Celalettin Can

"Diyarbakır Military Prison cannot be explained, it must be experienced."

Kemal Taylan Abatan spoke with Celalettin Can about the Diyarbakır Military Prison, where the majority of the detainees and convicts were Kurds. It was transformed into a camp where a series of systematic torture was employed, particularly during the first half of the 1980s. In 2008,  Time magazine named it number 4 on its list of the World’s Worst Prisons. Although it may seem difficult to determine the actual number of people who lost their lives at the prison, according to state records, 34 inmates died there from 1980 to 1984 due to systematic torture and the protests against it. While hundreds of prisoners were physically harmed, almost all political prisoners there suffered psychological trauma. The Diyarbakir Prison Facts Investigation and Justice Commission was established in 2007, in order to transform Diyarbakir Prison into a place of conscience or a museum. The Foundation of the ‘78ers, which pioneered the implementation of this initiative and was founded by those who were subjected to human rights abuses following the coup, continued to work with experts in the fields of law, sociology, and psychology. Despite the great insistence that the prison, which was closed down in 2021, should be a human rights museum, it was announced that it would be a museum of memories and ethnography. Celalettin Can, the spokesperson of the Foundation of the ‘78ers, explains this arduous effort for memorialization and remembrance and the problems experienced in the process.

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Source: “The Victims of the ‘Diyarbakır Dungeon’ Will Speak


Why is it important to remember and memorialize grave human rights abuses?

Above all, it’s a responsibility we have as humans, and also because the human rights violations at Diyarbakır Military Prison, especially those between 1981 and 1984, can’t be taken in all at once. Understanding them is a process. While talking to political prisoners, they told us that Diyarbakır Military Prison cannot be explained, it has to be experienced. At first, it seemed like an exaggeration to me—why can’t it be explained, so long as the appropriate language is found? But as the conversations progressed, the depth of the incidents became clear. As I better understood the torture they experienced and the psychological and physical damage inflicted on them, I was horrified to realize the accuracy of that statement. We also saw that the detainees didn’t fully realize what they went through. They lived through it but didn’t know about each other’s experiences. A prisoner in one cell didn’t necessarily know what happened in another. The ties with reality were severed. A prisoner thinks he’s limited only to himself, but he’s also going through hell and has no idea of what others are experiencing. They don’t know what happened in 1981–1984, and see it as limited to themselves. Then, of course, when the environment relaxed a bit and they started going between the wards, they realized the truth. Every political prisoner knew their own experiences. Information from other cells and wards was incomplete and scattered. There was a rough numbness. For example, the “Group of Four” set themselves on fire, but other prisoners thought the men did this because Mazlum Doğan set himself on fire. But Mazlum Doğan hanged himself. Another thought is that Mazlum self-immolated and tried to hang himself. Information was very scattered and incomplete. In this sense, the sense that Diyarbakir Military Prison created for me was like the deepest depths of the pit of hell. The narrative doesn’t end. That’s why if a study is being conducted on Diyarbakır Military Prison, there’s the matter of grasping it through a process and you have to accept this in advance.

How did the idea of undertaking a memorialization project concerning the human rights violations at Diyarbakır Military Prison come about? Who was involved?

I started to have discussions on the subject while I was detained at Diyarbakır Military Prison. The years from 1981 to 1984 were when Oktay Esat Yıldıran ran the prison and the human rights violations were intense. As you know, he came from Cyprus and was specially selected for the job. He had an A-team, but then I think there was a failure in his response to the resistance, so he was replaced. After that, there was a period of relative relief at the prison. Prisoners could go between the wards. That’s how I started talking to the other prisoners there. I made a pact with them that one day we’d record our meetings on the outside and continue their resistance. That’s how we started all this in 2007. We formed an academic group of 50 people—most of them Turkish, including Nimet Tanrıkulu, Turgut Tarhan, Fikret İlkiz, Tahsin Yeşildere, Nazan Üstündağ, forensic pathologist Mustafa Sütlaç, Şebnem Korur Fincancı and me. I concentrated on the question of what political motives were inflicted on those at Diyarbakır Military Prison and prepared a text. Şebnem Korur Fincancı and Mustafa Sütlaç focused on the right to health, Nazan Üstündağ took on the sociology of Diyarbakır Prison, Fikret İlkiz focused on Diyarbakır Prison and criminal law, and Murat Paker focused on the psychology of prisoners in Diyarbakır Prison. Nimet Tanrıkulu prepared three large symposiums at the end of each meeting, one in Diyarbakır, one in Ankara, and the other in Istanbul, and prepared their final declarations. This was our team that read and examined the arguments that emerged, organized panels and symposiums, and made statements. We walked around the area as a group of 30 to 40 people. But when we traveled, for example to Urfa, I’d go on ahead, since I know the former prisoners there because I was at Diyarbakir Prison. I would contact the human rights organizations and my friends from prison there, arrange the meetings, accommodation, and expenses. So, let’s say there were 100 former prisoners—I would meet with them and say that we talked before in prison and now it’s time to act. The years went by and it was 2007, 2008, but we hadn’t forgotten. We sat down and talked about how many people would come, how many people could meet, and how they would get there. We organized everything. Municipalities also helped us. For example, we said that negotiations could be held at the facilities of the Municipality of Kızıltepe and that expenses could be covered by donations collected from the public. We did it collectively, with our own resources. We didn’t receive any official funding.

How would you describe the political, social, and personal impacts you expect this process you are in the midst of and the memorialization and remembrance work you produce to create? Whom does this initiative speak to and who wants to be addressed?

We interviewed 517 former prisoners in order to understand what happened at Diyarbakır Military Prison and ended up with 800 hours of recordings, which then produced 10,000 pages of text. The reason for what happened there was the Kurdish awakening between 1974 and 1980. Whomever they found, they threw in prison so they could attack their humanity and destroy the awakening. They were striving to dehumanize the people there, to ensure that society wouldn’t take them seriously and to turn each one of them into a shell of a person. They were trying to do this to the Kurdish political leaders in such a way so that people wouldn’t follow them. But it didn’t turn out as expected. As you know, there was a return to democracy in 1983. But the PKK had gotten bigger as well and started armed resistance in 1984. The persecution of Kurds was so great and widespread that the people demanded it of them. Many former prisoners from Diyarbakır Military Prison joined the PKK’s ranks, climbing the mountain with a gun, so to speak.

The torture that took place at Diyarbakır Military Prison from 1980 to 1984, was perpetrated by people from Turkish society. Of course, the Turkish public didn’t approve of it, but that’s not enough. Hitler also committed genocide against the Jews as the leader of Germany. Not all Germans were responsible for it, but they are always ashamed of it now. They tried all kinds of methods to rid themselves of this guilt. To this day, Germany’s tolerance of Israel’s politics is like that so as to avoid the stigma of Nazism and the Holocaust. Here, though, the Turkish public, including intellectuals, progressives, and democrats, haven’t taken an adequate stance against what happened in Diyarbakir—they’re implicated in it. Nothing has been done to ensure that what happened would be addressed and confronted on the national and international levels. And this is why the rift between Turks and Kurds grew wider. Two public opinions, two planes of perception emerged. A people who can’t develop sensitivity to the suffering of another people can’t develop sensitivity to their own suffering. Turkish people weren’t only indifferent to what happened at Diraybakır Prison but also to the Taksim Square massacre of May 1, 1977, the Maraş Massacre, the offences at the Mamak and Erzurum prisons, and other incidents for which the perpetrators haven’t been able to be brought to justice. Those responsible for the coup of September 12, 1980, weren’t punished and the accounts of the 5,000 young people who died leading up to 1980 have been left for the Final Judgement. It was amid this environment that the Diyarbakir Prison Fact Investigation and Justice Commission was established as a legitimate truth-seeking commission to remedy the failures to ensure justice. We created a charter and acted within the framework of its principles, working as a de facto truth commission on a journey of justice and conscience.

The Diyarbakır Military Prison Project was a setback for everyone—for Kurds as well as the whole of Turkey. But there’s also a prison at the center of it and they want to demolish it. They want to demolish some parts and turn it into shops and other parts into a sham cultural center. Now that the decision to demolish has been made, we’re preparing a campaign in response. There’s a particular critical significance in coming to terms with Diyarbakır Military Prison. All the dark facts that social peace revolves around the need to be put on the official state agenda. The state should make this information available to society, honor the victims through official apologies, protect those places that have become symbols of evil, and turn them into symbols of good so that they can say never again. Turning Diyarbakır Prison into a school or demolishing it is a thing of the past, so let’s forget it. The place has left deep scars, though, and its destruction would be immensely disrespectful to the victims’ families.


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Source: “Call from the ‘78ers Initiative on Diyarbakır Prison: The site of such brutality should be a Human Rights Museum


How would you evaluate the conditions for remembrance and memorialization in Turkey? What have been and are the difficulties you’ve encountered and what has come more easily?

It coincided with the reconciliation process, so the conditions were comfortable. We developed relations with the government and worked together with the Wise People Delegation. Our work had a huge impact. We had meetings with the government officials at the time. After one meeting, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said of the prison that it’s walls should be allowed to speak. Then the Wise People Delegation, which was working in seven different regions, declared in their evaluations that those responsible for the abuses at Diyarbakır Military Prison should be prosecuted.  I had meetings with the prime minister as well as a representative from the Kurdish side, so the dialogue was very close. I worked very hard many times for our delegation to go and give a briefing. The prime minister told me he understood, that I should relax, and that it will work out. A while later at another meeting, he asked me if I’d had what he’d said, that the walls should speak. In the meantime, we filed a criminal complaint as nearly 3,000 people. In Diyarbakır, everyone wrote of their own lives and filed a criminal complaint. All as individuals. As the reconciliation process was gaining steam, the Diyarbakır Public Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation. Nimet Tanrıkulu, the late Tahir Elçi, Turgut Tehranlı, Fikret İlkiz and I all followed the investigation.

At that time, we collected 100,000 signatures in order to get our work out. We gave these signatures to the government and all the parties in Parliament at the time. Our request was that the structure of Diyarbakır Prison be preserved. We wanted it to be a human rights museum as a symbol of peace and fraternity that exhibits experiences, gives hope to the victims, educates society, and thus positively and constructively contributes to the reestablishment of social memory. That was our aim. Then, when the reconciliation process was put an end to and widespread conflict erupted, the government intervened in the municipalities and placed its own trustees to run them. We were doing the work and the municipality had allowed us to do so. All the work was done. They want to demolish it and make it a bazaar or a cultural center or a school. Now we’re busy with preparations and will start working in Diyarbakır in May. We’ll submit more than 100,00 signatures. First, we’ll hold a meeting with former prisoners, then we’ll meet with civil society organizations, then we’ll invite intellectuals. We’ll start a new campaign and we’ll work to ensure that the prison isn’t demolished and that it’s converted into a human rights museum.

Nationalism is very powerful in Turkey. The Kurdish issue is also caustic. They could have easily done away with the work, manipulated it by saying Soros or some other financing was behind it. Turkish people are primed for conspiratorial thinking. The intellectuals in Turkish society haven’t fulfilled their duty for Diyarbakır Prison, but they must in order to fulfil their responsibilities. This is how we did it everywhere. When things got tight, we took out loans when needed, then we took donations and paid them off. The people took ownership of it very seriously and they all opened doors. We didn’t differentiate between any of the groups, we didn’t discriminate between any of the prisoners—whether they were members of the PKK, National Liberation Front of Kurdistan (KUK) or Kawa. We listened to those had switched allegiance to the state and informants and we also listened to the militants. We talked very openly with the Kurds and explained that this is how it should be. We didn’t get permission from anyone—we thought for ourselves. We wanted it to be independent. And much thanks to them—maybe they knew us from prison, maybe they knew about our past or they didn’t know us at all, but we based our position entirely focused on the prisoners. This is how we set out and brought things together, and doors opened to us one by one. All groups made their decisions and declared that they would support it until the end. For example, members of the PKK and KUK were at loggerheads. But they came, one in one room and the other in another room, and they explained their positions without any problems. Everyone helped. In fact, it showed that there was so much suffering in Diyarbakir that they wanted those responsible to be held to account, they wanted something. In May 2007, on the anniversary of the deaths of the Group of Four, we made a press statement in front of Sultanahmet Prison where we said that we were opening the Diyarbakır file. Then in September, we took 50 or 60 intellectuals from Turkey and went to Diyarbakır and made a press statement at Diyarbakır Prison. We walked to Koşuyolu Park and made a statement with the support of the public on what all intellectuals should do. We wrote up the charter of the commission with 15–20 people from the group who proposed they join the process. We said that we would work within the framework of the principles of our charter. Even when if a friend of ours objected to an issue, then we wouldn’t dwell on that issue. Our aim is to create a memory, a remembrance. Maybe we can’t use it right away, but maybe we can in 10 years, maybe later. That was the main issue. All we wanted was to leave behind a historical memory. We conducted everything democratically. I don’t view democracy through a moral lens. Democracy is a necessity. We wouldn’t have been able to succeed if we hadn’t worked together.

How would you evaluate the relationship between the search for justice and the efforts for remembrance? Could such efforts play a role in the processes needed to ensure justice? If so, can you expand on it?

In the meetings with the prisoners who’d been held at Diyarbakır Prison, we asked whether this should be done in the form of settling accounts or else seeking restorative justice. Restorative justice prevailed. Namely, coming to terms and restorative justice. There were former prisoners of Diyarbakir Prison who said people should face trial. But the fundamental view was that something similar should never happen again so we can look into each other’s eyes, so that the torturer and the victim can look at each other’s eyes. The prominent view was that the Diyarbakır Prison issue was a Kurdish issue, the Kurdish issue should be resolved and an environment where we can establish a common life should be built.

We then studied incidents from around the world. While doing the charter work concerning Diyarbakır Prison, we discovered 100–110 different practices of torture. And those were only the ones we were able to find. Seventy of these torture methods were employed at Diyarbakır Military Prison. Over 60 political prisoners were tortured to death there. There were also those who killed themselves either by self-immolation or hanging, but no more than 30. The rest were tortured to death. Thousands sustained injuries from torture and hundreds of them suffered psychological trauma. Dozens of them lost their minds. We obtained this information in the interviews we held with 517 people. There had been 30,000 prisoners at Diyarbakır Prison. These 517 people were relatively prominent figures of the resistance or had been a part of it. But 30,000 people passed through its gates. And that’s how you have to think. Atrocities are terrifying. And so, our findings don’t reflect the whole truth. They’re just the findings we reached. Let’s also not forget that these aren’t statistics but the experiences of living people, and so every facet of the truth must be told. Our work may be lacking in this. We need support from the arts, from literature and from cinema. There’s a duty that lies there as well. It’s necessary to say that the truth of the past is actually the truth of today and then act in line with this perspective.

When you look at examples from Turkey or around the world, how are both collective memory and memorialization initiatives considered today? What is your opinion about the future of the field?

I’ve been in many prisons in Turkey and I’ve been tortured. I tried to organize resistance. I’ve been tortured a lot and I’ve witnessed others being tortured, but when I listened to the people who’d been at Diyarbakır Prison, I was shocked. Diyarbakır Prison was worse than all of the most severe prisons in Turkey put together—they expressly worked to destroy people’s humanity there. They wanted to destroy the person and all the trust, honor and dignity that person possessed. While doing this, “They’d tell the prisoners that when they were done with them, they’d be so work over and run down that they wouldn’t want to leave. It’s the same for the victims, it’s the same for their families. They treated their families very poorly. When I got out, I said that it should be made public, because the people in Turkey don’t know about it, and even if they know something of it, they remain spectators. But there are those who aren’t with us anymore, there are those who die and there are those who resist in Turkey’s prisons. But they don’t know the features of Diyarbakır Prison. In other words, we know the Ottoman history and Turkish history. We know about the oppression, torture, massacres and terror. Starting with Diyarbakır Prison, we aim to reveal all of it and bring those responsible to trial. After we did this work, the ‘78ers gained respect and were considered a movement with their own identity.

Diyarbakir Military Prison wasn’t anything less than Nazi concentration camps. They beat, they killed, they starved, they killed more. The practices meted out there were truly unprecedented. The brutality at Diyarbakır Military Prison No. 5 should be understood in terms of its own uniqueness, without comparing it to other examples in Turkey or elsewhere in the world. These types of comparisons make Diyarbakir Military Prison only one example of such prisons around the world and in Turkey, which then prevents humanity from making a leap of social awareness in response to the barbarous practices used in Diyarbakir. Just as the practices the Nazi used at their concertation camps made humanity sensitive and created a leap of consciousness, what happened at Diyarbakir Military Prison should also carry the weight of humanity’s consciousness. Turkey’s best and brightest, its progressive and democratic forces have long not fulfilled this requirement. Conscience for Diyarbakır went unconscious. We’re certain that if the practices here were viewed from the same perspective as those employed at Nazi concentration camps, if this conscience were awakened, if the perpetrators of the 1980 coup were prosecuted, if the Kurdish issue was resolved, Turkey would be in a more advanced and fairer place in matters that would carry us all to a better future. Our commission was able to undertake this only after 30 years had passed. Life itself brought Diyarbakır Prison before our commission. It’s extremely important to reveal the inhuman character of the junta behind the 1980 coup. The relationship between torture practices and the mental and physical harm they cause and the political mentality behind Diyarbakır Prison must be established properly. The Kurdish issue had been ongoing for 80 years then, and today it’s more than 100 years old—it has always existed. The brutality of the perpetrators of the 1980 coup was the sign of a transition to the new era in such a way that the nature of Diyarbakır Military Prison was determined by the historical and strategic perspective of the Turkish state on the Kurdish people. Prisoners were first forced to declare that they were Turkish. If prisoners said they were Turksh, it meant obeying the rules and surrendering. The fact that prisoners were considered to be Turkish regardless of their own feelings and thoughts shows that this was intended to Turkify them by stripping them of their Kurdish identity and characteristics. The policy of denial of Kurdish identity has existed in the Republic of Turkey since its founding, as exemplified in the phrase: speak Turkish, speak it a lot. As a matter of fact, the 1980 coup regime banned Kurds’ native language. Kurdish had previously been de facto forbidden, then the prohibition was ensconced in the constitution. The reason behind this was the Kurdish awakening that began in the 1970s. Do we want to understand the Kurdish issue now? We can easily say that all we have to do is look at the practices at Diyarbakir Prison to understand how the Republic of Turkey thinks about Kurds.

Sunday, May 15, 2022