The Voice of Hunger, Part 2

A Two Part Series on Lives Sacrificed under Turkey’s State of Emergency

For Nuriye, Semih and many other brave souls who choose to carry on

Part 2: Hunger

In January 2017, Gülmen and Özakça hinted at the possibility of a hunger strike if the Turkish state continued to dismiss their demands. On March 9, they moved ahead earlier than expected when police detained them at the Turkish Parliament. They maintained the hunger strike the five days they were in police custody. After their release, they returned to Yüksel Street. Here is a picture from the 25th day of their hunger strike, which at the time of writing has entered its 106th day. For 106 days, they have been on a diet of Vitamin B1, sugar, salt, and water, which has taken its toll on their bodies. Doctors and attorneys who visit them in prison speak of symptoms of heart failure and nervous breakdown.

The Yüksel resistance also brought to public attention the actions of other hunger strikes. Kemal Gün, a 70-year-old father began a hunger strike in February 2017, demanding the remains of his son, who was killed in an airstrike in the Kurdish town of Dersim. It took 90 days of hunger before his demands were met, after which Gün initiated a proper funeral with his son’s bare bones.

Like the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, which began late in May with a few environmentalists blocking bulldozers razing trees at Istanbul’s Gezi Park, on Yüksel Street, a protest of a few who lost their jobs through the emergency decrees turned into a mass movement of dissent that is spreading across Turkey. When the police burned down environmentalists’ tents to force them out, the protest took a new turn. The Gezi spirit, as it was called, led to nightly protests across Turkey’s urban centers. While the Gezi Park protests ended by July, with the Istanbul municipality retracting their plans to bulldoze the park, the AKP government learned its lesson: No more Gezi-like protests.

“The compassionate hand of the state”

The Turkish state has never had tolerance for such protests—let alone collective hunger strikes. The state justifies its interventions as right, and compassionate in nature—as acts of mercy.

In 2000, special-ops forces raided prisons to end hunger strikes, intermittently ongoing since 1996 and by then had taken dozens of lives (and dozens more during the operation, ironically called “Return to Life”). The operation led to larger scale dissent in and out of prisons (and took over 100 more lives).

Veli Saçılık lost his arm during that operation in 2000. In jail for distributing pamphlets, he tried to stop an excavator razing the prison wall. His arm was torn off, deemed irreparable, and thrown away. It was later found in another city, where a stray dog was gnawing on it. The state chose not to provide him prosthetics, arguing no terrorist deserved them. After serving his sentence for obstructing justice, he brought the case to trial, and won compensation for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) concluded in a separate case that Saçılık and 24 other prisoners receive additional compensation for non-pecuniary costs. A year later, an administrative court in Turkey retracted the decision, demanding he reimburse his compensation (in excess of 300,000 Euros). Saçılık brought the case to the ECtHR, which in 2015 concluded the compensation could not be reimbursed. The Ministry Interior, however, chose not to follow the decision, and proceeded with collecting the sum. 

The compassionate hand of the state always took the form of a fist pummeling the faces of dissenters. In 1990s and early 2000s, critics were mainly Kurdish and leftist activists. Today, liberal activists and academics join them.

Despite a lost arm and the hundreds of lives lost, the state—through its attempt to “save” hunger strikers—had extended what the Minister of Justice called “the compassionate hand of the state.” Yet, that “compassionate hand,” always took the form of a fist pummeling the faces of dissenters. In 1990s and early 2000, these critics were mainly Kurdish and leftist activists. Today, liberal activists and academics join them.

The voice of hunger

The World Medical Association defines hunger strikes as “a form of protest by people who lack other ways of making their demands known.” Here, life, stripped from its political and legal significance and reduced to its bare form, remains all that is left to give to continue the fights for dignity and justice.

On the 75th night of their hunger strike, police broke into Gülmen and Özakça’s homes and detained them. “What kind of benefit was presented to you to launch a death fast? Are you trying to start mass protests similar to the Gezi Park protests of 2013?” the Prosecutor demanded. The Prosecutor feared that the hunger strike would turn into a “death fast,” like the late 1990s and early 2000s, and find support in wider audiences, such as the Gezi Park Protests or the TEKEL/Turkish Tobacco workers strikes of 2010.

Gülmen and Özakça continue their hunger strike from prison and demand those outside to carry on the fight: “Do not forget us. Do not forget to be the voice of hunger, to take sides in our struggle for our bread, and to decorate with flowers the front of our monument. And don’t ever abandon Yüksel!”

Ethics of attentiveness

The starving body of the hunger striker conveys a language. As Lionel Wee notes, a hunger strike is a communicative act that brings public awareness to bodies engaging in dissent, and makes them a part of the social drama—pushing the audience into a critical questioning of power, choice, intentions, and responsibility.

The Turkish state is attentive to suffering of the hunger striker because life (and its potential end) is generative of meaning that is harder to regulate. In addition to limiting the visibility of the protest—by barricading the Human Right Statue, detaining protesters, banning collective singing after dusk—government officials also attempt to control the language that makes hunger meaningful. They discredited the strike as an act undertaken by terrorists (“One of them is a teacher the other is an academic…but we do not send our children to schools so that they can get educated as terrorists?”), an un-Islamic act (“Acts such as hunger strikes are acceptable under neither our belief system nor our values. The life that is given by Allah can only be taken away by Allah”), and discrediting the sincerity and commitment of the hunger strike’s participants (“They go to their protest place at 9 a.m., and they eat and drink at night”).

In 1998, as hunger strikes in Turkey were garnering international attention, the BBC’s Ankara correspondent jotted the following lines on the Human Rights Statue: “The fact that the human rights statue in the centre of Ankara is a symbol of a long struggle waged by brave individuals against an often oppressive state—and the fact that it exists at all—says something. But there are limits and there are lines that it can sometimes be fatal to cross.” Today the same limits of dissent that are fatal to cross.

As in 1998, these limits prove insufficient to silence those who seek justice and dignity. Our responsibility as members of the concerned public lies with remaining attentive to resistance and refuting the state narrative. As Karin Andriolo beautifully puts it: “Only we can rescue, by way of imagining, protest suicides from disappearing into the void of deeds that go unrecognized as if they had never happened. If we turn the other way, protest suicides are killed twice, once by their own hands and once by the silence of our imagination”

The least we can do is to remain attentive to their voice.

Read Part 1, “The Statue of Human Rights,” here

Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and a McDonnell scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. His fieldwork in Strasbourg, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was on moral anxieties pertaining to Muslim Turkish men’s going out habits.

Cite as: Alyanak, Oguz. 2017. “The Voice of Hunger, Part 2.” Anthropology News website, June 27, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.498

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