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Turkish families mark 600 weeks of despair and searching for their disappeared

Mothers who have waited decades for information about disappeared loved ones see little hope of justice under current government
Mothers gathered on Istanbul's Galatasary Square on Saturday to call for justice for their disappeared loved ones (MEE/Suraj Sharma)

ISTANBUL, Turkey More than a thousand people gathered under the wary eye of the police on Saturday to mark the 600th weekend of silent protest and their continuing quest to obtain information from the authorities on the thousands of political activists who have disappeared while in state custody over the years.

More than 1,200 cases of such disappeared persons have reportedly been filed with the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD).

Most of the disappearances occurred after the military coup of 12 September 1980, and many families are yet to receive any information about the fate of their loved ones.

Maside Ocak was among the first people to stage a silent sit-in on 27 May 1995. She chose Galatasaray Square on Istanbul’s iconic Istiklal Avenue as the venue for the sit-in.  

She has attended almost every Saturday sit-in since. The local media started calling her and those who joined her the Cumartesi Anneleri (Saturday Mothers). The name stuck, and their numbers have grown over the years. 

Currently there are at least 150 families in Istanbul alone who have had family members disappeared, according to Ocak, and thousands of people who support their quest to get answers about those disappearances.   

Ocak’s brother, Hasan, was disappeared on 21 March 1995 and his tortured body was found 58 days later in a graveyard for the unclaimed. The state had denied they had him in custody for the entire duration of his disappearance.

(MEE/Suraj Sharma)

“A lot has changed over the years and yet very little has changed,” Ocak told Middle East Eye. “It is telling that we mark the 600th week in the midst of a state of emergency.”

A three-month state of emergency was declared on 20 July after the botched military coup attempt against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the initial years the group faced police attacks at almost every gathering, forcing them to abandon their protest for a few weeks on 13 January 1999. They resumed their silent sit-in on 31 January 1999.

Ocak said the Saturday Mothers have not faced any police violence since 1999 - they now assemble for 30 minutes every Saturday and hold up photos of their disappeared loved ones.

But the Saturday Mothers have not been unaffected by violence. Many of the group’s supporters have been killed in two attacks since last year.

Some, she said, were killed in a bomb attack that hit the town of Suruc last July, killing 33 people, while many more lost their lives during the Ankara bombing of October 2015 that killed more than 100 people, making it one of the deadliest attacks in Turkey's history.

No political affiliation

Ocak said the Saturday Mothers had been left alone since 1999 because they have no particular political affiliation.

“We are just people who have had loved ones disappear and are looking for answers and explanations,” she said. “The political views held by grieving families and supporters don’t matter. We want justice for everyone and say that everyone needs to fight for justice.”

The Saturday Mothers were filled with hope that they would achieve closure and justice would become the key word during the early years of Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule, as the country was placed on a course of democratic reforms and transparency.

Those hopes have dissipated in the last few years, as they sense a reversion to the mindset embraced by the military junta of the 1980s.    

Mikail Kirbayir, 65, is also a regular at the Saturday Mothers sit-in. His younger brother Cemil was taken away while living in Ardahan in 1980. Over a quarter of a century later, his family still doesn’t even know where his grave is located.

(MEE/Suraj Sharma)

“Nothing has changed. The same 12 September 1980 mentality still exists,” Kirbayir told MEE. “Cemil was an idealistic 26-year-old with absolutely no criminal involvement.  He was rounded up by soldiers on 13 September 1980 and taken to a prison in Kars. All officials refuse to say what happened after that.”

Kirbayir said there was some hope a few years ago when even parliament investigated his brother’s case and concluded by admitting that he had been killed while in state custody.

“But that’s that. It stopped there. There was no follow up and no one even provided any answer after that,” he said.

Kirbayir started attending the Saturday Mothers sit-in in 2001 after he retired. He couldn’t attend before because he was a state employee.

“Now all we want to know is where Cemil’s grave is, just to be able to lay a flower there. Even that is too much for them to grant. They even deprive families of such a basic right.”

Inspired by Argentina’s plaza de mayo mothers - an organisation of the relatives of victims of Argentina's military dictatorship -  Ocak holds out hope that their own vigil will also result in change and some form of closure similar to what led the plaza de mayo mothers to end their marches and say that “the enemy isn’t in the Government House anymore.”

“We can only hope. All we want is justice for our loved ones and for such disappearances to never ever be contemplated again. I think we will succeed eventually,” said Ocak.

Kirbayir is more pessimistic.

“We have been trying for 600 weeks now. We will have to try for another 600 weeks and even until our dying breath because I don’t think we will be able to change this mentality any time soon.”

Speaking at the sit-in, the daughter of a Saturday Mother from the 1990s said: “We should not let fear stop us from asking questions."

"We have to respect our mothers and their memories who despite violently being dragged off this square in the 1990s kept returning every week to demand answers.”    

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