The Saturday Mothers: An “example of unity in Turkey”

Saturday 25th August marked the 700th anniversary of the Saturday Mothers, who have gathered every week since the 1980s to silently protest political assassinations and state-forced disappearances in Turkey.

Typically, the Saturday Mothers hold photos of their “lost” loved ones and silently protest through a sit-in and vigil. They have been meeting on Saturdays in Galatasaray Square ― off Istanbul's main pedestrian drag Istiklal Street ― since May 27, 2015. August 25th marked their 700th sit-in.

Although the Saturday Mothers are Turkey's longest-running non-violent protest group, Turkish authorities banned Saturday's protest vigil. When the Saturday Mothers attempted to gather, police used using tear gas and water cannons to disperse them. At least 20 activists were detained.

Onursal Adıgüzel, a secularist People’s Republican Party (CHP) MP representing Istanbul, condemned the police response, saying that people – and parliamentary deputies – are not free in a country where democratic rights are restricted.

This isn’t the first time the Saturday Mothers have faced obstacles to their weekly act of civil disobedience. According to Turkish author Fikret Başkaya, the Saturday Mothers have fought against police pressure and are the “pride of our society.”

The primary aims of Turkey’s Saturday Mothers include locating the bodies of those who disappeared during the 80s and 90s and holding those responsible to account.

According to the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD), which helps the families of those who have disappeared in Turkey and is the leading supporter of Saturday Mothers, the number of confirmed missing persons in Turkey is 800.

The Stockholm Center for Freedom reported that only 20 cases of forced disappearance were recorded between the 1930s until the late 1980s. But the number of state-endorsed forced disappearances surged in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup and during the armed conflict between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish government during the 1990s.

Selba Arcan, a member of the Missing Persons Commission at the IHD, says that it is difficult to calculate the exact number of disappeared people. “I can comfortably say this,” she added, “We are talking about hundreds of people. Even the disappearance of one person is a serious crime.”

Many have gone to international courts to seek justice. Sezgin Tanrikulu, a human rights lawyer and CHP deputy representing Istanbul, says relatives from 60 of the 757 people he believes are missing have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

In 55 of these cases, Tanrikulu says, the European Court of Human Rights handed Turkey heavy sentences. But despite these convictions, no progress has been made in reaching the perpetrators, meaning justice cannot be delivered.

"No matter the government, this political position shows that 'losing people on purpose' is a tactic employed as needed," he said.

Many claim the state has never launched proper investigations to find out what happened to those who disappeared after being detained. Given the gap left by domestic courts, the Saturday Mothers are looking to be heard outside the state apparatus.

Many families want to learn what happened, even if their loved one has already been found dead. Amongst them are the Ocak family. They lost their son Hasan in 1995 while living in the Alevi-majority neighborhood of Gazi.

Hasan had organized a protest after law enforcement killed twelve civilians. He was taken into custody on March 21, 1995. According to his family, after five days of torture he was suffocated with a piece of string or rope.

When Hasan’s family tried to find him, they made no headway until they got a call informing them a body had been found. Maside Ocak, Hasan’s sister, explains that when they went to identify the body “one side of his face was smashed so it was unrecognizable.”

Hasan’s mother Emine Ocak was allegedly among those detained last Saturday in Galatasaray Square.

Emine Ocak
Emine Ocak

"We stand in solidarity together with Hasan and other people who have been murdered,” she said, “In 1994, Ismail Bahçeci was murdered. Hasan said that a democratic response had to be made to find those who killed Ismail."

The Saturday Mothers act as a platform giving those like the Ocak family a voice. To ensure the protest’s democratic message, Arcan asks that people shed their political affiliations before stepping foot in the square.

"No group or party has come to Galatasaray Square with political views,” said Arcan, “Everyone gathers together with a 'Saturday Mothers' identity. The Saturday Mothers should be an example of unity in Turkey. We may have different opinions, but we must stand united in the name of humanity.”

Tanrıkulu has served as the legal representative for several families whose relatives have disappeared while in custody and describes the experience of a Saturday Mother.

"For families of the missing, the suffering and trauma continue. If there's a grave, then you can mourn for a few days, your pain will be lifted a little with the support of close friends, and it'll get better. However, there's no such thing for the Saturday Mothers. Their mourning isn't over.”

Their fight is far from over as well. When asked when the Saturday Mothers’ sitting protests would come to an end, Arcan said:

“Our demands are not only the demands of the Saturday Mothers but also demands that concern every aspect of society. Turkey needs to democratize. It needs to have a state of law. There needs to be human rights. Independent judgements need to be made. For us to quit our demonstrations, the perpetrators need to be tried, and the missing must be found.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.