Istanbul September/October 2002
A journey to understand why thousands of political prisoners were prepared to starve themselves to death in Turkish prisons
The moment you're born
they plant around you
mills that grind lies
lies to last you a lifetime
'A Sad State of Freedom', Nazim Hikmet
During twenty years of political activity I have come to the conclusion
that if we are serious about radical and eventual change then we must
do it where we are, at our base: the community we live in and our workplace.
That means speaking out against the injustices and poverty around us.1
For a long time I have criticised those who put all their energies into
struggles in far off countries. I have viewed many as latter day missionaries
and dismissed them as middle class do-gooders, finding causes in other
people's struggles while failing to see the issues and struggles
around them. For these personal reasons, it was with great reluctance
that I became involved in the struggle against the F-type solitary confinement
cells in Turkish prisons.
As an activist, initially I knew little about the situation in Turkey
other than it being an extremely repressive country2 and of
the atrocious treatment of the Kurdish population.3 During
the bombing of Belgrade I had developed a friendship with a Kurdish asylum
seeker here in Liverpool, but due to language difficulties it was often
difficult to comprehend his politics. He had managed to convey certain
things, though: he had been tortured, (held over Istanbul Bridge by the
police, amongst other things). Later, I understood he had been part of
the Leftist struggle which included both Turks and Kurds fighting for
self-determination for everyone.
On the morning of 19th December 2000 he arrived at my house, upset and
angry, and asked if our group, 'People Not Profit', could help.
Previously, he had told me about the hunger strikes in Turkish prisons
against the forcing of political prisoners into the 'coffin cells'
or isolation units, and that the prison guards continually attacked them
seeking to quash their protest. This time though the Turkish state's
actions were more extreme. In the cynically titled 'Life Saving Operation',
20 prisons were raided by state forces and the prisoners attacked. Hundreds
had been injured and 30 political prisoners (6 women and 24 men) massacred
through shootings, gassing and even by being set on fire. That afternoon
people from our group and from the Turkish/Kurdish community protested
in Liverpool city centre. We held placards and gave out leaflets to shoppers
calling on them to protest by phoning and faxing the Turkish Government
and Embassies. But even then, to me, an activist half my life, Turkey
still seemed a long way away and someone trying to convey to me through
basic english English the shocking reality about what had happened in
Turkey in the early hours of that morning did not have a shocking effect,
largely because I could not comprehend the full horror of the situation.
"They suddenly opened fire and threw bombs. The barricade that
they talk about was two wardrobes. Six women were burnt alive in the same
dormitory in one night."
Ebru Dincer, survivor of December 19th attack who ended up with 3rd degree
burns to face and body.
Following December 19th I heard the occasional story about the situation
in Turkey and attempted to search the internet for information but there
was little coverage in English, and then it was mainly sloganeering. Moreover,
it was hard to see the human side of the story or the people involved.
And so the hunger strike continued, and it still seemed a long way away.
Only when I began to meet more Turkish and Kurdish people arriving in
Liverpool did it begin to sink in. You can often presume you are aware
of certain political realities and ensuing struggles by reading about
them, but actually understanding and really knowing is different; behind
the slogans there are human beings, people with their own histories, their
own pain and humiliations and their own spirit of resistance.
"But this kind of freedom
Is a sad affair under the stars"
I received a Guardian article (2/04/02) about the death of Meryem
Altun, a young woman born in Turkey who had been a community worker in
London, who, frustrated and angry at what was happening in Turkey, decided
to join her comrades. She was arrested on her return to Turkey, immediately
sent to prison and became the 50th woman to die in the hunger strike.
Soon after, I saw two excellent documentary films made by the Turkish
film maker Metin Yegin, 'After' and 'Lifehouse'. We
decided that to raise awareness of the hunger strikes we would develop
a multi-media project using the poetry of Nazim Hikmet set to music4
and produce a film using images from life in Turkey and from the hunger
strikers themselves. We wanted to avoid using slogans, clichés
and terminology which people can't understand or relate too, and
instead present a very human story. Over the following months we researched
and developed the project, 'The Lemon Seed'5, which
was presented to a local audience who were both shocked and moved by what
Today is Sunday
Today, for the first time
they took me out into the sun
and for the first time in my life
I looked at the sky
amazed that it was so far
and so blue
and so wide
'Today is Sunday', Nazim Hikmet
Researching 'The Lemon Seed' gave me a deeper understanding
of the struggle. I read survivors' testaments, searched through thousands
of images, stories, interviews and much footage, looking for an overall
understanding. I discovered horror, naked brutality and a viciousness
inflicted by people, that I found difficult to understand. But I also
discovered that those on the receiving end of this viciousness were not
broken people, destroyed by the brutality of state officials, police and
soldiers, or by months on hunger strikes; instead I found courageous people
whose stories moved me to tears, who evoked inspiration through their
tales, their humour and their great resilience. These people, in their
hundreds, possibly thousands, labelled as 'terrorists' by a
murderous state had suffered torture to the extreme, seen their close
friends burnt and murdered, watched their loved ones die of starvation,
yet the state could not destroy their spirit. I can only imagine this
resilience. With all this in mind my Turkish friends suggested I visit
Istanbul. A month later, camcorder in hand, I was on a plane flying there,
still with my 'do-gooder' reservations.
A Turkish friend, who had travelled over a few days earlier, met me and
over the next few days I experienced the warmth and generosity of her
friends and family. I had yet to visit the supporters and the survivors
of the hunger strike, a number of whom had now been released6
and had established a live-in project called the Lifehouse where they
could support each other back to health.
You may proclaim that one must live
not as a tool, a number or a link
but as a human being -
then at once they handcuff your wrists.
You are free to be arrested, imprisoned
and even hanged
'A Sad State of Freedom', Nazim Hikmet
First I visited the Bureau of the Alinteri newspaper, a strong supporter
of the hunger strikers. Istanbul is a massive place and it took two hours
to get there. At the Bureau, to my surprise, I was met by six very friendly
women, all between the ages of twenty and thirty, who ran the paper. We
sat around in a circle, and my friend translated our conversations. All
of the women were awaiting trial; they had all been accused of working
on a 'communist' newspaper and were expecting a prison term.
These women, though, not only took it all in their stride, but made jokes
about it. The conversation was free and easy: they said there was very
little else the Turkish state could do to the revolutionary movement,
apart from killing them all. I was shown some artwork by an imprisoned
comrade of theirs, and asked my opinion on whether I understood it, and
what it said to me. I was shown around the office but most of their equipment
had been confiscated by the police so they were running everything on
two computers. They showed me their website and a site where their comrade
was displaying his art work - in spite of the consequences. Throughout
our conversations, despite our political differences, I was treated as
an equal and they were genuinely interested in my opinion. The work these
women were and are doing takes great courage, commitment and concern.
"Well after the December 19th massacre, we were dragged to the
F-type cells. After we entered Tekirdag F-Type Prison, hundreds of Guards
guards and soldiers attacked us. It was terrible; most of us had been
on hunger strike. I can't even describe it, you wouldn't believe
it. They tortured us, beat us, besides that they strip-searched us; some
were raped with truncheons."
We were then to visit the Lifehouse, the self-help project for survivors
of the hunger strike. Again, it took about two hours to get there across
the urban sprawl and chaos of Istanbul. It was in an anonymous apartment
building similar to all the others, with a grey door set in amongst a
number of shops. We were greeted by two very friendly women, Hulya and
Naile who welcomed us into the smoke filled parlour where there were about
six people. Amongst them, Cafer was a tall, slim, quiet man whose co-ordination
and memory had been affected by his 69 days on hunger strike in the prison
struggle of 1996. He walked slowly to maintain balance, and his head continually
bobbed too and fro. And Omer, whom I'd heard had been affected the
most, both physically and psychologically, was unable to maintain co-ordination
and had to keep an up-to-date diary because he had lost his short term
"I'd lived through 7 seven years of this, in 7 seven years
you can experience all kinds of things, torture, both physical, psychological,
After all the initial introductions of Who? What? Where? Why? everybody
relaxed and there was an array of banter with people laughing. They told
me they were used to visitors. A group of Italian doctors had just spent
three weeks at the Lifehouse making a film about Wernicke-Korsokoff, a
hardly known disease. Many of the survivors of the hunger strike were
suffering from this disease and it had also been found in survivors of
the Nazi concentration camps, partly caused, it's believed, by severe
I was not initially aware that almost everyone in the room had been on
hunger strike. Most looked physically unaffected, but actually half of
them were suffering from the symptoms of Wernicke-Korsokoff - a mixture
of balance and memory loss. Mustafa Yasar - a small, stocky, friendly
man in his 40s - asked me if I had been there before, he thought he
remembered me from the previous day. This was a common problem of Wernicke-Korsokoff.
After so long on hunger strike, the mind and the memory plays back on
you during real time; images from the past appear before you and the present
seems like the past. Mustafa had done over 250 days on hunger strike.7
"We tried everything to oppose the F-types, but after December
19th we had no choice. The only way we could resist was to offer up our
bodies, we had nothing else."
"Three years my trial lasted. In 1999 I lived through the Ulucar
massacre, 10 ten friends died there. Then I was forced into Burdur prison,
in this operation they snapped my arms, and then six months later there
was the December 19th attack."
My friend left me alone at the Lifehouse when Baris, a former student
at the Middle Eastern University arrived, as he was able to translate
for me. Baris had been on hunger strike for 211 days, though showed no
physical or mental signs of it. He was typical in many ways of the Turkish
political situation. He had been arrested for being a member of an illegal
organisation, the TIKB, and sentenced to 17 years in prison. He was found
guilty in a court with no jury, served 6 six years before going on hunger
strike, and then on the point of death was released for 6 six months,
like many others. We spoke all day into the early morning and continued
the next day well into the afternoon. I felt comfortable enough to ask
him highly personal questions. He said he hated the term often used to
describe the Turkish hunger strike, 'The Death Fast'. It was
a 'life fast' he said, a demand to live. The reason he stayed
alive for so long was that he loved life so much. Baris, like the others,
said the authorities had given him very little choice but to go on hunger
strike - otherwise the isolation cells would kill them. When forced
into the F-Type prisons they would not be able to mix and be with friends,
and they would be at the mercy of the authorities and the prison guards.
It took me to visit the Lifehouse and talk, for a long time, with the
survivors themselves to really understand what the hunger strike was about.
It was the ultimate or the final form of resistance when there was nothing
left. It was either that or silence and death.
I discovered many things at the Lifehouse, the most obvious being that
you cannot truly understand a situation from afar, and that it is difficult
to take a word by word political analysis from one country and apply it
to another. Turkey is culturally different in many ways to the UK, thus
the people are also culturally different, there is much more emphasis
on social rather than individual activities. When you apply these general
facts to political prisoners, apart from their obvious fear of physical
torture - which everybody in the Lifehouse had experienced; Mustafa
also witnessed his friends tortured to death - their biggest fear was
of being alone and they saw isolation, followed by alienation as the most
terrifying form of torture.
I left Baris asleep when I was leaving the Lifehouse. I knew he was worn
out and wasn't as well as he looked. I spent part of the afternoon
with my friend and Omer, who apologised for his silence during my visit
but I knew he could remember very little. We sat in his room while he
read his diaries to us, reiterating that, although he was suffering from
Wernicke-Korsokoff, he was not a child and was trying his best to do things
independently. Metin, the doctor who seemed the more serious of the group,
had explained to me why the Lifehouse was so important to the survivors.
He talked about one hunger striker who arrived there in a bad state. He
couldn't walk and couldn't remember who anyone was. But after
a few months surrounded by friends, his health began to greatly improve.
He then decided to visit his family who treated him like a helpless child
and patronised him. Added to this he visited a doctor who told him he
would never walk again and shouldn't even try. "How does that
make someone feel? We know Wernicke-Korsokoff is a neurological problem",
Metin explained, "and we know that with exercise he will walk again,
but in that situation we had to start all over again." Metin emphasised
that very few people knew about the disease and that there was hardly
any medical literature on it. He himself was suffering from it after being
on hunger strike for 210 days. Nearly everyone at the Lifehouse had made
massive progress, and this had been brought about by encouragement, self-belief
and a certain amount of autonomy in a supportive atmosphere.
In your last letter you say,
"My head is aching
my heart is stunned"
"If they hang you
if I lose you,"
"I cannot live"
'Letter to My Wife', Nazim Hikmet
As the day progressed the rota changed; a number of people left and others
arrived. When Ozlem - a small, black-haired woman in her mid-twenties - left,
I suggested she come to Liverpool sometime - she had told someone earlier
that she always wanted to learn English. They all laughed, with Naile
saying, "If only she could leave the country."
I knew they were struggling financially to keep the Lifehouse going. Most
of the people there were too ill to work, and probably couldn't because
of their legal restrictions. The movement that supported them was economically
overwhelmed, and there was no way their families could keep them. Added
to the rent, fuel and food was the expense of the B1 vitamin tablets the
survivors needed to aid their recovery. We brought fundraising money over
but knew that wouldn't last long.
We caught a bus towards Taksin Square where the famous Saturday Mothers
used to gather (the mothers of the disappeared) before they were brutally
attacked and forced off the streets by the police. Did the Turkish regime
think that people would suddenly forget that their loved ones had disappeared?
Or would forget that they had a son or daughter beaten, tortured, raped,
murdered or on hunger strike in prison? I thought of the ordinary people
at the Lifehouse, who, because they had dared to question the tyrannical
system under which they were living under, had found themselves in extraordinary
circumstances. They were a strange mixture: Mustafa had been a textile
worker who joined the union; Cafer had worked in a show factory; Hulya,
a student involved in a campaign for free education, not unlike the people
in our group in Liverpool. I also realised how disconnected their struggle
was from the political scene throughout the rest of Europe - in fact
very few people knew about what had been happening in Turkey.
I was brought to research the Turkish prison struggle through reading
about people, what their pain was and what was in their hearts and minds,
not because of slogans. The major aim of this article is to present a
testament of my experience of being involved in politics, relating that
to the struggle for justice in Turkey and to the people I met there. And
to my friend who accompanied me who shall remain nameless for her own
safety. We have many commonalties and their struggle must also become
our struggle. The one direct solidarity we can show is in revealing and
distributing information on the truth of their struggle.
Nazim Hikmet, Selected Poems, 1967, Cape Editions.
If you would like to comment on this article contact:
If you would like to express or offer your support to the Lifehouse project
1. I am of course talking from a country where we are not yet thrown into
prison for expressing such opinions, though admittedly we now face many
other isolatory measures, such as dismissal or exclusion.
2. Turkey was described by Amnesty International in 1998 as having the
worst human rights record in the world.
3 Chomsky has pointed out that the real reason for NATO bombing Yugoslavia
in 1999 was not what Milosevic and the Serbs were doing to the Kosovan
Albanians, but rather, amongst other things, that they were potential
opponents of the economic plans of the West. If NATO and the politicians
driving them were really interested in stopping human rights abuses and
opposing ethnic cleansing, then why didn't they mention Turkey's
human rights atrocities against the Kurds, with some 15,000 people murdered
and thousands of villages destroyed over a 15 year period? Of course,
Turkey is not only a strategic member of NATO but is friendly to the economic
plans of the West.
4. Nazim Hikmet was not only Turkey's most celebrated poet but as
a communist he spent a considerable time in prison for his political convictions.
5. The title 'The Lemon Seed' was based on a story told by the
survivors of the December 19th prison attack. They hid lemon seeds in
their clothing after spending hours being dragged through the mud before
being thrown back into prison cells. They managed to scrape the mud off
their clothes, potted it and grew lemon plants from the seeds.
6. In Turkey there is a law stating that when a prisoner is seriously
ill they can be released so that their family can look after them. This
law was used by lawyers representing the hunger strikers, getting many
of them released for a six-month period. The government was also sensitive
to the bad publicity it was receiving on account of so many hunger strikers
7. In November, 1992, Remzi Basalak, Saban Budak and Mustafa Yasar were
arrested by the police in Adana. Saban Budak was killed on the spot. A
few hours later, Remzi Basalak and Mustafa Yasar were shown to the press,
heavily tortured. Remzi Basalak told the journalists that he was tortured
and he cursed the police. The press was immediately removed. Remzi Basalak
was tortured again and murdered.
There was a trial against 14 officers at the First and Second Criminal
Court in Ankara after Mustafa Yasar declared he could recognise the murderers
of Remzi Basalak and said he wanted to testify as a witness. However,
he was not allowed. The post-mortem reports state that Remzi Basalak "died
of cerebral haemorrhage". As in other trials, Saban Budak's
clothes were never found again. For appearances only, officers were put
on patrol-duty. But as always, the trial will end in acquittals.