Following a recent visit to Istanbul, Ali Has writes:

The Saturday Mothers (Cumartesi Anneleri) is a group who gathers 12pm every Saturday for half an hour at Galatasaray (district), Istanbul (Turkey), holding photographs of their “lost” loved ones. Mainly composed of mothers of victims, and renowned as a model of civil disobedience, they combine silent sit-in with communal vigil as their method of protest against the forced disappearances and political murders in Turkey during the military coup-era of 1980s and the state of emergency rule of the 1990s. In September 2018, they held their 700th sit-in protest, which was violently disrupted and has not been allowed since. But decide to disrupt and ban this peaceful protest now? It would appear that with the addition of former Turkish prime minister Tansu Ciller during the 1993-1996 and the then chief of police for Turkey Mehmet Agir in the current political arena alongside the ruling government that the banning of this protest is a gesture of good will or a “wink of the eye” aimed at appeasing them. Indeed, it is largely believed that it was at the direct orders of the two said actors or on their watch that most of the disappearances were ordered and occurred. 

I was fortunate enough to be able to arrange and meet two ‘Saturday Mothers’ protesters and a member of the organising initiative at the Human Rights Association when last in Istanbul along with my colleague Margret Owen. Having returned to London, despite the protest being one of the longest lasting civil disobedience protests in Turkish political history, I noticed that it does not have any online presence. We were only able to meet with two of the directly affected victims, a mother and a sister of two of the disappeared due to time constraints. I have therefore decided to write up the two stories that we listened. Below is one of the stories;

1) The story of Hanife Yildiz (a Saturday Mother pictured below); mother of Murat Yildiz, disappeared in 1995.

Murat was a 19-year-old young man who lived with his mother and father in their family home in Izmir, Turkey. Sometime in January 1995 Murat had travelled to Istanbul. Whilst Murat was in Istanbul it is said that he was present at a café, when shots were fired. It is not known whether in fact such an incident occurred.

Meanwhile in Izmir police officers attend Murat’s mothers place of work and tell that she must attend the police station with them. She is duly escorted to the police station when she is made to sit in a corridor for hours. She stated that during her wait, she witnessed the sounds a young man screaming from the torture he was being subjected to. After a while the police brought out a young man, whom she did not know not recognise. He had been severely beaten and clearly subjected to torture. The police were effectively carrying him between themselves by his arms. The young man was placed into a room, in which Murat’s mother was also escorted to. They asked if she knew the young man to which she replied no, that she did not. The young man also confirmed that he did not know Murat’s mother and or recognise her. She is to later find out that this young man is fact friend of her son, Murat.

After this encounter, Murat’s mother is placed into an interrogation room and questioned about the whereabouts of Murat. She states to the police that as far as she is aware Murat is in Istanbul and that he had not yet returned to Izmir. The police tell her that he has in fact returned and that he should hand himself into the police. She is confused and does not know what is going on. She informs the police that had he returned she would know about it and that she did not know if he had returned. There would be no where else for him to go apart from home she tells the police. The police state that they do not believe her, that she is aware of Murat’s whereabouts and that she should hand him in, that he cannot run away from them. She is threatened that her son will end up like the young man she had witnessed being tortured if Murat does not hand himself in. She is then released from the police station.

After a few days whilst she is at work, police officers attend her place of work once again. They request to go to her house for the purposes of searching it for Murat. The police take her home and search the house at length. With Murat nowhere to be seen, she is taken to the police station once again. At the police station she is spoken to by a senior police officer who explains to her that if Murat were to hand himself in that he would not get a lengthy sentence, and that he would get a maximum of six months. She is reassured that Murat’s alleged offence is not considered serious as its merely shooting in the air. She is told that the longer he is on the run the worse it would be for him. As a result of this she makes contact with Murat though his friends. This takes a few days.

Murat informs his mother that he would not hand himself in as he was scared that the police would torture him as they had done with his friend. After a few more days Murat re contacts his mother and explains that he wanted to hand himself in but in the presence of a lawyer. He therefore asks him mother to find him a suitable lawyer for them to attend the police station with in order to prevent the possibility of him being tortured. Murat’s mother duly contacts a local lawyer and arranges to see the lawyer at his offices. The lawyer also confirms that the circumstances of the allegation are such that Murat would only be liable to a sentence of six months and no more given that no life was endangered. They then arrange to meet Murat outside the police station along with one of Murat’s cousins so that he can hand himself in.

Murat turns up with along with his cousin and meets his mother and the lawyer. They enter the police station and he is questioned briefly in the presence of his lawyer. After some time, the police ask Murat for the whereabout of the ‘gun’ that he is said to have carried and fired. Murat states that he is not aware of any gun and that he did not know where it would be? As a result of this Murat is told that he would have to be kept for slightly longer. His lawyer, mother and cousin are told to leave the station. Murat’s lawyer informs his mother that he would go to see the prosecutor to see if he was able to do anything about it. The prosecutor informs him that if the police want to know where the ‘gun’ is that they could keep him for longer. As a result, Murat’s lawyer and mother leave the station. There is no further news of Murat throughout that day.

The following day Murat’s mother makes some enquires over the telephone and is informed that Murat would not be released yet. No further information is given to her. She therefore attends work and simply awaits to hear back from them. At around 1:30pm on the same day police offices attend her place of work once again. She is asked to come outside where the police car is. In the car is Murat. She briefly sees Murat who has been severely beaten and effectively tortured throughout the night. During the torture he has allegedly confessed the knowing where the gun is located and that he could show it to the police officers in Istanbul. For this reason, the police were arranging to take Murat to Istanbul. The officers where asking Murat’s mother for the costs of taking him to and from Istanbul. Fearful of his welfare Murat’s mother duly gives the officers around 4000 Turkish Lira’s, thinking that this would mean his safe return. The officers then leave with Murat in their car.

Approximately 3 days had passed and due to there being no news of the officers and Murat, his mother decides to call the police station. The response she gets is that they had not yet returned from Istanbul. On the same day she meets with Murat’s cousin and they decided to attend the police station in person on the following day. Similarly, on the following day, they are given no further information as to Murat’s whereabouts. On the same evening, Murat’s cousin attends her house and informs her that he had spoken to the police and that they seem to be suggesting that Murat had escaped from the police by jumping off a ferry boat whilst crossing the river and that the police had seen him make good his escape i.e. that he was alive.

As a result of this information, Murat’s mother confirms this with the police station and they state the same thing; that Murat had escaped by jumping off the side of the ferry boat whilst he had been allowed to use to the toilets.

In the meantime, there was no news of Murat. He had not been in touch with anyone including his mother. Concerned for his welfare, Murat’s mother and family decide to go to Istanbul to find out for themselves as to what had happened. They speak to the coast guards whom confirm that the police had self-reported the incident to them. But crucially, there were no eye witnesses to the incident, no incident log had been filed with the ferry boat crew concerned and no reports of any such incident existed on the ferry boat. Whereas ordinarily, if such an incident where to have occurred the boat would be required to stop as a matter of protocol and search and rescue team missions would be undertaken.

The last time in fact that Murat would be ever be seen again by his mother was in the police car having been severely beaten and tortured. It is not known in fact if he was in fact ever taken to Istanbul or not. He’s body has never been recovered.

Murat’s mother saw the Saturday mothers protest on TV after its third month in mid-1995. She decided to take a picture of Murat with her to the protest and has been sitting with the protestors ever since.

In response to our question as to whether she was ok to explain her son’s story to us, she remarked with a clear lump in her throat that she had explained and re-lived these events hundreds of times and she would be ok to explain it once again. It was difficult to hide her sense of hope in us as interested foreign lawyers willing to listen to her. After finishing the story, she had to leave the room we were in tears and remained in the crying in corridor outside the room.

2) The story of Maside Ocak (Saturday Mother’s protester pictured below); sister of Hasan Ocak, disappeared in 1995.

Maside Ocak is the sister of Hasan Ocak who disappeared whilst in police custody in 1995. Maside and Hasan’s mother Emine Ocak pictured below on the right is one of the five mothers who started the Saturday Mothers protest after her son’s disappearance. This is the story of Hasan Ocak told by his sister Maside Ocak.

Maside is the younger sister of Hasan Ocak. Hasan was a teacher by profession. As a family they are Alevi’s by religion (a minority religion in Turkey) whom have been systematically persecuted within Turkey since the establishment of the republic.

Prior to his disappearance in 1995, Hasan had come to the attention of the police and picked up as a result of his leftist and socialist beliefs for the first time in 1987 whilst he was a student. He was kept in police custody for a period of 15 days at the time and subjected to torture. Hasan is warned by the police in 1987 that if he came back (to the police station), that he will not return. After this experience Hasan had qualified as a teacher at primary school level working as such. He was leading an ordinary life and lived with his family.

In 1995 there was a clash between the police and a group of leftist/socialist people of Alevi background in the Gazi Mahalesi district of Istanbul. This incident is referred to as the Gazi massacre amongst socialist as the police killed scores or people whilst the clashes continued for a period of days. The majority of the residents of the Gazi Mahalesi district are of Alevi background and it is believed that this is the reason why the police were readily heavy-handed during the clashes.

The incident had become so uncontrollable that the police were replaced by the military in order to control the clashes and end it. Whilst the clashes between the police/military and residents were escalating there was support for the protestors coming from outside in the form of rallies and vigils. As a concerned citizen Hasan had taken part in the committee responsible for organising the rallies and vigils, the aim of which was to exert pressure on the government to peacefully end the clashes without any further casualties.

During one of the rallies, there was a person whom had taken part in the rally known as Suleyman Yeter who was acting suspiciously and trying to provoke the crowds to attack local mosques etc in order to escalate the clashes and violence. The aim of the said provocateur was to escalate the violence into a civil inter-religious clash and therefore provide justification for more deaths and violence.

Hasan and his friends organising the rallies, had noticed the provocateurs intentions and immediately stepped in, pulled him to one side and searched him. They found that he was in fact a member of an ultra-fascist right-wing group. As a result of this, they handed him to the police by escorting him to the organising committee who in term handed him to the police station.

After this incident and a few days later, Hasan had left work and was on his way back home. He had contacted his mother to see if she needed anything being picked up. Hasan in fact never made it home that evening. Eye witnesses confirmed that he had been picked up by police.

Because of the unusualness in Hasan’s lateness coming home, his mother and sister and other family were naturally worried. As a result, they started to contact friends, family, local police stations, prosecutors’ offices and hospitals etc. However, he was nowhere to be seen. They continued searching and enquiring with police stations, prosecutors’ offices and hospitals etc throughout the proceeding’s days and weeks. The police denied he had ever been arrested and prosecutors stated that they were not aware of his detention.

Then exactly 58 days later after his disappearance, Hasan’s lifeless body was found by a passer-by in a local cemetery for the homeless. He had been severely tortured, killed and his body had been dumped in the cemetery.

This was a traumatising event for Hasan’s mother Emine Ocak and his family and friends alike. 10 days after Hasan’s lifeless body was found, the Saturday Mothers protest was started and both his mother Emine Ocak and sister Maside Ocak have been sitting at the protests ever since.

Emine Ocak is now 82 years of age and Maside Ocak is aged 43 years. At the 700’th sitting of the Saturday Mothers protest it was as result of the attack on 82-year-old Emine Ocak that violence broke out between the protestors and the police. Emine Ocak is seen being held by police in the second picture below and Maside Ocak on the left of the first picture.

During the violent interference by police to break the protest, 47 members of the protest are dragged on the floor and placed into various police vans. They are handcuffed, taken to the police station where they are made to wait in the van’s for more than 10 hours in the boiling heat and without food or drink. They were given water only once during this period. They were thereafter all realised after being questioned by the police.

Emine Ocak stated to the police “you have taken my children, you will take me too” and refused to give in to the violence.

According to the Saturday Mothers initiative, there are a total of 1200 applicants who have made reports of disappeared loved ones to the Human Rights Association. I wish it was possible to trace and tell the story of each individual for all the victims concerned.