By Kani Xulam
April 20, 1998
[Editor’s note: The speech below was given at the University of Maryland College Park to members of the Amnesty International chapter on campus.]
First of all, I want to thank Joe Lewis and Eva Eitzen, two of the Amnesty International representatives on this campus, for inviting me here tonight. They have asked me to share with you how the government of Turkey deals with dissent in the country.
As I address you here in this room, people are arbitrarily arrested, some are tortured and many are imprisoned on what you would consider the flimsiest of charges throughout Turkey. But, this oppression is even more pronounced in the southeast of the country, the place fifteen to twenty million of my people, the Kurds, call home: Kurdistan. For my part, I have become a reluctant chronicler of their sufferings. In other words, I come before you as the harbinger of bad news.
I am supposed to take you on a tour of prisons, interrogation centers and most importantly through the minds of those whose job it has become to humiliate a portion of our kind. I am also supposed to leave you with a road map to help you join the advocates of humanity to put an end to the practice of torture, to the practice of imprisoning the political prisoners, to the practice of those whose inhumanity remains stronger than their sense of justice.
I wish I were a sage to do all that and more to put an end to my own suffering and to the suffering of millions of others. I am afraid I am not going to be able to do that even though I have accepted to speak on behalf of those who have been wronged, violated and silenced. Having gone on record for being a reluctant chronicler of their suffering, I hope I will be forgiven for my impudence. And you, I hope, will treat me with indulgence.
I am here to share with you but also to learn from you. Together, I hope, we will honor our common hope to strive for a better future and for a better world. Here I am reminded of a poet, who says, “If I don’t become a light, if you don’t become a light, how will the darkness see the light.” I hope that you will light your candle tonight, and tomorrow night and for that matter all the other nights so that darkness will recede, torture will be a relic of the past and the creation and the perpetuation of a beautiful world will be our legacy to the millions yet born.
So tonight, I want to share with you two stories from Turkey. One belongs to a Kurdish student and the other to a Turkish one. The first one is a short one; it begins at an interrogation center and ends in a morgue. The second one too has its beginning at an interrogation center, but its end is not yet in sight. Both stories happen to be of teenagers. Both were high school students. The Kurdish student was sixteen; the Turkish student was seventeen. For the Kurdish student whose life has ended, we can only speculate as to what happened to her at the interrogation center. The Turkish student has left us with her testimony which speaks for itself.
The Kurdish student had a name: Biseng Anik. She was born in Sirnak, a Kurdish city in southeast Turkey, in 1976. In 1992, she was a junior in high school. Her friends have since noted that, she was bright, gregarious, and the head of her class almost in all the fields. In the spring of 1992, she had taken the lead to gather her friends to take part in Newroz, a banned Kurdish holiday in Turkey, but a day of deliverance from tyranny for the Kurds. In Biseng’s town, Sirnak, on March 21st, some 15 thousand people had gathered to celebrate Newroz.
Eye-witnesses to the event have reported that the members of Turkish army ordered the assembled crowds, over the loud speakers, to disperse, but the crowds refused to do so. The soldiers then fired on the civilians and caused the death of 32 civilians. 97 other Kurds were injured of gunshots or the beatings suffered in the hands Turkish troops. Before the Kurdish holiday would be over, 60 other Kurds would die in other Kurdish cities, and hundreds would be taken to the hospitals while thousands were taken in to be interrogated and tortured for subversive activities.
That day, nothing happened to Biseng Anik, she even managed to get away from the arbitrary arrest, even though the brutality of the Turkish soldiers was beyond anything she had ever experienced in her 16 years life. To be sure, two of her friends were killed and among the injured she had classmates who she had urged to attend the celebration while some others were taken in for questioning. The town’s people were in a state of shock as were Biseng’s parents who urged her to desist from her “provocative” activities. In addition to mourning, there was an eerie silence about the city.
The shock and the silence that Biseng thought had become her lot came to an abrupt halt when members of the Turkish army’s Special Teams came to her house and took her into custody in the morning of March 25. Two days later, BisengÕs mother received a call from the city hospital. The person on the other side of the telephone was telling her to come and collect the body of her daughter from the hospital morgue. When Biseng’s parents went to the hospital, they found that the left side of Biseng’s head was missing. The state doctor had already certified that suicide was the cause of death. The Turkish soldiers who had taken the body to the hospital had told the doctor, the girl had used a G3 rifle, which had been left in her cell, to do this.
The second story belongs to a Turkish student and her name is Jale Kurt. She was born two years after Biseng, in 1978, but was a student in Manisa, unlike Sirnak, which is a city in western Turkey and has a Turkish population. She describes herself as an average student and says she was part of a music group in her high school that would sing protest songs. In December 1995, she was taken into custody along with 15 other students, some as young as 14 years old, for writing graffiti on the walls. The police had referred to them as terrorists.
Jale herself unable to describe what happened to her at the interrogation center has written the following: “They stripped me with a lot of threatening words, and then I was all naked. And I was feeling that they are touching certain places in my body. And then they put me on a wet blanket naked, and I start screaming. I know that I screamed because they were doing something in my tip of my toes. And then I fainted because I was very scared. I came to my senses when they were hitting me all over — on the sides of my body. I tired to talk. I said, ÒI will do anything you want. I will do anything you want.”
After ten days in custody and a public outcry that involved some members of the Turkish parliament, Jale and her friends were paroled to continue their trial in person. When the news of what had happened to them reached the public, the Manisa prosecutor lodged a complaint against the ten police officers who had tortured them. Jale and her friends, human rights activists, and even the State Department in Washington, DC, began to show an interest in the case and wanted the officers to pay for their heinous crimes. This year, the Turkish court acquitted all the police officers of the charge.
These are sad stories. Biseng Anik met a violent end at the young age of sixteen. Her light was put out in a few agonizing minutes. Three days ago, on April 17, our office got an e- mail from a person who claims to have served in the Turkish army and in Sirnak, BisengÕs hometown. The e-mail reads, “You [meaning the Kurds], are the most disgusting creatures that I have ever seen in my life. I, with great pleasure, killed four of you in Sirnak. …” The Turkish soldier does not say when he was in Sirnak. It is conceivable that he was there in 1992. It is also conceivable that he himself might have killed or contributed to the death of Biseng. He goes on to say, “… I feel very proud of being a son of the Turkish nation [for what I did].”
Jale Kurt was somewhat luckier, if you could call it that. She now has a new name, torture survivor. She has described the trauma of being tortured in words that are haunting. Again, she writes, “After I left the police station, I felt very, very old, you know, really old. I like old person[s]. … the old people know everything, they are wise. They look at us and say, ‘oh, you are just a kid, you donÕt know anything.’ I don’t feel like that anymore, because, you know, nothing can surprise me any more[.] I have seen everything. …”
There are other disturbing things about these stories. For example, while it is admirable that the Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck has publicly raised alarm over the fact that the police officers were acquitted, no one from his office or the State Department has raised Biseng AnikÕs case with the Turkish authorities. In Turkey, it is the law of the land, Turks matter more than the Kurds. One wonders if this is also the case for the officials at the State Department? Biseng’s case cries out for action and justice. Dormancy, it seems to us Kurds, is the norm in the capitals of the world.
The G3 rifle that the Turkish police officers “supposedly” left in the cell where Biseng was kept in custody is made in Germany. M-16 machine guns that are the popular toys of the Turkish soldiers are supplied to Turkey by the United States. Turkey is an undeveloped country. It is ruled by a military that believes in fascism, or what would be called racism in this country. The Kurds have a poignant question to those who supply Turkey with guns and it needs to be repeated here: would you hand your gun to the head of a family that people in the neighborhood believed was dysfunctional? If you did, and if that head of the family committed murder or torture, you too would go to jail for being an accomplice. This is what is happening in Turkey. But apart from a few voices, no one is calling the Germans of the Americans the accomplices.
The Turkish soldier who wrote us the e-mail says, you Kurds are the most disgusting people in the world. Now, this is the language of true believers. If he had indeed seen the other parts of the world, I donÕt believe he would have used the term, “the most disgusting”, in describing the Kurds. For one thing, his interaction with other peoples would have introduced some modesty into his vocabulary. He would have learned that people all over the world are the same and that they all want dignity, decency and beauty for themselves and for their loved ones.
This brings me to you, the Joes, the Evas and the Kathys of this campus who share the same world with Bisengs, Jales or the Turkish soldier who wrote us an e-mail to share with us his own view of the world. While you may be living in idyllic settings and are surrounded with the great humanizers of all ages, the Platos, the Mahatma Gandhis and the Martin Luther King Jrs, the world Bisengs, Jales and I live in is very different. All of us though, whether we like it or not, are travelers together in the spaceship earth. On our watch, the winds of hatred are consuming Bisengs, crippling Jales and devouring others.
Ours, here, is a gathering for the celebration of tolerance. One thing is very clear, the world needs more people like you and less torturers. If you do nothing, the torturers will rejoice and may even one day torture your own loved ones; if you do something, the Bisengs of this world will have a future.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions and I think you are wonderful for coming here.