For Turkey's Kurdish Protesters, Long Sentences and Little Hope

"With this Kurdish issue, there are two ways of struggling: with weapons or with politics. I chose politics because war never ends."

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Ferman, his mother, and her son in Turkey / Jenna Krajeski

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- On July 14, 2008, Diyarbakir, a majority Kurdish city in southeast Turkey, erupted in protests. Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), had been forced to cut his hair, and men and women in the city, angered by what they saw as a humiliation of their leader, chopped their own hair and gathered in Kosuyblu Park. Among them were two 15-year-old boys, Mazlon and Ferman (his name has been changed). When police began spraying tear gas, the boys threw rocks and were arrested.

At the same time, an assembly had been called to remember the prisoners who had died in 1982 during a hunger strike in nearby Diyarbakir prison. Hawar (also not his real name), age 15, stopped to listen on his way home from working as a cell-phone salesman. When he turned to leave, he was blocked by a line of police, who began spraying the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. Hawar felt trapped. "There were only stones, so I threw a stone." He was arrested.

Their stories converged in Diyarbakir prison, where the three boys were accused of terrorism. For almost a year, the boys shared a cell, and became close friends.

I met Hawar's father, Arif, for breakfast in Diyarbakir. A small man with a gray mustache and two pens clipped neatly to the inside of his shirt pocket, Arif spoke adamantly about the stone-throwing kids, a cause he has taken up since Hawar's arrest. He tells the story of the arrest with determined, slow speech--bored with the familiar narrative, still stunned by the details.

When Hawar wasn't home by 11 p.m., Arif started to worry. He called police stations, looking for him. "If he was in a hospital, I would have gotten information right away. If there is no news, it means he is arrested."

Arif, like the three boys, was unaware that in 2006 Turkey had tightened its anti-terror laws and that juveniles could now be tried as adults. When he realized that his son could be in prison for years, "It was like volcanoes were exploding inside me," he said. "There was nothing I could do for him."

Arif's retelling, though thick with residual fear, included some optimism. Hawar's prison term--ten months and eight days--was comparatively short and since then, he's been doing well. Later that day, from a plush arm chair below framed photos of himself and his two brothers, Hawar narrated his own imprisonment.

"They arrested us and put us in the back of the police car. They beat us and swore at us. Then they took us to the hospital, where doctors examined us, supposedly for evidence of torture. They did not record our bruises. 'Their' doctors didn't care about us."

Being unaware of the severity of the charges against him, each day in prison was a new shock to Hawar. But nothing compared to the shock of the sentence itself: 38 years. "When I saw the 38 years, I thought I have to get used to living my life in prison."

It was a life that included a 7 a.m. head count followed by an "inedible" breakfast, reading books or beading bracelets, then to the small courtyard for his "right to breathe," then lunch. After lunch they read some more, and in the evening they were given the day's newspapers. Hawar, Mazlon, and Ferman favored the more independent Taraf and Radikal, "The best of the worst." There were no Kurdish news sources allowed. "They were doing their best to close our eyes to the world," Hawar told me.

But, in spite of the harsh sentence, Hawar found himself more determined. "Before prison I was not interested in finishing school," he said. "But then I saw the unfairness in this country and decided I wanted to do something. With this Kurdish issue, there are two ways of struggling: with weapons or with politics. I chose politics because war never ends." In June, Hawar will take the university entrance exam. He plans to become a human rights lawyer.

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Jenna Krajeski is a journalist based in Istanbul. Her previous work has appeared in  Al-Masry Al-Youm, The New Yorker, Slate, The World Policy Journal, Bidoun, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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