We spoke with journalist Fréderike Geerdink, whose book ‘Roboskî: Gençler Öldü (Roboskî: The Young Died)’ has recently been published, about many topics from State policies targeting struggles for identity to most recent political developments.
Fréderike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist who is settled in Diyarbakır, and who was lived in Turkey since 2006, has recently published her book ‘Roboskî: Gençler Öldü (Roboskî: The Young Died)’ on the massacre the families in Roboskî faced. Published by İletişim, the book focuses on this massacre to delve into the history of the Kurdish question, and also follows Geerdink’s personal story of confronting the issue as she lived for many months with the Roboskî families. We spoke with Geerdink about many topics, from State policies targeting struggles for identity to most recent political developments.
The political scene of Turkey has a very unique character; one frequently has to understand the underlying message through implications. How do you follow the dynamics? Which obstacles did you overcome in order to penetrate to the soul of this country?
I could not have written this book when I first came to Turkey. I didn’t understand the country at all; it kept me awake at night sometimes, to be honest. But in the years that I have been living in Turkey now, since December 2006, I have learnt a lot, just by living here but also, of course, by talking to many people from different walks of life. People sometimes think I lived in Istanbul and then in Amed/Diyarbakır/Digranakert and that I now travel in Kurdistan a lot, but I have travelled all over Turkey. I haven’t only talked to Kurds but to Turks, and from all political orientations. I like that, and it’s essential for a journalist.
Eventually I understood that my concept of human rights, which is often considered ‘Western’, is indeed applicable to Turkey too, contrary to what some Turks may say, who see it as an imperialist kind of thing. Human rights are about identity, and everybody in Turkey, as well as everywhere in the world, has several identities in an ever-changing balance; and you can only live your life in freedom if you can live and express all your identities.
I have learned the most about Turkey from suppressed groups. But I also think that people who are in some suppressed group themselves get to know their country very well. I once talked to a colleague in Istanbul; she was from a Kemalist family but very critical on the issues of the State and Kemalism. So I asked her how this came about. She replied: ‘I’m bisexual. Believe me, then you get to know the dynamics in this country’. That was very enlightening for me.
Your recently published book ‘Roboskî: Gençler Öldü’ is not only a witness account based on reports and interviews, but also your personal confrontation with the Kurdish problem and State policies. Despite all the censorship of the state and military, Roboskî has turned into a very powerful symbol. How has Roboskî become a turning point in terms of ‘awareness’?
I don’t know if it is a turning point in terms of awareness actually. Kurds knew the State already, and people who don’t want to see the real face of the state, haven’t opened their eyes because of Roboskî. They say – and I have had this reaction more than once – that these people were helping the PKK anyway, and ask what they were doing there on that PKK route. They were not helping the PKK, of course, many of them were actually village guards or related to village guards, and so if they were helping anyone, it was the State, but not willingly.
Anyway, Roboskî has become a symbol of the ruthlessness of the State and of how little it cares for human lives. But in Turkey, many people open their eyes only when the lack of freedom in this country starts affecting themselves. You see this with Gezi, for example. Many of the Gezi protesters were not political at all before the Gezi uprising started and they woke up to the realities of the State with violence. So the situation is a bit complicated: I want people in Turkey to open their eyes to the murderous character of the State; but at the same time, I don’t wish anybody such a harsh, violent wake up call.
In your book there are a number of very impressive women and the special connection between you and them stands out. How do you see the situation of these women?
The most important woman in my book is Pakize. She is now 31 years old and she has 5 children. Her husband Osman died in the massacre. Her psychological problems after the massacre had psychical implications too, like stomach aches. She now has to take care of her family by herself, but of course she gets a lot of support from her relatives and fellow villagers. And she had to open a bank account after the massacre because some NGOs wanted to help her, and sometimes people want to support her to help make ends meet. I asked her if she ever thinks of marrying again, but no, she doesn’t want that ever in her life any more. She was happy with Osman, they married very young but their marriage was a good one.
Her children are important too, her two boys and three girls. I wonder how they will grow up, and I intend to keep going to Roboskî for years to come to see how the children will do later in life.
You, too, have been sued for allegedly ‘making terrorist propaganda’, at a time when direct negotiations continue with Öcalan, the leader of the PKK. How do you see this contradictory situation, what is the ‘message’ given to you?
There is nothing contradictory here. The case against me just shows, once again, that the government is not serious in this so-called peace process. There are no negotiations going on, they are just talking to each other and we are still waiting for the actual negotiations. So I don’t call this a peace process, I call it a ceasefire. And I support the ceasefire whole-heartedly, since ever since it started no soldiers and no PKK fighters have died and that is truly great. But, let us consider how many civilians have been murdered by the State since Newroz 2013? We are now commemorating the death of Berkin Elvan a year ago. And in the southeast, at least thirty people were killed by the State, mostly young people.
I am not sure what the message for me is: Go home (I feel at home already, so I’m not going anywhere), or stop writing (which I won’t do), or stop explaining the Kurdish struggle properly (which I can’t do, since this is my job and I love it). Maybe they just want to intimidate me. They are unsuccessful, I am not scared.
‘Kurds and Armenians will not accept these policies any longer’
You frequently underline the importance of identity and how horrifying its denial can be. Denial is strongly associated with the Armenian Genocide and the denial of the existence and the collective rights of the Kurdish people. What do you think is the correlation between these two impasses of the State of Turkey?
The position of the Armenians and Kurds perfectly explains the foundations of the State of Turkey. The imposed Turkish identity is of both an inclusive and exclusive character. The policy towards the Kurds has always been forcefully inclusive: you HAVE TO be one of us, you have to be a Turk, and this is because Kurds too are Muslims. Towards the Armenians the policy was explicitly exclusive: You are not Muslims, so you can never be a part of us. Not only with concrete measures like the Wealth Tax, but also with psychological warfare, picturing Armenians as traitors, as enemies within.
I learned about this in the days after the murder of Hrant Dink. He was murdered when I had been in Turkey for only a month, and I spent days in front of Agos, making one of my first big stories as a Turkey correspondent, for which I talked to many Armenians. I was so impressed by this grief, and the people I talked to were so good in explaining the situation of Armenians in Turkey, it was like a crash course for me. I still get goose bumps when I think back to those days.
But both Kurds and Armenians have decided not to accept these policies any longer. Hrant Dink did so much to make Armenians more visible, to take away their fear of showing themselves, and the Kurdish movement has done the same for Kurds. Both groups are making huge contributions in helping break down the State system that cares only for the State and not for the people. One day this will lead to, I hope, a beautiful result, a democratic Turkey. When that is reached, all other groups who are suppressed in Turkey will have their fundamental rights as well, like LGBT people, Alevis, Arabs, Assyrians, you name them. And then, let’s not forget them, Turks will have their democratic rights as well.