Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Purge In Istanbul Yesterday

On Friday morning, while I dressed for work and Delal made me breakfast, the police were ransacking my father-in-law’s house just blocks away. According to her sister, they took down every one of his books, flipped through the pages and dumped out anything found sandwiched between. They confiscated over a hundred CDs and DVDs. They plucked post-its off the computer screen, bills off the coffee table. Two neighbors were called in to serve as witnesses in accordance with a new law—both woken up at 5:30 to observe the proceedings. It was a tremendous blow to my father-in-law’s pride to have these strangers gawking at his humiliation.

‘He looked so crestfallen,’ my sister-in-law said. ‘I’ve never seen him like that before.’

‘One of the neighbors looked so scared,’ quipped my mother-in-law, ‘I bet she went out right after the police left and bought a ticket for Germany!’

My father-in-law Kemal Seven was one of forty-two people arrested on Friday morning, and while the police were civil at his house—calling him beyefendi (sir) and taking care not to break anything—in other parts of Turkey they kicked in doors and ransacked homes. The detainees are all members of the Kurdish-affiliated BDP party—all minor party officials and academics.  They were not all Kurdish either. One of the arrests was Professor Büşra Ersanlı—a sixty-one year old woman. She is distinctly Turkish, a liberal constitutional law professor and a member of the BDP’s constitutional commission—and therefore a person who could have challenged the ruling party when the new constitution is drawn up later this year. Another is Ragıp Zarakolu—a sixty-three year old publisher and human rights activist. All are charged with sympathies for ‘a terrorist organization’, namely the KCK—the supposed urban arm of the PKK.  This is only the latest round of arrests. The government has been chipping away at the BDP for a while now. Over 7800 party members have been taken into custody—from mayors to city council chairs to members of parliament.

 And my father-in-law is one of the smaller fish caught in this net.

 Delal waited to tell me till I got off work. We’d been planning to go to a concert but before that, she said, we needed to to stop by Aksaray, though she wouldn’t explain why over the phone. (I couldn’t figure it out—there was nothing worth seeing in Aksaray—just a mall and the Istanbul police station where I have to go every once in a while to renew my residence permit.) When I saw her at the ferry dock, I could tell immediately something was wrong. Her face was drawn and anxious and she couldn’t stop wringing her hands.

 ‘They’ve taken my Dad away,’ she said.

 I’ll never forget that ferry ride. I’ll never forget feeling so angry and helpless. We were heading into the great maw of the State to try and pull some tiny concession out of its jaws—and evidence of its power was everywhere. The red banner of the Turkish flag--the color had never seemed so aggressive--covered every building, boat, and bridge. Police filled the streets. The Turkish national anthem chimed all around us—people were using it for their ring tones--and the headlines of the newspapers being read by our fellow passengers raged about Turkey’s fallen ‘martyrs’. Looking at all those front pages, I felt like our allies were dropping like flies. Last Friday, the Prime Minister had met with all the news agencies in Turkey and made them agree to report on ‘terrorism’ as he instructed them, too.  ‘News will reach the subscriber by considering the social benefit and solidarity. The public order will be taken into account." In effect, the media willingly put themselves under government control. There was no longer any hope of truth or objectivity from the news—no hope from anywhere

 On the ferry, Delal held her father’s diabetes medicine in her hands, cradling it in her lap like a child might clutch a teddy bear. She thought they might let her in to see him if she had some sort of medical excuse. I got her tea, I held her hand, I hugged her as hard as I could. I tried to be any kind of comfort I could be. I hated seeing her look so small and lost, and I hated the people who made her feel that way.  

 The police station was a gigantic fortress. As we passed through security—I stared at the ten story Turkish flag hanging from the A wing just outside—next to it was an equally gigantic picture of Ataturk, and carved into stone at the building’s top floor were the words ‘How Happy is He Who Calls Himself a Turk!’ Never had these three symbols seemed so frightening—it all seemed to say, if you’re not Turkish, you are nothing. We were let into Ward C, the anti-terrorism department. They took the diabetes medicine, but would not promise to give it to him without a doctor’s note, which we didn’t have. A bushy-haired old sergeant manned the information desk. ‘Don’t be scared,’ he told us. ‘If anything happens, they’ll run him immediately to the hospital. It’s right across the street. We have heaters in all the rooms. We have pillows and comfortable beds. No one gets beaten or slapped around here anymore. They’ve passed laws against all that. He’ll be fine! And who knows? He might be released in just a few days!’

 ‘Can I ask you what they’re going to do with all the stuff they took?’ Delal asked.  ‘All the books and CDs and everything? Are they seriously going to look at all those things? It could take forever.’

 ‘No, dear,’ the old man answered. ‘They already have some kind of evidence or they wouldn’t have arrested him.’

 And the evidence is apparent in the newspapers the next day. A phrase taken out of context from a lecture by someone at the BDP Academy--‘We must make them see us as bombs,’ a teacher supposedly said in regards to the reigning party. ‘And we must see ourselves also as flaming bombs.’ They were speaking metaphorically of course, talking about building themselves into a political force to be reckoned with—but that’s not how the AKP is spinning it. The same tactic was used to condemn Hrant Dink five years ago—there was a line taken from an article in Agos about Sabiha Gökçen, the sentences before and after removed, and then pubished in the newspapers. It urged the ‘poison of the Turk to be cleansed from Armenian veins.’ The ‘poison’ Dink actually meant was the bigoted ideas that Diaspora Armenians have about Turkish people, the ‘cleansing’ was the need to put them aside before the two peoples can move foreward. But without a context, that was not apparent at all and Dink was assassinated a few years later by fanatical nationalists. Now the government is trying the same thing with my father-in-law and his colleagues.

 ‘He’s innocent,’ our aunt Cemile says later that night. We are having dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, the family gathered together to comfort one another. ‘They could be bugging us right now, but let them! Who cares? They’ll never find anything on him. He’s done nothing wrong. Nothing!’ She’s my father-in-law’s sister and I have never seen her like this. Usually she’s laughing and joking and passing around something she’s baked. Her face is swollen and red, now, but the tears won’t come. ‘I’ve never been able to cry like normal people,’ she tells me. ‘It all happens in my body. This morning my back gave out and I can’t walk—that’s where it hits me. But I still haven’t cried. I was like this when my mother died. Now they’ve taken my brother! People disappear in this country when they’re arrested!’

 ‘That doesn’t happen anymore,’ I assure her. ‘That was in the nineties.’

 ‘Every day you see on the news about some mass grave they’ve dug up.’

 ‘But all that was in the nineties.’

 She’s unconvinced. ‘So many people have disappeared and never been seen again.’

 Her brother, my father-in-law’s little brother, is nowhere to be found. He’s supposed to join us, but is mostly likely drinking somewhere. He has been profoundly shaken by his brother’s arrest. We can’t tell grandfather because of his heart condition—God only knows how it will effect him. And yet it’s inevitable that he will hear about it from someone soon. Cousins and second cousins are calling to find out what’s happened, everyone worried to death. I myself am afraid to publish this for fear it will make my own mother worry too much back in the States. And what do I know anyway? My in-laws have all lived through years that make me shudder—when assassinations of Kurdish politicians, no matter how smallfry were happening everyday, and going to prison meant certain torture and mutilation. It seems different now, but then this arrest seemed impossible just a few months ago.

 It’s Sunday morning, now, and all we know is that the court’s decision will come tomorrow. He will either be released or prosecuted. In the Western news and on Al Jazeera, there is nothing about the latest political purge. They have, instead, put up articles about a suicide bombing in Bingöl that killed three people. Delal and watched the news about the bombing on TV last night.

 ‘That doesn’t seem like the PKK’s style,’ Delal said, and I began to wonder, starting to be affected by the fear and paranoia, knowing that the media now works for the government, that everything is biased, that you can take nothing at face value—maybe this is a distraction? Maybe they did the bombing themselves to take attention from the arrests? I don’t believe this, but it’s the kind of thought that starts going through your head when you no longer have access to real information and everything you read and see in the news becomes suspect, and someone you love is now in the power of something much bigger than yourself that you can neither fight nor touch nor argue against without great risk to them and yourself.

 Hopefully he will be released tomorrow. There is talk that it’s all because of a BDP political meeting that was supposed to take place today—that they merely wanted to sabotage the meeting by getting rid of its members for a day. Out of the 7000 or so people arrested over the past two years, 3000 have been released. There’s a good chance.

 This will backfire on them in the end. I hope. I hope. Young people who have never been that political are angry now, like Delal’s little sister, who watched the police drag her father away for the first time in her life (she had been very young the other times). There’s an anger when she speaks I’ve never heard before. It’s like a whole new generation is waking up. My eyes are certainly starting to open.


What can you do, reader? I don't know. You can give me advice, because I suck at this kind of thing. My ideas are those of an amateur--forward this entry to anyone who might care. Twitter it. Facebook it. You could write to Human Rights Watch at Amnesty International at To your congressman or your parliamentary representative?  Maybe a letter like this,

'In the past few days, Turkish police have arrested 42 members of the opposition BDP party, mostly Kurds. This is a political purge that over the last few years has landed over 3000 people in jail on trumped up charges of terrorism. I am deeply concerned about the prisoners and their families and urge Turkey to release them as soon as possible.' 

I know it sounds cheesy but political pressure does work. I know Tibetans who told me their torture in prison ended after letter campaigns. I take it personally because it's my father in law now. I guess to most its just another set of numbers added into the world's list of butchered and abused.


Anonymous said...

I'm shocked. I honestly don't know what to say. Hoping all turns out for the best. Let us know when he's released.

Anonymous said...

Sadly it doesn't immediately help the shameful and outrageous situation that afflicts your extended family, but it seems that this state instigated thuggery is being directed towards 'friends' too:,1518,795423,00.html


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
J Gibbs said...

I removed the last comment at their request---as for the spiegel article--unfortunately I think the complaint against Germany is not entirely unjustified--they don't have such a great record (and I mean recently as well as in the past) with their own minorities. As I protest Turkey's recent actions I feel a certain despair--so many of the protests against Turkey's actions in the past come from some unsavory sources and severely cloud the issue.