Saturday Mothers in IstanbulISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–Same time. Same spot. Same unanswered questions.

With bright red carnations and laminated posters, the Saturday Mothers of Turkey sit in silence, demanding information about people who disappeared in the 1990s. Most of the missing were from Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

They asked the same questions every Saturday at noon from 1995 to 1999.

The vigils started in May 1995 with the disappearance of Hasan Ocak, who was detained by police in Istanbul on March 21. Fifty-five days later, his tortured body was uncovered in a graveyard for unidentified people. Ocak’s family and friends led the first sit-down protest. Many families came forward with similar stories of young Kurdish men disappearing in police custody. Families and mostly veiled women, who came to be known as the Saturday mothers, led the silent vigils.

Now they’re back.

"We are telling the stories of our lost children," said Ayse Yilmaz, a member of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, based in Istanbul. The guilty must be punished she said. "Till then we will continue to remind them of the mothers’ screams."

Istiklal street is the busiest street in Istanbul, so it was chosen as the site for the protests, she said. "We search the faces hoping maybe our dear ones will emerge from the crowd."

In January 2009 they returned to sit wordlessly together for half an hour or so, followed by a break in silence to tell the story of one of the hundreds of sons and daughters who disappeared when fighting intensified between the Turkish military and the armed guerillas of PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).

The new protests have been sparked by a top-level investigation that began in 2007 of an organization that may be connected to the earlier disappearances: Ergenekon, an ultranationalist underground network of secular powerbrokers and supporters of the Turkish military’s power. Ergenekon (pronounced as ahr-gen-eh-kahn) is named after a mythic Turkish valley in the Altay Mountains.

Probe Accuses 200

Since the probe began government prosecutors, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have accused some 200 people of plotting to overthrow the democratically-elected government of the Islamist-rooted AKP (Justice and Development Party). The Saturday Mothers want the Ergenekon investigations to include the disappearances of their loved ones.

About 300 people, including writers, professors, editors and high-ranking military officials, have been detained. Prosecutors say the group plotted civil unrest, terrorism and assassinations (including the failed attempt on the life of Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk) to generate chaos and lay the groundwork for a military coup.

In the past five decades, the military has overthrown four democratically-elected governments.

This sensational investigation of Ergenekon continues to grip Turkey and highlight the clash between the Islamist-rooted AKP party and secular establishments, deeply polarizing the nation. It is also seen as a blow to the "deep state," the term for renegade security forces used since the Cold War.

One high profile trial has led to confessions of links between the ultranationalist group and JITEM, Turkey’s clandestine gendarmerie intelligence unit, seen as responsible for the same extrajudicial killings and disappearances that the Saturday Mothers are trying to have identified and punished.

"Following confessions of state elements, some of the mass graves have been dug and bones were found," Lehman Yurtsever, a lawyer and member of the Istanbul based-Human Rights Association’s Committee for People Disappearing in Detention, told Women’s eNews. She said excavation teams did not include forensic experts or nongovernmental organizations, so much of the evidence has been lost and tampered with.

Because of the investigations, information about extrajudicial killings and rumors about the sites of mass graves have come to light, Yurtsever said. "It proves what we have been saying for so many years. This is a small victory for us and encourages us to keep asking."

Amid rising national attention to the investigations, the Saturday Mothers are now demanding a systematic search of potential mass graves, including acid wells of the Turkish state-owned Pipeline Corporation BOTAS in Silopi, in Sirnak province and elsewhere in southeastern Turkey

Vigils With Muted Quality

On a recent breezy Saturday, a group of about 60 people sat in front of Galatasayray High School on Istiklal Street, in Istanbul’s busiest shopping district.

A unit of bored-looking policemen and women in blue uniforms stood nearby. Street vendors selling chestnuts, lottery tickets and stuffed mussels called out to the weekend crowd, hopping between upscale stores, flea markets and Starbucks coffee shops.

After a few reporters shot photos and videos they made plans to meet the following Saturday. Then they collected the posters, the red carnations laid down on the street and dispersed. About 10 minutes later, the policemen boarded a white bus and drove away.

But despite the muted quality of their vigils, Saturday Mother Yilmaz said they are the face of a nationwide movement. Families, particularly mothers, come from across the country. Many musicians, including U2, have dedicated songs. Film actors and writers show solidarity. Books, poems and research papers support them. Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, formed to find people abducted during that nation’s military dictatorship, sat with them in vigil.

The first phase of the silent vigils paused because of constant police harassment. Now the Saturday Mothers quest for answers is gaining momentum as the siblings and children of the disappeared are leading the unusually quiet protests.

Kurds are about 20 percent of Turkey’s 71 million population.

Since 1978, PKK has been locked in a separatist guerilla campaign against the Turkish government. In the quarter-century long conflict, more than 40,000 lives have been lost.

Fighting intensified during the 1990s, when hundreds, the exact number is unknown, disappeared. Disappearances peaked in 1994, according to a 1998 Amnesty International Report, "Turkey: Listen to Saturday Mothers."

Many of the victims were suspected of political activities. Some worked for Kurdish rights groups, some were sympathizers, a few refused to work as village guards, a militia force set up by the Turkish state to patrol the southeastern Kurdish villages.

Many were ordinary Kurdish villagers, suspected of harboring PKK fighters, according to the report.

Bijoyeta Das is a freelance multimedia journalist. Her work is available at

For more information:

"Turkey: Listen to the Saturday Mothers," Amnesty International:

Saturday Mothers of Turkey :