Rights of those who haunt the republic: the ghosts, the dead, the graveless

I believe the dead that surround the table as told by Nazım Hikmet traverse the aspects of the Republic that can be lauded or criticized. It is therefore one of the best metaphors through which we can understand the Republic.

Visual depicting anonymous graves in Malatya after the Feb. 6 earthquake (Rudaw)

Özgür Sevgi Göral

In Nazım Hikmet's magnum opus Human Landscapes from My Homeland, there is a scene depicting a conversation between two people who observe the different tables in the dining car of a train. Outside there is the moon, the sea, a dream sailboat, and a world of fields and trees on the seashore that "make people think only of big, compassionate, beautiful things," however these two people talk about some dead people. (1) One tells the stories of the rich people sitting at each table. If we look at that table a little more carefully, however, he also tells the story of the dead sitting at those tables. All the rich have become rich as a result of a certain seizure, and in the process of this seizure, they caused the death of a person– or sometimes many people. In the first two tables, the two dead people, or perhaps two invisible ghosts, are two people who were first used in the process of capital accumulation and thrown aside when the work was done; so to speak, regurgitated by the process of capital accumulation. They both committed suicide. The third ghost is Selim, a young worker at a factory. Selim objects to working 14 hours at the factory for 25 cents and demands 10 hours of working time with a wage of 50 cents. Because of this idea, which is "not a deep, philosophical idea, of course, but a dangerous idea,” his boss reports 18-year-old Selim to the police for being a communist. 

“However, Selim was not a communist. He had not even considered what communism was. He was just 18 and wanted 50 cents instead of 25. Wanted 10 hours instead of 14. The police did not think so.” (2)

18-year-old worker Selim goes through severe torture at the police station, becomes unable to stand on his feet, and after being tied to a nail on the wall by his hair, goes into a dream-like state. When he is untied from the nail and laid on the ground, he throws himself down a window. We don't know, says the narrator, whether he jumped himself or the police threw him out.

I remember the ghosts of those tables at the centennial of the Republic

I directly remember this scene from the Human Landscapes from My Homeland when I see the enthusiastic centennial evaluations of the Republic, especially the academic evaluations made with great care and 'impartiality' to separate the 'good sides' and 'bad sides' of the Republic. To me, the republic is those tables, and I remember the dead, the ghosts of those tables the most in the centenary. The ghosts of those tables traverse the praised aspects of the Republic and all the parts that can be criticized. So I think this scene serves as one of the best metaphors for the Republic of Turkey. There are successful merchants, manufacturers, and business-savvy prosperous names at the table. There are also others at the table who have been squeezed to their pulp, driven to suicide, and murdered. They are there although we don’t see them, haunting the table, visible to those discerning eyes. In the centennial year, I want to bring up the dead, the ghosts, the graveless of that table, by diversifying and multiplying the identities of those sitting at the table, of course.

The familiar metaphor of the dead, the graveless, the ghosts haunting this world

The ghosts, the dead, the graveless haunting this world is not by any means a new metaphor. Many authors use this metaphor, who hail from geographies where state violence is performed with a vast repertoire, with histories filled with forced disappearances and slaughters at the hands of Republic officials. The protagonist of the novella The Restless Dead by Subcomandante Marcos and Paco Ignacio Taibo II is Elias Contreras, a Zapatist investigator tracking Morales, who has committed countless murders under the Mexican government’s auspices. Contreras is a restless ghost unable to leave this world, like thousands of other who were killed by government officials. He cannot leave this world without finding his killers, and uncovering the truth. (3)

The Communist Manifesto opens with the mention of a ‘spectre’

Avery F. Gordon, explains how ghosts of many forms haunt the today and the now in her work about capitalism’s different forms of violence in different places of the world. She deals with how the slavery period in the United States created the institution of slavery, a system of oppression and exploitation that completely dehumanizes “the slave” through some of the themes explored in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. One of the most pertinent themes is the dead, the ghosts, the annihilated/eliminated/slaughtered who have unfinished business in this world (4). One last reminder, the Communist Manifesto opens with the mention of a “spectre,” namely communism, haunting Europe. I have seen it translated as “ghost” or “spectre” in different editions, therefore Marx and Engels have conceptualized communism as a ghost, a spectre haunting the today and the now.

The deeper problem 

Today, when we are talking about the centenary of the Republic, I think it is crucial to emphasize these ghosts, the graveless, the dead. I observe more charitable approaches to certain periods of the history of the republic gaining traction both in the intellectual world and in daily life as the accounts of the last 20 years are settled. Especially in the last 8 years peaceful pursuits on the Kurdish issue ended with great uproar and the Kurdish war resumed, the Gezi Uprising faded without achieving any results, and politics of violence we can define as misogynistic and anti-gender continue to target the feminist and LGBTI+ movements. I am one of those who think that the problem is deeper while acknowledging the differences in degree and the particular bitterness of the current moment. I believe that our understanding of the republic will remain incomplete unless we comprehend all of the dead that sit at our tables, which Nazım Hikmet describes perfectly in Human Landscapes from My Homeland. Many of the studies I examined while writing my doctoral thesis on enforced disappearances point to the Armenian-Assyrian Genocide as the origin of the practice. The enforced disappearances were used in Turkey as a state strategy after September 12, 1980, and were systematically carried out on the Kurdish society as part of the new counter-guerrilla repertoire in the 1990s in order to isolate the Kurdish movement. Therefore, the issue is not limited to the hundred-year-old ghosts of the Republic. There are also ghosts that the Republic has taken over, that continue to haunt it. 

Thinking of the capillaries as a whole

Here opens an important space for me to think of the strong and capillary connections between instances: The connections between the thousands of anonymous dead killed by capitalism's daily violence, women who were murdered in femicide and whose perpetrators were protected, thousands of people who were annihilated not only because they were Kurdish but also because they were part of the Kurdish movement, dozens of people whose corpses were dragged behind armored vehicles, the many transgender bodies whose fate the prosecutors of the republic did not even bother to investigate. I believe the notable men of the mainstream Turkish intelligentsia, this group is still undoubtedly and overwhelmingly composed of men, should look up from their daily political discussions, macro analyses, and advice they love so much, and turn their faces to the tables described by Nazım Hikmet, to the dead, the ghosts, the graveless at those tables. We should pay close attention to how the killer is not only the hitman but also the institutional and social collaborations that normalize the murders, how the legal field conceals and protects the murderers, how the dead are remembered and forgotten through mechanisms that selectively render them visible or invisible, how many thought-generating institutional structures frame these deaths and consciously or unconsciously dissolve these massacres within routine patterns, carry out the massacres consciously. We must look carefully at all these comprehensive issues that sometimes become invisible and erase them with naturalized patterns. Sometimes by asking questions, sometimes by putting forward certain answers, sometimes with anger, sometimes with collectedness, sometimes by doing research, sometimes by politicizing it, but always by trying to understand and comprehend them in all dimensions.

‘Find the missing people, try the perpetrators’

On Saturday, July 22nd, 2023; relatives of the disappeared of Diyarbakır and the Diyarbakır Branch of the Human Rights Association (İHD) commemorated Mesut Dündar in the 754th week of the "Let the missing be found, let the perpetrators be tried" protest. Fırat Akdeniz, member of the İHD Diyarbakır Branch Missing Persons Commission, tells the story of Mesut Dündar's murder as follows:

“Mesut Dündar lived in the Cizre district of Şırnak. He contracted meningitis as a child and had to live as a mentally disabled person because he could not receive treatment due to financial difficulties. Mesut Dündar was detained three times and subjected to intense torture for carrying flags with the colors green, yellow, and red during the demonstrations in Cizre district. In July 1992, the Cizre Police raided his house and told the family that they came to take Mesut to Elazığ mental hospital. The police took Mesut and his father, and admitted Mesut to Cizre Hospital. However, Mesut got scared and escaped the hospital.

The police searched for Mesut in the surrounding villages for 3 days, taking Mesut's father along. Unable to find Mesut Dündar, the police subjected his father to intense torture for 3 days. His father was threatened with death if he did not bring his son. The father is released when he promises to bring him. Mesut Dündar does not return home but calls his family on the phone every day. Meanwhile, the police raid their homes every day. One day, Mesut did not call his family on the phone, and the police did not raid the house, so the family thought that Mesut had been caught, 

On September 6, 1992, Mesut Dündar's body was found strangled, with his hands tied behind his back, next to a water mill in the Sulak Village. According to the statements of many eyewitnesses in Sulak Village, the people who brought Mesut to the scene were three armed men in civilian clothes, one of whom was a police officer. Soldiers arrived at the scene and dragged the body behind an armored personnel vehicle, claiming that there might be a bobbin trap under the body.

The photo with the title "Humanity is Dragged"  published in the Özgür Gündem Newspaper on 19 November 1992 will remain in memory for many years. Found on Mesut Dündar’s body are many scars from intense torture. The body is then handed over to the family.

The Prosecutor's Office does not take the family's statement regarding Mesut's execution. The police asked the father, 'Did you have any enemies? 'Who do you suspect?' and conclude the so-called testimony.

The family made a written application to the Cizre Public Prosecutor's Office on 13 September 1994. Cizre Public Prosecutor's Office took the family's statement on 12 April 1996. The reason for this late statement was that the case had been submitted to the ECHR Commission on 3 March 1995. It was revealed that a cosmetic investigation was carried out. In 2005, the ECHR convicted Turkey of 'violating the right to life' in the Mesut Dündar case." (5)

What does Mesut Dündar’s relationship with the republic tell us?

Mesut Dündar's story garnered very limited attention even during a period when the protest of the Saturday Mothers/People in Istanbul became impossible due to great state violence. The relatives of the disappeared and human rights defenders were torturously detained every week, and yet the relatives of the disappeared stubbornly went to Galatasaray Square to demand justice for their disappeared relatives. This story did not attract the prominent figures of the Turkish intelligentsia’s attention as much as the conflicts within mainstream political parties, political gossip, and tired academic debates. In my opinion, if we are going to talk about the Republic on its 100th anniversary, we should talk about how Mesut Dündar and thousands of dead people like him haunt the regime we call the Republic today. What is Mesut Dündar's relationship with the Republic that is on its 100th anniversary today, and what does this relationship tell us? By thinking about this question, we can understand the rights of those who haunt the Republic and the political significance of these rights. Moreover, I think we are quite late in this effort to grasp and comprehend. Still better late than never.

(English version by Ayşenaz Toptaş)

1) Nazım Hikmet, Human Landscapes from My Homeland, p. 151. 

2) Nazım Hikmet, p. 160.

3) Subcomandante Marcos and Paco İgnacio Taibo II, The Restless Dead, Agora, 2005.

4) Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters. Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, p. 173.

5) Click for the full statement