The 700th Gathering for Relatives of Disappeared People Turns Violent in Turkey

An 82-year-old mother was dragged away as sirens diluted the sound of coughing from tear gas while police fired plastic bullets and citizens were arrested at what was supposed to be the 700th peaceful gathering of the Saturday Mothers in Istanbul, Turkey, on August 25, 2018.

The Saturday Mothers have gathered at Galatasaray Square since 1995, demanding recognition of the state’s role in the forced disappearances of their loved ones. Many of those who disappeared were activists, labor leaders and political organizers.

According to Sebla Arcan, a member of the Istanbul chapter of the Human Rights Association’s Commission Against Disappearances Under Custody, forced disappearances in Turkey peaked in 1995, with 500 claims of missing people filed to the government that year. Arcan says it was not uncommon for someone to be taken into custody by police to disappear and never be heard from again. According to Arcan, who was detained Saturday, family members who complained or inquired about their missing relatives were also at risk. “Some who were looking for their disappeared relatives disappeared themselves while trying to find them.”

Maside Ocak, another organizer who was detained Saturday, has been demonstrating since 1995. “What brought us together was that we had no tolerance left anymore.” Maside’s brother, Ali Ocak, explained the importance of these sittings: “We’ve lost our jobs, our health, our brothers and sisters, but the solidarity here is what keeps us going. It’s the only thing we have.”

Ali Ocak (on the right) holds a photo of his brother, Hasan Ocak.
Ali Ocak (on the right) holds a photo of his brother, Hasan Ocak.

As the friends and relatives of the disappeared kept returning each week, violence from the police ensued. For months, mothers with fresh wounds would return the next week, enduring new wounds before the old ones could heal. With each passing Saturday, other mothers joined with photos of their disappeared children.

Many of these mothers have now passed away, but one of the few who remain faced the same kind of violence last Saturday. Eighty-two-year-old Emine Ocak is the mother of Hasan Ocak, who disappeared in 1995 at the age of 30. She was also arrested on Saturday. Hasan’s family began an intense search that would initiate the Saturday Mothers movement.

The Ocaks turned to the press and human rights activists. They went to Istanbul’s Parliament, to Ankara, and carried out several actions of civil disobedience. Every day, the family searched for Hasan’s body at the morgue where unidentified bodies were taken. During one of their searches at the morgue, they found a file on a desk that contained photographs which resembled Hasan. His family learned that he was taken into custody by police on March 21, 1995, where he was fingerprinted. According to the file the family had found, he had been killed on March 26, 1995. His body was discarded in a forest, where it was later found and classified as an unidentified person. Hasan’s brother Ali recalled, “By matching his fingerprints with the fingerprints in that file, we identified that it was Hasan.”

Photos of the disappeared among the crowd.
Photos of the disappeared among the crowd

For 700 Saturdays, crowded Galatasaray Square has been a makeshift cemetery for these families. Mothers carefully choose their outfits. For them, it is their time to spend with their disappeared children. Sons and daughters communicate with their disappeared fathers. One daughter announced, “Father, I became a lawyer.”

But on August 25, 2018, their solidarity, their sacred cemetery, was disrupted with tear gas and water cannons. And despite a government ban on the Saturday gatherings, the families of those still missing are determined to meet again.

Editor’s note: August 30 marks the International Day of the Disappeared.