“There was, they hanged him”
Every year, on a day in May, this surreal question can be heard in Ankara.
The Turkish word for “Sea” is “Deniz”, also a name used for both men and women.
In 1972, when the Marxist utopia still had an aura of romanticism gained in the recent anti-colonial struggle, a young man called Deniz Gezmiş, soon to be known as “the Turkish Che Guevara”, was sentenced to death, hanged in Ankara during the military rule that followed the 1971 coup.
Today, after the wave of left wing terrorism in the 1970s’, when the “strategy of tension” bloodied Germany, Italy and France as well as Turkey, where it triggered an infamous coup, people are disenchanted about the futility of political violence.
But this death sentence, regretted even by a former President of the Republic who voted for it as a MP, for a man who came to be regarded as a symbol of the idealist struggle against the authorities, endures as another wound in Turkish history.
After the 1980 coup, by far the bloodiest of many in Turkey’s history, thousands of blacklisted parents named their children “Deniz”, both girls and boys. Most were leftists, some were not, but all protested in one of the few ways that was not banned.
It took more than 20 years, but after the Turkish Army toppled yet another government in the post-modern coup of 1997, the people overwhelmingly voted for the successor of the very party which had been the target of Military ire.
This lead many to think, mistakenly in my opinion, that people were in favor of political Islam: I think that they were instead in favor of Democracy, and would have voted for whoever realistically promised to get rid of military interference in Turkish political life, and of the corrupted parties responsible for the endless quarrels provoking it.
But the authoritarian core of the State institutions, made stronger by the Junta, remained. The identification of “State” and “Government,” perhaps a relic of the times of one-party rule, caused the collapse of democratization efforts as soon as the few checks and balances, some quite undemocratic themselves, were weakened by the reforms and disappeared.
The response was social and political turmoil, which burst into the mass street demonstrations known as the Gezi Park protests.
I met many, many Deniz’s during the Gezi protests, mostly in their late 20s or early 30s.
I often saw Deniz Gezmiş’s face as an icon, much in the style of Che Guevara, on flags or stencilled graffiti.
It was not to advocate an armed struggle, that protesters had overwhelmingly rejected, and often it was not even held by protesters sharing his ideology.
It was more to underscore Turks’ long memory.
One night while walking home after covering a protest, clothes still soaked with tear gas, gas mask in one hand and camera in the other, I stumbled across one of these icons, freshly stenciled. A woman, wearing a headscarf, in her 50s, was coming back from the grocery store nearby. When she noticed that I was taking a photo of one of these icons, she stopped me and asked me why.
When I told her my job, she started shouting “You have to write this: we don’t forget, we don’t forgive! We won’t forget who killed innocents, who destroyed our trees for money, who called Atatürk a drunkard! We will never forgive, we voted for democracy and we got this! Write that, and don’t forget!”
Had he lived, Deniz Gezmiş would have been 69 years old this year. Very little remains of the ideology he supported and that little is mostly out of tune with history. Had he not been executed, he would probably have evolved into somebody very different or would have been simply forgotten.
The armed struggle he supported has little appeal for Turks nowadays, and even those who support armed groups like the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front (DHKP-C) or the PKK claim that it’s only for self-defense, a reaction to “State violence.”
But Deniz is remembered as a victim of an unjust execution, willing to die in an ultimately hopeless yet idealistic struggle. The world has changed, Turkey has changed, but the authoritarianism that permeated the almighty State that the “Denizler” fought with violence is still there, in families, schools, work places. The executed revolutionary is remembered as a symbol of Robin Hood-esque revolt who was denied Justice.
Today, when the horrors of daily terrorist attacks and a ferocious repression reminiscent of the darkest days in Turkish history, the surreal question asked in Ankara is used mainly to remember: time doesn’t matter, Turks do not forget, and do not forgive injustices committed in their name.