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[INTERVIEW] Mesale Tolu: You can experience all that, but you can go on!

Platform for Peace and Justice met with journalist Mesale Tolu to discuss her recent book ‘My son will stay with me!’ (Rowohlt Verlag). Tolu was detained after Turkey’s 2016 coup d’état. She is one of many who decided to take her young child to prison as he could not be without his mum. We have spoken with the strong woman who has grown out of her own pain over her time in detention and throughout the conditions in Turkish prisons for women and children.

“You can live through all this, but you can still continue!”

We met with journalist Mesale Tolu to talk about her newly published book ‘Mein Sohn bleibt bei mir!’ (‘My son stays with me!’). Tolu was arrested after Turkey’s 2016 coup attempt. She decided to take her two-year-old son Serkan with her to detention because he could not be separated from his mum. She grew out of her pain. We talked with the strong woman about her time in detention and about the circumstances in Turkish jails for women and children.

PPJ: In your book ‘Mein Sohn bleibt bei mir!’ you describe very emotionally and in detail about your arrest and the conditions in Turkey as a political hostage and mother of a young child. What made you to relive everything again through your writing process in Germany?

Tolu: To write about my story has moved me, because many people spoke to me and told me “You are so courageous! So strong and we are so proud of you!”. I always felt so bad because I also am a human with fears. I was scared during this time. I was often dejected emotionally, and I was not always strong. I especially wanted to show with the book that you can get through everything. That is why I really wrote everything down, the emotional things too, which depressed me, so that the readers can see that I was so vulnerable and that I was injured. But you can gain power through these experiences. I wanted to show people that they have to stand up for their rights, to solidarise, so they can come out stronger with these experiences. The motivation of this book is to show: you can live all that, but you can continue and go on! It is important to go on, especially for the future of humankind. That was my main motivation to write this all down how it is. Even though there is a danger, because you become with that more vulnerable, not everyone is lovable. Some people are really hostile towards me. But I take that all for granted because I think that all in all the result is positive, to tell the people everything, to motivate them to continue fighting.

“The problem is that there is no child-friendly prison in Turkey”.

PPJ: You decide to go through the detention with your two-year-old son Serkan, after he could not take to live separated from you. You are not the only one to take that decision. At this time approximately 800 infants are with their mothers in jail, although there is a clear protection and exemption for women with children in detention situations written down in law which are ignored by Turkey. How can the situation in Turkey be imagined? Are there measures or precautions which are child-friendly?

Tolu: Unfortunately, there are many children in Turkey who are in prison with their parents, especially children between the ages of 0-6 years. The numbers are up to 700-800 children. There is no statistic about how many children have to wait outside the prison. Children aged six years and up are raised without their parents because in many cases both mother and father are in prison. Children are raised by their relatives or in youth homes. There are also cases where children are younger, for example with the HDP deputy Burcu Celik Özkan. Her daughter is five years old and is not with her mother in prison because she is afraid. This kid does not understand what a prison is, she is afraid of the guards and that is why she cannot stay there. That actually means that children are also punished because of the incriminations against their parents. The parents do not have to break any rules but still whole families are pushed in this system. There are Turkish mothers, Kurdish mothers or women from different states, who tried to build up a living in Turkey and were criminalized and imprisoned because of various reasons. The problem is that there is no child-friendly prison keeping in Turkey.

That means there is no effort in being and acting child friendly. For example, children do not go to the prison kindergarten because they are afraid of leaving their mothers, and they do not get food which is child friendly, like in the case with my son Serkan. He had to eat from my food, he had to stay in the cell with me. There was no bed for children, no toilet for children. Toys are generally not allowed! They are only allowed to play with the toys from the kindergarden which were mostly out of plastic and broke when played with a few times. The system is not made so that children can stay alive. Only the commitment of the prisoners and the mothers there enable the living of the children in prison, so they can see the minimum of a children’s life. That means painting pictures on the wall, building out of plastic bottles. Only with that we can motivate the children to live a life like they should live. But definitely it is no normal life behind grids. Raising up children behind behind grey grids, whereby they actually symbolize the opposite. Color, enjoyment of life, diversity… The system is made like that to punish parents especially by also punishing their children!

“I was hesitating if my decision was correct to take Serkan with me to jail”.

PPJ: You describe the first night with Serkan in the prison cell. No diaper, pacifier or milk bottle brought by your family were provided to you that night. How did you have to imagine such a night?

Tolu: The first night was my worst night. That was the night where I regretted a lot. Speaking about my regret: I have been doubting that the decision was correct to take Serkan to jail. My son had nothing! No diaper, pajamas and spare clothes! But more importantly: he didn’t have pacifier and a milk bottle! For a child who is two years old this is very vital. That was the one night when he also protested a lot, he cried, said everything: “Why are we here? I want to go home! What’s this all about?”. Trying to explain a two-year-old child the situation is beyond any limits even for mothers. In fact, this caused desperation. So that was my worst night in jail.

I had to bring my son to sleep while I was crying. Luckily, I had women who supported and motivated me and said, “Everything gets better!”. Could not the system and the jailers have made it easier? Of course, they could have made it easier by just giving a pacifier. But, as I said, because everything is focused on punishment, everything was made more difficult. We still managed to find a way to settle and integrate there.

“The problem is that the Federal Government of Germany and the EU has watched for years, as in Turkey an autocracy was established!”

PPJ: There is still far too little information about the condition of prisons and inmates given to the general public outside of Turkey, especially about the innocent children. Even in Germany, the suffering gets too little hearing. What do you think are the causes that see this precarious human rights contempt somehow accepted?

Tolu: In Germany, the public is always present when Germans are affected by those circumstances. We are talking about the previous two years; 2017 was the culmination of the German-Turkish crisis. That was also the year in which the media reported a lot. Now and again we hear from Turkey about human rights violations. The problem is that the Federal Government and the EU has watched for years, as in Turkey an autocracy was established! In front of these European countries, Erdogan has built a system that is tailored to him alone. Moreover, human rights violations were always incorporated. Another problem is with the European Court of Human Rights which has simply turned a blind eye or even brought negative decisions. That shows us that also European countries are acting in their own interest. For instance, they are only reacting when there is publicity in the media and pressure from German people.

“Many people have stood up for us, taken to the streets and have reported about it.  I’m not sure if the same publicity would have been created after my incident such was with Hozan Caney, Patrick K. or other Germans who were sentenced to prison in Turkey and who are still in jail. Indeed, this shows us to extend publicity and public pressure are important to create awareness.”

PPJ: You have German citizenship, and the Federal Government has a special endeavor to rescue German citizens. The situation was similar in the case of Deniz Yücel. Do you think that there could be a possibility of support or solidarity for non-German victims?

Tolu: It is essential for the German government to fight for human rights in general. It is always important for Germany that Turkey is obliged to follow the Refugee deal. Turkey is one of the biggest NATO members with the second largest army in the Union. Add to this there are several other deals made with the EU. However, we can see that Turkey is not following other agreements except trade deals and the Refugee deal. Therefore, there is no attention by the German government and other countries in regard to torture allegations and other human rights violations in Turkey. This explicitly shows that Germany’s interest is not centered around human rights violations, rather on economic or military benefits. Self-interest is prioritized. This is a pity, because it would certainly be more effective if the partner, no matter what agreement, would simply be a reliable and trusting partner. We have seen many examples in which Germany was directly attacked by Turkey. They verbally accused Germany with “Nazi methods”. Of course, the question is whether to solve the existing problems before continuing with further negotiations?

“Indeed, these Women need our solidarity!”

PPJ: You describe a warm and close solidarity among female prisoners in your book. Similar descriptions are made by Asli Erdogan in Germany about the situation in Turkey. How would you describe your experience with these women and are you still in contact with them?

Tolu: The experiences I’ve had like this in prison are actually the best during that time. Interestingly, I am very positive about my time in prison, although the whole story is a negative story. This can perhaps be imagined as follows: something green grows out of concrete walls and that is something positive that symbolizes life. In prison everything is gray, dark, cold and only flow and concrete cement. On top of that there are very warm-hearted women in these cells, and they support you completely without any self-interest.

This is the period and the time that has changed my life. Because I arrived there as a mother, who was very desperate and very scared of all the experiences and the future. These women have shown me how to turn all these weaknesses into strengths. You do not have to be an expert to do the same. They are people who have experienced the same thing and have drawn a conclusion and consequences. Therefore, it is very essential to publicize this solidarity everywhere. Indeed, those women need our solidarity! I am still staying in contact with them. Unfortunately, I cannot visit them because I am now in Germany, but we keep in touch via letters. I know, for example, that it is very nice when they get my package with clothes or books. It helped me a lot when I received so many books from outside, from strangers. I just try to continue this tradition by making smaller gifts for them or just sending pictures, so they know we’re are doing well.

“Many families had not any political affiliation at all and are being punished for it.”

PPJ: If the Turkish regime is unable to find the people who are accused of crimes, they are punishing their family members by depriving them of their rights such as your husband or Can Dundar’s wife through banning their entry or exit into the country. These measures are historically known as “Sippenhaft” from the Nazi era. How do you feel about these measures?

Tolu: The measures to punish family members are not new in Turkey. It is simply more up-to-date today because many popular people have been affected or still are. In the past, there have always been cases of family members being abducted or being subjected to violence. Add to this in Turkey there is also the history of “disappeared-people”. Unfortunately, today it affects thousands of people. Many people can no longer enter Turkey themselves and are worried about their bereaved ones. The state uses a very arbitrary method of punishment, forcing them to come back to Turkey to liberate their family members. I had the same problem when my husband had an exit lock and when he was again deprived of his passport two weeks ago. That was a sign saying “stay away! Or we’ll keep you here!” as it was the case with Can Dündar. His wife Dilek Dündar has no criminal procedure herself, it is not right to lock her up in the country for years. She could not see her son or her husband! All of this shows us very dictatorial and reactionary methods which the general public should protest against. Furthermore, international sanctions should be ordered, because every human being can only be held accountable for their own responsibility and the entire family should not be drawn into it.

“They are very simple housewives, who actually had no idea about politics and public life.”

PPJ: Recently, social media reported an incident in Halfeti regarding severely abused and tortured women during interrogation. The violent attacks are unfortunately not individually driven cases. There is currently an increasing trend in violence against women and children in Turkey. What do you think are the reasons? How would you interpret the mechanism of violence against women in a triangle of laws, traditions and political polarization?

Tolu: Unfortunately, patriarchy is very strong in Turkey. That’s not new! In Turkish culture and tradition, it has always been the case that the woman herself came behind the ox; first the man, then the cattle and then the woman. This attitude is still present today and represented by this government. The president himself has repeatedly stated that women should give birth to three children and sit back in their homes. All women who do not comply with this traditional gender role will be punished. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that especially women involved in politics are punished for their behavior and treated repressively. I have often witnessed how women were badly abused and faced violence in police custody. Especially in this new phase, i.e. after the coup attempt in 2016, many innocent women were arrested on charges of being members of the Gulen movement. They are very simple housewives, who actually had no idea about politics and public life. And of course, all these women do not really know how to resist! In those cases, the state is threatening the family and children! Here, the government argues with religion in which it says: “in our religion, the woman comes second!” or simply at the bottom. This is always the way women are approached. They should obey, otherwise they will experience negative things.

Nevertheless, I think that there is still a great culture of resistance in Turkey, especially among women. We can say today that the women’s movement in Turkey is the strongest civilian movement. We can see that on March 8 and November 25, in the marches in Istanbul on the day against violence against women. In fact, it is seen that women keep breaking the barriers, that they do not want to be forced into the role of obeying. They went on the street against honor killings, family and state violence. Normally these reactions by women are not expected as they wouldn’t dare anymore, because it is taken for granted that women are so often victims of violence. That’s why it is just the opposite! Because they are experiencing so much violence and repression, they have reached their limits. Many women protest against it, even if it costs them their lives. Many women have murdered their husbands because otherwise their lives would have been in danger, which is a measure of self-protection. You have to consider it self-defense when you see on daily basis that five women are losing their lives in honor killing. It is misogynistic policy of the state that wants to justify all this with religion and other reasons.

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Hilal Akdeniz
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