ISTANBUL — Human rights groups in Turkey blame the state for hundreds of disappearances dating back decades as the military wages a war against separatist rebels of the PKK. Those rights groups are also turning to artists such as Anil Olcan to call attention to the victims of enforced disappearances.
Olcan spent a year capturing images connected to the disappearances.
He painstakingly superimposed photographs of the missing onto small marble columns.
“Marble is associated with death,” said Olcan, “but at the same time, it refers to the representation of worldly presence from a different perspective.
“Having a gravestone means that you have existed in this world, and you continue to exist,” he adds. “However, these (disappeared) people here have no graves. I wanted to represent this, and I used the marble in a sense to call them back to the earth.”
Some of the missing include businessmen suspected of supporting Kurdish rebels. Others are human rights defenders and villagers.
Among the youngest to appear on a marble column is Davut Altunkaynak. In 1995, rights groups say, the shepherd boy was taken from his bed by security forces and never seen again. He was 13 years old.
Turkish rights group Hafiza Merkezi (Truth, Justice and Memory Center), which documents and reports enforced disappearances, is sponsoring Olcan’s work.
The marble images are exhibited in Istanbul as part of the International Week of the Disappeared.
One of the exhibition organizers is Hafiza Merkezi’s communications officer, Kerem Ciftcioglu. He says they turned to art as a way of reaching out to people to express the enormity of the situation.
“We usually as human rights organizations, we express ourselves through words, texts, and narrative forms; and very analytically, with social science tools, with legal tools.” Here we want to translate those to a more artistic forms of expression.” And we want people to actually confront these faces, feel this policy, which is a state policy. This is undeniable when you see it in visual and physical form.”
Relatives of the missing are among those attending the Istanbul exhibition.
Mikail Kirbayir carefully surveys the hundreds of faces arranged on shelves and the floor in the exhibition hall. He is looking for his brother, Cemil, who vanished after being taken by security forces during the 1980 military coup. The exhibition provokes mixed feelings.
“It is a beautiful work, yet I’d wish it didn’t exist,” Kirbayir said. “I’d wish we didn’t see Cemil here in this exhibition but saw him alive and happy among us.
“It is too sad to see these people, whose lives were taken by the state, whose first and foremost duty must be to protect the lives,” he adds. “It is too difficult to express ourselves, so I am thankful for this artwork expressing this.”
During a peace process between the government and Kurdish rebels, authorities launched investigations into the disappearances, resulting in the prosecution of a few security officers. Following the collapse of peace talks four years ago, most cases hit dead ends, and no new probes were initiated.
Sezgin Tanrikulu, the deputy leader of the main opposition CHP, attended the opening of the Istanbul exhibition. Before becoming a member of parliament, he was a human rights lawyer in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.
Tanrikulu helped Kirbayir in his efforts to find the marble column of his brother; the two men carefully look at each face.
“We always forget, this exhibition shows us not to forget,” said Tanrikulu. “There are more than a few people whom I know, for whom I worked as a lawyer. There are a few whose relatives I know.
“Our culture is built on amnesia,” he adds. “Because if there is no justice, there is no peace, and you can’t build a future on it. I’d wish we drew a lesson from all these incidents of enforced disappearances and prevent it from happening again. However, for the last three months, I have been looking for six people who disappeared in Turkey. Six people! Because we couldn’t draw a lesson from the past, justice was never served. There is impunity.”
Human rights groups are reporting growing numbers of violations since a resumption in fighting between Kurdish rebels and security forces following the collapse of peace talks. The government denies any violations. The government considers the PKK a terrorist organization.
The hope of organizers of the Istanbul exhibition is to keep up the pressure to find those who vanished and ultimately to hold accountable those responsible, as well as ensuring an end to enforced disappearances.