Emine Ocak (Credit: Gül Gündüz)

Emine Ocak vividly remembers the day her son’s body was found.

She was 60, and it was 1995, one of the most violent years in the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Political, military and economic crises engulfed the country.

Her son, Hasan, a 30-year-old teacher, had disappeared after being arrested. The family spent nearly two months trying to locate him, before tracing his grave to a nearby field. They dug out his badly decomposed body and gave him a proper burial.

“I thought I would hear my son’s voice again one day, but when I learned that his dead body was found… my world was destroyed,” Ocak said.

The discovery of Hasan’s body, as well as that of another detainee called Rıdvan Karakoç, spurred the families of others who had disappeared in the aftermath of political crackdowns to take action. Ocak, along with workers at the Human Rights Association, a Turkish NGO, and other families began a sit-in protest in front of the Galatasaray High School on Istanbul’s popular Istiklal Avenue on May 27, 1995.

“We were four to five families at first,” said Ocak. “Then we became ten, and then 20, and then 30 families. Then we realised that there are many families like us.”

More than 24 years later, the so-called Saturday Mothers are still waiting for answers.

The group carried out its sit-ins for 200 weeks, before suspending them for nearly a decade due to harassment by security forces. They resumed in January 2009, including children of the detainees who were raised without their fathers, meeting each Saturday at noon holding red carnations and photographs of their relatives. In August last year, they were banned once again.

Inspired by the Plaza de Mayo Mothers in Argentina, who wanted to know the whereabouts of their children who had disappeared under the military dictatorship, their aim was to discover the fate of their loved ones, many of whom were detained in the 1990s amid a crackdown on the Kurdish-majority southeast of the country.

“In [the] nineties, disappearance in custody became widespread and systematically applied,” said Sebla Arcan, a member of the Human Rights Association, who has campaigned on this issue for 24 years. The group estimates the number of disappeared to be around 1,200.

“Disappearance in custody was carried out as an anti-terrorism strategy of the government and it targeted the opponents,” she said.

The Saturday Mothers campaign is the longest-running act of civil disobedience in Turkey.

“The relatives of those who are lost and human rights supporters started the longest peaceful protest against the disappearance during custody,” Arcan continued, adding that the families had pursued all legal avenues to inquire about their loved ones.

Besna Tosun was 12 when her father disappeared. Originally from a village near Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey, the family moved to Istanbul, where three policemen showed up at their doorstep and took the father away.

“We also became a part of the protest of [the] Saturday Mothers, right after losing my dad,” she said. “We have been in this fight for justice and truth for 24 years.”

In Feb 2011, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met the Saturday Mothers and pledged to form a parliamentary commission to get to the bottom of the allegations of forced disappearance.

Serpil Taşkaya, 32, was just seven years old when she started going to the Saturday sit-ins, and he was part of the delegation that took part in the Erdogan meeting.

“We all went there and told our stories one by one, [and] she said, ‘I will stand by your stories, do not worry at all, I will meet your demands,’” Taşkaya said. “We were expectant. We thought it would bring us positive results. But then nothing was done.” 

The commission’s report did find that one individual, Cemil Kırbayır – a high-profile detainee taken into custody in September 1980 after a military coup – had been tortured to death.

The government, facing intensifying criticism over its increasingly authoritarian practices, also decided to end the sit-ins, which had begun attracting thousands of demonstrators every week.

As families tried to gather for their 700th protest on Aug 25, 2018, security forces proceeded to violently disperse the vigil on the orders of the interior minister, Suleyman Soylu.

Soylu later said the gathering had been exploited over the years to promote sympathy for terrorist organisations, a catch-all epithet the Turkish government often uses to tar its opponents. He defended the police, saying there was no evidence for such claims of abuse.

“It is true that we did not let them protest, because we wanted to end this exploitation and the trickery,” he said. “We wanted this two-faced cheating to end. What were we supposed to do? Should we have allowed motherhood to be abused by a terrorist organisation?”

Tosun said that the mothers were detained and insulted for hours by police officers until being released later that night.  They have not been allowed to resume their sit-ins at the Galtasaray High School and adjacent square.

Nevertheless, the families are determined not to give up their search.

“This struggle started with my grandmother and continued with my mother,” Taşkaya said. “Now it continues with me and it will continue with my children too.”

She continued, “Even if I find the grave of my father, even if there is only one bone remaining, I will continue my search. This struggle will continue for sure. That square is my childhood. I grew up in there. My children will grow up in that square, too. Galatasaray Square is the place where I tried to find my father and where I looked for the bones. And it is the place where my father’s grave is.”