Freedom or sunshine
”I removed the foil paper from the box of Akhtamar cigarettes that I had in my pocket and started writing my will on the scuffed paper. I was handcuffed and trembling with fear.”
In the final week of the year 2015, thinking about the meaning of New Year, I was feeling helpless in the face of the news of deaths that kept coming from the East. Three days before New Year I saw on social media a call made by a group called ‘I Am Walking for Peace’. The call had been made mid-December, and it was a call made by a group of individuals who were completely independent; they were not members of any political party. Their statement said that they would set out from Bodrum by coach, and travel through Ankara, Adana and Urfa to finally arrive in Diyarbakır. A small rally would be held in every city, and a press statement would be read out. The statement also added that no slogans would be chanted; the marches were to be silent. The goal of the march was to make a call for peace, and demand the killings to be stopped.
I found this call to be very humane, and joined the group in Ankara. Looking back today, it feels incredible that people from the West of the country – who did not even know each other at that point — left their secure and comfortable homes and travelled to a region where a real war was taking place, where bombs exploded in the streets every day. I can now say that I feel proud to be among those people who felt shame in the face of war, and did not refrain from expressing their opinion.
Our rallies in Ankara, Adana and Urfa took place without any incident. But when we arrived in Diyarbakır, we were met by a crowd of people. A day before, a health worker had been killed while trying to help an injured woman lying on the street, and the people were very angry. Two bombs were set off during our march as acts of provocation. Following the second explosion, the police attacked us without a warning. They tried to disperse us with batons, pepper gas, and pressurized water.
We ran, and took shelter in a shopping center. A short while later, the police raided the shopping center as well, locked its entrance, and threw pepper gas inside. It was impossible to see anything. One of my artist friends and I were detained, along with three other people from our group.
They took us to a sports hall. We were kept waiting the entire day. We were handcuffed and wet. We had to stand in line facing a wall with 2-3 meters between each person. Why had they brought us to a huge sports hall, and not a police station? I thought that the anti-terror forces who stood in the middle of the hall with rifles in their hands were about to kill us. We were kept there until midnight – we were given no documents to sign, neither food nor drink.
We arrived at the police station at around 11 pm. They took off our clothes, and carried out a body-search on us while we were half-naked and then placed us in cells for two people. We spent New Year’s Day, and the three days that followed in that cell. I don’t ever want to talk about those never-ending four days.
In the early hours of the fourth day of detention, we were first taken to the hospital to receive a report from the medical examiner and then to the courthouse for the court on duty. There were hundreds of people in the hallway. The lawyers of our friends in detention had brought tea and toasted bread. It was the first time in the last four days that we had something warm to drink. We were handcuffed but happy to finally eat something. Police officers who surrounded us were giving us condescending looks. Finally, the court case started and we gave our testimonies one by one. The court could not be resolved as there were too many detainees. Towards the evening, the lawyers who walked out from the courtroom told us that several people, including myself, would most likely get arrested. I was expecting this but I felt like I was crushed under a rock when I heard it from a lawyer. In about half an hour I was going to end up in jail and I wouldn’t be able to see any of my friends, including those I was detained with. What could I do? I had to come up with an idea quickly. How would I spend my life in a prison of a city I barely knew?
First I asked the lawyers, “Is there Internet inside?” They mocked me: “Yes, you will even have cell phones there.” I knew it was a silly question, but how would I pass the time inside? One of them said, “The comrades will take good care of you, don’t you worry.” Yes, I could read many books, improve my English, and learn Kurdish. I could have plenty of time for writing too. But I was scared. What would happen to my home or the life I left behind in Istanbul? I was detained for the first time in my life, without prior knowledge or experience to prepare myself for what was going to happen.
I asked my friend for a pen. He had one in his bag. I removed the foil paper from the box of Akhtamar cigarettes that I had in my pocket and started writing my will on the scuffed paper. I was handcuffed and trembling with fear. My friend tried to calm me down: “We’ll get out of here, believe me.” I had no hope. I wrote a will, asking one friend to pay my rent within the first five days of each month and to take care of my flowers, and another artist friend who was also part of the walk to take care of MARS, the art initiative I am the founder of.
A police officer approached and forcibly took the pen from me, just as I was about to write, “Come and visit me. And bring books.” That moment, I learned that I was not allowed to write anything. I grabbed my will that I had dropped on the floor, crumbled it, and gave it to a friend who hid it in a package of tobacco. After a little while, we learnt that we were released on probation. I hugged all the lawyers I could find around me. I couldn’t believe it. We were free.
I also learned that while we were in detention, one of our artist friend spread the news to artists and activists in Istanbul and organized a social media campaign for our release. In a short period of time, around 3,600 signatures were collected from Turkey and around the world via a change.org signature campaign.
As an artist who finds inspiration for my work in everyday life, and a video-maker, I recorded this journey with great excitement. I carried a camera during demonstrations, and I felt unfortunate that I could not carry banners at the same time. I also recorded a series of talks where everyone explained the reason they took part in the march and expressed their views on war at a spontaneous forum on the coach we were traveling in. This meant that I had managed to add to my archive not only the action itself, but also material on its intellectual aspect. When the bombs exploded, and while we escaped the police, I continued to shoot with my camera.
While I edited the footage, although I am not there in the images I recorded, I realized now, today, that I am part of the story, and that I am editing my own story as a camerawoman until my detention by the police.
Since we were released on probation, after we returned from Diyarbakır to Istanbul, for three months, we had to report to the police station and sign documents on Mondays and Fridays. The Prosecutor’s Office checked my Facebook page, and now accuses me of being a terrorist for my anti-war and peaceful comments. Thus, I no longer produce texts like I used to, neither on social media, nor for the magazines I write for.
This trauma created a major rupture in my life as I knew it. Nothing feels the same any more. I cannot dream about the future. I stand trial with 18 years of heavy imprisonment and my future depends on a judge’s decision. The trouble is that everything has gone worse since then, hundreds of writers, journalists, human rights defenders, activists, academics, even a few MPs are jailed pending trial; there are ongoing trials for thousands of people. The last time that freedom of expression took such a major hit was perhaps on September 12, 1980.
I don’t know if it’s possible to hold on to hope now. But I cherish every day more than the previous one. At least, I’m out, I’m alive, and I appreciate all of this. This experience taught me that all of a sudden people could lose their most basic needs like breathing fresh air or having tea. I can enjoy neither Istanbul, nor my beautiful home in Osmanbey that I’ve been trying to protect from being demolished as a part of a gentrification process. I live ready to say goodbye to everything.
Before the first hearing in May, considering that I could get arrested, I sorted out the books I wanted to read. I organized them by themes and left them on my table. I thought my friends could mail them to me. I decided who would become the custodians of my plants and what plant matched which friend. I took notes—who is resilient, fragile, happy, or proud, who is a nomad like myself, who listens to me the most, who knows my secrets, etc. I also figured out what personal items I would want to have shipped to me.
I wrote the first version of this text last winter in Oslo, a year after the march for peace had taken place. I was thinking what was more necessary, freedom or sunshine; I could live there if there were a bit more sunshine. The horrible news coming from Turkey were multiplied with the cold. While I met many people who surrounded me and who approached me with compassion -mostly women- I felt fear above everything else; the cold weather and the snow reminded me of what had happened the previous winter. I used to love this weather as it would have reminded me of my childhood in Van before.
Now I’m in Athens. The weather is warm and I let the sun warm my body and my soul. In Athens, I’m staying in the neighborhood where the Greeks who escaped Turkey live. These people who were forced to leave after WWI, the Independence War of Turkey, the events of September 6-7, 1955, the 1973 Kıbrıs Invasion, held on to each other and tried to survive. It is interesting to note that almost a hundred years later, the Turks who now immigrate to Athens also start their new life in this same neighborhood. While there are people in the cafes and restaurants who speak Turkish, they also think that they’ll feel less foreign here, perhaps feeling an affinity for these people who might have been their grandmothers’ neighbors in Istanbul or in Izmir, excited by the rediscovery of a cultural value that they have lost.
I was visiting institutions here in Athens that support immigrants and I learned that a lot of political immigrants who were escaping authoritarian regimes are stuck here. Those who escape war believe that war will be over and that they will be able to go back to their countries or at least be able to travel there—being able to imagine this gives them power. For most of the political immigrants coming from Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, the biggest pain is knowing that they will never be able to go back to their countries. I understand this pain. For myself, I see the potential of not being able to go back to Turkey as a form of “death.” I can’t stand this thought.
This text combines two previously written texts, the first written for the Vasiyetimdir project, conceived by Merve Ünsal, Özge Ersoy, and Aslı Çavuşoğlu, published on m-est.org in December 2016; the second for "Public Calling", an international conference organized by Fritt Ord in the Oslo National Theater in November 2016, "Becoming Witness and Suspect in Times of War."
Pınar Öğrenci (b. 1973, Van, Turkey) is an artist with an architectural background, an activist and a writer based in İstanbul. Öğrenci uses various media in her artistic practice, including photography, video, film, performance and installation. Her works address subjects such as migration, war, collective movements, nationalism, cultural assimilation, stories of heroism and urban transformation. Using the video as a tool to record her daily life practices, she benefits from her personal video archive and ready-made footages. Her works have been exhibited widely at museums and art institutions including at Kunst Haus Wien- Hundertwasser Museum, 2017; WKV Stuttgart, 2017; the Istanbul off-site project for Sharjah Biennial13, 2017; Angewandte, Vienna, 2016; MAXXI Museum, Rome, 2015-6; SALT Galata, Istanbul, 2015-6; De Las Fronteras Biennial, Tamaulipas, 2015; Sinop Biennial, 2014; Çanakkale Biennial, 2014 and Depo, Istanbul, 2014. The artist had her first exhibition at MARSistanbul in 2015, “Awaiting the Onset of the Sense of Life”. Her first solo exhibition abroad was realized at Kunst Haus-Hundertwasser Museum in Vienna, “A Gentle Breeze Passed Over Us” in 2017.
She is the founder and organizer of MARSistanbul, an art initiative launched in 2010. Since the late 1990s, Öğrenci has extensively written on contemporary art and architecture in magazines, including Agos, Radikal, ArtUnlimited, m-est, SALT Online, Arkitera, Arredemento Mimarlık, XXI, İstanbul, among others.