Fast and Furious

Turkish academics on hunger strike seek justice for victims of government purges

01 July 2018
Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca’s hunger strike has become a rallying point for those who oppose President Erdogan, whose policies have drawn international scrutiny since the attempted military coup of July 2016.
altan gocher / nurphoto / getty images
Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca’s hunger strike has become a rallying point for those who oppose President Erdogan, whose policies have drawn international scrutiny since the attempted military coup of July 2016.
altan gocher / nurphoto / getty images

On 1 December 2017, the day Nuriye Gulmen was released from prison, she filmed a video from her bed. Amid pillows nearly swallowing her emaciated frame, she thanked her supporters for rallying against her incarceration. Gulmen, a 35-year-old academic, had been on hunger strike for nine months, and had lost half of her body weight.

Gulmen was one of around 100,000 public-sector workers—including 5,000 academics—whom the Turkish government had dismissed from their jobs after a military coup was attempted in July 2016. Many of the purged individuals had called for an end to state violence in Turkey’s Kurdish province. Others were critics of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erodgan, and some were followers of Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric whom the government blames for orchestrating the attempted coup.

In November 2016, Gulmen began staging daily demonstrations in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, along with two other academics. When these failed to bring about change, Gulmen and one of the other academics, Semih Ozakca, began a hunger strike. Subsisting on water, sugar and salt solutions, they vowed to fast until they got their jobs back. Gulmen and Ozakca ended their hunger strike earlier this year, though they have not been reinstated, and continue to speak against government excesses. The two have become powerful figures of the resistance against Erdogan, who has been ruling the country with an iron fist since the attempted coup. Late last month, Erdogan was re-elected for another five-year term in a snap election. This time around, after a controversial referendum was conducted last year, Turkey’s constitution has been revised to funnel power away from parliament and towards the president.

I spoke with Gulmen in February 2017, at a deserted café in Ankara, near the human-rights monument in front of which she protested daily. “When you get dismissed, you feel some kind of burning fire in yourself. I mean, how can they do this to my friends and me? To thousands of people?” she said. “This has nothing to do with if people are either guilty or not—you cannot be dismissed through a process like this.”

In 2012, Gulmen began working as a research assistant in the department of comparative literature at Osmangazi University. On 30 September 2016, the day after a state of emergency was declared, she was one of thousands purged for allegedly having ties with FETÖ/PDY, a group associated with Fethullah Gulen.

Lorena Rios Trevino is an independent multimedia journalist formerly based in Egypt and Turkey. She is currently living in New York City, where she is pursuing her master’s in journalism at Columbia University.

Keywords: hunger strike Turkey Reycep Tayyip Erdoğan
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