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Turkey: 'Saturday Mothers' protest forced disappearances

May 31, 2024

A group known as the "Saturday Mothers" has been gathering every weekend in Istanbul since 1995, demanding justice for relatives and loved ones who disappeared after being taken into state custody.

Two women hold signs with pictures of men, they also hold red carnations
Emine Ocak, 88, (pictured right) is one of the founders of the protest movementImage: Cumartesianneleri

"I'm hurt. All the Saturday mothers are hurt. Every new day is worse than the last when you have no certainty, no gravestone to visit," Emine Ocak says. At 88, the co-founder of a protest movement demanding answers about disappearances in state custody finds that her memory isn't what it used to be.

For her daughter, Aysel Ocak, things are a little different. "When it comes to my brother Hasan, the memory, the pain is still fresh," she says.

The last time they heard from Hasan was March 21, 1995. Over the phone, he promised to bring fish and cake that evening. But he never came, neither that night nor the ones to come. After a long search, the Ocaks found out that he had been detained. Police denied ever taking him in, despite eyewitness testimony.

Lots of women sit on the ground, photos of the disappeared can be seen before them
The group gathered for the 1,000th time in May 2024Image: Cumartesianneleri

The Ocaks founded a human rights group with the slogan: "You took Hasan alive, we want him back alive." It didn't work. Two months later, they found his remains in a cemetery in Istanbul, intensely tortured and in a nameless grave.

The following week, on May 27, 1995, the women of the family — Emine, Maside, and Aysel — went to  Galatasary Square in downtown Istanbul and held their first vigil with other families whose relatives had recently disappeared in state custody.

Since then, they have been coming week in, week out. Mainly women: mothers, aunts, sisters, wives of the disappeared. They bring photos of their loved ones, lay down red carnations, tell stories and call for justice. Since they always meet on Saturday, they became known as the Saturday Mothers but they now refer to themselves as the Saturday People.

'Where are our relatives?' 

The last weekend in May, the Saturday Mothers / People held their 1,000th vigil. One mother read out a statement: "Week after week, we come here with unbelievable pain and unbridled hope. Today we ask for the 1,000th time: Where are our relatives? Why is the state protecting the perpetrators? We won't stop calling for justice."

For Aysel Ocak, Galatasary Square has taken on great symbolic importance. "We come here together and lay down flowers. Particularly for families that don't yet have a gravestone to mourn at, this square is incredibly important," she explains.

In 2018, they were forbidden from protesting on the symbolic square. Although the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled in their favour in a trial, only 10 people are now usually allowed to read out a statement here on Saturdays.

The 1,000th vigil was an exception.

Scores of affected families

According to the Saturday protesters, since the bloody military putsch of 1980 there have been more 1,350 registered cases of people who being detained by police or soldiers and then disappearing. "Mainly in the 1980s and 1990s," Aysel Ocak explained. "In 1993 we had 103 cases, one year later 532."

In the 1990s, many civilians were killed as a war raged between the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Turkish Army.

The Turkish state took harsh measures to combat the PKK: In Kurdish regions in the mountains, forests were cut down and entire settlements were forcibly evacuated and burned so that PKK fighters could not find refuge.

Several Kurdish tribes were forced to take part in the armed struggle against the PKK as paramilitaries. Those who refused to do so faced harassment, arrest and torture. There is still no trace of many people who went missing at the time. It later came to light that paramilitary structures had been formed to carry out these forced disappearances.

Police stop 'Saturday mothers'

Saturday Mothers fight for truth and justice

For Milena Büyüm, a Turkey expert at Amnesty International, the struggle of the Saturday Mothers has had one clear impact: "With their tireless resistance, these people have largely prevented forced disappearances in Turkey, which were very widespread in the 1980s and 1990s. Their resistance is encouraging for all civil organizations."

However, since the attempted coup in 2016, cases have cropped up again. Ömer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a member of the pro-Kurdish opposition party DEM in the Turkish parliament, has been monitoring them. He said there had been at least 35 cases since 2016, and there was still no trace of at least three individuals.

"The rest reappeared six to 18 months later, mostly in prisons," he explained. Still alive, he pointed out, and that is the difference to the 1990s. Many of those taken are suspected Gülen supporters. The Turkish government claims that the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, who lives in the United States (US), and his followers were behind the attempted coup in 2016.

Enforced disappearance: a criminal offence

Büyüm from Amnesty underlined that "enforced disappearance is a criminal offence", referring to the related UN Convention. In some cases, it is even a crime against humanity, she said.

She explained that the practice was used to create a climate of fear and intimidate certain groups. In order to put an end to it, states should acknowledge offences and hold perpetrators accountable, she said.

States that have signed the UN treaty are committed to doing so. Turkey is not a signatory.

This article was translated from German. 


Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas