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#2 2011
6 min read

Letter from a cell

The Kurdish author, lawyer and human rights activist Muharrem Erbey was jailed in December 2009 and has since then been hidden and placed in the notorious prison of Diyarbakir. He is among other things accused of having tarnished the Turkish state during a visit to the Swedish Parliament. In this issue we publish a newly written text by him from prison.

Credits Text: Muharrem Erbey September 22 2011

Turkey is a mosaic of different cultures, ethnic groups, religions, and historical and present civilizations. It therefore presents itself as ironic that it is here in Turkey that everyone is being forced into a homogenous mould; it is here people with differing views are being silenced; here people who stand up for their cultural heritages and human rights are being trampled on. To deny any people their cultural belonging and their language is the opposite of democracy and civilised behaviour.

Working to defend human rights, we have often listened to people in need of help without discriminating against them according to ethnic background; we have always tried to find solutions to each person’s individual problem and relief for their particular sufferings. Our ‘crime’ consists of scrutinizing how the security forces in the country are operating; we have documented their work and have sent reports of this to the regime. We believe strongly that human rights are the very cornerstone of every democratic nation. Regimes who do not respect the Declaration of Human Rights, or who do not live up to its demands, in our eyes, do not have legitimacy.

Our organization actively supported the current Government’s positive steps towards what was called “the democratic opening” of Turkey, which aimed to end the status quo, to end military domination of society, and the persistent military meddling in social development.

However, instead of an opening towards democracy we came to experience the arrest of 2500 politicians, journalists, human rights watchers, lawyers, mayors, and highly placed municipal and regional officials. In short, the very people who were forwarding the causes of human rights and democracy were detained.

I must admit, though, that the process of being detained and my time spent in prison have also had some positive side effects. Here I have had the opportunity to pursue an inner revision of my life, to listen to my inner voice, and to think and ponder through some pressing issues. I have had time to read a great deal. I have completed a second collection of short stories. There is, too, a story in my head which reaches back to 1938 when the ethnic Turks were moved from Yugoslavia to Diyarbakir in order to make possible an ‘assimilation’ of the Kurdish people. This story is now becoming an epistolary novel that is set in former Yugoslavia in the year 1986 and in Diyarbakir; it is a love story between a Turkish woman from Yugoslavia and a Kurdish man from Diyarbakir. During the civil war in Yugoslavia they lose contact and only by chance do they meet again in London in 2008.

On my release from prison I hope to be able to finish my novel. But it will mostly have been written while in prison, in a cell twenty-five metres in square that I share with three other prisoners. Over the wall we are reached by the sounds of construction machines working on a road and from dogs barking in a nearby village. From within we hear the shrill whistles of the military guards in their high tower as they keep a watchful eye over us. At night we hear the hooting of owls. Faint chirping from budgies in the neighbouring cell and the hum of running water in the pipes also reaches us.

In the poet’s words: Night falls early in prison even if you are a dragon. I keep myself occupied during the day; I do some physical training, gymnastics in the yard. I contemplate the weeds growing through the cracks in the cement from seeds borne here by the wind. To kill time I stare up at the sky. But at night the dark becomes yet another prison within the prison. Loneliness engulfs the lonely. Through the window I watch the stars and airplanes pass by; I fantasise freely about the passengers.

At night I ponder the fact that I am also a husband and father, which inevitably makes me want to cry. To lose hope though is worse than death. For a parent prison is double imprisonment. You are nothing but a prisoner in the eyes of society, your home, your wife, and your children. As if this is not enough, at night, one is left to face one’s destiny alone—to face hopelessness and helplessness—alone. The four walls become an eternally deep pit. It is sheer hell.

All because I dared to put my thoughts into words—or, as my nine-year-old son Robin said once: “Because I have helped people”—I am now since nineteen months a prisoner. Nothing remains for me but to suffer these terrible conditions and to wait endlessly for justice to prevail. I am, however, an optimist. The Kurdish people only want to be allowed to use their own language, to make their own culture visible in society, to be acknowledged in their own right, and to be given the opportunity to take part in the governing of the country.

In our defence of human rights we have always been against the use of violence. We have always wanted to solve problems peacefully using democratic means. I will persistently keep repeating this in all future and during my trial whenever it may be. I believe in peace, tolerance, writing, and the magic world of words. I have words to thank for having helped relinquish my own sense of helplessness. All the cards and letters I receive from all the four corners of the world and from the American and Swedish PEN associations give me strength and courage.

There is no denying that I have used my mind and my pen in the peaceful struggle for human rights and for the universal respect of human dignity. I am greatly honoured if I have managed to change at least something or influence at least somebody.

Life should not imprison our thinking but be a forest that fosters and feeds it.

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