Search not over for victims of enforced disappearances in Turkey

Saying a loved one has been lost is rarely an adequate or fitting expression for the devastation of a death in the family. Visit Galatasaray Square in central Istanbul at midday on any Saturday, however, and you can see what that word means on the faces of the women gathered there and in the pictures they carry of the children they have, in the full sense of the word, lost.

These are the women known in Turkey as the Saturday Mothers, whose sons and daughters were among those torn from their families in the hundreds – if not thousands – of disappearances in Turkey since the bloody aftermath of the 1980 coup d’état.

The Saturday Mothers held their first vigil in 1995, during another dark period of Turkey’s recent history. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)’s separatist insurgency had been ongoing since 1984, and the state’s response included the imposition of emergency rule on Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces. Again, people disappeared without a trace, and again their families were left without an explanation, without even bones to bury.

Families of the disappeared with their pictures
Families of the disappeared with their pictures

“Every citizen who has lost a child should be able to go to their grave and pray,” said Ümit Özdağ, a deputy leader of the centre-right opposition Good Party, in a statement demonstrating the continuing relevance of the mothers’ plight 23 years after their first protest. “If the state bears any responsibility in these cases, it should help.”

Ahval spoke to two families of Saturday Mothers whose sons were among the hundreds who disappeared after being picked up by police after the Sep. 12 1980 coup.

Cemil Kırbayır would have been among the first of hundreds of thousands when he was arrested at his home early on the morning after the coup. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret,” his sister remembers him saying. “I trust in justice.”

By a month later, Cemil had vanished.

His brother Mikail brought him clean clothes and spending money on Oct. 7, and with face-to-face visits prohibited, made do with a note from Cemil. “I’m fine,” it said. “Don’t worry.”

On the ninth, the police station in the east Turkish city of Kars where he had been held announced that Cemil had escaped. The three men arrested alongside him were all accounted for, but Cemil was gone, and would never be seen or heard from again.

Those other detainees would later recount the clear memory of their last glimpse of Cemil. They saw him taken for interrogation on Oct. 8, naked, blindfolded, and covered in water. They say they heard struggling with his interrogators, until there came a “pop” sound from the room, followed by silence.

Mikail and his family knew from the outset that Cemil had not escaped. They spent years searching for any trace of what happened, and eventually struck a nerve: the district governor in their hometown of Göle summoned Mikail and told him he could no longer live there.

“They planned it in advance. They wanted to cover up Cemil’s killing,” said Mikail. “They thought I would find out who killed him.”

The family would not, and has not given up the search. The sight of their elderly mother Berfo at the square, well past the age of 90, made her a powerful symbol of the Saturday Mothers’ relentless pursuit of the truth. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, paid her a visit in 2011 and promised to find Cemil’s remains. “Erdoğan is Berfo’s last hope,” Turkey’s pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak proclaimed.

Yet Berfo would die two years later aged 105, without ever seeing that hope realised. Her family buried her in Göle; her grave, as she insisted, lies next to another that will lie empty until Cemil’s remains are found and interred by her side.

A photograph of Berfo Kirbayir
A photograph of Berfo Kirbayir

The father of Hayrettin Eren would like Berfo pass away without being reunited with his son’s remains. He spent much of the 19 days in intensive care before his death under sedation, but he came round long enough to utter last words to his family.

“Find his bones. Don’t give up.”

Hayrettin’s family say he was at heart a humanist who had been inspired by the revolutionary spirit that had swept Europe since 1968, and found natural friends in the left-wing political movement targeted by the junta after the 1980 coup. They remember him as a loving and dutiful son with a strong creative streak and an ear for foreign languages, which he had studied at university.

“He used to talk to tourists in Istanbul’s centre to improve his English,” his sister İkbal said. “He painted beautiful oil paintings; my mother has some of them hanging at home. He liked music, knew how to dance, played guitar, went to the cinema ... He used to love the dessert called Ashure and we had made some before he was arrested. I remember it sitting in the fridge for days. We didn’t make Ashure again for a decade.”

Hayrettin Eren disappeared after Turkey's 1980 coup
Hayrettin Eren disappeared after Turkey's 1980 coup

Like Cemil, Hayrettin was arrested shortly after the coup, when he went to an appointment with a newly married friend for whom he had found a home. By a stroke of ill fortune, the friend had been arrested with the time and place of their meeting written on a note in his pocket; the police turned up there and arrested Hayrettin.

His mother Elmas learned what had happened, and set out to find her son. But from the start she was directed back and forth between two Istanbul police stations: the first had his name listed on the register, while Hayrettin’s car was parked outside the other. Both stations denied he was there, and eventually both his name in the book and the car disappeared.

Every official body the family asked said that Hayrettin had never been detained. Witnesses later reported seeing him at one of the stations, where they say he endured days of torture, but the Erens could not for years know or accept that he would not return.

“We never thought of him as lost. We always thought he must be somewhere,” said İkbal. “We wrote to the National Security Council and they responded that they were searching for him. We never predicted that things would end like this. If we had, we would have even given our lives to get him back. There wasn’t a police station or jail in Istanbul that we didn’t check.”

In 1982, when their other son Faruk was detained, the family came face-to-face with police chief Mehmet Ağar, who went on to become a government minister in the 1990s.

“You know where Hayrettin’s hiding, you tell us,” Ağar demanded Elmas when she went to give a statement at the station after Faruk’s release.

Decades later, Ağar was jailed as a result of the investigation into the 1996 Susurluk scandal, which revealed links between state officials, mafia figures and extrajudicial killings.

The years, the trauma of losing her son, and the uncertainty of his fate, have taken their toll on Elmas, now 85, and she can no longer pursue justice as relentlessly as she did for decades after Hayrettin’s disappearance. For her family, though, and for all the other Saturday Mothers, this hunt will go on until their loved ones’ remains, and the truth, are uncovered.