“One day I was told to stand on one foot. After some time I collapsed. This was to be punished. They made me open the lid of the sewage near the wall and take a handful of excrement and put it in my mouth. I was ordered to stand at attention with the excrement in my mouth without moving and without spitting it out. When I was allowed to go into the cell, a prisoner from Elazig helped me to wash my mouth, but no matter how hard I tried I felt it in my mouth. My teeth were already loose in my mouth because of severe beating. At the end I couldn’t stand any more, and extracted all my teeth one by one with a rope I found in my cell, because I kept feeling the smell in my mouth.” –Diyarbakir Prison, July 1982.
The man is Felat Cemiloglu, 50 at that time, a well-known businessman, the chairman of the Diyarbakir Chamber of Commerce. He had nothing to do with an illegal Kurdish organization, but was arrested because of a statement by an inmate extracted under torture. He had told his interrogators that Cemiloglu had given money to them, i.e. the “separatists.” Cemiloglu stayed eight months in prison and was released by the court at the first hearing.
Felat Cemiloglu is one of many witnesses to the perverted methods of torture and degradation that were used in Diyarbakir Prison, including rape and sexual abuse, or forcing one to eat rats and excrement. The aim was to eliminate Kurdish national democratic opposition by dehumanizing the Kurdish inmates—doctors, lawyers, writers, businessmen, politicians, and so on—gathered from different sections of society.
“They did everything to destroy you psychologically. For example they used to thrust a truncheon in an inmate’s anus, make others watch this scene, and order one of them to lick that truncheon. If he vomited, another inmate was ordered to kneel down and lick the floor,” Cemiloglu told Hasan Celal, who wrote his story in Kurtler, published in 2003.
Diyarbakir prison was a “hell.” “More than hell,” many say. Beatings with wooden planks happened almost 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many people died there, many were left disabled. Many died in hunger strikes. Four of the inmates put themselves on fire on May 19, 1982, to protest the cruelty. Witnesses say that, while on fire, amidst the flames, the inmates were still able to talk to their fellow prisoners, who were frantically trying to do something to stop them. The four men were telling them to stay away, that they were doing this to protest the inhuman treatment they were subjected to. It sounds unbelievable, but this was how they died in front of dozens of witnesses.
Speaking Kurdish during visits was also severely punished. Here is how Mehmet Sanri described the “tongueless mothers” in his article “Diyarbakır Military Prison Number 5: A Turkification Experience”:
“Apart from the horrific things going on in the ‘hell’ at this new residential area, it was of course the mothers who suffered most; whatever wildness the inmates were facing inside the hell, after all they all were unique human beings who had been given birth and brought up by a mother, before falling down to this hell. Therefore, it was mainly the ‘tongueless’ mothers who, in order to learn about their children, kept ‘visiting’ the hell. Surely the mothers’ tongue had not been cut off with a knife; but any word that they spoke to their children in their own language could cause disasters both to their children and to themselves, disasters much greater than physically cutting their tongue. The ‘tongueless’ mothers, therefore, never spoke; they even swallowed their tears in order to maintain their good sight. ‘The tongue cannot describe what the eye sees’ proverb could well explain the situation in Diyarbakir Prison. The Kurds have a similar adage which reads: ‘The world is seized by eyes.’ So the ‘tongueless mothers,’ too, believing the might of the eyes, reduced themselves down to two simple eyes and gazed at their children during the ‘visitor sessions’ which sometimes were as short as the winking of eyes.” (www.kerkuk-kurdistan.com/details.aspx?anum=2992)
Many came to believe that it was the Diyarbakir Prison that gave birth to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and started the armed struggle. Before 1984 it was only at its embryonic stage, only a small group known by very few people, without any armed action. The unimaginable cruelty at the prison paved the way for a warfare that would last 25 years and claim tens of thousands of lives.
Now a campaign is going on to turn the Diyarbakir Prison into a human rights museum. The government recently announced that the prison would be closed down, demolished, and a school complex built in its place. The Diyarbakir branch of the Human Rights Association of Turkey protested this project, saying that the building should not be destroyed, that it should be kept intact for remembrance and turned into a museum.
A group of academics, intellectuals, and journalists, setting up “The Committee for Research into the Truth of Diyarbakir Prison and Justice,” has now initiated a signature campaign urging the government to turn the prison into a museum. The committee says: “As a very first step we have to face the truth if we want to pursue an ‘opening process,’ if we sincerely and permanently want to get ahead of democratization and a solution to the Turkish-Kurdish issue. All the other countries have managed to do so. Turning the Diyarbakir Prison into a school or any other purpose-based building means ‘It’s over, let’s forget about it.’ But this prison has left scars too deep to forget and forgetting means severe disrespect towards the victims and their families.”
Turkey is a place where there are too many truths to be researched and too many victims whose memories are waiting to be honored.