Over the last 50 years, serious regime changes have occurred in Turkey, including military interventions and counter-insurgency measures, that have been accompanied by gross human rights violations. Two historical periods are crucial in this regard: first, the 1980 military coup; second, the Turkish state’s response to Kurdish political mobilization in the 1990s. After the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) seized political power in 1980 to restore Kemalism and enable a transition to a neoliberal order, left-wing political figures were subject to a serious wave of repression, imprisonment and systematic torture. In this process, people were disappeared in various ways–some taken into custody and tortured to death, others simply disappeared by the “security forces” without a trace. State terror and violence, aimed at ensuring a docile and apolitical population, was employed against the Turkish and Kurdish left from 1980-84. While the Turkish left was suppressed by the military junta, the Kurdish movement began an armed struggle against Turkish military forces that mobilized millions of Kurds in the early 1990s. In response, the Turkish state launched a bloody counter-insurgency campaign against the Kurdish population in order to halt Kurdish participation in and support for the movement for Kurdish liberation. The wave of repression against the Kurds in 1991-1996 led to the disappearance and murder of more than a thousand Kurds supposedly affiliated with the movement. The state-sponsored strategy of disappearance has occupied a considerable place in the Turkish state’s repertoire of human rights violations.
Scope and Purpose
In a political regime dominated by violence and gross human rights violations, it was difficult to see how pro-democracy civil disobedience could have any serious political impact or attract widespread support. Nevertheless, on May 27, 1995, families of the disappeared and human rights advocates came together in front of the Galatasaray High School on Istiklal Street, a central boulevard in Istanbul, and turned the spot into a dynamic memorial site. They began a simple sit-in, like their Argentinian counterparts The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, as a simultaneous protest and commemoration that would be repeated every Saturday. Holding photographs of the disappeared, the protestors made two main demands. Their primary demand was concrete and reliable information on what had happened to their children or comrades. In other words, they were asking the Turkish state to release their bodies, while also trying to keep collective memory alive. Secondly, they demanded trials for unjust state practices, determination of the perpetrators of the disappearances and trials of those specifically responsible for their children’s disappearances, and an end to impunity for state officials. In this regard, the Saturday Mothers represented one of the first dynamic memoralizations in Turkish political history, as victims of rights violations who worked regularly and patiently to force the disappeared thousands onto the agenda of Turkish society. Moreover, the mothers of the disappeared began to engage in commemoration of their children not only in Istanbul, but also in Diyarbakir and Sirnak, where the number of people disappeared has been much higher than in other provinces.
On November 24, 2012, the Saturday Mothers organized their 400th sit-in protest in their usual spot. After the Saturday Mothers initiated their first sit-in protest in 1995, the number of people showing solidarity with the mothers’ struggle and demands for justice increased each year. The mothers’ struggle for justice was a reaction to state terror that targeted politically active segments of the society. The state’s response to these families’ demands at first was silence. However, as the social and political support for their cause grew, security forces began to police their protests, using violence on many occasions, even in recent times. Nevertheless, in recent years, after many years of silence, the Turkish government has at least begun to listen to the grievances of the Mothers. First, in April 2011 some of the mothers had the opportunity to speak before the Human Rights Research Commission of the Turkish Parliament. Although this political body does not have the power to initiate a trial of the perpetrators, it makes victims’ voices accessible to all of Turkey through the mass media. Second, in February 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to talk with the representatives of Saturday Mothers and listen to their stories of suffering and their demands for justice. Although the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the first party to take the time to hear the grievances and demands of the Saturday Mothers, in the end the only result was information about the cases of two people whose mothers were at the meeting with the prime minister. The information did not even include the whereabouts of the remains, but only the information that they had been killed. While they may increase public awareness of state terror against politically active segments of society, such discussions are unlikely to lead to trials of the perpetrators.
State repression and violence towards the Mothers has been one of the main challenges to their efforts to keep the crime of enforced disappearances in the collective memory of Turkish society. In 1998 the Saturday Mothers were forced to temporarily abandon their protests because of increasing state violence against the sit-ins. Also problematic is the fact that this dynamic memorialization effort has not been accompanied by permanent memorialization endeavors. This creates serious constraints. Especially in Istanbul, there is no concrete memorial site, such as a monument, museum or site of conscience, that specifically commemorates the disappeared. The absence of any permanent memorialization effort focusing on the cause of the Saturday Mothers differs from the approach of, for example, the Argentine mothers. Although the Saturday Mothers would like to see the police stations in which their children were disappeared transformed into “Museums of Shame,” no concrete effort has yet been made in this regard. The absence of such sites limits the ability to transfer the memory of state terror to new generations in Turkey, and thus the struggle to overcome impunity.