By Joan Melancon
July 30, 1995
[Editor’s note: This interview was broadcast on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), on July 30, 1995. Joan Melancon, a radio journalist, spoke with Mr. Gerger in his jail. Mr. Gerger since then has been released. He continues to write about the folly of Turkish war against the Kurds and urges the cooler heads, a rarity in Ankara these days, to prevail over the warmongers.]
(Mary O’Connell) It has been an especially violent year in Turkey’s war with Kurdish rebels. More Kurds have been killed this year than in any other time since the conflict began more than a decade ago. The government calls it a war against terrorists who want a separate Kurdish state. Many journalists, writers and academics call it genocide, an attempt to wipe out Turkey’s fifteen million Kurds rather than give them language and cultural rights. Haluk Gerger is one of the 115 known political prisoners now in Turkish jails, convicted under a law that forbids any criticism of the state. He is perhaps the country’s best-known intellectual, and he is in jail in a village called Haymana near Ankara, where his wife lives. Haluk Gerger is allowed visits, but not with journalists. His wife managed to get Sunday Morning’s Joan Melancon into the prison.
(Renan Gerger through interpreter) I make this drive to the Haymana Prison on Wednesdays and Sundays, visiting days. I am Renan Gerger, Haluk’s wife. I am forty-five, a civil engineer. Haluk used to teach International Politics at Ankara University. Now he writes. It’s his writing that put him in jail. We wanted to travel, see the world. We don’t have children. It’s just the two of us. But, we won’t be going anywhere for a while. We just have to wait, wait until Haluk is free.
(Mary O’Connell) Haluk Gerger won’t be free anytime soon. His twenty-month jail sentence is up in September, but he has to pay a fine before they’ll let him go– the equivalent of 6,000 American dollars. He refuses to pay it, on principle. That means another three years in jail, and another regular commute to the prison for Renan Gerger.
(Renan Gerger) Across Turkey there are people in cars, just like us, or they go by bus to visit their loved ones in prison. And for what? It’s hard to accept that Haluk and all the others are in jail because of their thoughts. You know, I used to think Haymana was a pretty little village. I didn’t pay much attention to the prison. But once Haluk is free, I don’t ever want to come back here again. I never want to see Haymana again. I drove out here alone once. I won’t do that again. It just made me too sad. It’s easier traveling with friends. We can talk about other things.
(Joan Melancon) Renan’s friend on this trip is a twenty-six year old Kurdish woman. Her husband is in the same jail. He wrote a play about the Kurds. That was enough to convict him. Anyone who publicly criticizes the state, or even expresses sympathy for the Kurds, can end up in jail.
(Renan Gerger) Normally, the police come at night. A friend of Haluk’s was picked up at his home one night, but Haluk turned himself in to the police. It was just too tense. You know they’re going to arrest you but you don’t know when, so you wait and wait and wait. It’s stressful.
We’re almost there. The guards will be waiting for us. They’ll search our bags, ask for identification, and that kind of thing. It’s a bit more relaxed on Sundays. Only family can visit. But they won’t body- search me; they don’t do that to the wives. So I’ll take your tape recorder in under my jacket. I’ll tell them you’re a cousin visiting from Canada. We have lots of cousins. So, now you’re one of the family!
(Joan Melancon) As we pull up to the prison, a couple of cars drive in behind us. Several women get out, the wives of other political prisoners. They hug each other, then go in. After the search, the guards escort the women to see their husbands. We’re taken down a long, dark corridor into a tiny courtyard. There’s a bench along one wall and a few broken-down wooden chairs. High stonewalls are covered by several inches of barbed wire. There’s no roof, so at least there’s fresh air. Haluk Gerger is there with his cellmate, an Economics professor, now a political prisoner. His wife and two-year-old daughter are also visiting. The guard leaves. Haluk Gerger tells me we have a couple of hours that it’s okay to take out the tape recorder.
(Haluk Gerger) It’s very difficult to express the Kurdish predicament. Think of the Blacks in South Africa. They were, of course, oppressed and discriminated against, but at least their basic identity was accepted. They were Blacks, and because they were Blacks, they were being oppressed. But the identity of the Kurds is not even accepted. It is like telling the Blacks in South Africa that they are white. The Kurds are forced to say that they are Turks. So the government, since it is incapable of solving this ethnic problem peacefully, chooses militarism and war. In conditions of war and militarism, you cannot expect democracy or peace to flourish. And this is what’s going on in Turkey.
(Joan Melancon) Haluk Gerger is forty-seven. He’s pale, and looks tired. As we talk, he squeezes a little green rubber ball in one hand, exercise for his wrist. He slipped in the shower and broke it. He makes a point of saying he has not been mistreated in prison, not like his cellmate and others he knows who have been tortured. He thinks that’s because of the international interest in his case. Haluk Gerger is not Kurdish, but he is well known in Europe and in the United States as a political scientist, writer and humanitarian. He’s also respected and liked in Turkey, so much so that the same politicians responsible for the law that put him behind bars also line up to visit him in jail.
(Haluk Gerger) Even the Minister of Culture has visited. He said openly that he came to apologize on behalf of the Turkish Government and the Turkish State for putting us behind bars. He said the Turkish people will one day understand that speaking out is good for the country and its people.
(Joan Melancon) What do you think of that apology, what does it mean?
(Haluk Gerger) It doesn’t mean anything. They are empty words, which is another mastery of Turkish politicians. You put someone in prison, simply because he has written an article or a book, or expressed himself in peaceful manners. Then you come and apologize, and afterwards he continues to stay in prison. These are the Social Democrats of Turkey, the most progressive party in power. Now think of the others. Sometimes I am ashamed to breathe the same air with these people.
(Joan Melancon) You turned yourself in, you went to the police. Why did you do that rather than wait to be picked up?
(Haluk Gerger) I wanted to take the initiative. I didn’t want to give them the pleasure of picking me up. I think that by coming here, I did good to my cause. Through my suffering, the Kurdish predicament also receives attention. I have tried to show other Turkish intellectuals that sometimes we should sacrifice ourselves for the good of the people, for peace and democracy. And this was the only thing I could do. I am a pacifist, I just write. So what could I do? I couldn’t go to fight physically, so I fight by writing about the conflict.
(Joan Melancon) What is the thing that you miss the most about being free?
(Haluk Gerger) I do miss things. But I don’t think that’s the most important part of it, because I feel myself as part of a struggle which transcends myself, my personal feelings and my personal needs. The terrible thing is that I always receive terrible news through the media. People are being killed. All this bloodshed, all this violence, and our children are dying every day! So I think this is the worst side of all this, that you can’t do anything, you are just helpless, sort of a headless spectator. I sometimes feel that if I were outside, at least I could do something. What, I don’t know, because I know that the people outside are also helpless. This feeling of helplessness has become a sort of torture for me.
(Joan Melancon) How do you deal with that when you’re in here?
(Haluk Gerger) By continuing my struggle through writing.
(poem) I met Ayshe in an old gray rainy European city. Ayshe is her guerrilla code name. She wouldn’t tell me her real name. Her eyes looked fifteen, but by the lines in her forehead, you could say she was a hundred years old. She wouldn’t tell me her real age. The blue eyes of this Kurdish girl were always crying. She cries watching a romantic film on TV. She cries listening to stories of real-life torture of political prisoners. She cries for her home in the mountains. She wants to go home, but she doesn’t want to die. Afraid of death, she cries. Afraid she might have to kill a soldier.
(Haluk Gerger) The government says that the in last ten years, they have killed fifteen to twenty thousand Kurdish guerrillas. Killing twenty thousand young men and women, girls, sometimes children, would mean that you had killed at least one person almost in every Kurdish family. And if you are killing thousands of young people of a nation, of a people, simply because they want to express themselves in their own language, to develop their own culture, and to be able to say that they are different from the Turks, it is a terrible thing to do! Of course Turkish soldiers are also dying there, and they don’t know what they are fighting for, they don’t know for what cause they are dying.
(poem) I met Mustafa on a bus ride. He was just about to join the army and wanted to see the city before he died. Mustafa from Samsun–nervous, angry. Angry about the Kurdish people. Angry about being sent to a meaningless war. Angry with himself for being scared. “Of course the Kurds should have their rights, but they also did lots of bad things”, he says. “Some of them are nice people. We had a Kurdish neighbor.” “Maybe he’s a guerrilla now”, I reply. Mustafa is quiet. As we leave the bus Mustafa shakes my hand and looks at me warmly. “I like you”, he says. I try to say something but he leaves. Mustafa, crazy about life. If he meets Ayshe in the mountains, will he be crazy about her? If he sees her blue Kurdish eyes, would he still shoot? And Ayshe, would she kill him? I saw the wish for peace in Ayshe’s eyes, in Mustafa’s heart. If we continue to close our eyes, what happens to that wish for peace?
(Haluk Gerger) I’m scared that something like what happened in the former Yugoslavia will happen in Turkey, because as far as I know, the Turkish system and the Turkish political class is taking Serbia as their model to deal with the Kurdish uprising. What the Serbs are doing to Bosnians, the Turkish Government is doing to the Kurds. It’s ethnic cleansing. So I’m not very optimistic about the peace process in Turkey.
(Joan Melancon) Haluk’s wife Renan gestures at me to stop for a few minutes. She wants her husband to rest and eat the picnic lunch she’s made. As they eat, the muezzin at the nearby village mosque can be heard calling faithful Muslims to prayer. Haluk Gerger tells me he is not a religious man. He doesn’t pray. Instead, he says, he writes. Renan smuggles the writing out and gets it published. Each time one of his articles appears in a magazine or newspaper, he and the editors break the law. Each time they are charged with damaging the integrity of the Turkish Republic. That likely means more jail time for Haluk Gerger, on top of the three years he still faces for refusing to pay a $6,000 fine.
(Joan Melancon) When do you expect to be free?
(Haluk Gerger) I don’t know really, but I’m prepared to stay much longer than my normal time.
(Joan Melancon) You refuse to pay the fine… why?
(Haluk Gerger) This is another part of my protest. I reject my punishment. Of course I cannot reject their putting me into prison, because this is their initiative. They have the power to do so. But paying the fine is on my initiative. I won’t do that, because I believe that I am innocent. I think they are the guilty ones. I’m not going to finance the Turkish war against the Kurds.
(Joan Melancon) Do you dream about what you’ll do when you’re out, whenever that day comes?
(Haluk Gerger) No, no, not yet, because I don’t know when I’m getting out. You see, I want to be free of my weaknesses, because this is the time to be strong. So if I start to think about the outside life and the good things that I have there, I might lose some of the strength that I need here. So I don’t think about it.
(Joan Melancon) At that, Renan Gerger gets up quickly from beside her husband and goes to the other side of the courtyard. She’s crying. We end our conversation, hide the tape recorder again, and wait for the guards to take us out.