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For other “Prison Notes”, follow this link.

I spent the last eigh­teen months (2017–2018) of my five-year incar­cer­a­tion in the prison for women in Tarsus.

I say this clear­ly, when I was deport­ed there, Tar­sus was hell. The estab­lish­ment had opened pre­ma­ture­ly, by deci­sion of the Min­istry, even before con­struc­tion was fin­ished, and still looked like a con­struc­tion site. Thanks to the con­trac­tors who stole the mate­ri­als, every­thing you touched fell off in your hand, lit­er­al­ly, such as the show­er head for exam­ple, or the light switch­es. In heat close to 40°, there was no run­ning water, and hard­ly any­thing to buy at the can­teen. Since the phones didn’t work, there were no com­mu­ni­ca­tions. And, arriv­ing at the prison, there was noth­ing but the most archa­ic of reg­is­tra­tions tak­ing place, all per­son­al belong­ings of the depor­tees were thrown into depots filled with insects, every­thing there was in a jum­ble and most items were lost. The blocks were full, we were crammed in togeth­er and the local fau­na was like that in a jun­gle. In the Tar­sus prison, built just beside the marsh­es, on a reg­u­lar day, poi­so­nous cen­tipedes, scor­pi­ons hooked scarabs, lizards could crawl on your legs and the flies were con­stant­ly stick­ing to your skin.

prison de tarsus

For a while, when they told me non­sense such as “veg­e­tar­i­an meal? And what else? That’s not a pref­er­ence it’s a dis­ease”, and since I did not accept this prac­tice, I did not eat the meals made of spoiled meat. Those who ate them spent a lot of their ener­gy sort­ing out the gar­nish­es such as hairs, feath­ers, bits of glass, insects.

The can­teen had noth­ing on sale, nei­ther pen­cils nor paper, so what did I use to write the appeals to every pos­si­ble insti­tu­tion against these infer­nal con­di­tions? The squared paper from a large school note­book and my eye pen­cil! Yes, I wrote my first appeals with my eye pen­cil, a first in all of my his­to­ry. In fact, some of these let­ters were nev­er deliv­ered to their des­ti­na­tion, but that’s anoth­er matter.

You see, I haven’t yet enu­mer­at­ed every­thing to which I was sub­ject­ed, and sole­ly in the first 5 days of Tar­sus: the fact that dur­ing the morn­ing and evening head count, I was forcibly dragged out of the dor­mi­to­ry to the prom­e­nade, dragged on the stairs by some ten men and women guards; the fact that when I sat down in the prom­e­nade, I was forcibly lift­ed up into the air; nor the repeat­ed insults and threats such as “you are not a jour­nal­ist, but a ter­ror­ist”, “this isn’t Sin­can1 no one will hear you”, “we are the Min­is­ter of jus­tice we are also the whole min­istry of justice”!

Well, five days lat­er, all of sud­den they acknowl­edge I was a jour­nal­ist, I was lis­tened to about the head counts, and my demands were accept­ed. I must spec­i­fy that it was not until 2019 that I was offi­cial­ly reg­is­tered on the list of jour­nal­ists by the Min­istry of Jus­tice. Which is some­thing of a tra­gi-com­e­dy, see­ing the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of Jus­tice min­is­ters and of his “min­istry” through mito­sis, amid the upper lev­el civ­il ser­vants… As I was to dis­cov­er in the pris­ons of Sivas, many civ­il ser­vants con­sid­ered them­selves to be the Min­is­ter of Jus­tice. Was this some kind of mul­ti­ple per­son­al­i­ty dis­or­der? Ah, Min­is­ter Abdul­hamit Gül, were you real­ly unaware of all that?

To abbre­vi­ate, even when I found myself alone, I resist­ed as much as I could against every legal vio­la­tion, every dis­hon­or, every threat, every arbi­trary prac­tice and torture.

But, of course, part of my days in Tar­sus were spent in iso­la­tion  along with ver­bal tri­als or dis­ci­pli­nary sanc­tions. Con­grat­u­la­tions to you, guys, you real­ly did a great job of reha­bil­i­tat­ing me, I was incred­i­bly fright­ened, I reached a point where I could no longer speak, nor write, nor oppose myself… but no, not at all! Quite the con­trary, I dis­cov­ered the sur­vivor in me, and I loved her very much, I learned very well how to be extreme­ly indul­gent with my friends, and piti­less with those who showed me noth­ing but hos­til­i­ty. So I thank you.

Like the Middle-East…

For me, Tar­sus prison is the the most impor­tant link in the chain, the most infer­nal but also the most instruc­tive and the most effi­cient of my last five years of incar­cer­a­tion, and the one I loved the most. I lived through and saw so many things there, met such peo­ple, col­lect­ed such sto­ries and wrote so much that, now, just think­ing about what to do with those dozens of sto­ries, which ones to choose, how and where, takes up a lot of my time.

I called that place the “Mid­dle-East” all because, with the human nature on dis­play, the bal­ance of forces, the ter­ror­ist func­tion­ing, rule­less, and with its fab­ri­cat­ed stunts com­ing both from the left and from the right, it close­ly resem­bled that region. Indeed, our Mid­dle-East­ern ’hosts” start­ed arriv­ing also. Fol­low­ing the Olive Branch and Source of Peace oper­a­tions, the Free Syr­i­an Army was in the lib­er­at­ed zones, catch­ing any­one and every one  that might have been close even to the tini­est cor­ner of the PYD (Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union Par­ty)  and turn­ing them over to the Turk­ish army as “ter­ror­ists”. And the women were incar­cer­at­ed instant­ly,  off you go, they were tak­en to Tar­sus prison. The next con­cern was: as you know the Free Syr­i­an Army aso recruit­ed for­mer ISIS mem­bers, jihadists, tor­tur­ers with not a trace of com­pas­sion; once they had grabbed people’s belong­ings, civ­il ser­vants, own­ers of gro­cery stores in a vil­lages or of olive groves, all these peo­ple were imme­di­ate­ly stamped as “ter­ror­ists”.

The door opens, new­born baby Lilaf enters with her moth­er, both of them cry­ing loud­ly. The door opens, in comes a small Arab girl her eyes filled with fear who heads for a cor­ner. The door opens, in walk old fright­ened women in their local cloth­ing. And then? They do not speak the lan­guage, they have no mon­ey, no con­nec­tions with their fam­i­lies, nor do they have a lawyer. Imag­ine this, find­ing your­self in an unknown coun­try in the hands of peo­ple whose lan­guage you did not under­stand, Syr­i­ans, Kurds, Arabs, alone, miserable.

I told myself, “Aslı, this is for you”, each one who entered was embraced, tak­en in. I have no trou­ble express­ing myself, every­thing I owned, I shared say­ing “all togeth­er” — cig­a­rettes, food, cloth­ing, can­teen, fruit and veg­eta­bles. I was even trans­formed into a lawyer with­out a degree, and as I usu­al­ly man­aged to put my “cus­tomers” at ease, I took on defend­ing them also. After a friend­ly Arab pris­on­er and a friend­ly Kur­dish one took on the roles of trans­la­tors, with­in the con­fines of that cell block filled with a crowd in an infer­nal heat, we began orga­niz­ing our col­lec­tive dai­ly life. And then, we became sisters.

From that point onward, I did not have a sec­ond for myself and my life in the block was spent writ­ing appeals for the women, tak­ing them to the infir­mary, to the psy­chol­o­gist, accom­pa­ny­ing them to social aid, meet­ing with the direc­tor, and attempt­ing to estab­lish con­nec­tions with their fam­i­lies. Main­tain­ing such a rhythm was extreme­ly tir­ing but it also made feel so light and made me feel so well that, had I not done it, I think I would be unable to look at my own face in a mirror.

Finan­cial­ly, I had prob­lems of course. With my oth­er friends, we estab­lished a mutu­al bud­get and shared the respon­si­bil­i­ties. And, most impor­tant­ly, my friend and lawyer Tugay Bek who is the Pres­i­dent of the Prison com­mis­sion at the Adana Bar Asso­ci­a­tion, arrived as a sav­ior. He said “you’re look­ing after so many peo­ple, I’ll han­dle their cas­es as their lawyer”, and he did as he said he would. He nev­er deprived me of his finan­cial and moral sup­port. We leaned on Tugay (and lat­er, for oth­er big prob­lems again, we would resist by lean­ing on each oth­er) and we over­came all the dif­fi­cul­ties. Thanks, Tugay.

Baby Lilaf and the tortured Syrian woman

There are two unfor­get­table break­ing points dur­ing this peri­od.   One is the day  baby Lilaf who arrived with us just after her birth with her mouth cov­ered in sores, fell on her head out of her crib. As if to jus­ti­fy the words “what is a baby doing in a prison?” She had moved a bit too vig­or­ous­ly in her home-made crib made of ropes and bed sheets, sus­pend­ed in this block of con­crete and iron. She fell on her head. I lit­er­al­ly lost my own as bad­ly as her moth­er. Luck­i­ly, our Lilaf did not suff­fer after-effects, we sent her to the hos­pi­tal for head scans and every­thing… Every­thing was as it should be, safe and sound. After that, fol­low­ing on my “glued ses­sions” against the wire mesh on the trap on the door, (as a gen­er­al rule, I lived in sym­bio­sis with the trap, for com­mu­ni­ca­tion pur­pos­es) and with sup­port from the establishment’s psy­chol­o­gists, we even obtained a stroller, spe­cial­ly for Lilaf. From then on, this stroller became her bed.

As for the sec­ond unfor­get­table inci­dent, it involved what a big sis­ter from Jarablus had lived through. Fol­low­ing the “Source of peace” oper­a­tion, she was seized in a vil­lage where there were gro­cery stores, detained in cus­tody for a month and then turned over to Turkey and incar­cer­at­ed. One after­noon, the door to the block opened and she entered as skin­ny as a skele­ton and deeply fright­ened. Say­ing “let’s give her a show­er, reas­sure her”, I noticed the black and blue welts on her legs. We com­mu­ni­cat­ed through our trans­la­tors and she told us how she was con­stant­ly beat­en with a piece of met­al tub­ing by the Syr­i­an Free Army. She had not been tak­en since for a med­ical vis­it, there were no reports about it and of course, I glued myself to the wire mesh on the door; receiv­ing at first answers such as “the prison direc­tor is absent, there is no per­son in author­i­ty avail­able”, then they sud­den­ly decid­ed to take me for a meet­ing with the direc­tor. What did I see? The entire group of local author­i­ties, direc­tors and upper lev­el civ­il ser­vants were gath­ered togeth­er await­ing me in the room we called the “aquar­i­um”.

I told them about the women arriv­ing from Afrin, Jarablus and oth­er places in Syr­ia, under alle­ga­tions of “ter­ror­ism”, of what they endured, I told them I did not approve of the prac­tices of pros­e­cu­tors and judges in Gaziantep and Hatay, I revealed that this sis­ter recent­ly arrived had been beat­en with met­al tub­ing, but had not been seen by the med­ical staff, that the evi­dence of tor­ture had not been record­ed, and added she required such a report with­out delay. At first, the direc­tor said that there were so many women arriv­ing from Syr­ia that the estab­lish­ment had dif­fi­cul­ties cop­ing and that her legs had been pho­tographed by the secu­ri­ty staff but that the doc­tor had not seen the need for her to be tak­en to the hos­pi­tal. Then the con­ver­sa­tion head­ed in anoth­er direc­tion: “Why are you help­ing the Syr­i­ans, as if they were your own? Have you ever been to Syr­ia? Why are you get­ting involved, why your inter­est in them, don’t get mixed up in this, mind your own busi­ness. If you keep on like this, we won’t con­sid­er you as a jour­nal­ist any­more but as a mem­ber of an ille­gal orga­ni­za­tion.” I was being open­ly threat­ened. More­over, I knew full well that if I turned my back of people’s suf­fer­ing and only took care of my own busi­ness, I would be qui­et, but in that case, per­haps I would no longer be myself. So I asked them “Are you threat­en­ing me?”, “no, we are warn­ing you”, they answered. Then I might have writ­ten” believe me, I was seri­ous­ly wor­ried and very fright­ened , I raced back to the block to hide under a blan­ket”, but, obvi­ous­ly, I did no such thing. I told myself “I’ve already blown my chances by scrib­bling appeals, being a pro­fes­sion­al objec­tor, there is no oth­er high­er lev­el” and so, I con­tin­ued my strug­gle for the rights and for jus­tice, what else could I do? In short, we talked, we dis­cussed and argued and in the end, in the evening, the sis­ter was pulled out of the block, tak­en to the hos­pi­tal and obtained her report.

When she came back to the block, my first con­cern was with fil­ing a com­plaint because, do you know what she said to me, cry­ing with fear and pan­ic? “If the mem­bers of the Free Syr­i­an Army in my vil­lage learn of these pro­ce­dures, they will take their revenge on me, they will destroy me and my fam­i­ly, let’s not do any­thing, let’s keep qui­et.” She could not be rea­soned out of this, could not under­stand that this was not pos­si­ble. The nar­ra­tion of the tor­ture to which she was sub­ject­ed and this fear in her which nev­er dis­ap­peared, were unfor­get­table mat­ters for me. This is how this woman became my new sis­ter, my new “client” in need of defending.

And the great­est gift I received in the prison of Tar­sus was the moment when, as we sat under the stairs (the coolest spot in the block) Lilaf’s moth­er embraced me and said “I thought all Turks were evil, that’s what I believed, then I met you and my whole atti­tude changed, you are now my sis­ter, I love you very much”, and we both cried in each other’s arms.

This friend­ship, this sol­i­dar­i­ty, this strug­gle for human rights and jus­tice con­tin­ued up until the day I was removed from the block dur­ing a mid­night oper­a­tion and tak­en to an iso­la­tion cell. It was dur­ing the peri­od of iso­la­tion that my lawyer Tugay said at our first meet­ing “don’t wor­ry, your ’clients’ are in good hands, I’m tak­ing care of them. They are impa­tient to see you back in the quar­ter.” Lov­ing, being loved, being missed, how beau­ti­ful it was.

These days, oper­a­tions in Syr­ia are in the news again. As for the racism that does not say its name, tar­get­ing migrants, you know it. Believe me, these peo­ple are not hap­py either to find them­selves in the sit­u­a­tion to which they were forcibly led. I am con­vinced that empa­thy, friend­ship, sol­i­dar­i­ty, if we man­age to dis­play them, would remove us from hos­til­i­ties and sense­less discriminations.

In the sec­ond part of this series of arti­cles, I will relate this mid­night oper­a­tion that sep­a­rat­ed me from my  Syr­i­an, Kur­dish, Turk­ish and Arab sis­ters in Tar­sus, its rea­sons, what I lived through then, what I was made to expe­ri­ence.   So wait, and know there will be much dark­ness, but also emotions!

Aslıhan Gençay

For other “Prison Notes”, follow this link.
Aslıhan Gençay

Aslıhan Gençay was born in 1974 and obtained a diploma from the Economic and Administrative Sciences Faculty of Izmir’s Dokuz Eylül University. Because of her identity as a leftist opponent, she was imprisoned for 10 years in 1992. She still bears the sequels of her “fast to the death”, hunger strikes, carried out in prisons in the year 2000. Following her liberation for health reasons, she began working as a a journalist. She wrote for the Radikal, Milliyet Sanat and edited the art and culture pages in Özgür Gündem. In 2016, a reprieve by the European Court of Human Rights was annulled and she was re-imprisoned for five years to carry out the rest of her sentence in the prisons of Sincan (Ankara), Tarsus, Kayseri and Sivas. She regained her freedom in May 2021. She is currently a chronicler for Davul Gazetesi and editor for an NGO.

Translation from French by Renée Lucie Bourges

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