CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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TURKEY: HUNGER STRIKE, FOR WHAT?

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Children playing in Kuchuk ArmutluThe place is beautiful -- overlooking the Bosphorus, it is surely one of the most beautiful panoramas in the world. But it is not for the scenery that people come to Kuchukarmutlu, a “gecekondu” (shanty town) built above the village of Arnavutkoy by a group of sympathizers of DHKP-C, an extremist organisation of the Turkish Left close to Dev-Sol. It is immediately obvious that this is no ordinary township: all the street walls are painted with revolutionary slogans, with DHKP-C’s emblems.

A Revolutionary Chapel

It is in one of these houses that half a dozen women and men are showing their solidarity with the 200 or so political prisoners on hunger strike inside Turkish prisons since last October. The hunger strikers are protesting against their transfer to F-type (high security) prisons. In Kuchukarmutlu their supporters follow the same regime -- a “death fast”  as they describe it. Already, four have died in this house: Gusulman Donmez (38), Djanan Kulaksiz (19), Senay Hanoglu (30) and Zehra Kulaksiz (22). Senay, the owner of the house, died after 160 days of fasting. Her husband, sentenced to three years and eight months in jail, is also on hunger strike in his jail, while their daughter, Pinar, aged 11, wanders through the corridors of the home she once shared with her parents. A home now converted into a makeshift revolutionary chapel of rest.

Zehra Kulaksiz, dead after 223 days of hunger strikeA red ribbon around her forehead, pale and emaciated, Zehra Kulaksiz, a student in economics, whom we met a few short weeks before her death after 223 days of fasting, was born in 1979 in Rize, on the Black Sea. She looked like one of those virgins of the Middle Age, portrayed by painters through the centuries, smiling serenely while mounting their own funeral pyre. Weak with the effects of food deprivation, Zehra could hardly walk and barely moved from her bed in the room she shared with Hulya Simsek (38), another faster. Remembering her younger sister, Djanan, who died on 15 April 2001 after 137 days of fasting, Zehra was determined to go on fasting until the end -- smiling.

“Why should I stop”, she said, “I am happy, I do not want to give up... I will keep smiling, despite the ennemy, despite the oligarchy”. Didn’t she think that her sister’s death was enough, that her family had contributed enough? “The problem is not like this, she explained patiently. Families do not make lists, it is the ennemy who decides. Pressure is increasing so we have to pay and we have to die”. But isn’t there another way to struggle? we asked this young girl. She shook her head: “In our country a big struggle is going on, in the schools, in the factories and in the mountains. The struggle here is only a small part of something much bigger”.

Determined to fast until death

Portrait of Rechit sariAlone in another room of this house, Rechit Sari, 42, a former sailor who now runs a tourism agency, is also determined to fast until death. He explains the regime they all follow, which allows them to survive much longer than usual: they drink water, tea, and a special drink “fishek”, developed by prisoners during a previous hunger strike in 1996; it is a mixture of water, lemon juice, salt, and vitamin B1. Of course, while it prolongs life, death is inevitable: Zehea died after 223 days of fasting: more recently, inside prison, Ali Koc died after fasting for 251 days.

This movement, which strated in October 2000, has already claimed 30 victims, excluding the 32 victims of the operation “Return to Life”. But strangely enough, it raises few questions in Turkish society. In fact, Turkish public opinion switched sides after the failure of mediation attempts by a delegation including Metin Balkaci, vice-president of the Doctor’s Association, Yucel Sayman, president of Istanbul’s Bar Association, Mehmet Bakeroglu, vice-president of the (now disbanded) Virtue Party (Islamist), and a journalist. A second delegation, made up of three writers, Yachar kemal, Orhan Pamuk and Zulfi Livaneli, who successfully mediated during the 1996 hunger strike was also unsuccessful.

The mediators asked the prisoners to suspend their hunger strike, telling them that in exchange for their cooperation the authorities were going to postpone the transfer of the prisoners in F-type jails; amend article 16 of the anti-terrorist law (which controls the daily life of the prisoners sentenced for terrorism); and allow groups of up to nine prisoners to meet inside the jails. According to various sources, representatives of various concerned organisations had accepted this proposal, when everything broke down after an order came from Dursun Karatas -- the leader of DHKP-C, who lives in exile in Europe -- not to accept the compromise. Since then Turkish public opinion has apparently been indifferent to the plight of the hunger strikers. Eren Keskin, secretary general of the Istanbul-based IHD (Human Rights Association) observed: “Without public opinion, we can do nothing. Most people see the prisoners as terrorists because the only information they get comes from the Turkish media which is manipulated by the State”. For Eren Keskin it is clear there is nothing to expect from the government: “The minister of justice cannot do anything: he is an executive who implements the decisions of the National Security Council... He is a parrot. Turkey is still run by a constitution written by the military twenty years ago. But if we try to discuss anything with the military, they say, “We are not responsible, we are not writing the laws”.

Ruchen Chaker, a journalist and editor of the publishing company Metis, claims this crisis also reflects the “difference of thinking between Turkish society as a whole and the Turkish Left and DHKP-C... It is a problem of factions”.

Out of 80.000 prisoners detained in Turkish jails, a little less than 12.000 are political prisoners. If one excludes some 10,000 prisoners who belong to the PKK, who are not involved in the hunger strike, there remains about 2,000 political prisoners belonging to a wide variety of small groups representing Turkey’s extreme Left, including DHKP-C, TIKKO, TKV, and other small revolutionary communist groups which frequently change their name.  Some of these groups formulate specific demands concerning the daily life of the prisoners; the first three groups are asking for very ambitious reforms, virtually impossible to implement, like the destruction of the F-type prisons and the suppression of the State security courts.

It is obvious Turkish intellectuals and NGO officials have little sympathy for DHKP-C and its leader, Dursun Karatas: “They are offered luxury cells, they made their choice -- the wrong one -- it is their problem”, says a liberal minded professor. “We have no sympathy for their exaltation. They are fabricating martyrs to use their pictures later”, he added. “For this particular party, there is only one way, its own way. Everything else is hell”, remarks Ruchen Chaker. “These organisations have nothing to do with socialism”, concludes Fikret Baskaya, a Turkish progressive intellectual who has just been sentenced to 16 months imprisonment for writing an article on  the trial of Abdullah Ocalan. “These are political sects which do not understand what is going on in their society and in the world: the leader of each group decides everything, considers himself the leader of the Revolution, and treats his members like soldiers”. But however spurious their cause, the fact remains that in the coming weeks more than 150 hunger strikers will reach a critical stage and die. As Eren  Keskin describes it, “the prisoners who are on hunger strike, and those who do it outside the jails, are all Turkish citizens. We must discuss matters with them and find a solution”. Otherwise their lives will be lost -- and for what?

(The Middle East magazine, September 2.001; Al Wasat, 5 August 2.001; Internazionale, 27 Iuglio 2.001)

 

 

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