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Saturday Mothers-Turkey’s most persistent dissidents

Noontime, on any given Saturday, in Galatasaray Square in the central Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, you will come across the same vigil of ageing women holding red carnations. They also hold up photographs – faded portraits, from the 1970s and 80s, and it is only time they break their silence to give commemorations that the photographs come alive.

 

The gathering is known as the Saturday Mothers. It started on the same spot at the same time in May 1995 to remember relatives disappeared in the 1980s and 90s; the victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

On 24 August 2018, they were to meet for the 700th time; marking a new milestone in their 23 years of peaceful dissent in search of justice. To make sure the grim anniversary would not go unnoticed, calls for support for were widely circulated on social media under the slogan #BeniBulAnne (#FindMeMother) – a reference to a song by the late and celebrated Kurdish musician Ahmet Kaya. Relatives of the victims also took part in a music video shot for the occasion, a rendition of the song released the same year they began their protest and evoking all the emotions of the disappeared.

The protest did not go unnoticed, albeit not in the way anyone might have anticipated. Security forces were ordered to crackdown the Saturday Mothers’ gathering. Allegedly, it was Süleyman Soylu, the Interior Minister who personally gave the order. Heavy tear gas clouds were sprayed, and rubber bullets were directed against those attending the gathering as well as passers-by. The police used brute force to contain the demonstration. Some of the mothers and relatives were even taken into custody, and opposition parliamentarians who were attending the commemoration, were also targeted.

Interior Minister Soylu declared the Saturday Mothers to be “exploited by the terror organisation PKK” as he tried to delegitimise a peaceful demand for justice. Not only the mothers were deprived of their sons, but the state was now also depriving them of coping with their loss.

Echoes of Argentina

“Saturday Mothers” do not only consist of the mothers of the victims. Wives, children and other relatives of the “disappeared” gather with the mothers every Saturday, alongside human rights activists, a sprinkling of politicians, but most importantly many ordinary people – about a hundred souls in all.

The mothers of the disappeared themselves get fewer and fewer every year. Berfo Kırbayır died in 2013, age 105, having spent 33 years demanding news of her son, Cemil. He was taken into custody after the 1980 coup d’état and never seen again. Berfo said President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had promised her one wish in life would be granted: that she would see her son given a proper burial before she died. Her wish never came true.

The first and foremost demand of the Saturday Mothers is to find the remains of the disappeared and to discover their fate. However they also demand justice, thorough and proper investigations, and free and fair trials of the perpetrators. They also want a change in the law – to recognise the disappearances as crimes against humanity and thus exempt from any statute of limitations. Moreover, they want to see Turkey to sign the United Nations’ International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

The Saturday Mothers were, of course, inspired by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo of Argentina who have gathered for 40 years outside the presidential palace demanding justice and information about their children who disappeared during the 1976-83 military junta. However, the case that sparked the Turkish protest was that of a 30-year-old teacher, Hasan Ocak who came from the low-income Gazi neighbourhood of Istanbul, home to many left-wing and Kurdish dissident groups.

Ocak himself was not political. On the day of his, disappearance he told his family he would be home even earlier than usual for his sister’s birthday. His family never saw him again. They searched for him relentlessly, made enquiries at police stations and hospitals, but to no avail. Fifty-five days later his tortured body was found buried in an unmarked grave in a remote part of Istanbul.

The 1990s were dangerous times in Turkey. The conflict between security forces and Kurdish separatists the southeast of the country was at its most violent phase. Disappearances in what became known as the dirty war were commonplace. However, Ocak’s death was unusual in as much took place it full sight in the big city of Istanbul. It proved to be the final straw. A group of activists, the relatives of Ocak and others who had disappeared, barely 30 people, gathered for the first time.

Besna Tosun, the daughter of Fehmi Tosun who disappeared in the Southeastern town of Lice in 1995, recalls the first protest.

“I came to the first Saturday with great hopes and expectations, barely a few weeks after I lost my father. I saw myself how he was kidnapped, by whom and I even knew the license plate of the car they used. I came believing that I could tell all I know and that would be enough to find my father. I described in detail how my father was kidnapped, but returned home saddened. On TV, there were barely one or two lines on the news about the protest. It was a huge disappointment.”

Besna Tosun did not attend the Saturday protests for some years, but her mother Hanım has been present at every gathering. Hanım Tosun did not have it easy. She had to move to Istanbul with her five children who barely spoke a word of any language apart from Kurdish. They survived somehow; mostly with the support of human rights associations.

The crowd of some 30 people attracted more and more, attention and, eventually the media started to take notice. More attention also led to more pressure and even a police crackdown in 1999. The pressures surrounding the Saturday Mother escalated to the degree that they paused their gatherings for a whole decade.

The Saturday Mothers have received the International Hrant Dink Award an award presented to individuals, organisations or groups that are deemed to be “working for a free and just world free from discrimination, racism and violence, who take personal risks for achieving those ideals, who break the stereotypes and use the language of peace and by doing so give inspiration and hope to others”.

Pass through Galatasaray on a Saturday, and they will still be there.

Photo Caption: Saturday Mothers hold photos of their missing sons and carnations during one of their weekly gatherings in Galatasaray Square, Central Istanbul.

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