyway, of course.

Want to go see your favourite correspondent hanging on a museum wall in Amsterdam? The expo will be open till 26 August, and can be seen in Amsterdam Museum. All information here! 

BDP MP Gültan Kisanak: ‘AKP knows Kurds have the potential to cause big trouble’

‘Of course I am angry’, says Member of Parliament Gültan Kisanak. We are sitting in a room in the Istanbul head office of her party, the Peace and Democracy Party, BDP. Outside, the smell of tear gas can still be vaguely detected. Yesterday afternoon, the BDP tried to organize a protest against the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan on 15 February 1999, and against the solitary confinement he’s been held in now for some nine months. Police effectively blocked people from protesting. Kisanak and her fellow MP Sebahat Tüncel kept the people who did manage to gather calm. Kisanak: ‘I feel responsible for keeping everything calm, so I have to keep my own anger under control.’

Gültan Kışanak talks to the press at yesterday's protest. By her side her colleague MP Sebahat Tüncel. (pic by me, click to enlarge)

Only about two hundred people made it to the protest on Istiklal Street. The group could only be reached by journalists: with a press card, the police let you through without any problem. The few hundred protesters came early enough not to be hindered by the police blockade. We – my assistant and I – hear from protesters that in many places around Istiklal and Taksim Square, people are trying to reach the protest. Identities are being checked, and people who look like they are coming to protest are not let through, people say. The protest in Istiklal remains peaceful.
In the closeby neighbourhood of Tarlabasi, where many Kurds live and where the Istanbul headquarters of the BDP are located, there appear to have been clashes with the police, as we smell (tear gas!) when we get to the area after the protest at Istiklal is over.

We see Gültan Kisanak and Sebahat Tüncel enter the building. We enter too, who knows who we can speak to. It’s busy inside, the BDP headquarters are like a community centre. Tea is being served, and a TV is tuned in to channel ‘Newroz’, where some glorification of Öcalan is going on. ‘Who do you want to talk to?’ my assistant asks. ‘Gültan Kisanak of course, if possible’, I reply. Two minutes later, the man responsible for press contacts appears. Fifteen minutes later, Kisanak comes into the room where we were told to wait.

She speaks softly at first. About how important the 15th of February is for the Kurdish movement, how they protest Öcalan’s detention every year, and about how they face difficulties with police on a daily basis. She says: ‘You saw how big the police presence was. Thousands of police, way more than there were people. I tell you, there would have been many more people if there hadn’t been so many police. And if the police had kept their distance, I’m sure it would have been a huge, peaceful and calm demonstration, and we would have released our press statement.’
I tell her I just saw some boys outside putting stones in their pockets. Is she sure she and her colleagues could have controlled the anger and prevented people from throwing stones? Kisanak: ‘Throwing stones usually only starts after the police start their violence. I have seen that so many times. But people have patience only up to a point. We are not always successful in keeping everybody under control.’ (And I have experienced both: some months ago in Diyarbakir the police started using teargas with no reason, and earlier in Istanbul a (very) few young men started throwing stones before the police took action.)

She doesn’t think the situation of Öcalan, who has not seen any of his family or lawyers since the spring of 2011, will change any time soon. ‘The AKP is even preparing a bill that makes it legal to keep detainees from having contact with their lawyers or family for up to six months’, she says. ‘It’s been on hold for a few weeks. I think they waited for today to be over, to not spark more anger among Kurds.’
‘The AKP’, says Kisanak, ‘knows that this situation will not lead to a solution. People are loyal to Öcalan, they will always support him. Sooner or later, the strategy of isolation has to be given up. Of course, we want it to happen soon.’

The sit in protest yesterday at Istiklal Street in Istanbul, against the imprisonment and solitary confinement of PKK leader Öcalan. Kışanak can be seen standing at the head of the protest. If you look closely. (pic by me, click to enlarge)

She mentions, among other things, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa as reasons why the Kurdish issue is again being treated by the government as a security issue. ‘The change came two, three years ago. The first few years that the AKP was in power, they needed to spread their influence over several state institutions. During that process, they couldn’t stir up too much trouble around the Kurdish issue. They needed time. Now they are strong and secure. Also, they extended some personal freedoms of the people. They hoped that would diminish the demands Kurds have as a people, but that didn’t happen. We will never give up our cultural and constitutional rights.’
The Arab Spring added another dimension, claims Kisanak: ‘There is fire there, everything changes. The Turkish government knows the Kurds have a potential to cause big trouble.’ Would you like to see that potential realised?, I ask. Kisanak: ‘The Arab Spring of the Kurds started already a long time ago. We protest almost every week, for a long time already. The reason the Arab Spring carried on is because of international dynamics: it suits what the international community wants. For the Kurds, that is different. On the contrary: the international community gives Turkey a role in managing the situation in the Middle East, so they feel the need to stay silent on the Kurdish issue.’

What is, in her opinion, the way out? ‘There is only one way out’, she answers without hesitation, also louder now. ‘We have to be insistent in demanding our rights’. How is the process towards a new constitution going? I ask. ‘Kisanak: ‘It’s a rather technical process at the moment, but it’s continuing.’ The BDP is part of the parliamentary commission that is working towards a new constitution, which must replace the one written by the military rulers after the 1980 coup. Kisanak says a really fresh constitution can contribute a lot to solving the Kurdish issue. ‘We basically need three things: equality for everybody, education in the mother tongue as basic right, and local autonomy.’
The door of the room opens slightly, and somebody whispers: ‘They have been set free!’ The man refers to the head of the BDP in Istanbul, who was detained this afternoon together with 22 protestors. “Good’, Kisanak smiles. She was talking to the police about that during the protest in Istiklal: she wanted them to be set free and allowed to join the protest. That didn’t happen, but at least now they are free again.

Gültan Kisanak needs to go, but I want to ask her one more question. What is needed for her personally to consider the Kurdish question solved? Besides policy changes, like a new constitution? She talks about nationalism and discrimination that need to be wiped out, and how the current strategy of the government feeds people’s anger, and nationalism on both sides. Then she says: ‘You know, when I was 19 (in 1980, FG), I was a student and I endured serious torture in jail. Later I experienced more injustice. Twenty six friends of mine have disappeared. Of course, I am angry. Besides a new constitution, I need an apology from the state.’

More democracy? Abolish the CHP!

Imagine, you don’t know too much about Turkey’s past and present, and you read this opinion article that opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu wrote yesterday in the Washington Post. He writes about how ‘the AKP is systematic and ruthless in its persecution of any opposition to its policies’, and uses the sentence: ‘Turkey today is a country where people live in fear.’ Kilicdaroglu draws the picture of a totalitarian state, with himself as the shiny centre of the opposition, who would lead the country to freedom for everybody if only the brutal leaders of the country would allow him to. If you wouldn’t know any better, you’d nominate Kilicdaroglu for the Nobel Peace Prize.

No no, I’m not going to defend the AKP. I wouldn’t dream of that, since the AKP government just doesn’t serve democracy right – proof of that all over this website, like here, here, here and here, just to mention a few. There is no need to talk about the AKP to show how totally ridiculous the writing of mr. Kilicdaroglu is.

The opposition leader likes to display his party the CHP as a good choice for Turkey to get back on the democratization track. He even mentions his party is the ‘vestige’ of Turkish democracy. The truth is however exactly the opposite: the CHP is at the very roots of the basic problem that Turkey has with democracy: the main goal of the Turkish state is to protect the state, not it’s citizens. It is one of the basics of Kemalism, which is the fundamental ideology of the CHP, that was founded by Atatürk.

Fear

Kemalism is not an ideology that serves democracy. On the contrary: besides not protecting it’s citizens, Kemalism for example orders ‘modernism’ (or what the state considers modern, which is pretty outdated by now and for example hampers freedom of religion) and nationalism (and thus excluses people). For decades, Turkey was a one party state ruled by the CHP. No opposition allowed, and Atatürk, who introduced changes 100% top down with no say for the people whatsoever, even executed people who opposed his vision – all for the sake of the country, of course.

I don’t know the general sentiment at the time, but I can imagine people who opposed Atatürk were living in fear – which means, being afraid to lose your life. For Kilicdaroglu to suggest that Turkey is nowadays a country ‘where people live in fear’ is so utterly shameful. It is a flagrant and evil exaggeration, a lie that does not serve any purpose but his own parties strategy – whichever strategy that may be. (And, mr. Kilicdaroglu, look at what is happening in Turkey’s neighbour Syria: that, sir, is a country where people live in fear.) It is just a big a lie as his remark that the AKP systematically and ruthlessly persecutes any opposition to it’s policies. To put it simple: crap.

Mastodon Kemalists

The CHP has nothing to do with democracy, not in the past and not in the present. They are unable to reform themselves into a real social democratic party, which they are in name. Kilicdaroglu shows no sign of wanting to reform the party, and even if he wanted to, he couldn’t do it, because the mastodon Kemalists still hold a lot of power in the party behind the scenes. We will see that again in a big party meeting that is planned for later this month.

I would even like to go one step further. For Turkey to get back on track and democratize further, the best thing that could happen is the abolishment of the CHP. Hop, straight into the history books with it. As long as this anti-democratic institute covering up as social democrat party exists, a genuine and appealing opposition can never emerge. And only a genuine and appealing opposition, that really puts democratic values at the top of it’s priorities list, can do something against the too powerful AKP.

Rakel

The conference on the history of the Diyarbakir region, held last November in Diyarbakir, came to an end. The final word would be for Rakel Dink, widow of Hrant. The Hrant Dink Foundation was one of the organizers of the conference. She came forward, and whereas everybody expected a speech, she started to sing. A Kurdish song. She sounded and looked so vulnerable. That song sung by this Armenian woman who grew up in a Kurdish community, brought the history of the Diyarbakir region back to heartbreaking human proportions. Many people couldn’t hold back their tears.

The life story of Rakel Dink, (maiden name Yaghbasan), is a remarkable one. She was born in a village in the southeast of Turkey, the daughter of a leader of an Armenian clan, known as the Ermeni Varto clan. Several families of the clan escaped from the genocide in 1915 and settled in the Cudi mountains, in the present-day province of Sirnak. They lived there for twenty five years, isolated from the outside world.

When they finally came down from the mountains, they found the lands they had lived on had been taken over by Kurds. They partly assimilated with them: over time, for example, they came to speak Kurdish better than Armenian, and they started dressing in traditional Kurdish clothing. But at the same time the clan life persisted: there were no intercultural marriages, and, being very religious, they kept respecting Christian traditions. That’s the society Rakel was born in, in 1959. Her father sent her to Istanbul when she was nine years old, to get an Armenian education – she was the first child to leave the lands the clan came from.

In Istanbul, Rakel lived in an Armenian orphanage. That is where she became Armenian again, rather than a Kurdish-speaking Armenian. That is where she met Hrant. They grew up together and eventually got married – her father resisted the marriage for some time because Hrant was not a clan member. They had three children.

Rakel is now the only Ermeni Varto clan member who still lives in Turkey. The whole clan moved to Istanbul some decades ago, and moved to Belgium about thirty years ago to escape the hardening stance towards Armenians in Turkey. Exactly five years ago today, Rakel became a widow.

Support

Before her husband was brutally killed, Rakel was not very much in the foreground. She stood behind her husband. Now, the circumstances force her to be more visible. She spoke to the thousands and thousands of people who attended the funeral of her husband, and after that, she gave speeches more often. In public, at conferences, in court (of which you can read an example here). Before every court hearing, the group ‘Friends of Hrant Dink’ organized gatherings to demand justice, and Rakel would always be there. It always hurt me to see these pictures. Her face in such agony. Look at this picture, from when Hrant was still alive.

I would want to ask Rakel if she feels lonely. She is seperated from her clan and family due to the way Turkey, her home land, has treated Armenians, it’s own citizens. Her husband got killed for the very same reason. No justice has been done in the court case against the killers, again for the very same reason. There are many people who support Rakel, and today in the walk to commemorate her husband there will be thousands marching with her. Does that give her enough strength to not feel intensly lonely? Or would she never describe herself as lonely in the first place, because she is rooted in such strong traditions and in such strong family ties that she always feels connected? She is a very religious woman: till what extend does religion help her to cope, and did she ever, if only for a second, lose her faith in God?

Strength

Rakel Dink tops the list of people in Turkey that I would love to interview. But she doesn’t give interviews. Not until the court case against the murderers of her husband is over. The case came to an end this week. But the verdict denies what everybody knows: the state was behind it, and it got inspired by the state ideology that doesn’t accept anybody who doesn’t fit the one size fits all identity of being a (Sunni) Moslim and a Turk.

The lawyers of the Dink family are determined to push through and go as far as they can to get the truth out and the perpetrators punished. I wonder how many more years before the case can really be closed. I wonder what the outcome will be, and if and how it will help reshape Turkey. Will it eventually give Rakel the feeling that justice is done? To her husband and herself, to her community and the country she too is a daughter of? For now, the questions remain unasked, unanswered. I wish her all the strength she needs.