North Africa, West Asia

Story of an ‘unidentified’ detainee

From the Counter-Terrorism Division in Ankara, Turkey... The story’s named by others, but filled by women who resist the war. We live in a story whose title reads ‘unidentified’.

Sibel Hurtas
2 March 2018

Corporal prison, detail. Wikicommons/Onlysilence. 2004. Some rights reserved.This is the most telling portrait that my past twenty years in journalism have bequeathed me. Had I the least talent for drawing, I could’ve sketched it here and now. Had Maral lent an ear to my pleas, I could’ve asked the lady police officer who brought a chocolate bar with her to the cells each day to alleviate her sense of guilt, to take a photograph of me.

It was not possible… I was not able to capture the cell, its approximately 1.90 meters by five meters in width; its twelve black bars of steel, lined up with half a span between and wet baby-clothes hanging from those bars, with water dripping little by little onto the floor; the arms of white sweaters smelling of soap and legs of patched pyjamas tangling around the black bars of prison cells.

What I was more or less able to discern of the remaining parts of the cell, the part that dwelt in darkness, the only image that lingers in my mind, that is, is of two bare-foot women with their long, night-black hair covering their babies, resting on torn blankets and the babies’ almost-white, pale faces, never looking up.

Here we are on the second floor of TEM – the Counter-Terrorism Divison, inhabiting a building that originally belonged to a university which was shut down by decree, and handed over to the police station in Ankara. I was brought here on Monday night. Why I am here, no one seems to have a single clue. I can make out the word “Unidentified” on the desk of the three policemen who brought me here. How very apt for the situation at hand. I was brought here on Monday night. Why I am here, no one seems to have a single clue.   

Oh let’s not go there! For I too thought at first that this was a desk that belonged to a division that investigated unidentified murder cases and that due to an overflowing in-tray they were handed over the take in-out part of the job. This, however, was not the case.

This rather is a new desk, created specifically for those like me and many more who are not thought fit for membership of any terrorist organization, yet considered to be inconvenient still in all times of emergency. It seems certain divisions were unable to identify some culprits within their systematic law of vilification and thought it was logical to create a new division as such for journalists, intellectuals, artists and human-rights advocates.

Dragged by the men of the ‘unidentified’ desk, I was put in a cell of twelve steel bars, due to text-messages which were not once shown to me during my time there, due to the propaganda of an ‘unidentified’ organization, the aims of which of course were never once clarified. I am a card-carrying, tip-to-toe ‘unidentified’: listed under no organization, no proof against me, even my official name reads ‘unidentified’; perfectly ready to lose my sense of being within the abyss of an equation with so many unknowns. Certain divisions were unable to identify some culprits within their systematic law of vilification and thought it was logical to create a new division as such for journalists, intellectuals, artists and human-rights advocates.

A white wall is all I see, tricks begin to circulate my mind as to how to photograph this instant, a cell totally absent of air and light.

The mere sign of life for now is the voice of those head-down babies trying to breathe through their congested nostrils. As an experienced mother I am convinced that their efforts are feverish, that if they continue a little more to breathe from their mouths, this thick and toxic air will bring sickness upon them. I am deeply worried for them as for my own two babies whom I left behind. 

Then, the same desk brings more suspects; we are more of a crowd now. Trying to fit on three wooden benches, lined in accordance with their length, with our heads reaching our tiptoes. I recall doing the same when I was a little child at my grandmother’s house with my sisters and brothers. The journalist Seda Taşkın, covering the least space with her tiny body, gets her head between her legs, laughs with her pitch-black eyes, “You know, I had just gotten out.”

In a pit this dark, dirty and breathless, the most wonderful thing that can happen is to wake one morning to a child’s voice. One disremembers the concept of time here, as outside clocks continue their march. Babies’ laughter tells the morning hour, and their congested snores, the night-time. 

Maral’s persistencies have borne fruit: the door of the nearby cell is now open for the children to go out every once in a while. ‘Out’ is a corridor of 1 meter's width and say, 7 meters' length. The opening of this door and the closing of the wooden one that our corridor faces is simultaneous. When it opens a couple of eager and joyous eyes appear and start gazing at us through the bars. It is a baby, of two years only, with curly blonde hair and eyes trapped within her fat cheeks. She is called Ayşe. After her, comes Süheyla, a one-year old, struggling to stand upright, as she puts one leg forward, the other is accompanied by laughter. And behind the two, seven-month old Ali, trying to keep up with them with his tiny crawls. The expression on his face is so great, greater than his months, that one can spend hours surveying it and contemplating life without a single utterance. Süheyla’s terrifyingly tiny body and white-as bone face elicits a feeling of profound horror comparable only to the encounter with mortal disease.       

For breakfast, we have stale bread, accompanied by a slice of cheese so slim that you can see through it. Neither these sandwiches with their puzzling smell, evidently prepared a couple of days beforehand and kept in a fridge, nor the meals served as lunches are eaten by anyone. Ayşe reaches through the bars to gather pieces of bread; then opens that wooden-door that separates our cell from others and gathers every piece of bread from each of the cells. She eats only half, and the ones she is not able to eat, she returns to her cell.    

She comes and goes around, until the moment the cell door is locked, gathering all she finds that is softer than stone. When she sees the policemen coming towards her, she puts those pieces of bread in her sweater and starts to run, bursting in laughter, to avoid going back to her cell.    

I come back from the toilet and gaze at the steel bars, wondering how those clothes can continue to hang in there. Later we understand that when they start to dry, even a little, they hit the floor, making a dreadful sound, as Seral goes on to complain.

We try to reach TEM in a fury, for the sake of the babies whom we gather to be really sick from their breathing at night: a doctor must arrive. One indeed comes and leaves, saying only “It is normal for children to get sick here.” All here is normal, and cold. The wards are cold, babies’ faces, mothers’ feet, doctors’ hands, all is cold. All is normal, probable, every kind of thing can happen… All here is normal, and cold. The wards are cold, babies’ faces, mothers’ feet, doctors’ hands, all is cold.

The night’s terror hangs on till the next day, now the corridor door is locked, but children’s cells are opened. Maral and Seral sit right in front of the steel bars, as Maral breast-feeds Süheyla, and tells her story.

That she and her sister Seral were brought here because they did not have any identification.  

One unidentified, two without identification.    

Right under Ankara TEM’s nose.

Three women, nine babies…

They were only able to bring Ayşe, Ali and Süheyla with them; the others remain in a house in Tuzluçayır. That is all the address. The ground floor of a four-storied house in the middle of Tuzluçayır. Maral has two children, one, Süheyla who she continues to breast-feed as she speaks, the other, her son whose eyes she last saw when she was tucked into a police car. The boy ran off from sheer horror… Seral has five. The police did not allow her to take her older ones, who are 13, 9 and 8 respectively, she was able to take only Ali and Ayşe. I have two. Us three make nine in total, three here as we continue to talk of the other six, sitting on concrete pavements.    

Ayşe brings all she gathers, picks a piece of bread and puts it in her mouth. I remain inside the cell, they ‘out’. We come up with a game, I reach my feet through the steel bars, Ayşe presses them with hers, takes my hand and begins to jump. Then Süheyla arrives and does the same.

Seral and Maral, ripped out of Mosul

They are the Turkmenians of Mosul.

Seral, a woman who lived through war each day, until the building she faced was bombed. The day she saw her neighbors under a pile of debris, she and her husband decided to leave. But ISIS militants won’t let them. They take her husband, and send her back home. Coming back with her five children Seral spends the night in front of slender palls of dust, covering women, men and children who were her neighbors for all those years. When the morning comes she puts Ayşe in the baby-car, ties Ali, who was 14 days old then, to her chest, begins her journey with elder ones going right in front.  “How were you able to walk?” I ask, “Down from the mountains” she replies, “one day with bread, two days without any food…” I understand only then, why Ayşe gathers and keeps in her cell all things softer than stone.   

They come in through the border, and as they enter, they are sent directly to Antep, to a camp named ‘Weasel’, if I am not mistaken. Loads of women and children stay in the camp ‘Weasel’. One day, Seral tells us, people come with papers. The women make an agreement not to sign. “But they beat those who refuse to sign.” says Seral. “But what did you do” I ask. “I signed out of fear.” she replies. Two hundred women and children in total are send to Baghdad on a plane that night. The journey starts yet again for Seral. With Ali on her chest, and others in her front, they go through the mountains, pass the border and her brothers who she knows to be in Tuzluçayır come and pick her up.    

We talk for days, I ask her to tell me the same story each day and each night, then I close my eyes and write. Gaps begin to appear, for my mind gets muddled too much, and I ask her to tell me again. The ones in our ward are tired of repetitions as another journalist, Hayri Demir, arrives at the ward next to us. When he begins asking questions, women in our ward say jokingly “Sibel already did the interview, you missed the news”. We laugh, but Seral cannot understand why. “Are you laughing at my abla[1]” says she. “Abla” is the word she uses to address me, for she too forgets my name: one tends to forget everything and everyone around here.

Maral, on the hand hand, had left far earlier than Seral to arrive here. Her story begins with her salesman husband getting killed in a market-place bombing. At that time, she is pregnant with Süheyla, she takes her son by the hand and leaves. When ISIS militants block her exit, she goes to Syria. After spending three months there, she reaches the border, and the day she arrives, the baby starts to kick in. She is put in a hospital, and out, only three hours after she gave birth. After she is not granted access through the border, she meets human-traffickers. Four, five, six tries, she gets in. Negotiations, money. With five-six hour old Süheyla on her lap. I figure it is since that day that colors have forsaken her face. She is put in a hospital, and out, only three hours after she gave birth. After she is not granted access through the border, she meets human-traffickers.

They are here now. Seral and Maral’s house was denounced by others I think: the complaint, “they don’t have any identification.” Hayri’s ward is so crowded that it is better not to think of it. They too try to fit in with heads near their tip-toes. For three days they were kept waiting in the gymnasium, without water or food, and then brought here. All of them and all of us are no different. 

Seral gets annoyed by baby-clothes she washes each day hitting the floor as they dry. We then come up with a solution. We take her kerchief off and tie it from one side of the steel bars to the other as if it is a laundry line. The washed clothes now dry upon this kerchief. They will be deported in a few days. We try to reach people through our lawyers, anyone who can help. Everyone, hand in hand…

When the night comes, a melody is heard from the opposite ward, a Kurdish lament. All cells plunge into absolute silence. This is the voice of Didar and Hacer, whose hunger strike now enters its eighth day. Seral hits the walls again, “Abla will they send us back?” she asks, “I am trying Seral” I say, “I hope they will not.” Then Seral begins her own Arabian lament… The cells fall into obligatory sleep as Süheyla’s stuffed nose continues to growl. When the night comes, a melody is heard from the opposite ward, a Kurdish lament. All cells plunge into absolute silence.

The crimes of Didar and Hacer too are ‘unidentified’… The only illegal action they took was coming to our ward for a simple hello if they were not accompanied by any policemen when they were using the toilet. The only illegal action we took was letting Ayşe in our ward when Aslı came to take her medicine. Ayşe’s own, single illegal action, was gathering and keeping everything she can find in wards that she can relate to food. These continuing actions start to have their consequences, they bring Ayşe to our cell. Women make pillows of the blankets left near us, and we use our coats as blankets. I swing Ayşe with my feet, she takes my hand, right where I fondle her belly, her eyes which she persistently tries to keep open then gives up to weary sleep. TEM gets busier each night. Didar and Hacer too are now in our ward. Hacer’s only concern is to pass her classes. “As soon as I am out of here” she says, “I am going to pass all my courses.” They treat Ayşe and I to candies placed near them during the hunger strike. An authorial voice interrupts, “Giving candies is forbidden!”

Keeping children here becomes harder and harder each day. Seral, ashamed of their cries, pushes her head against the steel bars desperately, her eyes facing the ground, “We’re here, because we escaped the war” she says; and the ladies of our ward join as an ensemble: “We’re here because we said no to war.”

The policemen of the unidentified desk take me out after some days; I hang onto Maral, I hang onto Seral and hug Ayşe. 

They arrest Seda, and let me go. At the address I go to after days, the one in the middle of Tuzluçayır, the door is answered by no one.

The story’s named by others, but filled by women who resist the war. We live in a story whose title reads ‘unidentified’.

Somewhere, right in between the piece of bread Ayşe, who tries to escape the war, hides in her breast and the hunger of Didar, who says ‘no’ to war…


An Iraqi Turkmen girl, May, 2004. wikicommons/Samaksasanian. Some rights reserved.

Translated from Turkish by Yağız Ay, a student of Comparative Literature and Sociology at Istanbul Bilgi University, and an intern at Birikim Magazine where this piece was originally published on February 3. 

[1] An informal way of addressing women, literally “elder sister.” - t.n.

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