Sovereignty as Erasure: Rethinking Enforced Disappearances
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Sovereignty as Erasure
Rethinking Enforced Disappearances

Every Saturday precisely at noon, a crowd of mothers gathers in front of the gates of Lycée de Galatasaray, a prominent francophone high school situated at the center of Istanbul’s bustling downtown district in close proximity to Taksim Square. These mothers, with pictures of their sons and daughters, stand in silence, with resolve but no resolution to their demand for justice. These are the mothers of the disappeared in Turkey, mothers of bodies that have vanished, or more accurately, bodies that have been made to vanish. These mothers do not know whether their sons and daughters are dead or live; their fates are uncertain. They remain unaccounted for, except on the rare occasion when their remains are found in some unmarked pit, anonymous or mass grave.

These mothers, accompanied by men and children who are the relatives of the disappeared, as well as a handful of activist lawyers and human-rights defenders, hold red carnations and often wear white headscarves that have become symbolic of their relentless search for their children. Some of them have been searching for over thirty years, since the 1980 military coup. Others joined the struggle in the mid-1990s, when the number of disappearances surged, especially in the southeast of Turkey, in the midst of the conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan [End Page 35] Workers’ Party (pkk). The Saturday Mothers, as they have come to be known, began to convene in their current location in 1995 as part of the struggle to find the disappeared and to bring the perpetrators of enforced disappearance to justice. The weekly protests were called off in 1999 due to the intensity of police repression, after many occasions of “ridicule and insults, ill-treatment, or even detention and imprisonment.”1 But they recommenced a decade later, gaining impetus with several high-profile public trials, such as “Ergenekon,” “Temizöz and Others,” and the “September 12” trial of the surviving generals who organized the 1980 military coup. That some of the alleged perpetrators in the Ergenekon and related cases were among those accused of conspiring to create a criminal network within the state apparatus and plotting a coup raised hopes that decades of impunity for the perpetrators of serious human-rights violations against civilians since the early 1980s might finally come to an end. The prosecution of Temizöz—a former colonel in gendarmerie who was accused of conspiring with informants and local paramilitary forces for the extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance of twenty civilians in Turkey’s southeast province of Şırnak between 1993 and 1995—was a watershed moment for families, however inconclusive and insufficient, rekindling the hope for justice.2

The reenergized campaign of the Saturday Mothers, after having recurrently occupied the small square in front of the high school to hold vigil, thereby transforming it into a silent space of resistance (for 474 weeks at the time of writing), now involves issuing a different call each week that highlights a different person’s story.3 This is a tactic that serves to counteract the erasing effect of enforced disappearance, which renders individuals not only invisible but also anonymous. The Saturday Mothers’ call tries to remind the public that the disappeared are not just numbers but singular individuals who were subjected to a particularly heinous form of violence. It also draws attention to the fact that although each disappearance is singular, the script of disappearances is strikingly uniform.

Take, for example, the story of Nurettin Yedigöl, known for his leftist politics, who was taken into custody by the police in Istanbul on April 21, 1981. Despite multiple witness testimonies that [End Page 36] place him at the police headquarters, with visible signs that he was subjected to severe torture, he never returned home and the police denied that he was ever taken into custody. His remains have not been found, and those responsible for his disappearance have not been prosecuted. Another example is the relatively better known case of Hasan Ocak, who was recently commemorated on the anniversary of his disappearance. Ocak, a teacher by training and a leftist, was last seen leaving...