By Kathryn Cameron Porter
January 2, 1997
On December 8, 1996, the representatives of the International League for
Human Rights, a Paris-based NGO, gave its annual award to the
representatives of what are in Turkey called “Saturday Mothers” a group of
women who have been protesting the disappearances of their loved ones
since May 27, 1995. The ceremony was held in Berlin; two members of
Saturday Mothers were flown in from Istanbul.
A permanent fixture in Istanbul for a year and an half now, these mothers
gather in front of Galatasaray High School every Saturday holding the
pictures of their sons, husbands, and in some cases daughters with the hopes
that someone in authority will hear their agony and give them back their
loved ones. Mostly Kurdish and recent refugees to this large metropolis, they
now also are joined by some Turkish mothers.
The award bestowed on them is named after a German journalist who died in
a Nazi concentration camp. Carl von Ossietzsky, a pacifist in the course of the
First World War, fought against fascism in the Weimar years. He was
arrested by the Gestapo when Hitler came to power in 1933. Awarded the 1935
Nobel Peace prize in absentia, he died on May 4, 1938.
Both Mr. Ossietzsky and the mothers were honored at Berlin’s World
Cultures House. Alisa Fuss, the President of International League for Human
Rights, spoke of the need to stand against state sponsored oppression in our
times. Human rights organizations undertook a week long program of
activities to highlight the phenomena of disappearances in Turkey.
These mothers first became the subject of international news on June 8, 1996.
Again, they had gathered to pay homage to their loved ones at the local high
school. This time their gathering coincided with the large NGO conference,
Habitat II, a United Nations meeting on human settlements in Istanbul.
The members of the fledgling human rights organizations in Turkey urged
the participants of the conference and members of the world press who had
accompanied them to the city to pay a solidarity visit to Saturday Mothers.
The urging worked; a large group visited the site.
The mothers were elated that they had visitors who were willing to recognize
and respond to their grief. Perhaps, they thought, these representatives
would do something to help them find their loved ones. Instead, they were
beaten for merely attracting attention to their pain.
The authorities did not want these women to blemish the image of Turkey as
a “well functioning democracy.” The police were ordered to disperse the
crowd. A melee erupted. In the ensuing pandemonium, the women were
arrested. Some of those unwilling to cooperate were pulled by their hair to
So, it was a fitting recognition of their grief and suffering that these mothers
received an award in honor of a German pacifist who met a violent end in
his life. These women wish that their loved ones will be spared such an end.
Nimet Tanrikulu, the guest mother who accepted the honor on behalf of her
sisters, had this to say through her Turkish translator: “This award is a warm
greeting across the borders.”
She went on to say that 827 people have been reported missing after being
seized by the police in Turkey since 1990. All were known as the opponents
of the government. Many were Kurds accused by the authorities as being the
sympathizers of Kurdish rebels, the PKK. Amnesty International, on its part,
in its reports, attributes a few of the missing to the rebels as well.
The saga of the Saturday Mothers still continues in front of Galatasaray High
School at Taksim in Istanbul. Next Saturday, January 4, 1997, will mark the
85th week of their weekly communion. Observers of international events
note the eerie similarities between what is happening in Turkey and what
happened in Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Guatemala. An act of
decompressing has started in these countries. Will Turkey follow in their
Kathryn Cameron Porter is the President of Human Rights
Alliance in Fairfax, Virginia.