“Don’t forget to take pills for nausea,” says İdris Sayılgan’s younger sister, Tuğba, combining her knowledge as a fifth-year pharmacy student and the innate kindness of a host. Together with a colleague, we were about to take the bumpy road to follow in the jailed Kurdish journalist’s footsteps to his family’s village near the eastern Turkish city of Muş. Sayılgan had spent his summer holidays helping his father, a herdsman or “koçer” in Kurdish (literally meaning “nomad”), breeding cattle and goats. One of many Kurdish reporters imprisoned pending trial, Sayılgan has been behind bars for 21 months on trumped-up charges that have criminalised his journalistic work. His hard-working, close-knit family misses his presence dearly.
Heading south of Muş, to the fertile Zoveser mountains, the serpentine road proves Tuğba’s advice to be valuable. The asphalt pavement gives way to a narrow gravel road as we continue to zig-zag toward the southern flank of Zoveser, bordering Kulp in Diyarbakır province and Sason in Batman – two localities which used to be home to an important Armenian community before the Armenian Genocide in 1915. The many majestic walnut trees surrounding the road are a testament to that bygone era. We are told that they were all planted by Armenians before they fled.
The family village – Heteng to Kurds and İnardi to the Turkish state – witnessed another brutal eviction in more recent times. During the so-called dirty war of the 1990s, the Turkish military gave inhabitants a stark choice: either become village guards, armed and remunerated by the state to inform on the activities of militants belonging to the Kurdish insurrection, or leave. If they dared to refuse, a summary death awaited. İdris was just three-years-old when they came.
Left helpless and scared, many left. The family of Çağdaş Erdoğan, the Turkish photographer hotlisted by the British Journal of Photography who recently spent six months in prison on terror-related charges, was among them. Erdoğan scarcely remembers his childhood before his family moved to the western industrial city of Bursa. As a child, the painfully forced exile produced nightmares. He started imagining stories from patches of memories, believing they were real. Zoveser’s idyllic setting is haunted by the ghosts of a dark history brimming with atrocities.
As for İdris’ family, they have stayed in the Muş ever since, coming back only for breeding season. İdris used to accompany his father in guiding their cattle, during which time they would cover the 70 kilometres separating their farm near Muş to Heteng in three days. It’s a distance that we could only cover in two-and-a-half hours by vehicle. Once in Heteng, there’s still another 15 minutes on foot to the small meadow where the Sayılgans have set up camp next to a fresh stream.
İdris’ father, Ramazan Sayılgan, greets us with a warm embrace. He has a gentle look with soft and tired eyes. “Are you hungry?” he asks as we are invited to their tent. His wife, Sebiha, brings us milk and fresh kaymak cheese, a cream obtained from yoghurt, that she made herself, as well as milk. All of the children help the family during the breeding season. Ramazan can’t hide his pride when he recounts how well they are doing in their studies and how gifted they are. Unlike many parents in the region, he strived to send his nine children to school despite his meagre income. The nine brothers and sisters are close and often go the extra mile for each other.
İdris is the very picture of his father who, although sunburnt, is a little bit darker than him. He inherited the whiteness of his skin from his mother, whom he calls “the most beautiful woman on earth.” With them are the five youngest of the family. Involving herself in the conversation, eight-year-old Hivda sadly notices that she is the only one with olive skin, like her father. Ramazan Sayılgan is quick to comfort her. “You may be darker but you are such a beautiful, dark-skinned girl.” Hivda giggles cheerfully.
They work together and laugh together, but they also suffer together – like that fateful day when the police came for İdris.
A rifle to the head
It was early in the morning on 17 October, 2016, long before sunrise. The whole house was soundly asleep when their door was broken and ten riot police stormed inside.
“They were screaming ‘police, police!’ I told them: ‘Please be quiet, there is nothing in our house,’” Ramazan Sayılgan says, occasionally mixing Kurdish with his broken Turkish. “I was trying to calm them down and avoid trouble. Then I raised my head and saw that five people were on İdris. That’s when they kicked me in the head.”
İdris tried to escape their clutches but fell to the floor. Police kicked him repeatedly while threatening him. The blows had left him bleeding. “They are killing İdris!” cried his sister İrem, who was 12 at the time. Police told the family to lie on the ground with their hands on their backs. They pointed a rifle at Ramazan and one of the journalist’s younger brothers, Yunus. “They even pointed two rifles at my head. They have no shame,” Yunus, who was ten-years-old at the time of the raid, says.
Normally, all raids should be filmed as a means of preventing abuse. “But they only started filming after they inflicted their brutality,” Ramazansays. Those who inflicted the beatings have enjoyed complete impunity. The family even saw the commander, a bald officer, when they went to vote during Turkey’s recent presidential elections.
In a written defence submitted to the court, İdris said that when he was brought to the hospital for a mandatory medical examination, doctors effectively turned a blind eye to police brutality by refusing to treat his injuries out of fear of repercussions from the police. To add insult to some very real injuries, İdris was transferred to a prison in Trabzon, some 500 kilometres north on the Black Sea coast, even though there is a prison in Muş. The family, who cannot afford a car, can only visit İdris on rare occasions. İdris was subjected to torture and strip searches after being transferred to Trabzon, where he is held in solitary confinement. “What I have been through is enough to prove that my detention is politically motivated,” the journalist has said in his defence statements.
“Journalism changed him”
After high school, İdris decided to abruptly end his studies and began working as a dishwasher. That, however, only lasted three months before he announced to his father that he wanted to prepare for the national university exams. “When he sets his mind on something, he always tries to do his best. He never puts it off. Nothing feels like it’s too much work for him,” his father tells us. “He didn’t study at first, but when he decided to do so, he devoted himself.”
İdris graduated from the journalism department at the Communication Faculty at the University of Mersin. He then returned to Muş and started to work for the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency (DİHA), which today operates under the name Mezopotamya Agency after DİHA was shuttered in 2016, and another iteration, Dihaber, in 2017, both on terror-related allegations. İdris was making a name for himself when he was arrested and now faces between seven-and-a-half and 15 years in prison on the charge of “membership in a terrorist organisation”.
“University and journalism changed him,” 18-year-old İsmail says. “He used to be more irritable. He has been much more cheerful since,” says İsmail, who picked up on his brother’s habit of whistling whenever he comes home. “İdris was even whistling in custody – to the extent that the police asked, ‘How can you remain so upbeat?’”
Tuğba remembers endless conversations at nights when İdris would recite poems by Ahmed Arif, a poet from Diyarbakır who was partly Kurdish. Yunus, meanwhile, complains that he only received İdris’ latest letter a full six weeks after it was sent. As for little Hivda, she whispers to us that she just sent him a poem she wrote.
Ramazan adds that İdris is loved by everyone who knows him. At 58, Ramazan continues to work hard but the family faces many adversities. Another son, 21-year-old Mehmet, has also been behind bars for two years. The eldest brother, Ebubekir, who became a math teacher, has been dismissed from the civil service for being a member of the progressive teachers’ union Eğitim-Sen. Ebubekir was well-known for improving the grades of all the students in his classes, but now that he has been forced out of his job, he has gone to Istanbul in an attempt to make ends meet. He will join them a week later to help them during the breeding season.
Since the state of emergency was imposed two years ago, village guards have become ever more self-assured. Like sheriffs in the wild west, they make their own rules. The Sayılgan family, who couldn’t come to the village for two years out of fear following the declaration of a state of emergency, alerts us that village guards often tip off authorities when they see strangers. “The driver of the shuttle is also a village guard,” we are warned. Indeed, we had already introduced ourselves to him as İdris’ friends from university, omitting to reveal our profession. During our trip back, we would tell him of our plans to catch a bus to Van when our real intention was to go north to Varto instead.
Unlike most Kurdish provinces, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), well supported by the conservative voters, won the municipality of Muş in local elections, meaning the government hasn’t appointed trustees to force out elected Kurdish mayors as it has done in other Kurdish areas where it has lost. Police, accordingly, are extremely comfortable. The city abounds with plainclothes police and informants. No precaution is too little. Varto, a town with a majority of Alevis – who are a dissident religious minority with liberal and progressive beliefs – looks like a safer option to spend the night.
I get a sense of how hard it must be for a local Kurdish reporter to work in Muş. It means working behind the adversary’s lines while still living in one’s hometown. It also means never letting your guard down.
We take leave from the family, expressing our hope that İdris will be released at his next hearing on 5 October. “In three months and two days,” his father quickly notes. October will mark two years without his son – two years that a modest but resilient family has endeavoured to fight against state-sponsored injustice with goodwill and affection.