A letter from hunger striking lawyer Aytaç Ünsal
HUNGER strikes as a form of resistance to Turkish state oppression have become a focus again as prisoners use the action to press their demands, including the right to a fair trial.
In the past few weeks three people have succumbed as the government of authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is accused of a reckless disregard for human life.
The case of Grup Yorum bass player Ibrahim Gokcek drew international condemnation following his death after nearly one year on hunger strike. Police attacked his funeral, stealing his body and taking it on a 12-hour journey from Istanbul to the central Anatolian city of Kayseri.
There his grave was attacked by fascists from the Grey Wolves who pledged to dig up and burn his dead body – a chilling threat backed by Erdogan’s governing coalition partners the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Prior to Mr Gokcek’s death, Grup Yorum singer Helin Bolek died after 288 days without food, while Musrafa Kocak also perished in April after a hunger strike for the right to a fair trial. All three were accused of membership of the banned Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) — a Marxist-Leninist organisation deemed a terrorist group by the Turkish state.
Two lawyers from the People’s Law Bureau (CHD), Ebru Timtik and Aytac Unsal are also on hunger strike for the right to a fair trial. They were part of a group of 19 lawyers jailed in a highly politicised trial last March.
Suleyman Soylu, deputy chairman of the ruling AKP party and current minister of the interior, insisted that the defendants were the “pillar of the DHKP/C” and that their imprisonment had helped neutralise the organisation.
But Bar associations, human-rights groups and political parties have said that the trial was flawed and the defendants were jailed on the basis of flimsy evidence from anonymous sources and state informants.
Aytac Unsal has written a letter telling his story and explaining why he is on hunger strike.
“I am sending this letter to you
Without adding anything
But my heart”
— Nazim Hikmet
How are you doing? I wanted to tell you about myself. I thought you would like to know about a lawyer who is on a death fast. This story explains the reasons why a lawyer is walking to death. But actually this is the story of all of us.
I am the only son of a civil-servant family from Anatolia, but also the only child.
My mother is from Denizli Acıpayam and my father is from Adana Kozan. But I was born in Antakya and my midwife was an Arab. I am the son of a mother who is a judge. To be aware of the judicial system can be thought of as understanding people’s rights, law and justice since childhood.
Yet it also made me recognise injustice from a young age. Even in my childhood class differences were instilled in my eyes. My father was a forestry engineer. We stayed in lodgings belonging to the Forest Directorates many times.
I was very young when I was in Antakya. But the lives of the people was exposed in front of me. From time to time, a young girl named Zeliha came to look after me in the lodge we stayed at. She made money by looking after me and helping my mum. She was the daughter of a poor Nusayri family.
She spoke Turkish with a beautiful Arabic accent. Zeliha, who had not yet experienced life, was learning about life along with me. And I witnessed Zeliha’s poverty, seeing that she had to wear my mother’s old clothes.
There was the son of a forest worker staying in the same building as us. His name was Mustafa. He was the same age as me, but not like me. Because I can’t go out on my own, but Mustafa is on the streets. I have a tricycle, but Mustafa runs on stony roads. And barefoot. And Mustafa is always hungry, unlike me. I witnessed the hunger of a 4- or 5-year-old boy running on the stony roads barefoot. And that’s when for the first time I learned to share my boiled eggs with him regularly.
Our next stop was Bayramiç, the small and charming district of Çanakkale. Bayramiç was the paradise of the homeland. Just like Antakya, it was the richness of Anatolia. The Gypsy people and the Turkish people lived together. There was also a young girl here who was taking care of me and helping out cleaning the house. This time her name was Berna. And this time she was not a Nusayri but a Gypsy. But it was the same poverty, and the same work.
This time, my playmate was Ismail, the son of a Turkish Sunni Islamist family. I had other friends that I visited frequently. Workers working in the Forest Enterprise used to set up barbecues next to their shelters on lunch breaks and make “shit fish.” The people in Çanakkale name the sardine fish that because it’s cooked without cleaning it.
Of course, once I’ve smelt that the grill was fired up, I’d start walking around like a cat in front of a butcher’s shop. They’d notice me and call me over right away. And after a while I became a member of this humble barbecue party. I learned the naturalness, the sincerity, the warmth among those people.
After Çanakkale, we set out to the inner Aegean. We were at Usak. I started primary school now. In elementary school, I personally experienced the favouritism towards bureaucratic civil-servant children like us.
My best friend Yavuz who was from Konya was the child of a worker. The majority of the school consisted of these worker and farmer children. We were the same as them, but we were not like each other.
I had a friend named Mehmet who was studying in another class. His apron was patched. His shirt collar looked like the collar of female students. Since he could not get pocket money from his family, he could not buy bagels during the break.
When I saw this, I cried to my mother when I returned home. And I asked, “Why? Why is he like that? ” Because these things did not appear in the fairy stories of Omer Seyfettin, which my mother read to me. My mum tried to explain, and she advised, “You can buy a bagel and ayran [Turkish drink] too.”
One day, one of the school’s rogue children began to humiliate and annoy Mehmet. I got crazy. I dropped him on the ground and started kicking him. It was like I was asking for an account of what Mehmet was going through. I wasn’t stopping, I was emptying my anger. They could barely pull him away from me.
Then my teacher stood me in front of the class and asked me what I’d done. “Why did you do it?” the teacher asked, “Because he is my brother,” I said. The teacher knew I was an only child so she was shocked.
“So what, is he named Mehmet Unsal?” she asked. I was so stubborn that the teacher called my mother and asked, “Does Aytac have a brother?” But as far as I was concerned, I did! He was my brother.
Then we went to Izmir, where I stayed until university. The class differences in Izmir were more pronounced than I could ever imagine. The high school I went to was complicated.
There were children from wealthy families but it was largely a place where the children of poor families studied. Until I started high school, my best friends in Izmir were the children of the doorman of the building.
I was always at their house, and they were often at our house. I always felt more comfortable there, with the workers, with the people. I was overwhelmed by the austere, primitive individualism and pretension among the rich. I experienced it many times in high school.
I was raised in a Turkish Sunni family. The influence of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) was intense in Kozan, especially on the father’s side. My mother’s dad, my grandpa was a fan of [former President] Suleyman Demirel. Even though I wasn’t a political person, I’d never known anything except this reality. But I experienced an incident in high school that made me question all that.
I had a classmate named Yusuf — he was Kurdish from Mardin. A teacher in our History class asked Yusuf to stand up. “Tell me Yusuf are you Arabic? Are you Kurdish? Or are you Turkish?” the teacher asked. When Yusuf said “I’m Kurdish”, the teacher said “you failed my lesson!”
I was shocked. What was this now? That’s when I faced the reality of our country. I faced the reality of my friends who stayed in the dorm, who had to walk miles to school every day because they didn’t have enough money, which is why they were napping in class. I saw it in the reality of families trying to survive on a single salary and having to eat pasta or rice every day.
When I went to Ankara to study at university, most of the students in law school were children of wealthy families. They were far removed from the real-life experiences of the masses. Their lives, priorities and their problems were different.
I wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t happy. I was used to the relationship with my people being open, sincere, warm, knowing how to laugh, being there with a shoulder in a difficult time. I was looking for Zeliha, Mustafa, Berna, Ismail, Mehmet, Yavuz, Yusuf. I felt like they suddenly disappeared.
Then I got to know the People’s Law Office. And I realised that they are actually everywhere. And they are in their millions. I found them again. I found them in the resistance of Cansel Malatyalı [trade union dispute] which I participated in.
I got to know them with the Kazova workers. I saw them in the Kınıklı mine workers. I found them in Didem, my dear wife, a lawyer of the People’s Law Firm.
After finding them once again, I never left them alone. To defend the women whose babies were orphaned after Soma [a 2014 mining disaster which killed 301 people], the parents who had no shoes on their feet and buried their children in the mud in Ermenek [a western Anatolian town], was like to defend Mehmet in primary school to defend Berkin Elvan, Hasan Ferit Gedik, Dilek Dogan, Sila Abalay. And I never left those Mehmets vulnerable.
I lived the happiest times of my life while defending my people. While defending life and people, I got to know life and people. In my childhood, I learned life from Zeliha, Mustafa, Mehmet, and workers. People’s Law Office taught me life in real terms.
Kınıklı workers, Kazova workers, Cansel Malatyalı, Türkan Albayrak, TAYAD [prisoner support group] members who resist everywhere, free prisoners, revolutionaries, my clients who are too many to name here, my wife, my love, Didem have taught me what it really is to live. I have loyalty, solidarity, sharing, love and trust in my bones. And I can say “I lived” with great ease.
Now they’re forcing me to give up all this. They say you can’t defend the workers, the villagers, the people of Anatolia. They say you can’t be a lawyer at the People’s Law Firm. They say you can’t see Didem for the next 10.5 years. They’re trying to ban me from the people, the country, my love, my profession.
But these are not worthless things that you can just give up. It’s not simple enough to say,” Well, there’s nothing to do.” I never give up my people, Anatolia, those who taught me about life, who made me human with their effort. I will die but not give up.
This is the story of my journey. Mustafa [Kocak]…still exists today. Mehmet who cannot eat bagels is İbrahim Gökçek who [died weighing less than] 30 kilos.
And I have been their family since their childhood. And I have been their lawyer since childhood. I will die, but I will not stop defending them!
Letters can be sent to: Aytac Unsal, No 1 F-Type Prison, Burhaniye, Balikesir, Turkey and Ebru Timtik, Silivri Prison, Istanbul, Turkey.
A petition has been launched supporting their demand for a fair trial. People can send their name, job and location to firstname.lastname@example.org.