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.
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!
For other “Prison Notes”, follow this link.
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
Support Kedistan, MAKE A CONTRIBUTION.