Turkish Medical Association Chairwoman Dr Şebnem Korur Fincancı wrote about Sunday’s blast in the heart of Istanbul, the function of collective mourning in times of national grief, and the need for rights defenders to remain vigilant in the face of torture, in an article she penned for Evrensel newspaper from her prison cell.
Dr Fincancı was arrested on 27 October over her comments that allegations of chemical weapon use by Turkey should be independently investigated. She is facing charges of terrorism, and will remain behind bars at least until the first hearing of her case. A court in Ankara accepted the indictment against Fincancı last week, but the date of the hearing has not yet been determined.
A translation of her article follows, lightly edited for clarity. It was originally written on 14 November, first published on 18 November.
Here we have a problem of not being able to comply with time, reminding me of Murathan Mungan’s wonderful poem, “A Lonely Opera”. My time and the prison’s time never overlap in a way I can’t figure out… I don’t have an envelope when mailing day comes, and when I finally find one, the mailing day has already passed. But I am determined, I will succeed today.
We have no problem of communicating with prisons, I can use the fax machine for that. But for anything to go beyond the walls, you need an envelope. Even though eyes beyond the sender and receiver will inevitably see these letters. I have dozens of responses accumulating, and they will reach friends at some point although I cannot. I just don’t know when they will get past the other eyes.
Last night I turned on the news, and I immediately thought – are we back to the post-7 June times? The 7 June elections, when the government lost its absolute majority in parliament thanks to the surge in the Kurdish vote, were followed by several bombings, starting in Suruç where an ISIS suicide bomb killed 33 activists headed to northern Syria for relief efforts.
The bombings that followed created a climate of fear under which we lost hundreds of our people, that continued up to the do-over elections in November, when the government took back the majority. Like all of you, my heart broke for those who died and those who were injured. But behind walls, one cannot ease the mourning process like on the outside, where you can visit the injured and wish them well, or give condolences to families. I was on the ground during the Ankara peace rally bombing at the train station on 10 October, being able to make an effort for the lives we lost had such an effect on me.
Of course, we will all try to follow developments – despite the swift broadcasting ban – with what leaks through the ban. But the leaks also have a hard time crossing beyond walls. Dry messages of condolences from authorities for those we have lost to these acts of “terror”, their “security”-oriented approach without a declaration of mourning that feels the pain of the society, hurt us that much more.
We know that when we feel each other’s pain, the shared pain makes us a society, and societal solidarity alleviates suffering. The political authority’s efforts to prevent us from being a society make such solidarity almost impossible. But when solidarity is confined to our own circles, we cannot go beyond a collection of isolated communities.
Unfortunately, I have once again seen what the above words mean. When prison guards came for roll call, I expressed my condolences to them, with the same sentiment I write about here. “I am sorry for our loss,” I said. My desire to share my pain was met with quizzical eyes. Then they made the connection.
At the time of the coal mine explosion on 14 October, when 41 miners were killed, we were together, outside. We shared our pain among the Turkish Medical Association council, and those who were available promptly left to help. Here, I give roll call. Left to right, one. Right to left, one again. But let me distance myself from my pain, which is already less sharp for having told you about it.
Let me go back to the years of experience accumulated in the fight for human rights. It is difficult when the pain is fresh, and the transformation of pain into anger is another process of recuperation. Anger also provides us with the energy to take action, so there are positive aspects to it as well.
Yet I can’t help but agree with dearest Ursula K. Le Guin: Anger risks turning into an all-consuming emotion that instrumentalises us.
The news says they got the woman who placed the bomb. I hope concrete evidence will come out to eliminate all doubt. But whatever happens, whoever it is, whatever they have done, being human requires us to avoid being an instrument to our fury, to not go beyond an effective investigation backed by concrete evidence.
Torture is prohibited, absolutely. The responsibility of documenting torture lays with my colleagues. I know it is not easy, but they must not succumb to this anger and pain. During examinations of suspects, they must not allow handcuffs, not violate privacy, not just write reports of “no signs of battery or force” without a thorough check. Even without such pain, I have observed a lack of privacy during examinations, I had problems with even a fellow physician who had come to the anti-terror unit. Another doctor refused to even look at me during my processing for entry. This reflects an insensitivity that has been quite normalised.
Torture is a crime, not a means of investigation. It is entirely too easy in this day and age with the technology we have to conduct an effective investigation. It is also important to remember that if torture is used as a method of punishment, out of pain and anger, we would all become targets of it.
Let us reflect on the reasons for our silence today.