A Lasting Memorial to Turkey’s Forgotten

After a quarter-century of protests against the disappearance of their family members, Turkey’s Saturday Mothers are weathering the COVID-19 pandemic by taking their vigils online

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A Lasting Memorial to Turkey’s Forgotten
Turkish supporters of the ‘left’ gather for a meeting of ‘Saturday Mothers’ or Cumartesi Anneleri on September 24, 2016 in Istanbul/Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Besna Tosun has her own son now. He will likely never know his grandfather. Besna herself barely got to know him. Fehmi Tosun was detained by Turkish authorities in 1995 and disappeared when he was in custody. Her youngest sibling was only five.

Tosun is also a member of the group Cumartesi Anneleri, or Saturday Mothers. The group used to meet every Saturday in front of Galatasaray square, a busy intersection in the downtown district of Taksim in Istanbul, to protest the Turkish government’s disappearing of their family members in the 1980s and 1990s.

After the 1980 coup, the military junta ruling the country established a new constitution that allowed for state-of-emergency laws that were used liberally in the country’s Kurdish southeast territories. A post-coup crackdown on political dissidents and ensuing skirmishes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist group, placed the southeast’s Kurds, civilian and otherwise, under the state’s gaze. Hafiza Merkezi, a local human rights organization, recorded 1,353 cases of forced disappearances.

The longest-running protest in Turkey, the Saturday Mothers started meeting in 1995.

The group endured harassment, beatings, and detention, which intensified in 1998, according to an Amnesty International report at the time. Following the increased police harassment, the group took a break from weekly protests in 1999 but restarted in 2009 under Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan’s prime ministership.

Erdoğan’s initial years as prime minister were full of promises of reform and a dismantling of the privileges of Turkey’s so-called secular elites. The mothers thought a reckoning of Turkey’s past would have to include the military’s history of deposing elected governments and the violence that followed.

“In the case of these disappearances, there was simply no space for that discussion. So (the mothers) had to create these kinds of spaces to speak what was officially unrecognizable,” said Stanford University professor Kabir Tambar.

It worked. The protests had people publicly discussing enforced disappearances by the Turkish state. Then, in August 2018, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu barred the group from gathering ahead of their 700th meeting.

Soylu declared a link between the mothers and the PKK. Turkey and the U.S. have designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. Since the failed coup in 2016, Erdoğan and his government greatly broadened the use of the terms “terrorist” and “PKK associate.” Erdoğan’s interest in muzzling the mothers’ public presence appeared to increase as criticisms of his own government grew.

For over 800 weeks, the group’s resilience in the face of multiple states of emergency, changing governments, and Erdoğan’s dwindling concern with the appearance of democratic norms led to its latest move to create an online, accessible testament to the Turkish state’s violence.

“State violence is as old as the history of Turkey,” said Gülseren Yoleri, a lawyer and elected chair of Istanbul’s İnsan Hakları Derneği (Human Rights Association or IHD) branch. She started volunteering with the human rights nonprofit in 1991.

IHD was founded in 1986. It reports on human rights violations in Turkey and has a close relationship with the Saturday Mothers dating back to the group’s first protest.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on gathering that came with it, the Saturday Mothers were a constant on the famous İstiklal Street in Istanbul. Every Saturday, the mothers — a group that includes brothers, sisters, and other relatives — came together to protest the Turkish government’s disappearing of their family members in the ‘80s and ‘90s and its refusal to acknowledge those incidents.

The online vigils show what the Turkish government hoped to erase: a collective memory of the disappeared.

Tosun and her mother, Hanım Tosun, participated together in the protests when they were still held at Galatasaray. Tosun said it was important to join her mother because “this trauma inflicted wounds in our lives that have been impossible to heal.” She added, “We didn’t lose only my father but the lynchpin of our lives.”

Maside Ocak spoke at the first online press conference of 2021. The Turkish authorities took her brother, Hasan, into custody in 1995. The Ocak family says his tortured body was dumped in an unmarked grave. The family says they found others, in addition to Hasan’s body.

“Rıdvan Karakoç, who was also forcibly disappeared in custody, was discovered in the same grave. [But the two men] had been accused of being members of different organizations,” according to Yoleri. She continued, “The way they had been killed, the place they had been thrown into, the manner in which they were found, and the fact that their identities were deliberately covered up” all contributed to the families’ activism. They thought the government was trying to cover up the deaths.

Though the medium has changed, the protesters are the same as those who have been meeting in Galatasaray and then in front of IHD’s Istanbul offices for years. The families decided together to start protesting virtually to protect participants and journalists from coronavirus while continuing to campaign for their cause.

“It wasn’t a preference but a necessity due to the pandemic,” said Tosun. “We wanted to continue our 25-year-long quest for justice, even if it meant going online. So, we are able to reach out via social media to people who have never come to the square, who have never heard our voice.”

In addition to the families sharing their stories, the video press conferences include families’ lawyers and civil rights defenders speaking after the families. They connect individual stories to larger, systemic human rights abuses in Turkey.

At the 824th protest, Tosun introduced the Kaya family. Ahmet Kaya’s daughter, Emine Kaya, spoke about her family’s experience. The group translated her story into Turkish from Kurdish in the video.

“Today, I do not have a photograph to hold in my hand because the photograph of my father that was printed, I took to the police station. They took me into custody. They got my photographs of my father and took them away.”

Emine Kaya bemoaned her family’s difficulties of living without answers. “Still, we say let there be peace and let no one die.”

Ahmet Kaya died in the so-called Güçlükonak Massacre. On Jan. 15, 1996, about a month after the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire, a minibus full of men was set on fire. Ten of the men were found dead in the minibus with the driver’s dead body a short distance away. At the time, the government claimed the PKK was responsible. However, according to a report by the Dıyarbakir branch of IHD and a 1998 report by Amnesty International, many of the Kurdish men onboard had been detained days prior to the killings by local authorities. Moreover, though the bodies were burned, the men’s identity cards remained intact, suggesting it was local authorities who stopped the minibus and collected the men’s IDs. The Amnesty International report at the time stated, “In the case of the Güçlükonak massacre, there appears to have been no official investigation at all.”

Emine Kaya may have the bodies of her father and uncle, but she does not have recognition from the government of what happened. “What did we Kurds do to anyone that we should experience this much torture?”

Nevertheless, she said, “We call for peace despite this much death and torment that continues still and began 24 years ago.”

Most of those disappeared were Kurds or pro-Kurdish political dissidents. Since the 2018 elections, the Turkish government has continued to remove pro-Kurdish mayors from the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP) on terrorism-related charges. The leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, remains in jail.

Erdoğan’s slide into authoritarianism precedes the election and goes far beyond Kurdish activists and political opponents. The July 15, 2016, failed coup and state of emergency that followed enabled Erdoğan’s government to remake the civil service, military, and judiciary. Within a month, the government had arrested at least 1,684 prosecutors and judges. According to the then-Interior Minister, over 18,000 were detained and 50,000 Turks had their passports canceled.

In 2017, less than a year after the failed coup, a constitutional referendum remade the political system into a presidential one, with Erdoğan at its head after a snap election in 2018.

Throughout Erdoğan’s fluctuating relationship with reformism, the mothers met. In 2011, representatives from the mothers and IHD even met with Erdoğan. The group had high hopes. The most powerful, charismatic politician in Turkey took an interest in their long-running cause. He promised to get them answers. Two years later, in 2013, the government revealed it was holding talks with the PKK to resolve the 30-year conflict. Commissions of “wise men” met to build on the PKK’s unilateral cease-fire and try to put an end to hostilities. This halcyon period did not last. No military personnel were convicted of disappearances or extrajudicial killings, and the peace process stalled.

The two failed reconciliations converged. In August 2018, Erdoğan claimed the mothers were functioning as a front for the PKK. In recent years, Erdoğan has made little attempt to substantiate his claims that politicians, opponents, or groups of grieving women have ties to the PKK.

In a 2014 video made by the group, Zeycan Yedigöl, the mother of Nurettin Yedigöl, spoke of not wanting to die without being reunited with her son. Nurettin disappeared in police custody in 1981. In a statement provided with the video, Yedigöl said, “It is clear that my son was taken into custody; it is clear a team questioned my son; it is clear they tortured him. The only thing that is not clear is my dear boy’s fate.”

The group’s fears that some of them will not live to find the bodies of their loved ones has already proved true. Yedigöl herself died in November 2020 at the age of 98.

Yedigöl begged, “I want those who disappeared my son to stand trial, to be punished. I want the Sept. 12 coupists to be called to account.” Ten years ago, Yedigöl may have had reason to hope for accountability against those who carried out the Sept. 12, 1980, coup and the military junta that ruled the country for the following three years. But in her taped statement, she referenced her 2011 meeting with Erdoğan and the unfulfilled promise that she would learn what happened to her son.

“The mothers have grown old,” said Yoleri, “But their children, spouses, siblings are still missing. These missing persons have other relatives too. They have spouses, siblings, children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren. They take over their mothers’ struggle.”

Even during the state of emergency instituted following the 2016 failed coup, the Saturday Mothers were able to continue protesting while the police forced other groups like labor and LGBT activists from the streets. Until 2018, it appeared the mothers were an acceptable protest movement to the Turkish government.

But even the about-face by Erdoğan’s government did not discourage the mothers or their supporters. In a scene reminiscent of the group’s early years, “[We] were battered and taken into custody two hours before our protest began,” according to Tosun. And those who were not detained were met with “chemical gas, plastic bullets, shields, and clubs.” If Interior Minister Soylu thought the group was manipulating the public with its identity as mothers, then the police would not hold back on account of age or gender. Since that date, the mothers have remained barred from their traditional meeting place.

Yoleri thinks collecting the stories of families whose relatives were disappeared by past governments is even more important now. It is a way to keep the current administration from adopting similar methods as it trends toward authoritarianism.

“This resolute fight for the missing persons has discouraged the state from disappearing persons by force, but truth and justice still seem far in the horizon. We know that whoever has sought justice or raised an objection has been punished in Turkey,” said Yoleri.

Faik Candan was a lawyer when he disappeared 26 years ago, according to his uncle, Ibrahim Candan. Faik was taken into custody in Ankara and questioned for eight days. He was given over to men under the command of Mehmet Ağar, then-head of the General Directorate of Security, and killed. Ibrahim said when they heard the news, they tried asking the police and government officials what had happened.

Years later, the family initiated a lawsuit but have seen no progress. “The Turkish state’s eyes are blind, its ears deaf, they do not hear,” said Ibrahim. While Ibrahim and his family’s lawsuit languishes, the government filed a lawsuit against the Saturday Mothers in November 2020, the same month Yedigöl passed away.

The lawsuit is based on the mothers’ decision to meet in front of Galatasaray Square in 2018 for their 700th protest, despite the ban. The prosecutor’s office is charging 46 people with “unarmed participation in unlawful demonstrations and marches and refusal to disperse despite warning,” according to reporting by Bianet, an independent Turkish news website. The protesters could face three years in prison.

One of the individuals facing a prison sentence is Sebla Arcan, a longtime volunteer with IHD and spokesperson for the Saturday Mothers. Arcan was also present at the 2011 meeting with Erdoğan. At the last press conference of 2020, she introduced Ümit Bahçeci, whose brother İsmail Bahçeci, disappeared in 1994. The story is a familiar one. İsmail was taken away in a car. The family received a call from a friend that İsmail was taken into custody. They went together to the police station, where officials insisted İsmail was not being held. According to Ümit, though officials denied everything, police continued to harass the Bahçeci family for years, driving by the home and questioning the family about Ibrahim’s whereabouts.

But, in Ümit’s telling, the familiar story also becomes İsmail’s. “İsmail Bahçeci was a person who drew cartoons, wrote poetry, and played the saz [a stringed instrument similar to a guitar]. Unfortunately, he was taken into custody by the state,” he said. He was a person whose misfortune was bumping up against the Turkish state. The Bahçeci family lawyer, Efkan Bolaç, added, “Those that murdered the disappeared in custody live with this dishonor, and still they continue to live. We, too, still search for the lost, and we continue to search.”

Tosun said the mothers would meet with the government even after the clashes with police and past promises going unfulfilled. “We haven’t been contacted since our meeting with Tayyıp Erdoğan.” Tosun continued, “After week 700, we requested an appointment with Erdoğan three times, but we didn’t even receive a ‘no’ for a reply.” She remarked on the strangeness of suddenly being marked a terrorist group after meeting with Erdoğan. “After week 700, the Ministry of Interior tried to criminalize our most innocent, most legitimate demands, whereas in 2011 the same government had said to us, ‘Your problem belongs to my cabinet,’” said Tosun.

Tambar, the Stanford University professor of anthropology, researched and met with the Saturday Mothers from 2013 to 2016. At the time, he said, “They were speaking about things that the state has persistently denied.” Tambar added, “In the case of disappearances, things like oral testimony become so crucial for this group, where they have people coming together and talking about what it is that they experienced, what they observed, what happened.”

Ali Duran Topuz, a journalist with Duvar, one of the few news outlets that continues to regularly cover the Saturday Mothers, acknowledged the difficulty of reporting on the group since it turned to holding online protests. Though an online forum may reach more and different people than those who would have normally attended, it also does not “bring variety,” according to Topuz. When the protests were still held in Galatasaray Square, “politicians used to attend it, general participation increased on special days, artists and other elites showed support.”

Coverage in the press changed over the years, too, Topuz said, “When it began in the 1990s, the vibe that surrounded the accusation was very similar to the vibe today: a protest that blames the state on behalf of terrorists, by people at the service of terrorist networks.” Topuz connects the 1980 military junta to today’s government under Erdoğan, saying, “Saturday Mothers’ protest is an indictment against the state and government tradition in Turkey, starting from Sept. 12 and still prevailing today.”

Gurkan Özturan, a journalist in Turkey, also saw a shift in the media portrayal of the mothers. “Previously, they were being referred to as the victims or the mothers of the disappeared. There was a sympathetic tone. But lately, the pro-government media has been assuming more of the Ministry of Interior’s briefings and referring to them as extensions of the terror networks,” he said.

It is not only the mothers that have been reimagined as supporters of terrorism. The terrorists of Turkey are malleable enough to reach far beyond the supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fetullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan blames for the 2016 failed coup. It now includes human rights advocates, civil society organizations, and elected politicians from opposition parties. Pro-government media helps spread the accusations. News channel ATV altered the logo of the opposition party HDP by replacing the tree’s usual stars and flowers with bullets and grenades. Two days later, ATV altered the logo again.

IHD activist Yoleri believes the question mark that lingers over the fate of the disappeared has a stultifying effect on any criticism of the Turkish state. “Those forced to disappear in custody are by and large political opponents. The state has disappeared these people and thereby eliminated their individual impacts. The state has intimidated organizations as well as the society: ‘I may disappear you, too.’”

But because of the mothers’ online memorial, even those disappeared are remembered.

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