Should children die?

The winter months of late 2015 and early 2016 were a dark time in southeastern Turkey. Our cities were under bombardment. There were military curfews in many Kurdish cities. Children were dying from shrapnel and gunshot wounds. Most of schools in the mainly Kurdish southeast were closed. Many teachers had left. Kurdish people were isolated from the rest of the country. It was hard to make even our voices heard under the bombardment.

There were some muted protests in western Turkey. But most of the people who live in the more affluent west of the country appeared indifferent to what was happening in the east.

I was trying to increase public awareness by writing about the war and human rights violations. At the same time, I was helping families whose children had been left dead on the streets and trying to break the military curfew in the ancient Sur district of Diyarbakır, the biggest city in southeastern Turkey.

It was one of those dark days, Jan. 8, 2016. All day I had protested for Sur. I returned home in the evening. My sons were watching television. Beyaz Show, a popular entertainment programme featuring film stars and singers, was on. Viewers also call in to the show. I heard a voice; all Turkey heard the same voice talking to the show on the phone: “Children shouldn’t die!”

A woman from Diyarbakır who introduced herself as a teacher was speaking:

“Are you aware of what is happening in the east of the country? The things that are happening here are shown very differently in the media. Don’t stay silent. Approach it with a bit of sensibility as a human. See, hear and lend a hand to us. Shame; people shouldn’t die, children shouldn’t die, mothers shouldn’t cry.”

After the teacher’s words, host Beyazıt Öztürk thanked her and said: “Be sure that we are doing our best to make people aware. But these things you said are giving a lesson to us one more time. We will try to do more. Greetings to the people over there.”

Hundreds of people in the TV studio led by the host, know as Beyaz, began to clap for the teacher, Ayşe. This is the first time that millions of people, ordinary people in Turkey heard that children were dying in the east of the country. That night I went to bed full of hope.

But hope collapsed. The next day everything was turned upside down. The government, the ruling party and nationalists accused Ayşe of spreading terrorist propaganda and the host Beyaz of supporting terrorists.

That evening Beyaz was on television again, saying that he did not recognise Ayşe’s “hidden aim”, that he was a man who loved his country, that his father was a police officer and that he supported the Turkish army and police. He apologised to the Turkish people and state.

Across the Turkish media, there were theories about Ayşe. Was she really a teacher? Does she work for the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)? Where is she from?

The following day investigations were opened against the teacher, identified as Ayşe Çelik, the TV Channel, Kanal D, and programme host, Beyaz.

Six days after the broadcast, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused Çelik of spreading terrorist propaganda and said she should be punished.

Weeks later charges against Beyaz were dropped, but Kanal D was fined nearly $300,000 and a court case was opened against Çelik.

A group of intellectuals reported themselves to prosecutors also stating “children shouldn’t die” and investigations into them were immediately opened.

Çelik was fired from her job and her picture was put on government media, naming her as a terrorist.

But Çelik stood by her words:

“People shouldn’t die, kids shouldn’t die, mothers shouldn’t cry,” she said

Last month, Çelik was given a prison sentence of 15 months for “praising terrorism and a terrorist organisation”. She was pregnant. Campaigns were launched demanding that her baby not be born in prison.

On Oct. 21 Çelik gave birth. In a short time both mother and child will be sent to jail.

After she was sentenced, Çelik said in an interview:

“I was shocked when I heard the verdict. I asked myself many times: ‘how can it be a crime to say that children shouldn’t die?’ I didn’t know that saying ‘children shouldn’t die’ is a crime in this country. In fact, it never occurred to me that saying ‘children shouldn’t die’ could be a crime in any place in the world.”

But today in Turkey, it is a crime.

And so I ask the Turkish state:

Should children die?