Reflecting on Repression in Turkey, Through Art

One of the entries in the AST art contest. (From Advocates of Silenced Turkey website)

To bring attention in North America to the human rights violations of Turkish citizens by the Turkish government, Advocates of Silenced Turkey (AST) recently organized an art contest called”  “Human Rights Violations in Turkey Art Contest” for elementary, middle and high school students in the U.S.

According to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index for 2017-2018, Turkey ranks 101 among 113 countries in its “overall rule of law performance,” two places below where it stood in 2016.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Humans Rights (OHCHR), in a March 2018 report, said based on numerous interviews that “approximately 600 women with young children were being held in detention in Turkey as of December 2017, including women who were pregnant or had just given birth.”   OHCHR further said it had documented at least 50 cases of women who had given birth just prior to or just after being detained and arrested. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom, in April the Turkish government put the 705th baby behind bars.

Among more than 60,000 people who have been jailed pending trial, there are numerous human rights advocates and journalists; more than 10,000 women have been in jailed. Tens of thousands of people, including followers of Fethullah Gülen, Kurds, Alevis and others, have been persecuted and forced to leave Turkey.

AST, a non-profit organization based in New Jersey, has published numerous reports on human rights violations in Turkey and is now branching out through the art contest and other activities to highlight the injustices being perpetrated in Turkey. The organization was founded with the mission of addressing all forms of human right violations in Turkey, including in the civil, political, economic, social and cultural spheres. AST reaches out to victims of the Turkish government to document human rights violations, both by trying to interview victims in Turkey via telephone and by talking with those who have already left Turkey.

With the art contest, AST’s aim was to get the fresh and unvarnished perspectives of young people on what is going on in Turkey.

The contest was announced through the social media outlets of AST and on AST’s website. The entries were exhibited in the city such as Houston, Chicago, Toronto and Vienna.

Most of the submissions AST received focused on the fact that babies and children are being held in jail in Turkey.

The art contest’s program coordinator and AST volunteer Elif Lale Yildiz, who came here from Turkey a year and a half ago, said  that “AST found the results of this nation-wide contest very touching.” Now, she says, AST will organize a similar international contest among both children and adults to give people, through the language of art and literature, an opportunity to reflect on and describe the cruelties and oppression encountered in Turkey.

Nineteen children who were forced to leave Turkey with their families or whose schools in Turkey had been shut down by the government entered the AST art contest. While only six of these 19 kids left Turkey after the post-coup emergency rules were enacted, all the children give the impression that they are aware of everything going on in Turkey.

According to Yildiz, there will be eight categories for the international art contest: drawing, photography, cartoon, ‘true story’, short movie, written song and poetry.

She continued: “Contestants selected as finalists will be awarded a monetary prize. The work will be published in a comprehensive booklet and submitted to relevant local and international institutions.” She added that “when we look at a picture we can feel what happened to those people in Turkey. Some students who just came from Turkey, did really great art and showed us their feelings during the contest.”

One of the contestants, Ulker Bulut, wrote this about her work: “I draw to be voice of innocents of the babies who are kept innocent with their mothers. It has deeply affected me and the people around me that the unfairness of injustice has never been seen before, and that even the babies are very closely affected. A baby living behind bars reminds me of painful injustices.”

AST’s program director Kafi Cifci, a PhD student at Penn State University who works as a volunteer for AST, said that “human rights violations in Turkey, in the form of maltreatment and victimization as they have been covered widely in a plethora of international reports by organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and the United Nations, have touched the lives of thousands of innocent people.”

He explained how AST was founded: “AST is supported by volunteers from many different fields and includes lawyers, judges, academics, journalists and hundreds of activists.”

“Thousands of people have been forced into exile over the past several years,” said Cifci, who came here in 2009 as a student.

Cifci noted that “the  Kurdish population, the biggest minority group in Turkey, has been subjected to severe human rights abuses, and leaders and countless deputies of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have been unjustly imprisoned. Discrimination against religious minorities and harassment of liberals and secularists have become the norm, not the exception,” he said.  “With limited resources we are trying bring attention to people who have been forced into exile, trying to make their voices heard as much as we can.”

Orhan Akkurt reports for Zaman Amerika.

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