“Being able to hold their dead body, to hug them, is something else. It must be a special feeling, to hug their lifeless body, to send them on their last journey. (…) I think that having a grave must provide some closure, the sense of knowing they are resting here. Sharing your problems with them, letting it all out and crying at their grave for hours, these are all things we haven’t been able to experience. (…) In debates about the forced disappearances, sometimes people argue that they do not care what happens to them after they die, that it does not matter where they are laid to rest. But it does matter: it matters that their loved ones have a grave to visit. Those of us who lack that are left without closure.”
These words belong to Zeynep, a Kurdish woman whose husband was a victim of the forced disappearances in Turkey in the 1990s. Her words appear in a report titled “Holding up the Photograph,” which was published in 2014 by the Truth Justice Memory Center as one of the first efforts to focus on the wives of the disappeared in order to approach the human rights violations of forced disappearances from a gendered perspective.
This report, which I have read many times, focuses on the spouses left behind by the victims of forced disappearances in the 1990s, most of whom were men. It illustrates what it means to be married to the disappeared. How these women were able to stay on their feet after being widowed and left with young children to care for, how they searched for their disappeared husbands and loved ones, whether they were able to search for them at all, how they got by, the price they paid… How they coped with all of their unresolved emotions…
As someone who lost loved ones, though they were not close relatives, in the 90s, I learned over time that words could never adequately describe the disappeared. In the 90s, our youth was accompanied by the sorrow in the eyes of those who had lost their loved ones. Those who did not want to accept condolences, who continued looking, bringing shovels with them as they searched rivers and mountains…
Time passes, but everything in the house remains unchanged, so that everything will be familiar to them if they return. Children grow up, the elderly move away, but your life remains frozen in that moment. Your life is purgatory. You get to the point where all you want is a piece of bone.
This is what Naze told my good friend Tahir Elçi and I when we hosted her upon our return from Brussels to Diyarbakır in May 2014. Speaking of her husband Hükmet Şimşek and father-in-law Hamdo Şimşek, who were forcibly disappeared in 1993, she said, “For all of the unsolved murders, we want an apology, and a bundle of bones.” Naze neither found the bones of her loved ones, nor received an apology from the government. After Tahir, who was a Kurdish human rights lawyer, joined the list of unsolved murder victims, she lost all hope in this country, and never wants to set foot on this soil again.
Another pair that is dear to my heart, two lovely sisters named Yeşim and Derya, came from Norway with shovels in the summer of 2014 to search for their father’s bones. They had spoken to local villagers to determine likely locations of their father’s remains, and having given up believing in the Turkish government, they were digging on their own when I happened upon them. “There is no end to this soil that you are digging,” I said to Yeşim. Yeşim responded, “It is hard to live this way. For the past twenty years, not a day has gone by that we haven’t thought of our father.
We always thought that he could be alive, that he might come back one day. If we find his bones and lay him to rest in a nice place, he will rest in peace and we will rest easy. Can you believe the happiness that we get from the bones of our deceased? We will find so much happiness if we can find his bones…” She has also given up hope for this country.
Though no one wants to speak of it, in the last three years, new bones have been added to the bones of the 90s. Although no one speaks, writes, or acknowledges them, there are unnamed, numbered graves in the Cizre Child Cemetery. Though three years have passed, the owners of the unnamed bones have not been identified. Gaziantep, Erzurum, Diyarbakır… in southwestern Turkey, mothers have been waiting outside of forensic medicine facilities for a strand of hair belonging to their children.
I met one of these mothers, who was from Eskişehir, two years ago in Cizre. She was searching for a trace of her son who had last spoken to her on the phone to say, “I’m going to support the people of Cizre in their struggle.” If he were dead, she wanted his bones. People neither heard the pleas of this mother, as well as other mothers, nor do they want to hear them.
This country houses thousands of people who have been waiting for weeks, even years, to receive a handful of bones. For 700 weeks, the Saturday Mothers have met every Saturday in central Istanbul to raise their voices in hopes of finding the bones of their children, spouses, mothers, and fathers. For 700 weeks, their protests are filling the void left behind by the missing bodies of their loved ones.
Relatives of people who were disappeared in the war that has been ongoing for the past three years are under too much pressure to be able to mount this protest. The bodies of their loved ones are ignored, reduced to nothing. For now, they are nonexistent, invisible, not to be seen or heard. Neither pro-government nor opposition media are acknowledging these mothers. Ignoring these mothers searching for a piece of their children, and these lost bodies, is a matter of convenience. Anyone that touches the disappeared is burned. And yet those bodies, those bones, are whispering to us. At times they whisper from the Cizre Children’s Cemetery, at times from underneath a new mansion being built in Sur, at times from the mouth of a crane in Nusaybin…
In a video prepared for the 700th week, a Saturday Mother named Sabriye Maltu says, “If they are dead, we want their bones. That is all.”
That is all!