“Loving life to death”: A Story from the Diyarbakir Prison Death Fast

Prisons play a formative role in the history of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Shortly after the foundation of the party in 1978, forecasting the military coup d’état of Turkey in 1980, thousands of Kurdish and Turkish left-revolutionaries were jailed, leading many of the existing groups to lose their organizational structures. Among the people, who were imprisoned before or in the aftermath of the coup were founding members of the PKK, such as Mazlum Doğan, who launched the prison resistance on Newroz day of 1982 by lighting three matches, putting them on the table in his cell and taking his life with the message “Surrender is Betrayal, Resistance brings Victory”. With the inhumane conditions of the prison-torture system of Diyarbakir prison, where prisoners were subject to horrifying forms of abuse, such as sexual violence, rape, psychological terror, beatings, electro-shocks, and being forced to eat dog excrements, the state tried to break all belief in the prisoners’ ideals, dreams and utopias. The Diyarbakir prison resistance however sparked popular support and triggered the PKK’s definite decision to take up guerrilla warfare against the state on August 15, 1984. Following Mazlum Doğan’s action, four inmates, Ferhat Kurtay, Eşref Anyık, Necmi Önen and Mahmut Zengin lit themselves on fire in protest. Another person, who stood out in the prison resistance is one of the only female co-founders of the PKK, Sakine Cansız, who is described by her comrades as the “spirit of the Diyarbakir prison resistance” and who was murdered longside Fidan Doğan and Leyla Şaylemez in Paris on January 9, 2013. Terrified by the implications of the death fast of these prisoners, who politicized the wards, courts and population beyond the prison walls with their political defences in courts and educations in the cells, the state resorted to drastic measures and did all to downplay the meaning of the actions.

Kemal Pir, the protagonist of the following text, was a Turkish revolutionary from the Black Sea region. He is one of the founders of the PKK. It was with the leadership of central PKK members Kemal Pir, Hayri Durmuş, Akif Yılmaz and Ali Çiçek, that on July 14th, 1982, the beginning of a death fast was announced to protest the conditions of Diyarbakır prison. All four of them died in the hunger strike. At the age of 30, Pir died on the 55th day of the death fast, after losing his eye-sight. Until this day, he is honoured as an embodiment of the radical and internationalist spirit of the movement and a bridge for the struggling Turkish and Kurdish people.

Fuat Kav on hunger strike for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan, in front of a picture of martyrs of the Diyarbakir prison resistance

The author of the following story, Kurdish political activist and author Fuat Kav, spent 20 years in Turkish prisons, including 8 years in the infamous Diyarbakir prison. Having actively participated in the prison resistance and experienced unthinkable forms of cruelty in prison, his living memory is one of the only sources for the silenced stories behind Turkey’s prison walls. To this date, the crimes against humanity in Diyarbakir prison have not been adequately investigated or exposed. Kav’s memoirs from prison are based on real events and conversations, expressed in a literary form, such as in his novel “Mavi Ring”. Fuat Kav now lives in exile in Europe, where he continues to enrich Kurdish political life with his commentary and wisdom as a journalist and writer.

Kemal was a legend. Like a knight struggling for his life, he continued his resistance against death. He was resisting moment by moment, cell by cell. But death was already on his doorstep, he had reached the end of his physical life.
“I must be the first to die. I must be the first to close my eyes”, he had said in the first days of the death fast. He stayed true to his words. However, he was now in the dark. After a certain point, he could only dream of the world, the stars, the sun, the moon and of light. Because his eyes had lost their sight. The smile in his fiery eyes that would brighten up his friends no longer existed.

“My eyes no longer see. Everything is dark… Wow! This is what the world of the blind is like! Now I understand how cruel life must be for them”, he said suddenly one night to Hayri.
“Can’t you see at all, Kemal?”, asked Hayri, gathering all his strength.
“No, nothing. Complete darkness… But it’s not important. My days are over anyway. I don’t want the prison guards to know. Otherwise, they will use it against me.”
“Don’t speak like this, Kemal. Who knows who will go first?”
“No, I must be the first one to die. Don’t worry about it.”
“I cannot handle another friend’s death, Kemal. Like you, I too cry blood. That Mazlum died before us, that the four friends sacrificed themselves, all of these things deeply wounded me. And now…”
“I understand you. We lived through unbearably painful days together. I am fully aware of the responsibilities. Nevertheless, I say ‘I must be the first one to die’. Please understand me, okay?”
Only by changing the topic, Hayri would be able to end the talk about Kemal’s unbearable wish. He wanted to change the agenda by asking about something unrelated:
“Does anyone know the song ‘Ağlama yar ağlama/mavi yazma bağlama’? It’s an amazing song. I always want to listen to this beautiful song which expresses pain, loneliness and the longing for one’s mother so plainly. It would be so great if anyone would sing it. Is there nobody here who knows this song?”
Although nobody who knew the song was around, the song had to be sung now, because Hayri had wanted it. But nobody talented enough to sing. It was as if people, who are deprived of singing skills, had been specifically selected to enter the death fast! The only person among them, who knew songs by heart, was Mustafa Karasu. He only knew one or two songs. Upon Hayri’s request, he tried his best to put his shreds of memory together to remember the words for the songs. In fact, all of them had sung this song during one of their recreational evenings. But nobody would have been able to remember the entire song text by themselves. What was going to happen now? Karasu came to everyone’s rescue. “Alright, let’s sing it all together”, he said. “We can do it, if we sing in choir”. They had really managed. They sang in choir and actually finished the song. But if one was to ask “how” they sang, the answer would be “awful”. At the end of the song, Karasu managed to avoid criticism by saying “We sang, even if we made the song unrecognizable. But whatever, we sang after all.” Hayri applauded the choir.
“I joined your singing”, said Hayri.
“Karasu, I joined you too. Don’t think you were the only ones who sang”, intervened Kemal.
“I don’t know, Kemal. To be honest, I didn’t hear your voice. I didn’t get a sign of your signing.”
“What kind of sign were you waiting for?”
“A proper one. I sensed signs from all the other friends, who sang, but I am not so sure about you.”
“If you didn’t hear it, then that’s something to do with you. I sang, and I won’t allow you to deny my labour.”
“Fine, I’ll listen more carefully this time.”
“Do you know the song ‘Eşkıya dünyaya hükümdar olmaz’ [The bandit cannot rule the world], Karasu?”
“No, I don’t. Or rather, I can’t remember all of the song text. But I’m sure we can sing in choir.”
“Okay, let us sing it. I will sing too, just don’t tell me you didn’t ‘get a sign’ afterwards, alright?”
“Alright, alright. I will listen properly this time. Let’s see.”
The “choir” had done as Kemal wished. During the chorus, Kemal’s distinctive voice was rising. He had the deepest voice among all and because he sang loudly, the sound was just amazing. His rich and deep voice was echoing in the prison cell. It was impossible for Karasu not to notice.
“Did you get the sign this time, Karasu?”, wondered Kemal when the song ended.
“I did, indeed. A big one in fact, dear Kemal. We might now accept you in our choir, ha!” He was truly impressed by Kemal’s voice.
“You said you ‘might’, is that right?”
“No, no, not ‘might’. I correct myself: We will accept you.”
“Alright, Karasu. I need to rest a little.”
“Rest, Kemal. I will sleep as well. We haven’t said what day it is, where we are, where we went, what we saw on our journey, and whether we fought any fascists today, comrade Kemal.”
“True! Today is the 47th day of our action. That means we are in Mardin today. I must say that I love Mardin very much, one of the most dynamic, historic and multicultural cities of Kurdistan, a truly colourful mosaic of peoples. Today, I visited its historical sites, walked up the fortress, examined its architecture with fascination. Sadly, I couldn’t fight fascists, because there are no fascists in Mardin. But I must say that I discussed with some social chauvinists.”
“I just walked around silently. When I got tired, I went up the fortress. There, I got and drank water from the children, who sell water. For a moment, I could not help but think about all the conquerors that captured this city throughout history. When I thought about all the tyrants, despots, and executioners that must have burned down and destroyed this city several times, the oppressors of our day came to my mind. Are they any more scrupulous than the former tyrants? Kemal, are you listening…?”
Kemal had fallen asleep, dipping deep into spaces beyond the limits of thought. His weakness due to hunger, thirst, and exhaustion had carried him to these places.
Kemal’s physique could no longer handle the situation. He had lost his eyes, as well as his energy. His consciousness was coming and going. Because his eyes went blind, he often lit the filter side of his cigarettes. Sometimes he went quiet, but most of the time he spoke. He spoke without a break. The doctors’ and the guardians’ attempts to encourage the prisoners to give up their action angered him extremely; he would shout and sometimes swear. The prison doctor Orhan Özcanlı was doing his best to convince Kemal to stop his action.
“Look, Kemal. You are dying, death is approaching you step by step. Just think about it, you are reaching the end of your life. You are about to migrate from this world. Just give this thing up. There is no end to this road…”
“Doctor, look at me carefully! Open your ears and listen. Carve my words into your head. I began this cause consciously. I am well aware that death is awaiting me at the end of the road. I also realize that I am at the end of this road right now. I can sense the presence of death and its executioner. I can hear them breathe.”
“Life is beautiful, Kemal. You ought to love life. Even if humans are mortal, they want to live in this world and thus they immensely fear death. That is why it’s a lie to claim that you are not afraid of death. We see those who see themselves as the most valiant and courageous, shake with fear in the face of death. And since you are human, too, surely you are afraid as well. But I can still save you, even in this situation of yours…”
“Who do you think I am, doctor? You still didn’t manage to know me? I am Kemal Pir. Not to be bragging, but I opened my eyes to life on the shores of the Black Sea. It is with the attributes of that region that I learned about life in its most solid, purest form among genuine people, who knew how to be friends to friends and enemies to enemies. I am Kemal Pir, who arrived to this day by meeting people of seventy-two nations in the lands of Anatolia, to then dedicate himself to the freedom of the Kurdish people. I am not sure if I made myself clear enough?”
“You did, but…”
“There is no ‘but’ about this, doctor. I introduced myself to you as it is, without exaggeration or lies, in an honest manner, in a plain language. However, if you still say ‘but’ after this, that’s your problem.”
“But life goes differently, Kemal. No matter how you describe yourself, nobody can escape thinking the same thing in the face of death. The fear of death is a terrifying feeling. It creates an earthquake of emotions that can put you into any shape or form. It’s an earthquake that can take your humanity from you.”
“Now finally something correct came out of your mouth.”
“What does that mean?”
“Is it not understandable?”
“I am speaking of life and fear. I claim that every human is the same in the face of death. Everyone is afraid of death. Whoever is in that situation will shiver like they have fever. Even if that person is Kemal Pir.”
“Look, doctor. I am fully aware of the meaning of life and death. I know exactly, who is afraid of death and who shivers in the face of it. I also know that we lead mortal lives and I am aware of notions of heaven and hell in afterlife. It is you and the likes of you, who would not know such things. They don’t understand and even if they do, they act like they don’t understand. Should I tell you another thing, doctor?”
“Sure.”
“I love life so much that I am willing to die for it. Look, you are the witness of that. You will see with your own eyes how I die for the sake of life, how I sacrifice my life without blinking, how I cling onto life by dying…”
“You will die for nothing, Kemal, for nothing. You will not achieve anything through death. You must live to achieve whatever goal you have, otherwise nobody will take action according to your goals. It is a temporary, useless fantasy to dream of being a ‘hero’. I don’t find it right or meaningful. Whether a person became a hero after their death, whether statues were erected, books written or films produced in their name, carries no meaning for me. When you are dead, you are dead.”
“You don’t believe in anything anyway. You are a person without purpose, who doesn’t think about the future, a rejecter of life, who has nothing to offer to the children of the future. That is why you look at everything in terms of their daily relevance and material worth. You think that whatever is past is past and that only the ones who will see the future should concern themselves with it. ‘Live, think and design the present’. That is why you cannot understand heroism or courage.”
“I am still convinced that there will not be a single person in the future, who will ask about you, erect your statue, write books or make films about you and say ‘there once was a brave man from the Black Sea, who lost his life for us during the death fast.’ Perhaps a marginal group will commemorate your name just to kill time, but you will never become a hero with anything to contribute to any nation or people. Mark my words, Kemal.”
“Why do you keep mentioning heroism or the legacy of my name? Can’t a person just fulfil their societal and historical duties? Why do you need to see something in return?”
“We are talking about a serious issue, about death, Kemal. Of course there should be something in return. You are dying, at least be a hero, at least your name should be remembered, books should be written in your name.”
“The things you mention, such titles should not matter so much. What counts is duty and responsibility. To think that there should be a reward for everything is outrageous. It’s the outward expression of an internal state of losing yourself and falling out with your reality, soul and raison d’état.”
“I will keep on asking you this: what exactly are you dying for? For an empty goal, you will die for nothing, a wasted life. As somebody, who knows the state well, I am telling you that the state will not address you. Even if all of you die, if each and every single one of you gets carried out of here in coffins, our sublime state will not take you seriously. Know that.”
“We have been discussing for so long about such excruciating things. But you continue being a stiff, stubborn, drum-headed guy. I don’t think you are a doctor, you probably never even walked passed the medicine department. You could be a butcher, a hangman, a murderer, or maybe a monster. But it’s impossible for you to be a doctor.”
“You are insulting me, Kemal. We discuss, we talk and sometimes we argue. But we should never be insulting.”
“All of your words are full of insult. It’s impossible to discuss anything with you. A person should at least have the ability to speak and discuss like a human being.”
“Whatever happens, you should not insult me.”
“If you speak like this, I will not only insult you, but if I had the power, I would fight you. Know that.”
“I would not want to insult or do injustice to a person whose neck is in the claws of the angel of death. You will die anyway, you are on your last journey. You are saying farewell to life anyway.”
“Is this how you talk to a person who is dying for his ideals? Does this suit a doctor?”
“I can save you, I can treat you and bring you back to your old shape. Return before it’s too late, Kemal.”
“I am dying for my beliefs. That is why my death is not in vain. I have dedicated myself to the cause of humanity. I am dying for humanity. I am indebted to the Kurdish people. That is another special dimension of my fight, of my struggle. But you don’t and will never understand this!”
“Fine, I have offered. I am free of guilt. Even if you beg me to, from now on, I will not save you anymore! I know all of the things you do secretly anyway…”
The other prisoners, who had heard the conversation, wanted to intervene, but eventually gave up. They were upset by the doctor’s accusation that they were secretly eating. There was remorselessness, but this was too much. They wondered, if such things happened in other parts of the world as well. One would expect the enemy to reserve some sort of respect in the face of people who face death in the defense of their beliefs. This however was the ultimate form of trample on human dignity.
“Look at me, doctor!”
“Yes, Kemal, I am looking at you. What is it? What do you have to say?”
“Are you implying that I have been eating in secret?! Never mind, you are a dishonourable person anyway… Look doctor, in a couple of days you will see that I have not been eating.”
“Whatever, Kemal. If you want to leave the fast, I will take you to the hospital. Don’t forget, if I do this, there will be something in return.”
“Get away from me! Your executioner captain and even his superior, your stooge of a general were not able to bring me down on my knees. But you think you will?! Leave right now. I don’t want to see you!”