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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 13:08 GMT
Turkey's soul searching
A mother of a hunger striker is comforted
More than 40 people have died in the protest
More than 40 prisoners have now starved themselves to death in Turkey. Their year-long protest - over prison conditions - is haunting the nation, writes the BBC's Tabitha Morgan from Istanbul.

Last summer, in an attempt to end the dispute, the government began to release on compassionate grounds some of those prisoners who were approaching death.

The hunger strike issue is one where personal stories are mixed up with questions of national identity.

Prison in Izmir
The government says it is modernising the prison system
And it was at the offices of Turkey's oldest newspaper, that this struck a chord.

The entrance to newspaper office is not exactly impressive. Visitors have to negotiate a corrugated iron fence surrounding a derelict wooden house that stands in the newspaper's front yard.

Raise your eyes above the corrugated iron to the building behind and it is possible to make out the remains of what must once have been elaborate decorative ceilings.

Ataturk

It was here that the Young Turks - the men who moulded the modern Turkish Republic - used to meet during the dying years of the Ottoman Empire.

Kamal Ataturk subsequently donated the building to the new state's first newspaper.

For Ataturk, the great moderniser dragging Turkey towards the West, the newspaper - symbolically called Cumhuriyet or Republic - played a vital role in establishing modern Turkish identity. It told Turks exactly who they were.


The rehabilitation of hunger strikers can be a complex business. Most suffer permanent neurological damage and have difficulty performing simple tasks

And the question of national identity is one that has troubled the Turkish republic ever since its inception more than 70 years ago.

Should Turkey look to Europe and the West? Or does it geographically and culturally belong in the Muslim world and Asia?

It is an issue at the heart of the on-going prison hunger strike.

Modernising

The government - determined to end what it sees as an antiquated and ungovernable system of dormitory accommodation - is introducing individual prison cells.

It says they are modern, hygienic and European.

The prisoners argue, though, that a European model of accommodation is being grafted on to a system that is corrupt, violent and abusive.

They claim it will leave them isolated and - in a prison culture where torture is endemic - vulnerable to further abuse.

So far, more than 40 prisoners have starved themselves to death in an effort to force Ankara to change its mind.

Demonstration in Ankara
There have been some violent demonstrations in support of the hunger strike
While the government has not backed down on the issue, it has started to release some hunger strikers on compassionate grounds.

But the rehabilitation of hunger strikers can be a complex business. Most suffer permanent neurological damage and have difficulty performing simple tasks, holding a cup or walking in a straight line.

Last week, a friend took me to meet 30-year-old Yusuf Can, who was released from prison six months ago after going more than 250 days without food.

Personal account

Yusuf shuffled into the room supported on either side by relatives.

He is a short, stocky man with closely cropped hair and a round child-like face.

His mother brought Turkish tea, and in a rich, sonorous voice Yusuf started to tell me about his time in prison. And it was only then, hearing him speak, that I realised we had met before - that I had interviewed him last summer in hospital just two days after his release.

Back then, I couldn't believe that someone could be so thin and still be alive. Yusuf's thighs were the same circumference as my wrists, just sticks of wood beneath the sheet.

Police storm a prison in Izmir to force the hunger strikers to end their protest
Police storm a prison in Izmir to force the hunger strikers to end their protest
He looked like a rather terrifying Messiah, long hair, prominent cheekbones and huge luminous eyes. I'd expected him to whisper a few hesitant words but Yusuf kept on and on talking in his deep resonant voice.

Despite his weakness, he seemed entirely in command of the situation, sustained presumably by ideological conviction.

It was Yusuf's younger brother fussing around him who seemed much more fragile. Outside the ward I asked if he had travelled far to the hospital.

Closing a chapter

Yes, more than 500km (310 miles). His mother had wanted to come as well. But they couldn't afford the bus fare for two so he had made the journey alone.

And then Yusuf's brother, whose name I never knew, did something very shameful for a Turkish man to do in front of a woman - he crumpled into a heap and cried.

Yusuf himself had no recollection of our meeting last summer, and my inquiries about his brother were met with polite - slightly puzzled answers. He was fine, engaged to be married, still teaching and I realised then I couldn't pursue the matter any further.

Yusuf and his family were clearly doing their best to put this chapter of their lives behind them, but hundreds of men and women remain on hunger strike inside the prisons, locked into a dispute that's forcing Turks once again to question how much they really are European.

I wasn't surprised, then, when I visited Cumhuriyet newspaper, that the hunger strike came up in conversation.

But it was only by chance that I learnt that a senior journalist on the paper is involved with a group of writers who are negotiating between the prisoners and the government.

Resolving the issues behind this dispute, and helping to define what kind of nation Turkey now wants to be, is an extension of the process that Ataturk had in mind when he encouraged the setting up of institutions like this paper.

I was intrigued to find, then, in the shadow of the building where the Young Turks used to meet, that this tradition is still alive.

See also:

10 Jan 01 | Europe
Shadow hangs over Turkish jails
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