May 30, 2019

To (be able to) tell

By Zehra Doğan

Kurdish artist and journalist Zehra Doğan was released from prison in Turkey in February. She was prosecuted and sentenced to nearly three years on charges that criminalised her work as a journalist and artist. One of her own paintings was used as evidence against her. She writes about the unexpected side-effects of freedom and the conflict in south-east Turkey.

Shortly after I was released from prison I suddenly found myself in a dense loneliness. To leave my friends whom I’ve shared every moment with for over two years (no matter that this is called freedom) deeply upset me. Something indefinable ruptured within me after the guards shouted for me to prepare for release. It felt like my belly sank. If the cost of freedom was to never see these friends again, I did not want it. But I couldn’t stay any longer. My time was up. I was escorted out to showers of applause and chants of ‘women, life, freedom!’

After I crossed the threshold, there now lay a difference between us. I was called ‘free’ and they were prisoners. Yet a moment ago I was, too. I looked at them one last time in those two seconds. I was leaving, but in each of them I had left a piece of myself. In that moment, I realised, so long as whatever I left behind remains mine, neither am I really free nor are they really imprisoned, as long as I carry pieces of them within me.

I left with a small nylon bag that had letters and a few drawings. I was all alone now, everything I was used to, changed yet again by the state’s decree. Just as they had arrested me a few years back. My painting materials, inspirations, workshop, everything was inside, only I had got out. What use would I be alone? I had forgotten again that I left with a crowd. So I cracked on with the hundreds of jail breakers within me and got to work. They had jailed me yet I had learnt a lot more on the inside and was ever more determined of what I had to tell. The state had wished for me to give up, but had not taken a flood of international solidarity into account. Thanks to this, now I am stronger. And there’s a lot I want to tell.

Now I can better describe what’s been happening in Kurdistan, divided by barbed wire and mines between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. A lot of my work speaks to this, my testimony, inner ramblings and struggles …

In 2015, the Kurds declared self-governance in Turkish Kurdistan. Following this, the Turkish government went on assault. Kurdish people then formed barricades on the streets and the young took up arms. Violent conflicts escalated every day. Hundreds of civilians were killed by state forces, including a 35-day-old baby. Thousands of people were displaced in clashes that also saw many security forces dead.

The war continued until 2016. Thousands of houses were burned down in Nusaybin, Cizre, Derik, İdil, Dargeçit, Yüksekova, Şirnak and Sur. Many people were left homeless. Thousands were arrested and charged with ‘membership of a terrorist organisation’. And still the violence escalated in Turkey. Mothers who took to the streets for their sons, on hunger strike in prison, were beaten and arrested. Today, even a call for peace can be registered as a ‘terrorist activity’. Thousands of academics, artists and writers are currently jailed for similar reasons.

This is an extract from Li Dû Man (What is left behind?) a publication accompanying Zehra Doğan’s installation at Tate Exchange, 21-25 May 2019, which documented the impact of the conflict on Kurdish families. It was commissioned by Counterpoints Arts and Tate Exchange, in partnership with the Open University.

Photo: Li Dû Man, Tate Exchange, Zehra Doğan


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