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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 16:47 GMT 17:47 UK
Dying for a cause
The mother of a hunger striker
The mother of a hunger striker weeps for her son
After a week in which suicide bombers wreaked havoc in America, what makes someone so passionate about a cause they would pay the ultimate price? The BBC's Nick Thorpe met a young group of Turks willing to die for their beliefs.

On the wall of the living room of an ordinary looking house in a poor suburb of Istanbul, there is a poster.

Black letters are written on a white background, outlined in red. "Long live our resistance by death-fasting" is the slogan, written in Turkish.

This is a group of left-wing radicals, who have decided to starve themselves to death in pursuit of their aims.

34 hunger strikers have died already. Up to 200 more martyrs are getting weaker by the day

These aims are for the state to abandon its efforts to put them in smaller cells, three to each, and return to the old prison system, where they were locked up together in dormitories.

The prisoners' argument is that the new system makes them more exposed to police brutality.

Turkey is one of the last countries in the world where Marxists still carry much influence. These ones still talk about the coming revolution.

Prison row

The state argues that the new, so-called "F-type prisons" are more modern, more hygienic, and more European. And that in dormitory-type conditions, the prisons were actually in the hands of the revolutionaries.

It sounds like a sparring match between a state and its enemies, which might end up with some kind of compromise. But 34 hunger strikers have died already. Up to 200 more martyrs are getting weaker by the day.

water cannon disperses the crowds
Supporters of the hunger strikers clash with police
And about 30 died, probably killed by the police, when the authorities stormed several jails last December, in an attempt to break up the hunger strike.

Apparently in revenge, a young member of the group carried out a suicide attack against the police in Taksim Square in Istanbul two weeks ago.

Two policemen were killed, and 20 injured. An Australian tourist, badly injured in the blast, has since died.

Hunger strikers

Within hours of arriving in Turkey, I found myself sitting on a chair next to Aydin, at 39 the eldest of the hunger-strikers in that particular house. As they lose strength, the police release them from jail.

Most were imprisoned in the first place, not for acts of violence, but simply for membership of an illegal organisation. To the state's horror, they have simply continued the death-fast at home, surrounded by friends and family.

Aydin wears a red headband. Behind him on the wall are their martyrs, painted on canvas, a cartoon strip of heroes. Mostly men, but with quite a few women, almost all smiling.

They're a handsome bunch, and its hard for me, a stranger, to understand why their sacrifice was necessary. And they look so much like the revolutionaries around me in the room, that at first I thought these were portraits of the living, not of the dead.

Those who put our country under the boot of the imperialists deserve to die ten times over

Aydin, a hunger striker
Their supporters treat the death-fasters with reverence, helping them hobble up the steps on their thin legs. Their eyes blaze with a strange light. Someone plays the guitar, out in the hall.

Every now and then, a pretty girl in a red t-shirt brings them their drink - water with sugar and salt, and Vitamin B. Together with cups of tea, and the omnipresent cigarettes, this prolongs their lives for about nine months.

Waiting for death

Most have died so far at about 280 days. On one of the shelves on the wall, no doubt the paints and brushes are ready, for their portraits. Perhaps preliminary sketches have already been made.

The quiet dignity with which they are leading their apparently hopeless struggle is moving. But in a week where thousands died, far away, in another country, I force myself to think of the victims of their suicide bomber.

Turkey's papers
Turkey's papers were quick to report the US attacks
Of the families of the dead and maimed policemen in Taksim square. And of the Australian tourist, just walking by when the bomb went off.

"I can understand that some people might be brave, or committed enough, to die for what they believe in, but is it ever valid to kill for a cause?" I asked Aydin.

"Yes," he said, without hesitation. My heart sank. "Those who put our country under the boot of the imperialists deserve to die ten times over," he continued.

I haven't heard that old Marxist word - imperialist - for quite a long time.

Another supporter of the group, a woman of 23, said she could not see much difference between killing, and dying, for what you believe in.

Martyrs to a cause

The leftist revolutionaries speak fondly of their allies in the fight against the Turkish state. They speak of a loose alliance of radical leftist, Islamic, and Kurdish groups in Turkey, and anti-globalisation protesters elsewhere in the world.

They talk of a coming battle between the poor and hungry and exploited against the rich nations. They feel sorry, they say, for the victims in America, but believe an attack was long overdue. "The imperialists had it coming to them," they say.

And they share a common certainty, that the downtrodden will one day inherit the earth. Indeed, it's hard to believe these people are atheists. Above all, their reverence for their dead is deeply religious.

The burning twin towers
The attacks in the United States focused attention on suicide bombers
Aydin lights another cigarette, its brand-name Parliament. We both laugh. "The imperialists have even stolen our tobacco," he says.

What would he like his cigarettes to be called, I ask. That faraway look comes back into his eyes. "I would like to smoke a brand named after one of our martyrs," he says.

As we left, the police - waiting in their armoured vehicle at the end of the road - blinded us with their spotlights.

Why pay any attention to an obscure left-wing group, on the fault-line between West and East, Europe and Asia, who believe in a widely discredited ideology, when all eyes in the world are on America, and Afghanistan?

Because the whole world suddenly seems to be talking of dying, and killing. And our leaders too have that faraway look in their eyes.

See also:

17 Sep 01 | Business
Turkey rattled by conflict fears
28 May 01 | Europe
Hunger striker dies in Turkey
15 Jul 01 | Europe
Turkey halts prison plans
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