- elections - Kurds - PKK - Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Turkey
After a ten-year break, they’re back at the same spot on Istanbul’s bustling Istiklal Street, at the same hour they used to gather back in the bad old days.
Over the past few Saturdays, a small group of mostly veiled women have been gathering outside the gates of an imposing Ottoman-era building in the heart of this Turkish city’s main shopping district.
Oblivious to the trendy shoppers, vendors and loiterers, the dozen-odd women stand there clutching red carnations and posters of mainly young men. Behind riot-proof shields, a posse of policemen and women watch them warily.
Residents of Istanbul have seen this before. From 1995 to 1999, the “Saturday mothers,” as they are called in Turkey, held protests every Saturday demanding information about their loved ones, who disappeared in the 1990s.
Those were the dark years for many Kurdish families in Turkey, when hundreds – the exact figure is still not known – disappeared at the height of the conflict between Turkish security forces and armed insurgents of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
According to human rights groups, most of the disappeared hailed from the Kurdish-dominated southeastern parts of Turkey. They included PKK members, Kurdish rights sympathizers and ordinary citizens.
Four years of Saturday protests on Istiklal Street however only yielded police crackdowns and shed little light on a murky chapter in modern Turkish history. Gradually, the “Saturday mothers” demonstrations fizzled out.
But a series of exceptional developments in the ongoing saga of Turkey’s clash between the secular establishment and the ruling religious party have reignited long-abandoned quests for justice these days.
And as Turkey prepares to go to the polls in nationwide local elections on March 29, the political spotlight is being turned on a much-overlooked section of the Turkish electorate.
A trial, a political potboiler
In recent months, Turks have been gripped by a sensational, high-profile investigation into a shadowy ultranationalist group called Ergenekon that allegedly hatched a plot to overthrow the country’s democratically elected moderate Islamist government. The ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) has been in power since 2002.
The massive Ergenekon indictment includes allegations that the group has links to JITEM, Turkey’s infamous military police intelligence wing. Many Turks believe the unit is also responsible for the extrajudicial killings and disappearances during Turkey’s counter-terror operations against the PKK, which began in 1984.
“Ergenekon has seen the opening up of all the old files, and it’s a very healthy (development),” says Hugh Pope of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “The mothers of the missing want answers and they want to encourage the judicial process.”