First, a Quick Turkish Lesson
One of the many perks of dealing with an oppressive government is how it expands your vocabulary. For example, who knew that there were so many words for prisoners? Thanks to the case against my wife’s dad and a visit to a prison, I now can distinguish between someone who is merely a göz altına alınan (someone taken into custody, but not charged) and a tutuklu (someone who has been formally charged but not yet convicted). Once you have been sentenced you become a hükümlü (convict with sentence) or more generally a mahkum (convicted). There are people hanging in between the tutuklu and the hükümlü status, and these indecisive sillyheads are called hükümözlü—someone convicted but waiting on their sentence to be finalized. Among the tutuklu, hükümlü and hükümözlü you have the adli (incarcerated for real crimes like rape and murder) and the siyasi (incarcerated for political crimes). It’s a lot like the Eskimos and their thousand words for snow.
There are over 8000 tutuklus from the Kurdish case alone at this point—an exact number is difficult to arrive at because there are new arrests every week. Just yesterday—June 28th—a court in Ankara charged 22 more people from the KESK, an organization of labor unions, then added another six this morning. Never mind the individuals not lucky enough to be arrested in a newsmaking group, like the one lone guy from Mardin on June 25th. There you are! 29 brand new tutuklus in just 2 days, and those are just the ones I can find on a quick search of the major newspapers.
I made my first visit to a Turkish prison on Wednesday, June 27th, 2012. My father-in-law, Kemal Seven, the man I call Mamoste, or ‘teacher’ in Kurdish, was transferred on Monday from Kandıra F Type Prison to Silivri L Type in anticipation of his trial. What in hell do these letters mean? An L Type prison is for lesser crimes—male drug users, the sign outside the wards explained, or handicapped convicts that other prisons cannot accommodate, or those with sexual inclinations deemed ‘unsuitable’ by the Ministry of Justice. Because the type of prison had changed, there seemed to be a chance for me to get in to see him, (as a foreigner, I am forbidden from high security F-Types) and so I decided to go with my wife and her aunt to the weekly visit.
It has rained hard the night before and Istanbul’s traffic was a greater disaster than usual. We left at 10:30 in the morning and immediately got stuck in a traffic jam just outside our house. We jumped into a cab to escape down the side roads and were caught at the intersection that led to the bus station. Once on the bus, we languished an hour and half on the bridge to get across to the European side. This was maddening—the visit was scheduled for 2:30. We had come about 10 miles in two hours and had at least forty miles to go. Our hands clenched into fists. We tried to sleep to avoid looking at the long line of unmoving cars.
We arrived at Silivri around 2 o’clock. The bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere among some rolling fields and farmland. In front of us, in the distance, we could see the flat blue-gray of the Marmara Sea. A rattling minibus sped by headed for the prison and we hopped on. It was crowded. I looked around at all the faces—each had someone locked inside. There was a young girl in a headscarf, a family with a little girl in pink bows and her toddler brother, a man with a bushy moustache, a guy with a tattoo on his arm that said ‘Darling Mother’. The minibus dropped us off about ten minutes later at the prison gates. The dirt parking lot was full of other minibuses and a woman selling tea and gözleme out of the back of a white truck.
The first guard waved me through without even looking at my ID. Delal asked if foreigners were allowed to visit prisoners, and he just scowled and barked, ‘Of course they are!’ We walked up a long drive to the main building. For the first time, I started to think that I might actually be let in. We passed through the second security check—I handed in my cell phone and walked through the X-Ray machine. On the other side was a cafeteria, a waiting room, bathrooms, and doors to the busses that took you to whatever wing of the prison you needed to go. We boarded a bus and started up the roads that wound through the prison walls.
High, smooth white walls with water stains—flat concrete broken only by guard towers. Behind the walls, we could see the wards, block after block topped with red roofed tiles. ‘This place is more relaxed than Kandıra,’ Delal said. ‘It’s almost like visiting a high school.’ We pulled into the parking lot for our ward, number 2 if I remember correctly. There was a high wall, a guard tower, and a pea-green building to process the visitors.
From the prison all you could see was farmland. Wind rolled in across the planes and whipped at our clothes. As I walked toward the green building, it seemed like it was going to happen. I was actually going to get in to see him. Unexpectedly, my eyes watered up and I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. To be frank, I had been nervous about the whole day. What if they did let me in? I never did have an easy time talking to my father-in-law. I always got so nervous around him and sometimes his more academic Turkish really taxed my language skills, and what in the world do you say to someone who’s been locked up as a political prisoner for months anyway? And yet, just meters away from the doors, I was overwhelmed with this need to go see him. All the tension, all that waiting that had been locked inside since October started shaking loose. I smiled.
‘Can you imagine being brought here to stay?’ Delal said to her aunt. ‘What an awful feeling that would be?’
The officer in charge took our ideas. Behind him was a waiting room colored bubble gum pink with fake white plants at the end of rows of pink chairs. He looked at my passport and asked who I was. ‘Son-in-law,’ I explained. Delal handed him our marriage certificate. ‘No foreigners are allowed without permission from the prosecutor’s office,’ he said and handed back my passport. ‘The rest of you need to be searched.’
And so after passing through all those doors, the last one was closed and the waiting resumed. Delal and her aunt went through search after search that led her to retract her statement about things being more relaxed here. I got the news when they came out—conditions were a little better. No isolation wards—they slept in three person bunk beds and during the day stayed in a cell with 15 people. Things were at least more social, more communal.
The trial would start next week, right here at the prison. (Weirdly, Silivri is holding it's International Yogurt Festival the same week). We have no idea what will happen. Will we get to go in the courtroom? Will he stay at Silivri long enough afterward for me to get the required papers and get into see him? It will begin with the mandatory reading aloud of the 3000 page indictment on Monday, July 2nd. This is an odd date to choose for the beginning of a trial against Kurds—it’s the anniversary of the burning down of the Madımak hotel and the deaths of some 33 journalists and writers. The fire was an attack against Alevis—many of the prisoners, including Mamoste, are Alevi. It will end on July 13th when the judges go on their summer vacation. And then what? It’s a big terrifying blank for us.