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'What Does the State Want from Dead Bodies?': Suruç and the History of Unmournability

[Protestors in Istanbul carry coffins of those who died in the suicide bombing in Suruç, 23 July 2015.] [Protestors in Istanbul carry coffins of those who died in the suicide bombing in Suruç, 23 July 2015.]

Since 20 July, when a suicide bomber in the town of Suruç killed thirty-two socialist activists on their way to help rebuild Kobanê in northern Syria, Turkey has devolved into a de facto state of emergency. While Turkish police began operations across the country and have arrested approximately one thousand leftist activists and revolutionaries affiliated with the Kurdish movement under the guise of disarming and dismantling ISIS on the domestic front, protests over the Suruç Massacre have been brutally suppressed by the same security forces. At least seven civilians in Turkey have been killed by the police operations and during the protests. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), meanwhile, began military operations in Syria and Iraq, dropping bombs on Kurdish majority regions in both countries under the premises not only that the PKK and ISIS are part of the same “terrorist bloc,” but also that all Kurds are potential terrorists until proven otherwise. At the same time, forests across Northern Kurdistan—in Dersim, Şemdinli, and Lice—have been set on fire by “flammable materials” dropped by fighter jets on their way to Syria and Iraq. The state-led attempt at managing the aftermath of the Suruç Massacre has been taken up on other fronts as well: the interim government has blocked access to Twitter as well as to a number of leftist and Kurdish news sites, including Fırat News Agency (ANF), Dicle News Agency (DİHA), Etkin News Agency, Hawar News Agency (ANHA), Jiyan.org, Özgür Gündem newspaper, Yüksekova News, Sendika.org, RojNews, and Rudaw.

What has arguably generated the most outcry on social media, however, are the attacks on the funerals, funeral processions, and graves of those who died in Suruç. The police suppressed Günay Özarslan’s funeral in the Gazi neighborhood of Istanbul; a group of fifteen people defaced the grave of Suruç victim Ece Dinç; several trucks containing at least two dozen bodies of citizens of Turkey who died fighting as members of Yekîneyên Parastina Gel‎ (People’s Protection Units, or YPG) against ISIS in Syria have been held up at the Habur and Mürşitpınar border crossings to Turkey since July 26, preventing families in Turkey from being able to bury their dead. HDP member of Parliament Ferhat Encü wrote on Twitter, “[Turkey is] a state that is afraid of Kurds’ funerals.”

The cases mentioned above, and the responses by the government and the pro-government media to the Suruç massacre, all beg the question that Judith Butler raises in her book Precarious Life: “What makes for a grievable life?”[1] Grief and mourning, according to Butler, expose to us how our ways of being in the world are inherited and continuously mediated through our social relations. Thinking through the relationship between those social relations and the transformations of the nation-state in contemporary times, this essay explores how we can better analyze not only the senseless deaths of so many people, but also the state’s utter lack of remorse as we try to mourn these deaths. In other words, here I explore the particular conditions of possibility that allow the Turkish state to render certain forms of mourning impossible. In so doing, I am particularly interested in parsing out the affective domains that “furnish a sense of political community.” [2] I take as my point of departure the fact that Turkey, after all, is a nation-state led by a prime-minister-cum-president who wept for the death of the daughter of a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the same one who declared a state of national mourning after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia.

In what follows, I suggest that this nation-state also needs to be approached as an affectively inhabited country where soldiers’ deaths are eulogized by relying on the discourse that their deaths are “for the good of the nation” (“Vatan sağ olsun”). Grief, particularly in its political and affective articulations in the sacrificial body, operates not only as a technology of governance under the guise of Turkish governmentality. Rather, I argue more broadly that grief and practices of grief that get denied signification—those undertaken by Kurdish, Alevi, and allied subjects—are better approached as a contested field of force, where the discourse of martyrdom leads to dissident attempts at political expression that co-opt, confound, and resignify the very categories of grief, grievability, and the possibility of the nation-state. Thinking about the limits of mournability, and about who is allowed to grieve, I conclude, enables us to trace the affective boundaries of political community in Turkey, to understand whose lives are considered worth living and whose are not.

In this light, the attacks on Günay Özarslan’s funeral and on a number of the funerals of those who died in Suruç are not a new story: committing such violent acts of incarceration and remorseless killing is nothing new to the formation of the Turkish state. Rather, I argue that these acts should be understood within a much longer history of state prohibitions on Kurdish and Alevi mourning. This genealogy of illegalized and incarcerated grief extends at least as far back as the 1925 execution of Sheikh Said, leader of a Kurdish rebellion, whose body was disposed in a mass grave in order to suppress his future veneration and the unrest it might entail.[3]  

What I want to examine here, however, is the longue durée connecting the Suruc Massacre and its aftermath to the imposition of martial law and a state of emergency in Kurdistan in the 1980s and 1990s, when at least 1353 people—primarily Kurds and leftists—across the country were forcibly disappeared by state actors. At the same time, the 1990s also witnessed extreme state violence directed toward Alevis, punctuated by the 1993 Sivas massacre and the 1995 attacks on the Gazi neighborhood in Istanbul. By situating the recent attacks on funerals and the official regulations on and prohibitions of grief within a longer history of state violence against Kurdish and Alevi minorities, I suggest, we can better interrogate the AKP’s discourse of political renaissance used to distinguish the current government from this rather violent and continuous history of incarceration and annihilation. I conclude that by bringing such a historically attuned lens to examine the Suruç Massacre and its aftermath, we can, however cursorily, begin to chart out the more deeply rooted and enduring affective structures that underpin the historical constitution of the Turkish state—structures predicated on differentiating between those whose deaths are mournable and those whose deaths are not, even as both are caught up in the same context of state-led violence.

Enforced Disappearance and the Grief of the Saturday Mothers

The practice of enforced disappearance is a method used frequently by state, military, and paramilitary parties in order to eradicate dissident political subjects and their collective organizations from society. That project of eradication in turn further foments widespread fear in that society. It is a particularly common practice in military regimes and juntas, such as Argentina and Chile in the 1980s. According to the United Nations’ interpretations of international treaty and human rights law, enforced disappearance is a crime that is continuous by its very nature, beginning at the moment of abduction and continuing as long as the crime is “not complete”; that is, continuing until the fate of the individual is acknowledged. According to Meltem Ahıska:

The most psychologically tragic dimension of the strategy of disappearance is imposing the responsibility of "killing" on the relatives of the disappeared. Declaring someone disappeared imposes the absolute force of sovereign power by denying the life of that person as well as the end of that life, and by doing so with extreme bluntness (just as the openly contradictory phrase ‘disappeared while under custody’ demonstrates). Either you accept this power and you kill your own relative, or you are forced to live a lifetime of psychological torture within the ambiguity of the fate of the disappeared.[4]

In Turkey, the practice of enforced disappearance began following the coup on 12 September 1980, when a military junta under Kenan Evren’s leadership took over the government. Toward the late 1980s and in the early 1990s, with the declaration of a state of emergency in the Kurdistan region, the practice of enforced disappearance became more common across the entire country, reaching fever pitch in the mid-1990s. According to research published in 2014, 1994 witnessed 518 disappearances and 1995 witnessed 232 disappearances, the highest years of disappearance during the state of emergency. Because enforced disappearance primarily targeted Kurdish men, the mothers and wives of the disappeared were frequently left behind with the tremendous responsibility of looking after their families, often with little to no income. Many of these women gathered at local branches of the Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği), where they built support networks with one another. The destructive force and the urgency of the ongoing disappearances contributed to a sense of solidarity among these women, one that would eventually give way to collective action.

The catalyst for this action took place on 21 March 1995, when a young socialist leader named Hasan Ocak disappeared. His mother, Emine Ocak, spent the next fifty-eight days searching for him, contacting the police, lawyers, and other authorities. She went to the office of the Istanbul governor, where she was bludgeoned by police. She went to the Parliament in Ankara, giving flowers to Members of Parliament and asking about the fate of her son. At one point, after occupying a courthouse, she was imprisoned for nineteen days. On 15 May, her son’s tortured body was recovered in a forest on the outskirts of Istanbul. After his burial, Ocak was contacted by other Kurdish women who had lost their family members. This group of women quickly decided to organize a silent protest, a sit-in Galatasaray Square in the heart of Istanbul.

The first meeting of this group of women, known as the Saturday Mothers, took place on 27 May 1995, just twelve days after Hasan Ocak’s body was found. From that first Saturday, the Saturday Mothers gathered every week to silently protest the disappearance of their loved ones, transforming their grief into a quiet but persistently present form of political resistance. As the group gained attention from the media, the number of its supporters and participants swelled, but this attention also provoked harsh criticism, as well as state intervention. Pro-government columns and newspapers attempted to shame the Saturday Mothers for having “humiliated” the institution of motherhood, reducing it to a set of political claims that they were allegedly too uneducated to actually understand.[5] Eventually, the police became a presence at the sit-ins, outnumbering the Saturday Mothers “tenfold,” according to one woman who was active in the group. As the police became more violent and began arresting those who participated in the Saturday Mothers sit-ins, the number of attendees dwindled, until they stopped altogether on 19 March 1999. However, they resumed again in 2009, after a ten-year hiatus, and continue today.

Born not only out of the disappearance of their loved ones but also out of their frustrations with a hostile state that has dragged its feet in legal proceedings regarding the disappeared, the Saturday Mothers has emerged as a political movement rooted in the fundamental impossibility of grieving Kurdish and leftist death in Turkey. The Saturday Mothers—a group of “mostly middle-aged women” who did not chant slogans or carry banners and instead sat on the ground silently holding pictures of their missing relatives—were subject to pro-government media smear campaigns as well as police brutality and arrest. The crime here lies in the transgression of the rules of decorum of grieving. The Saturday Mothers’ spectacle of grief blurs the distinction between private enactments of mourning for the deceased and public displays of rage against a state that systematically destroys Kurdish bodies.

On the first Saturday after the Suruç Massacre, the Saturday Mothers were again in Galatasaray Square for their 539th demonstration. Instead of mourning one of their disappeared relatives, they dedicated the demonstration to the victims of the Suruç massacre, noting that four of the victims—Cemil Yıldız, Çağdaş Aydın, Büşra Mete, Hatice Ezgi Sadet—attended the demonstrations every Saturday. Maside Ocak, sister of Hasan Ocak, read a eulogy for them, saying, “This week, we are sitting here without them. We are proud to have known them, to have shared the same square and the same dream with them.” The connection between the Saturday Mothers and the victims of the Suruç bombing is a solidarity rooted in the work of grieving: the violence that erased their relatives is the same violence behind the Suruç bombing. This solidarity is a recognition that it is not only Kurdish bodies whose disposable and ungrievable deaths are essential to preserving the stability of the Turkish state. The same holds true, for example, for Alevi deaths, particularly in the Gazi and Okmeydanı districts of Istanbul, neighborhoods in urban centers that have been flagged by security forces.

Grief and Alevi Resistance

In May of 2014, Uğur Kurt was shot and killed in the yard of a cemevi (Alevi house of worship) in the neighborhood of Okmeydanı. Kurt came to the cemevi to attend the funeral of a family friend and was struck by a stray bullet shot by police who were suppressing protests over the death of Berkin Elvan, a twelve-year-old Alevi boy who died nearly a year after being struck by a tear gas canister during the Gezi Park protests. In other words, the state killed Uğur Kurt while he was mourning in their attempts to quash protests mourning the death of another Alevi killed by state violence.

Even if this had been an isolated incident, it is not difficult to see how grief might give way to rage. Indeed, in response to the protests over Berkin Elvan’s death, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “What? Must there be an observance [for] everyone killed? He is dead. It is done with.” However, one need not look far to find numerous instances of the state’s brazen discrimination against and destruction of Alevis in Turkey: the Maraş massacre of 1978, the Çorum massacre of 1980, the Sivas massacre of 1993, the Gazi massacre of 1995, to name a few. Similarly, during the Gezi Park protests, the government tried to frame Alevis as the responsible party, as actively working to divide the country.

Most recently, the police killed another Alevi during its post-Suruç anti-terror operations. Günay Özarslan, mentioned above, was a revolutionary leftist who was shot fifteen times in her home in Istanbul on 24 July 2015. According to police records, “she did not fire at the police and there was no confrontation whatsoever in her home.” After her death, her body was taken to a cemevi—an Alevi house of worship—for funeral preparations. For three days, the police bombarded not only the cemevi, but the entire neighborhood, preventing her funeral from proceeding. The office of the Istanbul governor even issued a statement regarding Özarslan’s funeral, stating that there would be no “obstructions” to the funeral so long as it did not “resort to actions forbidden by the law, such as carrying weapons, covering the face, wearing clothing affiliated with an organization, or making propaganda.” It was only after an intervention by a number of Alevi organizations as well as two members of Parliament that the governor’s office came to a “funeral agreement” and Özarslan was finally allowed to be buried.

In a twist of tragic irony, Günay Özarslan was cleared of all charges after her murder but before her funeral was allowed. The fallacy of justice in the death of Özarslan is exemplary of the kinds of violence systematically carried out against Alevis by the state and its actors. That she was cleared of all charges means that she literally died for no reason. The exasperated uproar that followed was consequently an expression of grief rooted in the fact that Alevi death is part of the modus operandi of the Turkish state. And yet, as the Istanbul governor’s statement regarding Günay Özarslan’s funeral shows, certain forms of grief are expected to adhere to certain standards of apolitical decorum. Extrapolating the grief over her individual death to indict the system of violence against Alevis, therefore, poses an extreme threat to the affective domains of Turkish national belonging.

Mournability in the Depths of the Turkish Nation-State

On the seventh day that the state was preventing the trucks carrying YPG martyrs from returning to Turkey, Ali Coşkun, uncle of they YPG martyr Ferit Coşkun, asked plaintively, “What does the state want from dead bodies?” Allowing these bodies to cross the border would be to allow for their grievability, to admit that their deaths meant something. Instead, the state is trying to wish their bodies away, to render them meaningless, forcing them to decompose in the back of semi-trucks. As the cases of the Saturday Mothers and the Alevi neighborhoods illustrate, the state wants these bodies to “leave a mark that is no mark”[6]; it wants these bodies to be over and done with, to have never been in the first place.

Kurds and Alevis killed by the state and its actors are fundamentally unmournable. In order to maintain the illusion of its own legitimacy, the state has to frame such deaths as either meaningless, necessary, or both. Mournability is a privilege reserved for those whose deaths corroborate this illusion; hence the emotional outpouring over the deaths of police officers and soldiers who have been “martyred” in the line of duty. Mourning and grief are therefore better understood as affective tools used to patrol the boundaries of the nation-state, providing meaning, solace, and comfort to those who belong within it while permitting for the remorseless annihilation of those who do not.

Hence, when news pundits and politicians insist that now is not the time for politics but rather a time for personal grief, and for somber reflection and an admission of loss, they deny the fact that all of these deaths are a fundamental element of the world proffered by their politics and their actual practices of governance and violence. When pro-government journalist Abdülkadir Selvi characterized the revelation by Can Dündar that Turkey was sending weapons across the border into Syria as an attempt by the ever-elusive “parallel structure” to delegitimize the Erdoğan administration, he was trying to foreclose legitimate inquiry into the relationship between the AKP government and ISIS. When the pro-government Sabah newspaper published a now-infamous article that proclaimed as its headline, “The PYD [Partiya Yetîkiya Demokrat, or Democratic Union Party in Rojava] is more dangerous than ISIS,” it was trafficking in nationalist fears of Kurds and simultaneously fostering an implicit sympathy for ISIS. And when President Ahmet Davutoğlu legitimized ISIS’ existence as a structure that offers a “front for existing discontent and anger in the region,” he did not acknowledge the discontent and anger in Turkey over widespread violence and suffering at the state’s own hands.

To mourn the deaths of the victims of the Suruç bombing is at the same time to interrogate the historical and material conditions that give way to such suffering in the first place. “The point of public mourning,” writes Judith Butler, “is to expand our ideas of what constitutes a livable life, to expand our recognition of those lives that are worth protecting, worth valuing.” After all, the members of the Socialist Youth Associations Federation were going to Kobanê to build a memorial forest commemorating the fallen of Kobanê and to plant fruit trees in the name of Berkin Elvan. They were trying to build a world predicated upon the vulnerability entailed by suffering, a world that pushes back against the systematic ungrievability of certain lives—not only Kurdish and Alevi lives, but also Armenian, LGBTQ, and leftist lives. In Turkey, where such lives have been systematically and persistently destroyed for the better part of a century, to admit that these lives are lives worth mourning is to recognize the finitude of the Turkish nation-state. It is up to those of us who are left behind to take up this grief, to use it to fight for the world that the dead of Suruç were trying to build.

[I would like to thank Anthony Alessandrini, Cihan Tuğal, Emrah Yıldız and Elif Sarı for their generosity in providing feedback and comments on earlier drafts of this article.]

NOTES

[1] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso Books, 2006), 20.

[2] Butler, Precarious Life, 22.

[3] Uğur Ümit Üngör, The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-1950, 222.

[4] Meltem Ahıska, “Kayıp Annelerin Şiddete Tanıklığı,” Amargi Üç Aylık Feminist Teori ve Politika Dergisi 2 (Fall 2006), 22.

[5] Başak Can, “Barış Anneleri,” Toplum ve Kuram: Hakikat ve Adaletin İzinde Doksanları Hatırlamak vol. 9 (2014), 38.

[6] Butler, Precarious Life, 36.

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