The Unforgotten

For 600 Saturdays, friends and relatives of the Turkish state's victims have been telling tales of torture and unlawful detention.

Magdarlena / Flickr

The Cumartesi Anneleri, the Saturday Mothers, are passing through a police cordon on Istiklal Street in one of Istanbul’s busiest districts. For more than six hundred Saturdays, they have been gathering to share their stories of grief and loss and decry the disappearances of loved ones who vanished in the 1980s and ’90s.

Yet in Turkey now, fresh from last summer’s failed coup, tales of torture and unlawful detention are back. And as the country prepares to vote tomorrow on a series of proposed constitutional amendments, the Saturday demonstrators have updated their protest to reflect the current government’s attacks on the pro-Kurdish movement and attempt to centralize power around President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On January 7, with snow coming down lightly, Maside Ocak submitted to the requisite bag search and pat-down before entering the protest area on Istiklal Street. She picked up the microphone and spoke of her brother, Hasan, who was taken into custody in 1995. Ocak’s family says his tortured body was buried in an unmarked grave.

That day was the twenty-first anniversary of the Guclukonak Massacre. Ocak spoke of the villagers taken by security forces and forced inside a minibus for questioning. Soldiers attacked the minibus, burning the vehicle and killing those inside. While Ocak recounted the story — her voice full of emotion, but steadfast — one of the officers milling nearby stormed up to the enclosed protest area.

As he started yelling, additional plainclothes officers approached. He insisted Ocak could not blame the state for the massacre. She had the right to be there, he said, but not the right to “spread PKK propaganda,” a reference to the Kurdish Workers’ Party. Ocak was allowed to finish reading her statement, but police briefly took her into custody shortly after the demonstration ended.

At the Saturday protest on March 26, with the referendum only three weeks away, Umit Tekay Disli drew parallels between the impending vote and the legal chaos of 1994 under the Tansu Ciller administration that led to the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Ahmet Sanir.

Disli read the statement on behalf of Insan Haklari Dernegi’s Commission Against Losses in Custody, saying, “As witnesses of the lawlessness that took place in this land, we say ‘no’ to this constitutional change.” Proposed amendments, such as the abolition of a formal cabinet and the parliament it answers to, she said, run counter to the international standards of law and human rights, to which Turkey is a signatory.

Irfan Bilgin also spoke on behalf of his brother Kenan who was taken into custody in September 1994. Bilgin acknowledged that no justice could come of the “rancid” court system, but that “justice would come of our struggle.”

To build support for the proposed constitutional changes, Erdoğan has been hammering away at the internal and external threats that Turkey faces. Erdogan accused German chancellor Angela Merkel of behaving like a Nazi when his party’s officials weren’t allowed to campaign for the referendum among immigrant communities in Germany.

He warns of the continued presence of coup plotters and their associates undermining Turkey at home. The vote has the ability to transform the Turkish parliamentarian system into a presidential one, which could mean a President Erdogan with increased powers until 2029.

The assaults on Kurdish politicians and public expression of Kurdishness, in particular, appear to be increasing as the referendum approaches. Many have pointed to the jailing of thirteen pro-Kurdish parliamentarians and clampdowns in eighty-two municipalities in the Kurdish southeast as signs of the government’s growing intolerance.

But the mothers, who include fathers and brothers, too, are long accustomed to taking on the government. The protests began in 1995, when citizens started speaking out more publicly against government tactics that became commonplace after the 1980 coup. Security forces would pick up citizens, most often in the Kurdish areas, questioning, torturing, and sometimes disappearing them. Their cars were so well-known that white Renaults became a symbol of state violence.

In the 1990s, a change in the Turkish state’s military strategy meant the targeting of civilians who were believed to have been involved in assisting the PKK. Some of the disappeared were activists, some were ordinary citizens, but all of them fell victim to this counterinsurgency strategy.

Every week, protesters hold red carnations and display posters with pictures of their missing loved ones. Most of the disappeared are Kurdish, but not all. Carnations are Turkey’s most common funeral flowers, a sharp reminder of the missing bodies that render a full funeral impossible. Red connotes resistance.

The January 7 altercation between the police and Ocak is indicative of the incongruity of the current Turkish state and Kurdish activism. The women protest the actions of village guards and special forces under an entirely different government, but their calls for justice and recognition complicate a convenient narrative historically used by the government, that national stability requires a ferreting out of “traitors” to the Turkish state.

Despite the government’s recent move to suppress free speech, the Saturday Mothers refuse to mourn quietly. Their weekly press releases tell a disappeared person’s story and proclaim the pain of their relatives’ loss. They will not allow their loved ones to be forgotten.

Istanbul parliamentarian and deputy speaker Pervin Buldan joined the mothers the same week for their 626th meeting on March 25. Buldan is a member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The party has seen its two co-chairs — Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas — arrested on charges of spreading terrorist propaganda.

Yuksekdag was found guilty and lost her seat in Parliament. Demirtas was sentenced to five months in prison after being found guilty of insulting Turkey and state institutions. Those five months in prison mean he has been unable to campaign against the referendum.

Buldan is also one of the founders of Yakay-Der, or the Association for Solidarity and Support for Relatives of Disappeared Persons. The organization researches citizens who disappeared while in police custody and provides support for the relatives of “the disappeared.” Yakay-Der also helped research institutions reach family members and publicize their stories.

At the protest, Buldan spoke of the resilience of the historically Kurdish Sirnak province and one of its cities, Cizre. She praised those in Sirnak for not compromising their ideals of justice and freedom and ended her statement with a reminder of the disappeared Sanir, saying, “We did not forget Ahmet, we will not forget.”

Sanir disappeared in Sirnak in 1994. A little over twenty years later, Cizre residents were forced to take shelter in basements from a different kind of government threat. Instead of searching for “traitors” among the population, the government had the city under siege. The government claimed it was in the city to fight the PKK, but it was residents who felt the destruction.

Umit Efe of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey described the burning of homes, as well as civilians who burned alive while hiding in basements. Their findings resulted in the report 79 Days of Curfew.

When she talks about the siege in the southeast, which began toward the end of 2015, Efe connects it to the government’s actions after the July 2016 coup attempt. While denouncing the coup plotters, she describes the government’s even faster authoritarian lurch since then.

Efe mentions the dismissal of academics who had signed a peace petition that criticized the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the cancellation of hundreds of thousands of passports. In the middle of conversation she asks, almost to herself, “Where is the law?”

When the mothers meet, they are fighting for the legal recognition of the losses of predominantly Kurdish families. Attacks on public Kurdish identity go back to the very founding of the Turkish Republic, with the Surname Law of 1934 that tried to erase non-Turkish names, and the Resettlement Law of the same year.

The government could relocate those without the appropriate level of “Turkishness,” an ambiguous phrasing in the law that gave wide reign in its application. According to Joost Jongerden’s work in The Settlement Issue in Turkey and the Kurds, “the 1934 Settlement Act has been mainly interpreted and criticized as a law intended for the assimilation of Kurds by means of forced and collective resettlement.”

Despite the decades of abuse, Kurdish rights activists and politicians have soldiered on. But in the aftermath of the July 15 coup attempt, the government’s assault on pro-Kurdish rights organizations and individuals has left the Saturday Mothers as one of the few remaining groups of regular protesters trying to publically hold the state accountable for its long war.

Hafiza Merkezi, a human rights organization that focuses on Turkey’s history of forced disappearances, charges the government with forcibly disappearing 1,353 individuals after the 1980 coup. Over 1,000 families have no official recognition of whether their relatives were killed while in custody or where they are. Turkish courts have failed to hold members of the security forces responsible for these acts.

Tangled Stories

Leading up to their 595th meeting, the Saturday Mothers demanded, “Let Mehmet Ertak’s fate be told, let those responsible be tried.”

In August 1992, Ertak was sharing a cab home from his job at a coal mine in the southeast of Turkey when police officers stopped the taxi at a checkpoint. The police officers took Ertak into custody and brought him to the local police department.

Abdurrahim Demir, who said he shared a cell with Ertak for a little less than a week, described to the European Commission of Human Rights the torture Ertak and their fellow detainees experienced in police custody. Demir said security forces stripped and hung up detainees, subjecting a number of them to electric shocks. All detainees were regularly beaten and sprayed with cold water.

In the worst and final episode of Ertak’s ordeal, according to testimony given to the commission, he was taken to a “torture room” for fifteen hours. Demir said Ertak was brought back to the cell, but he could not speak and appeared dead.

After the prison guards dragged him out again, Demir remembered of Ertak that one of his shoes was left behind in the cell, a detail that stuck with him because of Ertak’s habit of using his shoe as a pillow when sleeping. Demir never saw Ertak again, and neither did Ertak’s family.

Ertak’s father, Ismail, asked the local authorities for any news of his son, still unsure of where Ertak was or why he was initially detained. Ismail applied to the provincial governor for information. Local police officers insisted Ertak had never been detained, first to the family, and later, in court.

Ismail contacted the local public prosecutor. With no news of his son and no one held accountable for his disappearance, Ismail kept pushing his son’s case. It ultimately reached the Supreme Administrative Court, who ruled the authorities had nothing to answer for.

After Ertak’s family exhausted domestic options, they took the case to the European Court of Human Rights under the advisement of lawyer Tahir Elci. Mehmet Ertak’s story is remarkable because it reached the European Court of Human Rights, but the beatings and torture appear in hundreds of Hafiza Merkezi’s recorded cases.

In the eyes of the Turkish state, Ismail had no case, as it would be impossible to determine what had really happened to Ertak.

Almost twenty years later, in November 2015, the pro-Kurdish lawyer who advised the Ertak family was shot to death. Elci was killed after calling for peace between the Turkish state and the PKK. Tahir’s brother, Ahmet Elci, speaking to Firat News Agency, accused the Turkish state and current government of targeting his brother. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke shortly after the assassination and used it to justify Turkey’s own war on terror.

When the Saturday Mothers meet every week to make visible the Turkish state’s past crimes against its citizens, it can’t help but evoke the current government’s attack on critics and heavy-handedness in the historically Kurdish southeast. With the government’s attacks on pro-Kurdish politicians ahead of the referendum, the sharing of inconvenient stories is even more important.

The entangled history of disappearances, government violence, and lack of judicial recourse leaves the mothers implicated in a history the current government would rather leave in the past. In court documents, lawyers arguing on behalf of the Turkish government label many of the disappeared as PKK militants or sympathizers, but these so-called militants were never tried.

Ozgur Goral, the author of the Hafiza Merkezi report “The Unspoken Truth: Enforced Disappearances” is not interested in alleged criminality. Rejecting any claim of wrongdoing on the part of the disappeared, she has said, “If you are a state you cannot disappear a criminal leader. That is what the courts are for.”

Attacks on Dissent

Less than a month after the failed July coup, Erdogan’s administration arrested at least 1,684 prosecutors and judges and disseminated a list of 2,745 names of those who would be suspended based on possible ties to the Gulen Movement.

The Gulen Movement is an Islamist movement led by the imam Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. It is also the group Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party hold responsible for the coup attempt. The Turkish government’s sweep of possible Gulenists from the bureaucracy quickly expanded into arrests of pro-Kurdish politicians and journalists from critical newspapers.

The government’s attacks on activists and journalists occur under the cover of the wide berth that comes with its claims of a union between the Gulenists and Kurdish guerillas. In the scourge of public officials, educators, and bureaucrats, the government conflated Gulenists with members of the PKK. It has made little effort to substantiate this allegation.

Citing the closure of pro-Kurdish rights newspaper Ozgur Gundem last year, Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner described a “clear broadening of the targets of the decrees of the state of emergency to target, not just people who are perceived to be supporters or sympathetic to Fetullah Gulen, but also to opposition-minded Kurds.”

Turkey’s current state of emergency laws allow for thirty days of pre-charge detention, the first five days of which detainees may not be permitted to meet with a lawyer.

Though a number family members made reports of missing persons to Amnesty International after the coup attempt, Gardner does not believe it to be of the scale of the disappearances in the 1990s. It would be a mistake to think of Turkey’s current state of emergency and move toward authoritarianism as simply a return to the past.

But Erdogan wields the newest iteration of the same state violence that disappeared the Saturday Mothers’ family members. And as arrests and dismissals from civil service positions increase, the number of people who can publicly fight for Kurdish rights is decreasing.

The Hoped-For Reconciliation

During the brief peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK from 2013 to 2015, information about government forces killing citizens with impunity emerged from indictments against a number of military leaders for crimes against the state. Recalling the cases, Goral said, “You were seeing the structure of the Turkish state’s disappearing apparatus. It is systematic.”

Hediye Duskun, a Kurd living in Turkey’s southeast, lost her husband through this very apparatus and recorded her story for Hafiza Merkezi. Duskun’s husband Abdullah was from a village near the city of Cizre. Duskun said her husband was frequently taken into custody as a result of military operations in the area. While in custody, he was tortured.

A press release by Buldan’s organization Yakay-Der claims that a few days after security forces took Abdullah from his home for the final time on April 16, 1994, a minibus driver told the family he had seen a lifeless body in the road in a village close to Nusaybin. The villagers had nearly buried the body before Abdullah’s mother arrived. They had only Abdullah’s clothes and watch to give to his mother, who confirmed they belonged to him.

Duskun’s eyes start to well up with tears when she talks about her loneliness after losing her husband. At that time she barely wanted to leave the house, but with no one to help support her she had to search for work.

Two years after her husband disappeared, Duskun filed a complaint with the Cizre Attorney General, claiming security forces disappeared her husband and later killed him. Duskun compared the state of affairs in Turkey in the ’90s to now. She said of the security forces, “At those times, they would kill. Now they imprison.”

In a video recording, which the organization translated from Kurdish to Turkish, Duskun pleads for the telling of her story and stories like hers. Speaking directly to the camera, she says, “Let us always stare you in the face,” adding, “Do not erase us. Do not forget us.”

Yakay-Der publicized the Duskun’s family story and similar stories of loss. But on November 12 of last year, the Interior Minister closed Yakay-Der’s Mersin branch along with 369 other organizations, charging the groups with links to terrorist organizations.

The list of closures also included the Batman branch of the Association for Development and Overcoming Poverty and the Van Women’s Association. A little over a month later, the Istanbul Yakay-Der branch also closed. A government decree closed another eighty-three organizations this January.

Hafiza Merkezi researcher Ozlem Kaya sees the government’s focus on closing the organizations as a sign of these groups’ strength in society. She says the government used the state of emergency laws to immediately stop their activities.

Kaya was forced to pause her field research in the southeast about two years ago. She says it is no longer possible for her to continue because of the state of emergency and the military operations near Turkey’s borders. She continues, “When you see the history of Cumartesi Anneleri [the Saturday Mothers], you can see how it is related to the history of state violence.”

Yet while organizations close around them, the mothers keep protesting. They represent the thousands of women like Duskun whose family members have disappeared. In 1995, when the group began to come together in Istanbul, a group speaking out against state violence could have never taken place in the Kurdish southeast amidst the continued violence. But in Istanbul, a movement could begin. The protests later spread through the country.

Ikbal Eren Yarici was protesting with the group before it was even referred to as the Saturday Mothers. She keeps her hair short and grey and speaks matter-of-factly about her brother. Yarici has a placard with her brother’s black-and-white picture on it and his name, Hayrettin Eren, across the top.

Eren is unsmiling, with a bushy black mustache. He appears to be looking straight at the camera, but with his black sunglasses it’s difficult to be sure. At the bottom the placard notes that Eren “was disappeared while in custody on November 11, 1980.” He was 26.

Yarici and the other protesters ask for justice from the Turkish state. She tells me they live in a country where citizens are not equal before the law and that the group is fighting for democracy in the face of “utter lawlessness.” Her participation in the protests is clearly not only about the disappearances, but also about how the government could at best allow, and at worst order, the murder of its citizens.

Almost forty years after her brother’s disappearance, Yarici does not believe there is a chance for justice during the current state of emergency. “There was already none. Maybe if there was a crumb [of justice], it was destroyed.”

Zeycan Yedigöl also lost a family member, her son Nurettin. In a video posted on the Saturday Mother’s Facebook page, Yedigöl says, “I’m very old now. I do not want to die before reuniting with my son. I want to bury my dear boy’s bones at peace in my embrace.”

In the short clip, she also recounts part of a conversation she had with Erdogan. In 2011, Erodgan was still prime minister, and he met with representatives of the group as a part of the short-lived peace process. The meeting produced a number of photos, but no convictions or official state recognition of the forced disappearances.

Sebla Arcan was also at the meeting with Erdogan. Arcan has not lost a family member, but she works with Insan Haklari Dernegi on the Commission Against Losses in Custody and has been with the protesters since the beginning.

After the 616th protest, Arcan sat in a nearby teahouse with a number of protesters. Her clear voice rang out through the din of chatting people and teaspoons clinking against the tulip-shaped tea glasses, but she spoke in hushed tones when she began to run through the state’s version of the Guclukonak Massacre, which Maside Ocak was taken into custody last week for discussing.

The state insists it was PKK militants who attacked the minibus, and it was publicly questioning this story that led to officers taking Ocak away after last week’s protest.

Arcan’s voice drops to a whisper as she starts talking about the state’s policy of violently targeting Kurdish communities in a systematized way.

Arcan rejects the state’s version of the death of Ocak’s brother. She says the administration of the state dominates the public memory; “the state shapes it to its will.” The mothers, on the other hand, are trying to find a space within the public memory for the forced disappearances. Or else, Arcan says, within a generation the injustices could be forgotten.


When Kaya conducted field research in the southeast, she witnessed the protests of the Saturday Mothers in Cizre. Her team’s research ultimately led to the report Holding Up the Photograph in 2014. She has been unable to continue field research in the area after the curfews began, prior to July’s coup attempt.

Kaya remembers seeing the mothers meet in front of the Cizre Gendarmerie Station. They stood directly across from a symbol of state violence and shared their memories.

Unlike the Istanbul protests, the women did not read prepared statements, but Kaya did notice the frequency and strength with which they emphasized the names of the disappeared and the perpetrators. She was conducting this field research during the Temizoz trial, which was a government move to address the country’s bloody decades during the unsuccessful peace process between the government and the PKK.

The retired Gendarmerie Senior Colonel Cemal Temizöz and a small group of military members who were stationed in Cizre were on trial for disappearing twenty-one men. Temizoz blamed human rights organizations, like Kaya’s, for distorting the truth. The court ultimately acquitted all the defendants in 2015.

Even during this peace process, distrust between Kurdish citizens and security forces remained. Kaya says that after the women finished their protests in Sirnak, the police would call a translator and ask the women to repeat what they had said. None of the police spoke Kurdish. The officers could not understand the women, but considered them dangerous enough to monitor. According to Kaya, the police would videotape the protests as well.

In September 2015, Kaya and her team returned to Cizre after an eight-day curfew ended. Kaya jokes that at the time they were only counting the curfews in days, not weeks or months. The Saturday after the curfews were lifted, Kaya saw pictures of the twenty civilians killed during that week placed alongside pictures of the disappeared.

The government disputes the number of civilian deaths, saying the military was targeting PKK militants. Of the protest that week and the juxtaposition of the photos, Kaya says, “It was kind of their way of stressing the continuity of this state violence targeting their right to life.”

Global Shifts

Erdogan’s move toward illiberal populism is not out of place in a global context. Nor are forced disappearances a Turkish peculiarity. The Saturday Mothers sit at the convergence of the Turkish past, an international present, and the continuity of state practices.

The complex connections between the Turkish security forces, the 1980 and 2016 coup attempts — one successful, one not — and Kurdish public identity come together in the Saturday Mothers. Their protests of past crimes are echoed in the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner 2017 report.

The report looked at Turkey’s military operations in the southeast from 2015–2016, prior to and after the coup attempt. It found cases of enforced disappearances, torture, violence against women, the destruction of houses and heritage, and the “severe curtailment of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression as well as interference with the right to participate in public life.”

The 1980 coup and its ensuing constitution allowed for the state of emergency laws in effect today in Turkey. While the Erdogan government has extended the state of emergency once again, the southeast was already under martial law for much of 2015.

Goral predicts another peace process in the future. She says, once the state has destroyed alternative carriers of Kurdish identity, it can return to working on a peace. This type of peace is predicated on the erasure of the mothers’ stories.