Months have passed since the beginning of the sit-in protests of Kurdish mothers in front of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Diyarbakır provincial office. A reaction against the outlawed PKK responsible for abducting and recruiting their children. While the number of protesting families are now more than 50, the number of sit-in protesters increases with each passing day with new protestors joining in support of the others.
More recently, we witnessed the heart-wrenching story of 82-year-old Hurinaz Omay, a mother who has never ceased to hope. Her son was abducted by the PKK in Bitlis province 24 years ago, and she has never seen him since. Omay even went to Qandil and Mahmur, the headquarters of the PKK, twice in the hope of finding him. She sheds tears full of grief and sorrow during the later years of her life, and still dreams of finding her son no matter whether he is dead or alive. Omay says in all honestly that the HDP does not represent the Kurdish people but deceives Kurdish children into joining the PKK, clearly expressing her revolt.
For the past two months, we have been hearing many stories we have never heard of. On one side there are a slew of losses that have been hidden from the state, and on the other side there is the HDP, the real addressee of the issue, and who strive to position themselves as the political wing of the Kurdish movement. The HDP admitted its direct relation to the PKK in various statements and in many cases. More recently, the HDP deputy Leyla Güven said: “Recruitments in “guerilla forces”, conflict and war will continue as the Kurdish issue continues to persist,” revealing the HDP’s expectation of Kurdish families and their attitude towards kidnappings.
It would not be an exaggeration if we say that this civilian protest and response vocalized as “edi bese” (meaning “enough is enough” in Kurdish) was the first time the PKK and the HDP faced a loud and clear stance from their own base. Some families lost trace of their children many years ago, while others lost their children only recently. Several families whose children were kidnapped by the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), the offshoot of the PKK based in Iran, also joined the sit-in for their children. Families and parents of many military and police officers who were abducted by the PKK also joined them.
We first faced the stark truth we already knew about when Hacire Akar turned up at the doorstep of the HDP Diyarbakır office one night. Only a week later, on September 3, 2019, the movement of the families inspired by Akar turned into a collective sit-in protest. Akar’s son Mehmet returned home on August 24, giving hope to the many other families who had also lost their children. Following Hacire Akar, women like Fevziye Çetinkaya, Remziye Akkoyun and Ayşegül Biçer showed up at the HDP office and demanded the return of their children. Their resilience and resistance set an example to other mothers.
Vigil at the HDP Office
After Süleyman Çetinkaya, son of Fevziye Çetinkaya, disappeared on August 31, a member of his family said in protest: “No young people have remained in Diyarbakır because of you, they are either in grave or in prison, the hell with your Kurdistan cause!”, which shook society. The fact that this expression was uttered by a Kurdish family in Diyarbakır proved that this was the last straw. In following days, families started their hopeful wait to reunite with their children.
The Biçer family, who joined the sit-in for their 17-year-old kidnapped son, became one of the most well-known names of the protest alongside Hacire Akar. Thirty-two-year-old mother Ayşegül Biçer told the press that their son was deceived and kidnapped 11 months ago, adding that they recieved a phone call two weeks after his kidnapping and learned that their son was in the hands of the YPG terror group in Syria. During my visit to Diyarbakır on September 8, I asked all the protesting families the same question: “Your children are lost, but why are you searching for them in front of the HDP office?” The answers of all the families were alike. They said that their children started visiting the HDP office and made new friends there before they were kidnapped, and the friends they made later pretended that they had never met their children after they disappeared. The families believe that their children were brainwashed at the HDP’s Diyarbakır office.
Another couple Fevziye and Şahap Çetinkaya joined the sit-in six days after their son Süleyman disappeared. Encouraged by Hacire Akar’s story, the parents thought that their sit-in would yield a result in a short time. When asked about how their son was kidnapped, they said that Süleyman was a very keen and skilled football player and was enrolled in a local football club (the mother also added that she does not know the club’s name). The travelling costs between their village and the club was paid for by the club. One day her son left home to play football and never returned. Fevziye also said that she saw her son entering and leaving the HDP office once while she was in the city to visit a doctor. The interviews we conducted with other families on the subject verify that children have been subjected to ideological indoctrination at various events held in places like cultural centers, music schools and sports clubs, not only in Diyarbakır but in many other cities, especially in Istanbul. They have been encouraged to support the PKK and join pro-PKK meetings and marches in such social environments.
Nevertheless, the families do not give any political or ideological message. They only express a wish that this atmosphere of conflict and war be over and for their lives to be normalized, stating that they were tired of worrying about the lives of their children all the time. Ayşegül Biçer calls out to her son with these words: “Give us a call please. If you can’t come, we will pick you up. Even though you are behind the mountains, we can cross them to reach you. Just give a call, and we will be there for you.” The Biçer family also underlined that they were threatened by the PKK after they joined the sit-in protest.
A mournful mother Saliha Edizer’s son Yakup was kidnapped in 2015, when he was only 16. Saliha said that she raised her son in poverty and her only wish was to see him study. According to her, Yakup, a hardworking student who loved his school and teachers, was kidnapped by the HDP and sent to the mountain only a week before he would have completed his second year in high school. His mother cannot help but say: “My son was lying his head on his soft and clean pillow when he was at home, and he is probably lying on rocks right now, I could not stand that”. It is known that some of the children went up to the mountains after indoctrination while some of them were abducted, numbed with drugs, and used in various services of the terror group.
Many other examples can be listed. All these painful and hopeless stories are angering. However, in our time in which everything appears as a “narrative” and perceptions precede reality, we need to meticulously reflect on this issue’s historic importance.
Mothers In Between ‘White Kurds’ and ‘White Turks’
The sit-in protests in front of the HDP Diyarbakır office are completely ad-hoc, and there is not any institution or organization behind them. Hacire Akar arrived at the doorstep of the HDP office taking every risk as a mother who has lost her son to the PKK and with nothing to lose. Until recently, publicly blaming the HDP in Diyarbakır was an act that was always wished for but never dared. As Ayşegül Biçer says, there are thousands of mothers who wish to turn up at the HDP office, but are afraid to do so.
The mothers’ protest means challenging a narrative told for years and built a supremacy of one specific discourse by the PKK and imposed on the people in the region. Thanks to this protest, they are saying: “Yes, I am protesting against you, and I no longer believe in your cause. You cannot use me, my family and my children, whom I gave birth to for the continuation of my bloodline, not for your so-called cause.”
Mothers can now clearly see that while poor Kurdish children have been wasted for nothing under a policy that was built on conflict. These children brought up in poverty were taken away from their mothers, while at the same time the children of senior figures of the HDP enjoy their comfort in Istanbul, living very privileged lives and studying at the best schools.
The protesters are not afraid to speak out about this fact now. Celil Begdaş, who lost his 17-year-old son to the PKK, showed journalists photos of senior HDP figure Pervin Buldan’s children vacationing in Paris and London. Begdaş does not wish that his child would be able to visit a hip café in Paris, he only wishes that his son could go to a public school, have a decent job, and just live with human dignity. After years constructing a protest discourse, it is clear there is now a yawning gap between the white Kurds and the Kurdish people.
The sit-in protests in Diyarbakır are not only staged by women, fathers are also present in support of the families. However, as Hacire Akar, Ayşegül Biçer and Fevziye Çetinkaya came to the fore in the media, the protests are mostly attributed to mothers. If their protest were against the state, they would have been supported by white Turks, secularists and those who lecture on women’s rights. Then such a protest would be documented by the foreign press and followed across the world.
But unfortunately, those who portray the YPJ’s underage girl fighters as heroes of freedom do not want to see Hacire Akar’s vigil at the HDP office. Women right’s lecturers would like to draw a picture of a homogenous “Kurdish women’s movement” which reiterates a specific role attributed to the activism of Kurdish women since the 1990s. There is a trend of valorizing, romanticizing and glorifying the Kurdish women’s movement, which has been politicized so far only in a specific framework.
However, women who go beyond the limits of the activism that has been deemed suitable for them, or beyond the roles given to them in politics, women klike Hacire Akar who take steps to solve their own problems on their own terms, using their own methods and agenda are ignored as they do not serve certain interests. Hacire Akar’s revolt and her exclaimation of “edi bese” is not seen as being a part of women’s activism since it does not fit into the general framework of a homogenized women’s movement which is attached to the leftist ideology.
Kurdish women are treated like a “homogenous mass” and are mostly associated with extremely conventional codes, local clothes, lack of education and means, and “honor killings” with the exception of educated and secular Kurdish women leaders. On the other hand, with their clothing and Marxist-Leninist ideologies, Kurdish women in politics are not representing Kurdish culture; they only determine how the true representatives would be positioned. Besides, they do not represent the political discourse woven from the pain of people. They only represent a movement that fed on people’s grief for 40 years, could not burgeon in Turkey despite foreign support and the support from the European public, and responded violently to the AKP government that took a step to resolve the issue in 2012.
The children who were born and grew up over the course of this time are neither representatives nor addressees of the pain they legitimized. They are drifting in a whirlwind of Kurdish nationalism, unhappiness, nihilism and conflict that does not end in the minds of their “white” children who were born and raised in metropolitan cities. The HDP’s women, who also suffered losses during early periods of the movement and have been in the fight, do not have anything to give to Kurdish mothers other than conflict and sorrow. While building and leading their own lives, they could not give Kurdish mothers anything but poverty, loss of children and despair.
The losses, grief, and violations of rights during the 1990s ascribed a certain identity to Kurdish women in their own communities and public sphere. This identity was inevitably against the state due to the circumstances of that time. In this framework, all kinds of violation of rights and attacks on ethnic and religious identities experienced in Turkey throughout the 1990s turned into political movements in the following years for the members of the aggrieved communities. In this sense, the headscarf ban and Kurdish question shared some similarities.
The activism of Kurdish women, who became active agents in the Kurdish political movement, came to the fore and gained a symbolic character during these years. The most talked-about and most sympathized feature of the entire Kurdish movement has been women’s activism within the movement. In this sense, one of the greatest achievements of the Kurdish political movement during the early 2000s was mobilizing Kurdish women, who were made to join the rallies, meetings and marches of the movement with their local clothes. I am saying they were “made to join” since I believe that the women at the base of the Kurdish political movement never had any real agency through a principle of reciprocity which would allow them to transform the movement in line with their own pain. This separatist movement, which has a rigid structure and is based on a radical Marxist-Leninist ideology with strong intellectual side, has never treated these women equally although they defended equal citizenship and equal rights at a discourse level.
In the 1990s, identity politics became prominent across the world. People around the world tried to liberate their identities, ethnicities and religious allegiances from the pressure of nation states, and the women’s movement gained strength parallel to this. In Turkey, the women’s movement was also mobilized during these years and the Kurdish women’s movement could easily find an audience in this trend. Thus, they became increasingly visible in the public sphere, took on active roles in political parties, spoke in rallies and opened a space for themselves.
But did all these actors visible in the public sphere really represent Kurdish women? While opening such a new space, did those acting on behalf of Kurdish women change the movement in a way to meet the needs of the women at the movement’s base? I have to say that this critical question remains unanswered, and I should also add that such a question has never been asked since asking such a thing would cause anger. Has the movement that abducted the older son of Hacire Akar done anything to prevent her second son from going down the same path? What has this movement given to Hacire Akar for 40 years? Which problems has it solved, what kind of a difference has it made?
What kind of connection is there between the educated, secular, leftist Kurdish women activists who speak many foreign languages fluently and women like Hacire Akar, who were not sent to school, do not speak Turkish and cannot travel on their own? Who is the real representative of Kurdish identity, and who speaks on behalf of this identity?
Nothing has changed in the lives of these women who have patiently waited for years, lost their children, and inherited the ongoing pain of generations from their mothers. They waited for decades without even saying good-bye to their beloved sons. Their opinions have never been asked, and it does not even matter to the movement if these mothers consent to the roles ascribed to them.
When these women, the true representatives of Kurdish culture, appeared and exclaimed: “We want our children!” they confronted the educated female parliament members and politicians who told them to continue fanning the flames of the conflict. The latter consists of a group of privileged women who owe their existence to the pain of the former. Female Kurdish politicians are throwing other children into the fire while protecting their own children from conflict and radicalization. This is what Kurdish women are deemed worthy of by the Kurdish women’s movement that has been valorized for years. These mothers are now ignored since they say “edi bese” and want their children back from Qandil and Mahmur.
*This article was penned by Meryem Ilayda Atlas and first published in Turkish in Kriter Magazin's October issue.