Monday, July 23, 2012

The KCK Trials--the Last Days (continued from previous post)

The lawyers talking to the press in front of the courthouse

I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone 'picked me out'.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) - 'Could one ever describe
this?' And I answered - 'I can.'
Anna Akhmatova
[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]

I kept coming back to this poem during the writing of these entries—and I thought, what would I answer to the woman’s question? What if one of the Kurdish mothers in the courtroom asked me, ‘Who can describe this?’ I’d think, someone can, but not me. My heart’s in it, but my blood is not, and that seems to make a difference in who can get at what this is like.
But then this is not the Stalinist years in Russia, and we are not suffering all that much on a day to day basis. Every afternoon in Silivri, we have been going from the courthouse to the beach or to the coast where there is a nice nargile café. There, we sit on bean bags and smoke grape-mint water pipe and drink tea. This is a summer resort for wealthy Turks. They had a parade on Wednesday, all international, in celebration of the ‘Yogurt Festival’. Texan square dancers marched behind some old Korean men doing a harvest dance, followed up quickly by some Serbian folk dancers. Turkish Pop Stars closed the night.
While we are doing all of these things, whole families sleep in the BDP tents on the ground among the flies and heat and dust (We stay in a comfy apartment with one of Delal’s college buds). The campers have no money for food so they have to eat what the party can provide—usually a pretty decent meal of fresh tomatoes (this area is famous for them) rice, bread, cucumbers, and water melons.
We cook for each other every night in the apartment—I made black bean burritos on Tuesday. Our host made meftune on Wednesday.  Curry another night.
Many of these people have blown all their savings to come across the country from tiny villages in Siirt and Şırnak. And they are the lucky ones who had the cash to blow—others were left behind. Some have relatives in our group of political prisoners with severe heart problems or serious cases of diabetes. No, we are lucky--the petty bourgeoise of the political prisoner relative set.)
On Wednesday, after the Yogurt parade, we repair to the nargile joint.
‘What do you think they think we do after the trial every day?’ my wife’s sister says as she lets out a draught of minty smoke. ‘This almost feels wrong!’
‘Maybe they think we ululate in grief and slap our faces.’
We ululate for effect and laugh.
‘Or beat ourselves with whips and wear hair shirts,’ I add.
The moon rises over the town and makes a splash of milk-white on the water. It’s utterly beautiful. We stay up till late doing imitations of one another.
The thing is—there is an anxiety that underlies everything. It’s like—while watching that moon rise over the glittering town, there’s someone raking their fingernails down the chalkboard. And it has been that way for a year. This is the thing I cannot describe—it’s like that thought on the tip of your tongue that never materializes. It’s why everything you do comes with a slight stomach ache, a last minute hesitation, why your nights are filled with dreams of concentration camps and round ups and jails.
I think this anxiety is all very run of the mill for my in-laws. This kind of anxiety is just part and parcel of life those Kurds who won’t say they’re Turks.
And then there are those that do. We have a young visitor with us this Wednesday night, a family friend still in high school and only 16 years old, come to pay his respects to Mamoste in prison. As we walk the boardwalk around midnight, a concert is blasting the entire town with noise from the portside.
‘I guess we Turks will always love noise,’ he says, or something like it. I don’t quite catch the beginning of this.
‘Well, maybe,’ my wife answers. ‘But just remember, we aren’t the same as all these people. We’re Kurds, not Turks.’
‘Not me,’ he says. ‘I’m a Turk.’
‘How so?’
‘I reject my Kurdishness.  I don’t want it.’
This is not exactly the most socially aware thing to have said to a group of people going to a political show trial every day for a family member imprisoned for fighting for Kurdish rights.
‘But you are Kurdish,’ we protest. ‘You can do what you want with it, but you can’t get rid of it any more than you can get rid of the fact that you were born a male.’
‘No, it’s a choice,’ he insists. ‘I don’t want to be Kurdish. I’m Turkish. That’s how I feel!’
I’d like to tell him that any true hater of Kurds won’t care what he chooses.  They’ll arrest him if they feel like it, or beat him up, or kill him like the guy in the bar in Ankara did when he heard a man singing a Kurdish song.  I remember the eleven year old girl who told me, upon learning my wife was Kurdish, that the only good Kurd is a dead Kurd. The 7th grader who, again, when she found out my wife was Kurdish, told me ‘you should be careful.’ The friend who told me the best thing I could do for Turkey was kill Kurds. ‘It’s just like killing chickens.’ The 8th grader who got angry at me because I said my wife came from the village of Conag. ‘Conag is not a Turkish word,’ he growled. The teacher at school—half American at that—who stopped talking to me because I said that Kurdish and Turkish weren’t the same thing.
‘You’ve been brainwashed,’ We tell our denying teen.  Of course, it’s true. He has had 12 years of nationalist schooling feeding him this mentality. He’s had classes in Ataturk’s thought and National Security where’s he learned about internal enemies (his own people) and the imperative of the unity of the nation. He’s recited every day of his school life the school-kid oath that ends ‘Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.’ Everywhere he turns, on the news, in the music he listens to, the magazines he reads, is the same message. 
‘No, it’s you who’ve been brainwashed,’ he retorts. ‘You don’t have to be Kurds either, but you buy into it. I don’t have to.’
There’s the rub.  I imagine that, at 16, the idea of ‘being Kurdish’ would give anyone pause in Turkey. I imagine that as you are coming out of high school, you stand at a fork in the road.  To the right, are fairly normal, fun filled days of going to concerts with friends, drinking beer by the water, trying to feel up girls, getting sentimental over rock songs, playing video games, reckless road trips, part time jobs and midnight swims in the Bosphorous.  On the left is what he’s seen today—a people always feeling victimized, camping out in shabby tents in front of a courthouse that’s arrested hundreds of their family members, political battles that go nowhere, people shouting at demonstrations and then getting tear gassed, guerilla war, anchormen calling you a splittist and a terrorist, exile from poor villages to ghettos in the city.  What teen looking for a normal life would deliberately walk down the left fork? I remember a quote from an interview somewhere.  ‘What do you do for a living?,’ was the question. ‘I’m a Kurd for a living,’ came the answer. ’If I hadn’t been a Kurd, maybe I would have been an engineer instead.’ In some cases, identity subsumes everything.
I listen to his arguments and make the silent promise never to send my children to school here. I think of a Kurdish girl I met in Nashville.  She was about 17 and running the register at her father’s store.  I asked her where her family was from.
‘Sırnak,’ she answered.
‘Oh we have an aunt there,’ I told her.
‘You live in Turkey?’
‘I went to Istanbul once. Fun city. There was some girl there, though. I remember telling her my dad was from there and that I was Kurdish. She said, ‘but Kurds are just a myth,’ and I was like, yeah okay, whatever. Who needs you…’
I want to produce a kid who can say breezily, ‘I was like, whatever. Who needs you?’
It reminds me of a story—a friend of a friend. Her grandmother was Lakota and grew up on the Lakota Reservation when it was definitely not cool to be native—brought up in white schools, assimilated. To this day, in her seventies or eighties she will not admit to being Indian. Her granddaughter—the friend of a friend—turned down a scholarship because she knew it would hurt her grandmother to hear the word ‘Sioux’ spoken out loud, even if it did mean money for college.
For the first half of the day, there is more droning through the indictment. At the lunch break, I see that little nine year old girl again. She’s wearing a red tank top and white shorts. She’s very chubby and manages to push past up security and stand at the railing of the lawyers section where she starts to blow kisses to the two women I assume are her grandmother and mother—one is much older than the other and wears a headscarf patterned with red and purple flowers. Both look alike. The little girl’s  fat ankles squeeze out of the white straps of her shoes.
We lunch in the BDP’s tent—it’s hot and full of flies. They buzz around the red slices of water melon. Our meal is had communally on the floor—a sandwich of peppers and kaşar cheese, chicken and rice, fresh tomatoes. It is very dusty today—clouds of dust roll in from parking lot on hard gusts of wind. The sound of power drills and hammers fills the air. There’s construction going on at the prison.  On TV the night before, an academic discussed the Assistant Prime Minister’s announcement that 196 new prisons would be built by 2017. 
‘This is way more than necessary to relieve overcrowding,’ he’d said. ‘It seems the government is clearly anticipating thousands of new prisoners, but who?’
After lunch, Judge Ali announces that he will now hear statements from the suspects and lawyers—‘talep’ he calls them, which means requestbut in the legal sense , is better translated as ‘plea’. ‘But only for those willing to give their pleas in Turkish,’ he adds. This is the day before the announcement of who will be released.
A husky woman with short hair stands. The mike is passed.  She explains in Turkish that she never really joined all the meetings that she was accused of joining in the indictment—and that the ones she did join were half-hearted and few and far between. There’s a collective intake of breath. They’re giving in. They’re breaking ranks. 
A man named Erdoğan Baysan rises and the mike passes to him. ‘I joined the BDP at a friend’s recommendation,’ he says. ‘But I never really attended many of the meetings.’ A frizzy haired student named İdil Aydınoğlu says that she was part of the women’s auxillary of the BDP but didn’t really attend the meetings.’ A young college girl named Büşra Önder says that she joined the BDP, yes, but couldn’t really keep up with the meetings with all her school work and her aunt getting cancer. She was Tunisian by heritage anyway. Kemal Karagöz says he was not so much a member of the BDP as he was the leader of the Alevi Association. He is Alevi first and foremost. (This is significant because it is a classic escape of many Zaza Alevis—we are not Kurds, we are Alevis) Another man, barely able to speak Turkish at all, says in a heavily Kurdish accent, ‘I would like to ask for release. Thank you.’ One by one, like dominoes. One or two, like Pervin Tunbul, feel the need to stand and make a kind of protest. ‘I don’t wish to defend myself like this,’ Tunbul says, but their voices are drowned in the pleas for release. And the odd thing is, they defend themselves by distancing themselves not from the KCK but from BDP—a legal political party in Parliament.  They have, subconsciously perhaps, accepted the court’s judgment that being part of the opposition is a crime. I can’t judge (goes the classic phrase before a withering judgement)—I have never spent 9 months in prison, what do I know? But I feel embarrassed for these people and sad—that they have been brought to this, begging for the freedom after doing nothing to deserve losing it. 
Then Büşra Ersanlı stands up. 
Her voice is quivering with emotion—rage, sorrow, despair?  It’s hard to tell. She speaks about her academic record, her years of fighting for peace and equality—her absolute insistence on discussion and dialogue and non-violence.
‘I became a member of the BDP because of a desire to make a contribution to an opposition movement that offered a solution. I don’t regret that now. I feel ashamed of the word ‘request’. I don’t ‘request’, I demand my acquittal!’
I want to stand up and applaud (but that will get us kicked out of course). The silence that follows is ominous. A lawyer stands up and says, ‘The ones who can speak Turkish have a voice. What about the more than one hundred people who cannot? I again make the request that the other defendants be allowed to make their statements in Kurdish.’
‘Request denied,’ says Judge Ali.
And so over 100 people are silenced.
The last day of the trial before the summer recess. The day they make the announcements about who is released and who is not. We expect a huge crowd—over ten people are coming from our family alone, and there are 205 prisoners—so we set out at 8:00. The bus turns from the coastal road into the Silivri sunflower fields and I notice that absolutely every plant is in full bloom, a rolling sea of gold all the way down to the real sea. It is unbelievably gorgeous, and so strange that these plants have followed the progress of the trial so precisely—almost no blooms the first day, hitting full flower only on the last. 
The tanks are back, and the 21 troop transports.
We arrive over an hour early at the courthouse gate and find it already swarming with people.  At the gate itself are three lines of gendarmes in full riot gear and regular prison guards with Kalishnikovs.  More soldiers line the fence. They have blocked the doors to the building before, but never the gate.
‘There are no more visitor passes,’ the officer in charge tells us.
‘Liar!’ screams an old woman. ‘You’re lying!’
‘There’s no one in the building!’ says a portly mom.  ‘We can see that it’s empty from here!’
‘I’m sorry,’ says the commander again. ‘But each of the people inside has taken between ten and fifteen passes for members of their families, and there’s none left.’
‘Then make them give them back!’ a woman in a headscarf protests. ‘There should be a limit to how many each family can bring in! We all want a chance. We came all the way from Hakkari! Over 24 hours on the bus and we used all our money to come here. Are you telling us we should just go home!?’
The soldiers look tense. They tighten up their wall and raise their riot shields. They are fully armed with Turkey’s favorite weapons against its citizens—pepper gas and billy clubs. More people come pouring down from the BDP tents.
‘What’s going on here?’ they shout.
‘They’re lying to us! They say there are no more visitors’ passes!’
An aside here—my wife’s family often talks about random strip searches when they visit the prison, of harsh interrogations and harassment when there was nothing of the sort the previous time.  They say this is all the State’s efforts at psychological intimidation. I thought that maybe they were being a little paranoid, that maybe it was true that these random searches were, as the soldiers explained, part of the prison routine. I believed the commander when he said there were no more visitor badges because the few people we saw inside had commandeered them all.
I was naïve. For in the next second, the soldiers parted and we rushed the security desk to find over one hundred visitor passes unclaimed.
‘There are only a few,’ the officer distributing them shouted. ‘So each family can only have one! No more taking a dozen!’
So they were still sticking by that story. And this produced a mad rush of people pushing and shoving and trampling each other—who knew when they would run out or when the soldiers would decide to stop handing them out. After the madness and everyone had gotten their badge, there were still plenty left and any stragglers could pick up as many as they liked.
What the hell was all of this about? Why did they deliberately lie about something that didn’t really matter at all? And then change their minds? The ubiquitous Turkish disorder or something else?
Inside there were frisks and strip searches. I was checked more thoroughly than I ever had been—in fact, until today most of the security had been calling me ‘Enişte’ (meaning ‘Man married into the family’) and waving me through with nothing more than a ‘Good Morning.’
With about fourteen family members there that day and only four visitor passes, we were on rotations.  Four in to wave at the breaks and then four out so that a new group could come in and wave at the next break. I was with the first team in.
The previous day, the trial had ended with the lawyers making their pleas for the clients. Only three had been able to speak. The last one asked the judge for an hour’s extension.
‘Your honor, we request to continue until six o’clock today. There are two hundred and five suspects and we think at least five minutes for each one would be fair.’
In the Ergenekon trial going on just down the road, the judge had extended proceedings to 7:00 for the same reason just the other day.
Judge Ali, despite the precedent, despite the fact that he had been over half an hour late that morning, refused. And so now, this morning, we witnessed the absurd sight of over one hundred lawyers trying to speed-read their pleas before the noon deadline. I could understand nothing they said. They sounded like auctioneers. They are out of breath when they finished. I would have laughed if the consequences had not been so dire, but then, the end of this play had long been written—of that I was becoming more and more convinced. It’s not paranoia anymore, but a common sense observation.
After thirty minutes, my turn is through and I file out and hand my pass to an aunt. The rest of the day is spent waiting outside the gate in the sun. It’s over 90 degrees outside and windy. More than a hundred people squat in the dirt or in the middle of the road. The BDP’s tents are already full—there’s no shelter there.
Around 11:30, the commander abruptly announces that all women can go inside, visitor pass or no, and so they flood the courtroom—no seats, no place to stand even. The crowd pours out the doors and down the steps. The cafeteria, entrance hall, and restaurant are teeming with people waiting. We men hang outside the gate.  So the women are there at noon when the judge announces a break (again refusing extra time to finish the legal pleas).
‘The court will convene again at 3:30 or 4:00,’ he says, ‘Without any observers.’
Apparently (the girls tell me) when court adjourned and the suspects started to file out, the audience had once again burst into applause. This was their slap on the hand.
The heat was unbearable. I went with an uncle to a van parked outside the tents where we could at least sit in the shade. A pretty young woman jumped in with us, holding a cell phone.
‘Can I use your van to make a call?’ she asked after sitting down.
‘I’m from the IMC news team. I just need to call in an update on the story.’
It turns out that the IMC news channel has a few journalists among the suspects as well.
‘The government doesn’t like us very much,’ the woman explains. No wonder—they’re the best news channel in the country.
Eventually, Delal sends for me with a visitor’s pass (It’s my turn again) and I go to the courthouse and find her in a cafeteria packed with people. There’s nowhere to sit and barely anywhere to stand. People have been taking off their visitor cards, passing them through the fence to those without them, and then repeating the process until the whole place was crammed fuller than before.
3:30 came and went without any sign from Judge Ali. Delal and I decided to go out for some fresh air. We were crossing through the hall when suddenly the doors to the courtroom burst open and reporters leapt through the crowd and ran through the security check (knocking over tables) to get to their news vans. The crowd thronged toward the doors to see what was going on.
‘They’ve been released!’ Someone shouts.
The whole room erupts into an excited panic. Who’s been released?  I catch sight of that little chubby girl from the day before. She’s sobbing and holding onto a woman’s waist as if she might sink. Other  people are collapsing into their chairs, overcome with tears. Some are hugging each other.
16 people have been released on bond including Büşra Ersanlı, Zekiye Ayık (the old woman I spoke about in an earlier blog) and several of the people who had broken ranks yesterday and made pleas in Turkish. And though Mamoste was on trial for the same crime as Büşra Ersanlı, he was not among those let go.  We had not expected him to be. But still many of the family were crushed.  Clearly, some of us had hoped.
The trial will continue on October 1st. At first they told us that all the prisoners would be moved back to their original prisons—in our case, Kandıra—but now it looks like they’re staying in Silivri till the trial resumes. New security measures have been put into place that we’ve never had to deal with before—more harassment--the prisoners are being searched before every visit, and so far they’ve boycotted these visits in protest.  This week the trial of the KCK lawyers began in Istanbul--the lawyers of many of the people at Mamoste’s trial—in fact, many of the defense team went straight to their own case from the Silivri courthouse. They’re defending themselves. Meanwhile Erdoğan’s government continues to arrest people in the KCK case.  An academic on TV the other night estimated that over 11,000 people were now in jail and more on the way.
As for us, we are taking a break from all this. My next entry will hopefully have nothing to do with politics and will be something about music and travel in the Appalachians.

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