Skip to main content

The Long Read: Where Are Turkey’s Missing?



Caleb Lauer*, The National 

Portraits rest in 200 people’s hands. In colour or black and white, they are the faces of men, some boys, some women, most with names, many with dates — 1994, 1996, 1980. They are portraits of Turkey’s forcibly disappeared. Holding them are their mothers, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and friends.

Red carnations decorate a black banner on the pavement. White words ask “Where are the missing?” and declare “The perpetrators are clear” — deriding the cliché that those who forced the disappearances are unknown.

Twenty years have passed since the “Saturday Mothers” — also known as the “Saturday People” — first gathered at noon, May 27, 1995, here in front of central Istanbul’s Galatasaray high school. Twenty years have passed since they last had news of their loved ones.

In the old days, the Saturday Mothers were beaten by police and arrested. Today, they are ignored.

By half noon the gathering concludes. “We will be here again next week,” a spokesperson declares. They pile the portraits, roll the banner and collect the carnations. Friends and family embrace and soon slip away, off Istiklal Avenue through a tight, sloping alley lined with cheap jewellers leading up to a backcourt tea garden, set out on cobblestone under awnings.

“I found my brother’s body. But there are thousands of families, brothers and wives who haven’t found anything,” says Hasan Karakoç, 48. He takes a long-kept piece of notepaper from his wallet. It lists his older brother Rıdvan’s dates: Disappeared from Istanbul on February 20, 1995. Probably killed on March 1. Blindfolded body found on March 2 in a forest on Istanbul’s outskirts by a man collecting firewood; after an autopsy the body was buried in a cemetery for the unidentified. On May 28, 1995 the Karakoç family learnt of the burial — essentially by chance. The coroner’s report, Karakoç says, indicated that Rıdvan’s captors had broken his teeth, electrocuted him, and lacerated his entire body. They dislocated his shoulders — most likely by strappado, tying his hands behind his back and suspending him from his wrists. Then they strangled him. Despite such indications, authorities launched no investigation and did not identify the corpse.

“Rıdvan had been arrested twice before and they had his fingerprints on record,” Karakoç says. “They knew exactly whose body it was.”

Up to 2,000 people are believed to have been forcibly disappeared in Turkey after the 1980 coup d’état, Turkish human rights groups say. About 450 cases have been confirmed. “Enforced disappearances” — defined in international law — have been seen in civil conflicts around the world. They aim to terrify. Typically, victims are detained by people claiming state authority. Blanket denial, zero information and blocked investigations follow. Sometimes a corpse is found, often not.

In Turkey, disappearances peaked in the 1990s during the most intense years of the three-decade conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces. Contemporary Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports give a sense of the times.

In 1992, for example, 13 journalists and four distributors of a Kurdish newspaper were assassinated; 74 people were killed in police and army led “house raids” — HRW alleged that these were “deliberate executions”; three children died in police custody — suicides, police said; 296 villages were “destroyed”; and 23 villages were under a “food embargo”. HRW noted that the US government “congratulate[d] Turkey on its ‘use of restraint’ against the Kurdish population during Nevroz [1992], when government troops shot and killed at least 91 peaceful demonstrators”.

Enforced disappearances happened mostly in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south-east — under emergency rule at the time — and in Turkey’s major cities.

“The state was denying it. The mainstream media wasn’t covering it. And the universities were silent,” says Sebla Arcan, spokeswoman for the Commission Against Disappearances Under Custody at Turkey’s Human Rights Association, and who has been with the Saturday Mothers from its first days. “News that so many young people were being disappeared was not reaching the public.”

On March 12, 1995 in Gazi, a predominantly Alevi neighbourhood in Istanbul, there were simultaneous drive-by shootings against several cafes. Thousands gathered to denounce the attacks. Police opened fire on the demonstrators. The government imposed martial law. After four days, more than two dozen people — mostly Gazi locals — had been killed.

Hasan Ocak, whose sister Maside Ocak described as a leader of the Gazi demonstrations, and claimed by Turkey’s illegal Marxist-Leninist Communist Party, was forcibly disappeared on March 21, 1995.

Hasan Ocak’s body, comprehensively tortured and ultimately strangled, was found on May 15, 1995 in the same cemetery for the unidentified as Rıdvan Karakoç. (It was the Ocak family that noticed Rıdvan’s photo in the graveyard catalogue.)

The Ocak family, friends and families of five other disappeared people, and some human-rights activists — about 30 people in all — decided to launch the Saturday Mothers, modelled after the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Argentine group that protested against disappearances committed during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s and 1980s. Unions, bar associations and other groups offered support and soon crowds of thousands were gathering at Galatasaray.

“[There] is no question that it was [the Saturday Mothers’] courageous and determined stand that turned back the wave of ‘disappearances’ which reached a peak [of 518] in 1994,” Amnesty International said in 1998.

But by the summer of 1998 the Saturday Mothers were no longer tolerated by authorities. Support fell away and the group — now just core supporters — were clubbed and locked up week after week, Ocak says.

“The first tear gas used in Turkey was used on the Saturday Mothers,” Ocak says, laughing at a now almost ubiquitous feature of Turkish street politics. “My mother had deep purple bruises everywhere. Before they even healed it would be the next weekend and we’d get bruised again.”

In spite of police efforts to block off Galatasaray Square the Saturday Mothers persisted. “We’d get into a minivan and lie on the floor so we couldn’t be seen from outside. We’d come up a back road and when we’d reach the square we’d throw the doors open and jump out,” Arcan says.

“Within a minute we’d be rushed and the billy-clubs and police dogs would be on us. But it was still enough time to stand in the square, hold a carnation and have a photo taken.”

In March 1999 the Saturday Mothers called time. “There were bloodstains everywhere in the cells, and writing on all the walls. These were mothers who had lost their sons and people who had lost their loved ones. To be arrested every Saturday for 30 weeks while you are searching for your loved ones, and to be a witness to the signs of torture in those cells — it was intolerable,” Ocak says.

The Saturday Mothers would not return to Galatasaray Square for 10 years.

“In this land, denial is a state tradition. With denial and by refusing facts this country’s rulers reinforce their power,” Arcan says. “Whoever has had political power has created memory and history. In such history the oppressed have no place.”

In 2011, the prime minister (now president) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met with a Saturday Mothers delegation and according to press reports, promised action. The Saturday Mothers say there has since been no follow-up.

The government and the PKK are currently negotiating an end to the conflict. The PKK-affiliated People’s Democratic Party (HDP) said this year that “since the beginning of the [negotiation] process the problem has concerned the transformation of the state. The existing dominant state mentality has always seen this question solely as a means of maintaining power, which has led to it being the victim of violence”.

However, there has been no direct call for a reckoning with the past to be a condition of a settlement. Pervin Buldan, an MP and one of the HDP’s primary interlocutors with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, is also a founder of the Association for Solidarity and Support for Relatives of Disappeared Persons. Her husband, Savas Buldan, was forcibly disappeared in 1994.

The Saturday Mothers’ work — following investigations, registering disappearances, proclaiming victims’ histories and demanding accountability — is in great part an effort to strengthen Turkey’s historical and collective memory, Arcan says.

On April 25 this year, the Saturday Mothers devoted their weekly gathering to commemorating the centenary of the Armenian massacre, widely considered a genocide outside Turkey. Over a loudspeaker the spokesperson noted that the Nazis’ “Night and Fog” operation against the French resistance was usually said to mark enforced disappearances’ modern inception.

“However,” the spokesperson said, “the history of disappearances under custody started here, 100 years ago.”
The Turkish republic, founded in 1923, gave pride of place to the state and was, in many ways, a radical continuation of practices pioneered by its predecessors: social engineering, denial of identity and the right to life for the sake of the state, and a tradition of impunity for state actors.

“In Turkey the issue has always been data, the lack of documentation,” says Özgür Sevgi Göral, project director at the Istanbul-based Truth Justice Memory Centre. “We were always saying there’s thousands of people dead, but we don’t know who are dead, or under what circumstances they died.”

Documentation — the TJMC’s primary mission — is a vital element of “transitional justice”, the trials, truth commissions, museums and places of memory by which a country can reckon with its past, Göral says. Proper documentation involves gathering and corroborating press reports, investigation files and, perhaps most compelling of all, family testimony.

In 2012, Ayhan Isık, a TJMC researcher, conducted a Kurdish-language interview with the mother and brother of Ahmet Üstün, a man forcibly disappeared in April 1994. It is one of hundreds of interviews conducted by the TJMC, and a Turkish transcript of the interview was made available to me.

Üstün didn’t smoke and never wore a hat, his mother said. Born in 1967, he had completed primary school, and had no interest in politics. In his pocket he always carried his watch and a copy of the Yasin, the 36th surah of the Quran. “He had learnt all the Quran,” his mother said. “People around here still talk about that.”

Üstün lived in Cizre, a town in south-east Turkey, selling produce from his family’s village fields near by. By 1993 the family’s village had come under siege by Turkish security forces. “Every night they’d shell the village, and every night we’d go to the caves,” Ahmet’s brother Ali says. For months, the Üstüns defied army orders to leave.

A “major operation” was rumoured; the family feared the caves wouldn’t be protection enough. They left for Ahmet’s house in Cizre. The night they arrived, just 20 days before Ahmet’s son was born, Ahmet was taken.

“Three taxis [cars] came to the back of the house,” Ahmet’s mother Fadile says. Fifteen gendarmes, police and plainclothesmen searched room to room and demanded IDs. They put Ahmet’s ID aside. “I still remember him getting dressed, slipping on his socks, putting on his jacket … it’s always right before my eyes,” his mother says.

“They said if not that night, they’d certainly release him by morning,” Ali Üstün says. “We went out as far as the road. They had come in three white [Renault] Toros cars. They put him in the middle taxi.”

After days of demanding information, Ahmet’s now-deceased father was approached by someone peddling information. “We have no idea how much money my father gave this person.” The person said Ahmet Üstün had been killed after three days in custody.

“We have heard nothing since. Wherever a body turned up, we went and looked,” Ali Üstün says. “If we found just one of his bones at least we’d have a grave where we could go and put a rose.”

At least 1,000 enforced-disappearance investigation dossiers are languishing on shelves in prosecutors’ offices around Turkey, estimates Serap Isık, a lawyer and project coordinator of the legal studies programme at TJMC. “It’s when we ask for the file that they notice it. When they notice it, they write ‘non-prosecution due to the [20-year] statute of limitations’ and give it to you,” Isık says.

With “enforced disappearances” undefined in Turkish law, those cases that do go to trial are routinely prosecuted as isolated incidents of abduction and murder, and do not take into consideration indications of systematic practice, Ms Isık explained. These are just two obstacles among several.

But Turkish law could soon have a new precedent to follow.

The country’s constitutional court is set to rule whether the wife of Hasan Gülenay — a man forcibly disappeared from Istanbul in 1992 — has had her human rights (to know the fate of a loved one) violated by Turkey’s statute of limitations.

The TJMC, with six partner NGOs, succeeded in having an amicus curiae brief accepted by the court — a first in Turkey, Isık says. Citing relevant case law (from cases in Argentina, for example) the brief argues the widespread, systematic nature of enforced disappearances — laid clear by proper documentation — is an indication of state complicity in a crime against humanity.

If the constitutional court accepts this opinion, the statute of limitations would most likely be lifted and family and other testimony would be given more weight than in normal criminal proceedings.

It would be bittersweet consolation perhaps, a contrast to a general guarded-optimism-turned-disappointment of recent years.

In 2007, Turkish prosecutors began compiling charges against hundreds of active and retired army officers and others, a so-called “deep state” gang — called Ergenekon — for plotting a coup against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The “Sledgehammer” trial, begun in 2010, accused hundreds more army officers of plotting another coup. Several of the accused in both trials are considered by the Saturday Mothers, and others, as key suspects in many enforced disappearances. Turkish gendarme officer Cemal Temizöz and six others, including the former mayor of Cizre, were put on trial in 2009 for the alleged forcible disappearance of 20 people from around Cizre. HRW described the case as “one of the first credible prosecutions of security officials for serious human rights violations committed in [Turkey’s] south-east during the 1990s”.

“We actually started thinking these trials could be turned into a real prosecution of the ‘deep state’,” Maside Ocak says. It was the spark that took the Saturday Mothers back to Galatasaray Square in 2009. But the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer charges concerned only coup plots. Allegations of enforced disappearances and mass human rights violations, for which ample, credible evidence could have been marshalled, were excluded as the AKP set about its task of breaking the grip of the army in a move widely vaunted at the time as a step forward for Turkey’s democracy.

“Ergenekon was not a facing of the past or part of the democratisation process,” Arcan says. “Ergenekon was part of a power transfer.”

Although the government has taken control of the state from the army, rule of law is little better for it. The government’s one-time allies in the judiciary who led the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer prosecutions have become its main enemy; the prosecutors of these cases are thought to be followers of the US-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdogan has accused of trying to topple the government. President Erdogan has since sought to repair relations with the army. Sledgehammer convictions were overturned in March this year. All Ergenekon convicts were released last year. The last suspect in pre-trial detention in the Temizöz case was releasedlast month.

“I am a mother. I’m getting old. To learn my son’s fate is my most natural right,” says Hanife Yıldız, sitting in the backcourt tea garden. Her only child, 19-year-old Murat Yıldız, was forcibly disappeared in 1994. No body has been found. “The state has to face itself, acknowledge what it did, and apologise to me. [But] the state doesn’t recognise us,” Yıldız says. “We can’t explain this pain. It’s been 20 years. We’re done explaining.”

* Caleb Lauer is a freelance print and radio journalist who has been covering Turkey since 2006.