Kemal Taylan Abatan spoke with Tuğçe Yılmaz about the Labor Day Taksim Square massacre, also known as the Bloody First of May, for which approximately 500,000 people gathered in Taksim Square for May 1 celebrations in 1977. This celebration was very important in terms of showing the great size of the left in Turkey. Toward the end of the speech given by Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey (DİSK) Chairman Kemal Türkler, shots were fired at the crowd in the square from the surrounding buildings. Masked gunmen at the Sheraton Hotel—later called the Intercontinental Hotel and now the Marmara Hotel—which unknown people had previously booked and shut down to others—and at the Water Administration building opened fire and plunged the crowd into chaos. Then armored police vehicles that entered the square crushed people to death. Although many people tried to get out of the square down Kazancı Hill Road, a vehicle parked right at the head of the street caused a bottleneck and many people were crushed to death. When the chaos ended, 34 people had died and 136 were seriously injured. Tuğçe Yılmaz explains here the steps taken to commemorate the Bloody First of May, which happened 35 years ago and whose perpetrators are still unknown.
How did the idea of undertaking work for the memorialization for the Bloody First of May come about? Who was involved?
Reaching out to the relatives of those killed on May 1, 1977, and making their stories known to the public was something Nadire Mater had wanted to do for years. When you look through Bianet’s archive, you often come across such files. There are stories of revolutionaries who lost their lives in Kızıldere, as well as of the journalists who were taken from us. I was very excited when Nadire Mater talked about this initiative, but I remember being really scared too. Even the thought of tracing the carnage whose 50th anniversary was approaching was compelling. It wasn’t like we could reach this person or that person through some link, because their stories hadn’t been published anywhere before. In fact, their names, genders and ages were even recorded incorrectly.
Although I wanted them to be included, the unions couldn’t take part. After the September 12, 1980 coup, their archives were either destroyed or they had to be destroyed. Among the 34 people killed, many were union members and/or organized. If this information could’ve been preserved in the archives, the work would’ve obviously been greater and I would’ve probably been able to tell the stories of the people that I couldn’t write because I couldn’t find their relatives.
Exactly for these reasons, other that the families of those killed on May 1, 1977—their solidarity with me and with each other—not many others were included other Nadire Mater and Sami Evren. I was, however, able to get support, albeit partially, from trade unions and professional organizations such as DİSK and the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) in order to reach the families of those killed.
Have there been any changes or transformations in your approaches to and ideas about remembrance and memorialization throughout this process? If so, could you talk about them?
I came across interesting information from time to time on my journey with the names of those who died in Taksim on May 1, 1977. Leftist organizations’ websites were very helpful in this regard. Many also updated their archives with new media tools. Of course, due to the access bans on these sites, especially after 2015, it’s been difficult to access them. As a researcher, you may experience problems such as not being able to find an address because the person has moved. What’s worse is that many archives weren’t preserved and are lost. I wish these documents had been collected in one place, because when this data and information is protected on websites, it’s more easily accessible to those unaware of the cycle in Turkey’s recent history.
Throughout the process, I came across a few examples of how important the construction and protection of cemeteries is. Among those killed on May 1, 1977, there were those whose graves were destroyed, and one person—18-year-old Ali Sidal—had no grave at all. They kept his body in a warehouse for three days and put great pressure on his family not to take his body to Dersim. Ali Sidal’s father hurried to bury his son in Alibeyköy Cemetery. Afterward, the grave site disappeared when the family returned to Dersim. Ali Sidal still doesn’t have a grave even now.
I think and know that memorialization practices that reveal such violations are most important for those subjected to them. I think it makes people not feel alone in dealing with the perpetrators of violence against them and their relatives. Being able to come gather at a grave or monument is unfortunately a valuable part of mourning in this spiral of suffering.
How would you describe the political, social and personal impact you expect this process you are in the midst of and the memorialization and remembrance work you produce to create? Whom does this project speak to and who wants to be addressed?
It addresses the ongoing impunity and essentially enables the dead to speak to the state. We let the dead speak. Accessing in-depth information on those who died in the massacre was one of the valuable aspects of the project.
I was able to access the information of those killed in Taksim that day, again, through autopsy reports. There were some people from the families of the 34 people killed who didn’t want to talk, and I couldn’t find any clues about some others. In the new list Fahrettin Engin Erdoğan of DİSK made in 2010, the number of missing persons reached 41. There’s still no information about those added in 2010 other than their names. This is why the autopsy reports in the Social History Research Foundation of Turkey’s (TÜSTAV) archives formed the basis of my research.
Another addressee of the study is of course the social opposition upon whom it’s incumbent to know who these people are. I think the questions we should all think about are why we couldn’t reach the families of the people whose stories haven’t been told, how we couldn’t hear their voices, why people haven’t been interested in who these people were who were killed in this massacre are after all these years.
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?
There is such a perpetual and unrelenting chain of impunity in Turkey that it’s quite difficult to motivate for and maintain a new project. There’s also the burden of work on your shoulders and on your mental well-being. Since all examples of impunity are interrelated, you need to keep these balances in mind. For example, the May 1, 1977 massacre is perhaps the most significant event in the leadup to the 1980 coup.
We also see why the perpetrators of all the massacres that have happened since haven’t been brought to justice when we look at the massacre of May 1, 1977. It’s obvious who was responsible and they obviously protect each other with a very wide shield. Even cursory research shows who was on duty that day, who was kept from being put on trial and how they were kept from trial. For those who died on May 1, they say they crushed each other, they shot each other, as if nothing happened and then they all of a sudden started to rush about.
The fact that almost 50 years has passed since the massacre made it a challenge and also a barrier to finding the relatives of the deceased. As I started reaching out to families, though, I started to have difficulties trying listen to their stories as if I were an outsider in order to tell them correctly. It was a very difficult experience for me. We’re talking about a study that’s taken about two years now. When I look back, I realize that my entire focus was the families of the May 1, 1977 victims. I thought about them as I slept, and when I woke up, I thought about which I could find and where.
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 explain it?
Theoretically, there’s much research—sociological, psychological and historical—that suggests memory studies could play a role in the pursuit of justice. Rather than its theoretical context, as an investigative journalist, what I find more valuable and what worries me more about this part is that such pursuits of justice pose a threat that even those responsible for the injustices realize. Access to your news and articles could be blocked or, at best, an investigation may be opened against you. This is where persistence can make things go right. Primo Levi, Jean Améry and others have emphasized the importance of these studies from different perspectives and their necessity for survivors and victims’ families. There are many people working in this field in Turkey, or whose existence directly poses this threat. As a lawyer, Eren Keskin, is one example. Keskin’s existence is a direct threat to the state. And one of the first names or groups that comes to our minds is the Saturday Mothers.
The most important recent example is the insistence of the Şenyaşar family displayed with the Justice Watch. Although we knew what happened in Suruç that day, the Şenyaşar family showed us how it happened and revealed the massacre in all its dimensions. The Şenyaşar family etched the impunity of that massacre in our minds with the vigil held for more than 400 days.
Monday, May 23, 2022