Translator’s note: This article was first published in Agos in 2011 by Funda Tosun and later in the Gazete Demokrat on April 14, 2015. It really touched me deeply on many levels when I discovered it. So I decided to translate it from Turkish. To offer some more context, in the 1970’s, right and left wing armed terrorist groups had been engaged in increasing violence. In 1980 General Kenan Evren carried out a coup in Turkey and instituted military rule with a general purge of all suspected subversive groups. A vast majority of Turks welcomed the coup at the time. After the coup, many men went to prison. In 1982 a new constitution was proclaimed and was implemented in 1983. In 1984 the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) launched guerrilla warfare in the east of Turkey, leading to more repression and imprisonment. General Evren stayed in power from 1980 to 1989, including holding the 7th Turkish presidency in 1982. He was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment later. Too fragile to attend the trial, Evren testified from his hospital bed. He defended the constitution, saying it was designed to avoid the mistakes that had led to the civil strife of the 1970s. He died at age 97 on May 9, 2015. The text below is the testimony of a lone Armenian prisoner of the post-coup regime, held in Diyarbakir from 1980 to 1987 and again for a year in 1990.
The Diyarbakır Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office recently launched an investigation of the criminal complaints filed by 700 people imprisoned in the Diyarbakir Prison, where a most terrible torture in human history was suffered. While the Prosecutor’s Office started taking statements from those who filed a criminal complaint and applied to the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of National Defense asked for information about the whereabouts of the torturers mentioned in the petition. The Prosecutor’s Office responded to the request by giving the names of the torturers at a press conference organized by the Diyarbakır Prison Research, Truth and Justice Commission. The list included General Kenan Evren as commander-in-chief and officers working in prison, as well as military prosecutors and judges.
In Diyarbakir No. 5 Prison, where 34 people were killed and hundreds of people were disabled between 1981 to 1984, ‘strappado’ (Palestine hanging), electric shocks, ‘falaka’ (beating the soles of the feet), rape, batons impaled anally, feeding feces were among the common deeds.
There was one Armenian among the prisoners in the government’s systematic application of torture and ‘Turkification’ processes. Garabed Demircioğlu always received special attention, a ‘worthy one!’ by Capt. Esat Oktay Yıldıran. Capt. Yıldıran tried out the most unimaginable tortures that come to human mind. He always wore a commando uniform and toured with his dog named “Jo.” During that era Demircioğlu’s image was carved in many prisoners’ minds with a circumcision dress and a banner that read Maşallah (how magnificent). Later after his forced circumcision and Islamization, they changed Garabed’s name to Ahmet.
After being imprisoned from 1980 to 1987, on May 1, 1990, this ‘lucky’(!) lone Armenian prisoner was released, only to be arrested again on May 1, 1990 for attending celebrations for International Workers Day. He was again subjected to special treatment and sentenced to one year in prison. He got this sentence exclusively, while his comrades were subjected to three months. He left the country with heavy injuries from a military operation against prisoners in Sağmacılar Prison, Istanbul. He resides in Europe now and receives medical treatment for his heavy torture. During this interview, he described the circumstances of being a revolutionary Armenian in Diyarbakir Prison.
I was born in Diyarbakir (Kurds’ Amed, Armenians’ Dikranagerd). I was one of six children—two older sisters and three brothers. I’m the oldest among my brothers. My parents were illiterate, but like many, they were devoted to their children’s education. They knew the value of labor and work and were therefore honorable people. My father used to buy newspapers so we would read and take us to Yılmaz Güney movies. I can’t say he did this consciously.
As a typical Anatolian Armenian, all of our grandparents were kılıçartığı (left-over or spared by the sword). Some were exiled and the rest were migrants. My grandmother used to tell me how her brother was killed before her eyes, and how her entire family escaped to Qamishli, Syria and then to Aleppo. My aunts remained there. We used to meet them behind the wired border-fences like many Kurds do today. My uncle lived in France.
We would go to church of Saint Giragos. Our mother used to hold our hands firmly on the way there. It was always noisy during church as people would throw stones at the wooden door. It broke one day. They replaced it with an iron door.
We would never speak Armenian anywhere outside the house, nor would we say our name. I always thought that if I were successful doing so, they wouldn’t notice that I was Armenian. I always thought everything depended on concealing that I was. But it wasn’t successful. They understood, or rather, they knew who was gavour (infidel) and who was fılle.
I went to Süleyman Nazif Primary School. Every day, other neighborhood children trapped me and other Armenian children in a desolate place. They would lift up their index fingers of both hands asking “Are you Muslim?” and making a cross “Or are you fılle?” Most of the time, without waiting to hear that ominous answer, they would spit on our faces, slap and kick us. We most frequently heard of getting sacrificed, promising them heaven. “If I kill seven fılle, I go to heaven.” Every day I lived through as one of the potential seven fılle to be sacrificed so that they could reach paradise and happiness.
I will never forget Diyarbakir train station. I was nine years old. I was sent to Istanbul to study like many Armenian kids. My mother never gave consent. Today she still sees Istanbul as the perpetrator of all the disasters that have happened to me today. Maybe it is. I don’t know. Every summer we would fill up the train to return to our country. The trains were operated with coal then. We would arrive with our hands and faces all blackened. When the time came to be sent back, our mothers would fill our hands and mouths with içli köfte, sarmas, dolmas and breads for the road. We would fill up the train. We would leave behind crying mothers wiping their tears with a white handkerchief. Maybe my mother was right. If I hadn’t left Diyarbakir like other hundreds of Armenian kids to be sent for education… maybe. I don’t know…
When I was released from prison to be sent off to do my ‘country-duty’ with chains on my hands and feet, between two soldiers, again in the same train station, this time Kurdish mothers were seeing me off. They resembled ours. But they were louder, walked taller, more resilient, unflinching. Maybe because they didn’t live to see, as we did, the short life we lived because of the atrocities. Maybe they were dying out slower, or were stronger, more enduring. Maybe there were more of them. I didn’t know why they were there. But I’m sure they were there because of one of the events, like our forced deportations. Or, were they simply they sending me off? I was trying to walk with chains, the soles of my feet beaten from falaka, obliged to carry me, crushed under such a difficult task… I was trying to step up. Suddenly these women attacked the soldiers. They were asking why my feet had the chains. Others were assaulting the soldiers asking for me to be unchained. But the interest of one of them was different. She was forcing food into my mouth and stuffing my pockets. Sarmas, dolmas, homemade bread…
A poverty-stricken child’s world opens to leftist and revolutionary ideas when he grows up attending elementary school with a pair of shoes, pants and a jacket. He also feels a nationalistic and religious pressure to assimilate. Having lived through all kinds of heartbreaks, listening to stories of swords and massacres, what could be more natural than becoming a revolutionist?
After graduating from Nersesyan Primary School, I attended Soorp Khatch Tibrevank Boarding School. Our library was rich and varied. It was possible to find Russian, English, American, Turkish and Armenian classics. Most of the students were interested in reading. We read Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Kemal, Kemal Tahir, Sabahattin Ali, Fakir Baykurt and memorized the poems of Nazim Hikmet, Enver Gökçe, Hasan Hüseyin and Ahmet Arif. But unfortunately, we couldn’t read enough Armenian poets and writers books then. I didn’t know about the famous poet, born in Kars, Yeghishe Charents, until much later in life.
I became a revolutionary like Misak Manushyan, Armenak Bakır, Manuel Demir, Nubar Yalim, Hayrabet Honca in my high school years. Armenak (Bakır) first brought us the first revolutionary socialist books to read. I began to sympathize with İbrahim Kaypakkaya’s revolutionary ideas. I found Kaypakkaya’s approach to the Armenian question and massacres scholarly and realistic. Come to think of it, about 40 years ago he had a short, concise, unbiased and scholarly point of view. He was breaking all the common molds. This affected me quite deeply.
I was detained for making communist propaganda on September 12, 1980. I endured excruciating torture. I spent a year in prison. Immediately after the coup, I was again taken into custody in Siverek for being a member of an illegal leftist organization and making communist propaganda. Because I refused to testify, they used the crudest, most primitive methods of torture. I was taken to Urfa Central Command.
They were bringing in people from Siverek, Halfeti, Suruç, Bilecik, Hilvan, Viranşehir and Ceylanpınar. The majority of them were poor, innocent villagers. They gathered hundreds of thousands of people. They implemented the most abhorrent tortures.
I was tortured an entire season. All kinds of torture. They tried a number of methods on me: Palestinian hanging from my ankles upside down, falaka, electricity, sleep deprivation, hunger, standing on one leg, getting electric shocks in water, naked. Often I experienced torture just for the sake being seen as “an Armenian” being tortured. Because my eyes were blindfolded, I couldn’t see the torturer. During hanging, the officer would blow cigarette smoke on my face. Because I wasn’t cooperating, the intensity was increasing every day, and they were getting more wild. I stayed so long in Urfa Central Command that the soldiers who went for leave, upon their return, saw me again. They couldn’t hide their astonishment.
A dog was trained to bark when the session began, and then he would also start barking when he heard the call to prayer. During the sessions, they would play Orhan Gencebay’s ‘Offer Me Solace’ piece continuously. I don’t know if Gencebay would have composed this song if he knew it would be played as a ‘consolation’…I’m sure he would be grieving.
The people who were tortured were mostly Kurds—revolutionaries, intellectuals, peasants. I met hundreds of old and young, innocent people. They once took Abdullah Öcalan’s brother Mehmet Öcalan into custody. I don’t know whether by chance or intentionally, they put him by my side. As we were sitting on the floor leaning our heads against the wall, an officer kicked me in the back and asked for my name. When I said my name he raised hell. Then he asked the name of the man sitting on the floor next to me, and he said the name. The torturer’s anger became unrestrained. He was shouting ‘Who put those two Armenians together?’ He was kicking us and swearing. We encountered a heavy session of torture because of me or him that day.
Could someone who is inflicting this much pain have the capacity to love?
When your name was called, the torture would start. The officers’ voices, the way they talked, the methods they used were very similar. They were all like one person. I couldn’t see their faces, but I believed their faces were the same. I always wondered how the torturers could say I love you to their children… Could someone who is inflicting this much pain have the capacity to love?
Sometimes once or twice a week, groups were taken to Diyarbakir. Those who were taken from Urfa to Diyarbakir would travel, thinking that the torture was over. They would take a deep, comfortable breath without any torture. I went to Diyarbakir in such peace of mind.
If God would send such rain of tyranny from above, he would probably not think that it could reach such intensity and ferocity. It will be a grand mistake to say it was a prison. It was a full-fledged torture center with physical and psychological equipment and specialized torture officers. It was a torture lab. Imagine being taken to the Diyarbakir Corps Command and being tortured there. It was a great blessing for us. We didn’t want to go back to the dungeon. Every narrative story of No. 5 is a bit lacking, because it is not possible to put such abominations into words.
From the moment the first step was taken, it was a place where everything belonging to the individual’s history was extorted by bullying, force—completely torn apart.
While we queued for identity check, we took off everything and waited naked. This was the first moment of discovery for the torturers. They figured out I was not Muslim. From that moment on, I received special attention.
Capt. Esat Oktay Yıldıran said that he would circumcise me on the first day and make me a Muslim. He said it with such a relaxed, smiling face, as if it was like a normal, natural job that needed to be done. Your name will be ‘Ahmet’ from now on, he said. My religion would be Islam, and I would be a ‘true Turk.’ In addition to the Turkification ritual, there was circumcision and prayer in my program.
There were many high-ranking military officers who wanted to see me. It was as if they had caught a monster, staring at me with astonishment, cursing at me, as if they hadn’t seen anyone like me. It was like there was a creature in front of them. Almost everyone knew of the existence of the Armenian. There were some who were interested in me exclusively. They spit on my face, cursed me, mounted my back. Several urinated on me.
Death seemed imminent, but I wasn’t able to die no matter what. Getting killed by a bullet would have been a luxury and a blessing.
In our very first torture session we were forced to clean out our bags of soap, margarine, toothpaste, papers –– in other words, eat them up. The ones who resisted were subjected to mass military beating, run the gauntlet. When I was tortured in custody, I didn’t have the strength to carry a sack. But they still tortured me. In Number 5 cell there was always a reason to torture. Our existence was a reason to torture. In this case, I didn’t have a sack.
There was a horse thief from Cizre. His opponents had denounced him for being a bad Kurd. He didn’t resemble any of us. I can’t tell you how agile and athletic he was. When soldiers tried to put him on the counter, he would whirl away and get chased down in the corridor. His demeanor was an undeclared victory for us who couldn’t open their eyes from torture.
Either we were tortured or we were listening to the screams of someone who was being tortured.
All the walls and ceilings were painted in the form of Turkish flags. Everywhere was red, and everybody was wearing khaki. Either we were tortured or we were listening to the screams of someone who was being tortured. The time of day didn’t matter. If I were lucky enough to choose, I would choose torture myself, because listening to the voices of my friends was the greatest pain. I still hear those cries today. They haven’t left my ears.
Every time we went to court and returned in a dark airless ring-truck, feet chained, hands behind back, the intensity of torture would increase. To speak out and defend yourself was a venture. One had to pay a heavy price. Because we did speak out in court, we paid the price in the truck with what were called special ‘five-ten’ planks. They would beat us. One day the plank broke on my back. The penalty was grand of course.
One day, Amnesty International delegates came to investigate the allegations of death for friends like Mehdi Zana, Mazlum Doğan and some others their names I can’t recall right now, and myself. They showed us before the eyes of the delegation that we were alive. They made a lot of effort to prevent any visible wounds and torture marks on our bodies, and we couldn’t say to the delegation that we were being tortured. The status of lawyers was no different than ours. They took them out in front of the delegation. They denied any torture. There were some former deputies like Serafettin Kaya, Hüseyin Yıldırım among them. Some were quite a lot older than us, brothers like Ahmet Türk, Nurettin Yılmaz, Celal Paydaş. They faced heavy torture from soldiers as young as their children.
During this time, militants of ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) were acting up. I was somehow responsible for their actions since I was Armenian. My punishment was severe. I became a respected legendary hero among the prisoners. Dozens of friends who were fortunate to know me, when they got released, mentioned to their friends that I would surely be tortured to death. They thought it would be a miracle I would stay alive.
In 1983, collective resistance started in the dungeon. It was our happiest day. It was defying slavery and torture, challenging improbity. It was a day to be human, the start of emancipation. I can say it was the most beautiful day of my life.
The self-sacrificing Mazlum Doğan and the four who threw their bodies into the middle of the fire, are unforgettable. Kemal Pir, Hayri Durmuş, Akif Ali, Cemal Arat, Orhan Keski, our friends who lost their lives through hunger strike are the most worthy of respect and love. I always remember them with respect and gratitude. They ignited the first spark of resistance with their bodies. But the torture did not stop.
In 1984, the second collective resistance began. I took part in the first group of the hunger strike. We started with 20 friends. It lasted 49 days. Two of our friends died. We were under threatening conditions.
In the first days of the hunger strike I came across officers who said, ‘We understood the others. What are you doing here as an Armenian in the hunger strike?’ However, I needed the most energy to resist, not to accept this villainous, dishonorable life. I had to resist for more reasons than any other. My fate was the fate of my people.
They had brought a hodja from a mosque to dissuade and discourage the strike. “God only takes the life he has given to his own servant, and you cannot kill yourself. This belongs to God” was the type of a speech he was giving. A friend named Bişar Akbaş told the hodja ‘There is an Armenian among us. Go and get a priest.’ Of course, the hodja left, but the priest didn’t come.
Today I would have liked to be among the ones who submit criminal complaint against the torturers. Those who tortured us should be tried. However, it should not be forgotten that torture was a state policy. As it is the official policy of the state, not only those who tortured them physically, but also those who accept, accept and implement this practice as official state policy should be accounted and judged. On the other hand, No. 5 must be a museum.
Today, I suffer from unbearable pain. I have serious balance and vision problems. Every time the subject of Dungeon No. 5 comes up or related memories, news and names, my eyes are filled unwittingly. In medical terms, it is called post-traumatic stress disorder. I call it an internal earthquake. I am living abroad and on heavy medication. On top of this, I’m also suffering from the malady of migration. In other words, I’m longing for my country.