Revolutionary Martyr from Turkey
Revolution #009, July 24, 2005
Let me tell you about Rosa.
When I heard the terrible news about the
massacre of 17 leaders of the Maoist Communist Party of Turkey
and North Kurdistan (MKP), I immediately thought about
the many comrades from Turkey I met in the Fall of 2002, when
I spoke in Europe about the People’s War in Nepal. Many
of them had been forced to seek political asylum, including
some who had just come from being on prison hunger strikes.
The TKP(ML), the party that the MKP is a continuator of, helped
organize the tour and in many cities, the majority of the
audience were revolutionaries from Turkey.
I read news reports about how on June 16,
over 1,000 soldiers from the Turkish army had encircled and
then moved in to massacre the group of MKP comrades who were
on their way to their party’s second congress. I watched
the videos on the Internet of the mass funeral in Istanbul—thousands
marching through the streets, coffins carried amidst a sea
of red flags. Family, friends and comrades filing past the
caskets, photos of the martyrs on banners, in frames, on posters.
Fists in the air amidst garlands of flowers. The unbearable
grief and intense anger of the crowd leapt off the screen
and hit me in the gut and tears welled up as I thought about
what a tremendous loss this was for the revolutionary struggle
in Turkey and the whole international communist movement.
I scrolled through scenes of the funeral,
then came to the photos of the martyrs. I froze for several
seconds, then felt heartsick as I saw a photo of Berna Unsal—who
I had known as “Rosa.” She had been the
main organizer of my European speaking tour, and for three
weeks we had worked closely and gotten to know each other.
I immediately recognized not just her face, but her utterly
defiant and brave spirit which inhabited her portrait.
The time I spent working and talking with
Berna and other revolutionaries from Turkey gave me a deeper
understanding and appreciation of the heroic struggle being
waged against the fascist regime in Turkey and a deeper sense
of proletarian internationalism.
I first met Rosa in Germany, where she had
been working with the World People’s Resistance Movement
to organize my speaking tour. She immediately struck me as
a very serious and dedicated revolutionary who seemed to have
endless energy. She liked to joke around a lot and was never
too tired for a political discussion, a strong cup of coffee
and lots of cigarettes. Very quickly, I found out that we
also shared a deep passion for chocolate that would prove
to be a crucial element in our demanding schedule. But more
than anything, there was a determination and seriousness that
came through, even as Rosa could also be easygoing and playful.
She was a committed communist, a revolutionary journalist,
an intellectual who was completely fluent in English. She
could talk for hours about the big questions facing the international
communist movement. And she had been deeply involved in the
sharp struggle over political and ideological line within
the revolutionary movement in Turkey.
We were halfway through the tour when I found
out Rosa was one of the heroes of the 2000-2001 hunger strikes
in Turkey’s prisons. It was after a program in Antwerp,
Belgium and we were both completely stuffed from a huge late
night meal cooked by the Nepali comrades who had organized
the program. We were both exhausted but neither of us seemed
to want to go to sleep. Suddenly, Rosa started telling me
about how she had almost died in prison.
When I first met Rosa, it was clear she had
health problems. She was full of energy and was the one to
push the rest of us when we would go for days with little
sleep. But I also noticed that she would get really bad headaches
and tire easily. I had already met a number of revolutionaries
from Turkey who had come close to death in the prison hunger
strikes. I remember one young couple—they had both been
in a coma and temporarily lost their memory from extreme malnutrition.
At first they had not even remembered they were married to
each other. Then slowly they had gotten their memories back
and now they had a new baby. But they were still suffering
serious and long-term damage to their health. Now I suddenly
realized why Rosa had, at times, suddenly gotten sick and
Rosa told me how she had been a student at
the university when she was arrested. The fascist government,
waging a vicious war against Maoist guerrillas in the countryside,
carried out massive repression in the cities. Their “anti-terrorism”
law allowed the state to imprison people for many years for
simply having a revolutionary leaflet or being accused of
belonging to one of the many banned organizations.
On October 20, 2000, several hundred political
prisoners in different prisons began a hunger strike to protest
the inhuman conditions and attempts by the government to isolate
them in individual cells. Family members and other supporters
on the outside, in different cities, also joined the hunger
strike. And then, on November 19, 2000, this hunger strike
was converted into a Death Fast.
Rosa, who was 31 years old at the time, was
in Canakkale, a women’s prison, and she was one of the
people who went from being on a hunger strike to a Death Fast.
Rosa explained how they knew that without food and water they
would not survive very long. So they purposely and very scientifically
extended the death fast by taking water and certain vitamins.
In this way, they were able to stay alive for months. But
after more than 200 days, people started going into comas
and dying. This sparked international outrage and protest
and the attention of groups like Amnesty International.
Rosa told me that right before she lost consciousness
and went into a coma, the authorities had allowed her mother
to see her. The government was desperately trying to find
a way out of the situation without giving in to the prisoners’
demands. They didn’t care that people were dying. But
they didn’t want an international incident—just
as the Turkish government was lobbying to become part of the
European Union. So they tried to get family members to give
permission to force-feed those on the Death Fast.
Rosa told her mother, “If you give
the authorities permission to force-feed me when I am in a
coma, I will never speak to you again.” And her mother
promised to defy the enemy. Rosa did go into a coma and came
to the edge of death. After she went into a coma, the authorities
force-fed Rosa and revived her. The Turkish government was
forced to release Rosa and the other hunger strikers who had
almost died; and they were allowed to go into exile. Rosa
was given political asylum in Germany.
Rosa told me about the night political prisoners
were viciously attacked in 20 prisons. Special teams used
bulldozers to tear holes in the prison walls so they could
rush in and fire without warning. Rosa described the chaotic
scene as police and army forces began attacking them. There
was smoke and gunfire, people running all around as they were
bombarded with smoke bombs, sound bombs, nerve gas and pepper
gas. The women shouted slogans and insults as they heroically
fought back and refused to surrender. Rosa got even more passionate
and angry when she told me how the police poured gasoline
on some of the prisoners and set them on fire. Later they
lied to the press and claimed the women had done this to themselves.
“This was a lie, a big lie,” Rosa said
to me, several times.
I remember hearing about one young revolutionary
from Turkey who was missing half of both of his feet. He had
been part of a guerrilla group that had got stranded in the
winter—some of his comrades had died and he had suffered
extreme frostbite. He, like Rosa and many other revolutionaries
from Turkey I met, suffered permanent and terrible health
problems. But these serious injuries didn’t seem to
dampen their revolutionary determination and sense of humor.
One day Rosa and some other comrades from Turkey were laughing
and kidding around in Turkish and I interrupted them, asking
to be let in on the joke. Rosa told me how they all had serious
injuries, ailments, or sickness, from fighting or being in
prison. She said, “We joke about how this one ”has
no feet;’ this one “has no hand;’ this one
”cannot see,’ etc. and so because of this, when
we have to carry out a task, we really have to all work together!"
I learned a lot from Rosa and will always
be inspired by her life and heroic death. When I think of
her, I remember what it was like, driving through the Alps
during the tour, inhaling the breathtaking scenery, winding
through the switchback roads, poking our heads out the window,
shouting and pointing as we craned our necks to look so high
up — to where the snow-covered peaks jutted up and defied
the clouds and strongest winds.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolution
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