Saturday Mothers gathered for the first time in 1995 to reveal the fates of their missing relatives in Turkey. Ever since, mothers have come together every Saturday for sit-ins to raise awareness of the disappeared.
In the 1990s, the disappearing of citizens in Turkey was rife. But there has always been an effort to acknowledge the disappeared and those left behind. In 1992, the Human Rights Association (İHD) launched a campaign called “Find the missing persons” for people who had been forcibly disappeared. The campaign has become a success across all of Turkey thanks to the struggle of the Saturday Mothers.
How did it begin?
The Gazi neighbourhood in İstanbul is populated mostly by Alevi people. On 12 March 2015 unknown assailants attacked a cafe with guns and what is known as the “Gazi riots” began. It continued for three days, with 22 people losing their lives in the ensuing violence.
Hasan Ocak was disappeared following his detention after the Gazi incidents in 21 March 1995. His family and friends searched for 55 days. Hasan’s dead body was found in the cemetery of the nameless on 15 May. The body was noticed by villagers in Beykoz Forest.
During that period, a campaign was also launched with the support of the İHD to find Hasan Ocak, and after his body was found the campaign turned into an effort to establish human rights for missing persons and their loved ones.
The first Saturday Mothers’ sit-in took place in front of Galatasaray High School, located in the Beyoğlu district of İstanbul, on 27 May 1995. Initially starting with a small group, the movement developed and became known throughout the country.
Since that time, the Saturday Mothers have gathered for their relatives and loved ones in front of the Galatasaray High School every Saturday. According to Bianet’s report, mothers suspended their activities in 1999 due to supression in Turkey. They launched their sit-ins again in 2009.
Berfo Kırbayır, mother of the missing Cemal Kırbayır who disappeared after he was detained for the 12 September 1980 coup, searched many years for her son. She was a symbol of the Saturday Mothers and lost her life in 2013 when she was 105 years old.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was at first favourable to the Saturday Mothers. AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan invited Berfo Kırbayır and the Saturday Mothers to meet in 2011. Erdoğan promised Berfo Kırbayır that they would find her son.
However, after the Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) election success in 2015, Erdoğan and the Turkish government ended the peace process between Kurdish political movements and the government. Consequently the state’s favourable attitude towards the Saturday Mothers have also changed.
The Saturday Mothers had gathered in front of Galatasaray High School every Saturday until 25 August 2018, when the Turkish Interior Ministry blocked the sit-in and detained 47 people, including many mothers. The reason for the block was the accusation that Kurdistan Workers’ party members attended the sit-ins.
The Saturday Mothers have been banned from holding sit-ins in front of Galatasaray High School ever since.
After the Covid-19 outbreak, the Saturday Mothers continued their activities online.
Unidentified murders in Turkey
According to Deutsche Welle, the Turkey Human Rights Foundation (TİHV) published a report stating that the number of unidentified murders increased by 1,901 in the period 1990-2011. Unidentified murders mostly took place in the years 1992, 1993 and 1994, the period of intense clashes between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The Saturday Mothers continue to search for their missing relatives despite the suppression policies of the Turkish government. They demand that the Turkish government signs the United Nation’s Agreement for the exchange of prisoners, detainees, missing persons, arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared persons, and those under house arrest.