Sarisulük’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

  • January 10, 2014

City & Commons

“We want everyone to see that yes, we paid a price but we do not mourn. I will mourn internally and will continue to fight; we are a family of fighters.”

On June 1, the second day of the nationwide Gezi protests, the 26-year-old Ethem Sarisülük was shot in the head during violent clashes with police in Ankara. Ethem died of his injuries two weeks later, becoming the third deadly victim of police violence after the deaths of Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20) and Abdullah Cömert (22), who were killed in Istanbul and Antakya, respectively.

The murder of Ethem was recorded on video, in which it can clearly be seen that a person — who was later identified as Ethem — drops to the ground immediately after a policeman in riot gear fires shots into a crowd of protesters. Despite this evidence, Ahmet Sahbaz, the police officer who fired the shots, was released on the grounds of self-defense and is now pending trial.

Despite the deaths of six protesters, thousands of injuries, numerous human rights abuses and cases of violence against unarmed protesters, not a single police officer has been convicted of their crimes. On the contrary, Prime Minister Erdoğan praised his police forces, stating that “our police have successfully fulfilled their duties within the confines of the law. They have passed a very important test of democracy. They have written a heroic saga.”

This impunity of the police has fed the anger of the protesters, who have realized since day one that the state would shun no means at their disposal to bring an end to the protests. Legal riot control agents such as tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets have been used excessively, turning them into deadly weapons by adding chemicals to the water; using tear gas canisters as projectiles to directly target protesters, and firing rubber bullets from very close range.

Ethem’s family has little hopes of receiving justice, but they are determined to carry on the struggle against the authoritarian neoliberal state. “Tayyip made brother kill brother,” Ethem’s mother said in an earlier interview, placing the blame for her son’s death squarely on the Prime Minister. “I am not blaming the police. The police are also our children. But Tayyip gives the order.”

What follows is an interview with Sayfi and Ikrar Sarisulük, Ethem’s mother and brother. The interview was conducted in July.

Erkan Gursel (EG): When walking down the streets of Ankara, we can see the importance of Ethem as a symbol for the protests. Do you believe that we will see change in this nation through these protests?

Ikrar Sarisulük [IS]: This country has never seen a protest like this before. There has not been one like this before where the population has come together with the same beliefs, voicing their dissatisfaction towards the government as the Turkish people. There have been four deaths [two more deaths have occurred since the interview] as a result of these Gezi events, and the people have witnessed this, and therefore I think a lot is changing and will continue to change in this nation.

EG: After the death of Ethem, how has the law progressed? What is the point which you have arrived at now (as a family)?

IS: As a family, throughout the duration of the events in the hospital, we did not believe that we were going to lose Ethem, although we did not have much hope because of the severity of his injuries. There has never been justice in this nation, and as a family which has been very involved in politics and activism, we have never believed in the possibility of any immediate accountability and justice, especially under Erdoğan.

We will never manage to punish the police for their actions. After doing a bit of research, I have found that no police officer has been punished (concerning brutal actions towards the civilian population) in approximately 90 years. This is because of the political power behind the police, and the importance of the police to protect these political figures. Of course, these men are not going to punish their own people. Because of this, we are trying to get international awareness for our situation. What we are fighting for as a family is for the international community to condemn the Turkish government for its actions.

EG: What do you think about the media bias in Turkey?

IS: They started a smear campaign about my brother Ethem after his death. They called him a terrorist; they said he burned a flag. Both of these statements were in fact lies, and they were forced to apologize to us for it — but this is just an example. Financial power, media censorship, general dictatorial political and legal rule over the nation means that media bias is simply unavoidable.

EG: Do you believe it to be a coincidence that the five youths killed were all Alevites; or is this part of the instigation of a further sectarian divide?

IS: In the Gezi protests, four were killed. The fifth, Medeni, was not related to the Gezi protests that were taking place. After my brother’s death, my aunt and I traveled to visit Medeni’s family, to pay our respects. We had just buried a member of our family and we went to see his family, who were burying a 19-year-old boy. We understood their pain, of burying a loved one, especially one so young and full of life. The point of this was that Kurdish or Turkish, regardless of ethnic background, we are all people and that is the fundamental factor which has to be respected.

However, I am sure you followed the events which accompanied my brother’s funeral: they tried to prohibit the funeral from happening, and when Ethem passed away in the hospital we explained that we wanted to go to a Cemevi [a place of worship for the Alevis]. We are Alevi, because we are Alevis from the root, we follow the traditions that come with our faith. As you know, there is massive pressure on Alevis in this nation from political power, and we came face to face with this. Regardless of how many people are protesting on the streets, the majority of them now are Alevi. This is because it is time for Alevis to push forward and to claim their rights. We are going to continue this, and hopefully, a lot will change.

EG: Throughout the continuation of these events, what are your expectations from the Turkish people?

IS: It seems the real question is what we as a family expect from the Turkish people, and on the other hand, what can we give to the people? Where can the people get their strength from? If we had receded to a passive position like the other families — which we would not do, because as a family we have been through and have been in the presence of a lot of difficulties — then the current situation in Turkey would be very different. Ethem left this world fighting, and we just hope that this fight is continued.

EG: It is clear to see the failure of the Turkish media in these protests. Do you have any expectations from Europe?

IS: Throughout the duration of what happened to Ethem, we did not expect anything from the Turkish media. Although gratefully there were two or three alternative news groups that were on our side, most of our interviews and accounts have been to international news organizations and media outlets in Europe rather than in Turkey. This is because of the importance that these outlets and Europe in general gives to human rights and justice.

Sayfi Sarisuluk [SS]: I thank the international media for its contribution and concern to our situation.

EG: Do you believe these international media outlets are sufficiently reporting the Turkish story?

SS:  Not sufficiently, until we have the criminal responsible, I will not say it has been sufficient.

IS: Every day we are alive and active, even today my brother Mustafa is with my aunt in Istanbul, we could not go as a family as we are here involved in other things evidently. Why are we doing this? Because we want everyone to see that, yes, we paid a price but we do not mourn. I personally do not mourn. I will mourn internally and will continue to fight, we are a family of fighters, and we are with the wounded.

EG: Finally, what are your thoughts on Tayyip Erdoğan?

IS: I’d rather not answer that question. In fact I will, but all I am saying is: these are not the actions of a self-respecting Prime Minister.

Interview with Sayfi Sarisulük, Ethem’s mother

SS: I used to get very ill, I had to take medicine. Because of my continuous state of illness, my son came here [Batikent, Ankara] and rented this flat, and because it was also close to where he worked. He was also close to his brothers and sisters.

I actually don’t like these apartments, I preferred the slums, the house which I built myself, but he brought me here, it was close. I was their father, mother and their friend. They didn’t have a father, my five children. Wherever they went, they would say, “Mum, we are going there, don’t worry,” and I would say: “I’m here, let your all your siblings know your whereabouts.” We were locked together. But a wolf came into my family and took my beloved son. He chose him and took him from me. Were they to come across my son without a gun, they would have known what type of person he really was. My son was strong, if he had a fiver in his pocket in the company of a friend without money, he would give the money to his friend and walk home. That was the noble person that my son was.

EG: Did you speak the day it happened with your son?

SS: I spoke to my son on Friday; he called me at night. He left here Friday morning at one and said that he was coming back, I said “OK son,” and he said he was going to see his brother at work. He had his friend with him. He called me at night and asked me if Ikrar had come home — they were very involved with each other. I wish I had said Ikrar had not come home, but I said that he did. He said “OK , I am going to stay at my friend’s house.”

I worked at a company for my babies, I did housework. We’d find bread and we wouldn’t find water. We’d find water and we wouldn’t find gas; this is how we lived. But we were locked together. The criminal came — the wolf — and took my baby. He [Erdoğan] isn’t giving me the criminal, the one who killed my son. I want them to feel the pain of losing a child, to know how difficult that pain is. Whichever hand the policeman shot my son with should break. I say he should be hit with his own bullet, to feel the pain which he inflicted on my son — on me and my family. I am in pain every day, and I want them to feel the pain I am in.

I haven’t even rightfully mourned the death of my son in Corum [hometown of Sarisulük family]. I was in Ankara, for justice, I thought that in the crowd I could maybe hear my son’s voice, see his face. I could feel him around there, and I said that my son would find me there. But when I went, all I saw was the criminal, not my son. They hit and destroyed my son, and I couldn’t find him… all I can feel is pain.

Why my son? Why did they take my son from me? Was he a thief, was he a bad man? He didn’t do a single thing, my son was an angel; he was innocent. For me, for the mothers of our people, he went like many others to have his voice heard, and what did he [Erdoğan] do? He gave the criminal to my son, he told this man to kill my son, and when his own children burn, he will understand the real pain. He is the real criminal in all of this, when there is justice I will be able to say: “Tayyip Erdoğan.” I can’t even say it now without trembling. This man has wounded me beyond repair. He is our Prime Minister. If our Prime Minister can do this to his people, what can the police do? The police get their orders from him. If he hadn’t given the order there would be no death. There is no police officer I can ever trust; they should give me the criminal.

EG: Do you believe that we will see a change in our nation through these protests that have taken place?

SS: Yes, Erdoğan will fall. I gave one son, but I have gained a thousand. I do believe this, and for this, I believe in my children, all of them are my children.

EG: What did you feel when you first heard the news of the death of Ethem? And when did you get this news?

SS: [silence] … At eight. You hit me in the soft spot. I got the news at eight, three hours after it happened. He was in intensive care and I went to the hospital. My world collapsed. I said this cannot happen; I raised my children; I couldn’t do it. If my son had called my name out once when he was there, but he couldn’t even open his eyes and see his mother by his side.

I brought one Ethem to this world, but now there are thousands around me. I thank my people; at least they let their voices be heard. But justice needs to be served, these people locked in prison. What have these young protesters done to deserve such treatment?! They let rapists walk the streets [referring to documents leaked concerning 5 soldiers abusing an underage girl in Bingol]; they help the real criminals escape this country [referring to a man caught on live television chasing civilians with a machete and attacking a young woman]; but they shoot the people.

Justice isn’t with a bullet, they should not shoot the people; we still have flowers to grow. This is not a just government. We do not want a government like this. Even the youngest will grow up knowing the crimes committed by these barbarians. They will know that the criminal government is responsible. Turkey will never forget or trust again after these events. And not just in Turkey; in foreign nations Ethem’s name is now golden.


Reflections on the Gezi Uprising

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

Erkan Gursel

Erkan Gursel is a politics student living in London, UK.

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