Seeing Roboski

During the night of December 28th 2011, an intelligence report about a possible guerrilla group was given to the Turkish military by the Turkish intelligence agency (MIT). Drones spotted a group of individuals crossing the Iraq-Turkey border near Roboski village, and hovered over them for hours. Consequently, the air force ordered an air strike with limited information on hand on a “suspected terrorist leader” knowing that there may be civilians in the group. 34 out of 35 villagers in the group were killed—19 of them were under 18 and still in school. There were no “terrorists”. Erdogan and his team quickly moved in to conceal the incident. First, Erdogan offered condolence payments, around ten thousand US dollars for each family, later he increased this to around 50 thousand dollars in a public showdown. Families were outraged and rejected the offer steadfastly, demanding justice in a court of law for those responsible. During this time, Erdogan aggressively attacked the opposition, and shamelessly likened the incident to abortion, saying that women kill their babies, however, no one says anything about it.

The Gezi Uprising shifted many power dynamics and crystalized political fault lines. “Axis of powers” of the Islamist front, the Hizmet Movement—a global religious movement led by Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen—and Erdogan’s AK Party, once allies, became enemies. Since December 17th, there has been an ongoing corruption investigation, which involves many ministers, including Erdogan’s son with recordings made by the police of corruption leaked to the media.

Allegedly, policemen and attorney generals close to Hizmet/Gülen Movement disclosed the corruption documents and audio recordings and launched an unprecedented attack certainly have much larger consequences, however these leaks also betrayed something more deeply dishonest and corrupt than a simple bribery case. It showed an absolute dissolution of the separation of powers through high-level government involvement in non-governmental institutions.

Among these leaked recordings, a phone conversation between the editor of a major newspaper, Fatih Saraç, and the Prime Minister’s close associate, Taner Yıldız, who is also the Minister of Energy and Natural Resources is rather noteworthy.  In short, the conversation entails a journalist reporting to the minister the following “thanks to Allah, we saw the event [referring to the Roboski memorial day] neither on TV nor in the newspaper”. The politician approvingly responds “exactly, exactly”.

This short dialogue exposes how a media conglomerate decided not to cover a major news story. Ignoring newsworthy events may not be surprising, however, this short conversation is maliciously intertwined with Islamist religious morality. Its astounding to thank Allah that journalists did not “see” the mothers who lost their loved ones holding pictures of their sons or that families and tens of thousands of justice-seeking supporters were overlooked or that justice will never come as long as the people are not seen.

Talking about regimes of visibility, when I visited Roboski village in 2012, I shot some video portraits of the families as silent monuments. The mothers insisted that they appeared in the video with photographs of their sons. They held and hug the frames. Every time I see the same women in the media at demonstrations, I can recognize them with the same picture in their hands showing them to the public and making sure that we all see them together with their lost sons. Photography is intrinsically tied to the idea and the impossibility of death. Seeing is not simply seeing, it is also appreciating the void. Perhaps when the government censored the news of the mothers holding their son’s pictures, it was not political agency that terrified them but their own inability to see and appreciate this void.

394"39433Hakan Topal, March 2014
Version of this article published at: 
In Media Res: Gezi Park Protests: Art, Media, Politics [March 3 -March 7, 2014]