Maside Ocak holds a picture of her brother Hasan. Credit: Zeynep Yildiz. All rights reserved.Last month, Maside Ocak and her family sat down in Istanbul’s Galatasaray Square and held up a grainy photograph of her brother Hasan for the five hundredth time.
It was her brother’s disappearance in police custody on 21 March 1995 that became the catalyst for the ‘Saturday Mothers’. Inspired by Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers meet every weekend to demand justice for their loved ones and the hundreds of civilians who were killed or disappeared at the height of Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “When we started, I didn’t think I would be here 20 years later. We didn’t want that,” Maside told me.
In 1984, the PKK took up arms against Ankara to demand greater autonomy for the country’s Kurds. Turkish forces responded to the PKK’s violent insurgency with increasing brutality until a ceasefire was declared in 1999. The exact numbers of state killings and disappearances during this time are unknown, ranging from several hundred to several thousand.
Maside and her family were hoping to find Hasan alive, but on 19 May 1995, they found his body buried in an unmarked grave, bearing the marks of torture. One week later, the Saturday Mothers took to Galatasaray Square for the first time. In the past two decades, they have endured arrests, beatings and tear gas. After being accused of holding ‘terrorist protests’, they were forced to suspend their meetings between 1999 and 2009.
On 25 October, they met for their five hundredth sit-in surrounded by hundreds of supporters. But for Maside and many others, justice is no closer than it was in 1995. “I don’t believe we will get justice,” she said, pointing out Turkey’s 20-year time limit placed on criminal investigations into murder. The law means that in six months’ time, those responsible for her brother’s death will escape trial for good. Many of the Saturday Mothers find themselves in a similar situation, as the vast majority of disappearances occurred between 1993 and 1995.
Turkey has neither signed nor ratified the United Nations’ 2006 Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which classifies the tactic as a crime against humanity. Nor has it accepted a separate convention, which bans signatories from applying statutory limitations on crimes against humanity.
While Turkey lifted the statute of limitations on torture last year, Human Rights Watch noted in a recent report that many torture cases were still not investigated, as Hasan Ocak’s case shows. “He died of torture. That’s on the death certificate, signed by a prosecutor,” Maside said. “But when we went to open a case, we went to the same prosecutor, and he said, ‘Turkish police never torture.’ We couldn’t open the case.”
In 1998, members of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited Turkey and found that most disappearances followed the same pattern: the police would arrest a person on suspicion of belonging to the PKK, but authorities would later deny that the missing person had been detained.
The case of Fehmi Tosun, a Kurdish father of five, follows this pattern to the letter. Police arrested him in front of his family and neighbours on 19 October 1995. As his wife and and children ran after the police car, he shouted: “They will kill me.” No trace of Tosun has been found.
“I thought it would be a normal arrest,” said his wife Hanim, aged 50. “Then, after a couple of days, I joined the Saturday Mothers. I know I’m not going to see him again.”
I met Hanim after the Mothers’ four hundred and ninety-ninth protest, on the nineteenth anniversary of Fehmi Tosun’s disappearance. With the statute of limitations’ deadline looming, Hanim has one year left to solve her husband’s disappearance. But she said she would carry on protesting even after October next year.
Clutching a red carnation, a traditional funeral flower that has become a symbol of the Saturday Mothers, Hanim said: “Nothing changes for me. It’s going to be 20 years, but for us, it’s not past.” She added quietly: “I want a gravestone. That’s my first aim. I really want a gravestone, so I can go there and remember.”
When I asked Maside Ocak if she and the Mothers would still sit in Galatasaray Square 20 years from now, she let out a bitter laugh. “In all this time, I have given birth, my son is growing up. We have lost some of the Mothers, some of us died,” she told me. “With current Turkish law, with this government, I think we’re going to be here for another 50 years.”