Saskia Neibig (@), a social policy student, went on the Grimshaw delegation to Istanbul, Turkey in March 2015. Photographs by Ivy Lang’at.
In the office of IHD, the Human Rights Association of Turkey, there’s a lull in conversation, prompting Osman to point to two photographs on the wall of their Ankara meeting room.
“Our colleagues,” he tells us, “They were volunteers in one of our branches.” He explains that the two men in the portraits were kidnapped and murdered by the government in the 1990s.
This office on the third floor is clean, bright and smells of freshly brewed tea within minutes of our arrival, but the concrete building and tiny, door-less elevator are a far cry from the embassies and government offices that we have visited earlier in the week. There, our bags were passed through scanners and our passports checked on entering. We posed for our pictures next to posters that were professionally branded and perfectly on-message. Here, the assortment of wobbly furniture feels like it could be any low-budget office, anywhere. Osman had been late to our meeting, because traffic was bad, and he had to pick up his daughter from kindergarten on the way over from his job teaching at the local university. The environment and the seemingly casual, disorganised circumstances, the little girl doing her colouring in beside her dad, contrast starkly with what he tells us. He talks about the crackdowns on protest and freedom of assembly; about increasing media censorship under Erdogan’s government; about the need to improve the refugee camps for Syrians fleeing violence. He tells us about the difficulties that Kurds face in Turkey, difficulties that he has faced. Crippling stigma, inequality and police violence are shocking and persistent. At first though, our group struggles to comprehend the significance of a new TV station that broadcasts in the Kurdish language. It can be hard to grasp as an American, Brit or German, why it matters that you can never be educated in your mother tongue and never hear it spoken in any official capacity or use it to access services. As people who do not have our language’s existence denied, we really struggled to relate.
Our Grimshaw delegation came from various academic backgrounds (not just IR!) and varying levels of education, as well as from more than 7 countries. Of course, it was only natural that we would come with different interests and expectations, and after every meeting we disagreed with one another just as much as going in, but had almost certainly changed our own opinions too.
At our meetings with the Foreign Office, Ministry for European Union Affairs, the World Bank, the think tank USAK, Developing 8, UN Women and the US and UK embassies, we were presented with images of a modern democracy with a rapidly advancing economy: a country whose location and identity are assets to the developed world and whose democracy is an example to the Arab world. It straddles two regions and doesn’t fit into any cliches about development, democratisation and modernisation. The EU accession, and the Cypriot problem were key issues on our visit, particularly the role that the latter plays in preventing the former from protecting human rights. We also discussed development, gender inequality, Middle Eastern conflicts and security, migration and welfare. We spent time visiting the sights and museums, eating a lot of Turkish food, drinking raki and a lot of tea. This trip was the very best way to get to know a country’s history, culture and politics. I left the country already planning my next visit and thinking of the research that I would love to do there. It’s a country I would love to live and work in.
But before we leave the meeting at IHD, Osman takes us to another room to show us their old office door. It leans against a wall, riddled with bullet holes. It reminds us that he is still regularly arrested, that Kurds, journalists and activists live in fear, and that human rights and checks on power are far from being satisfactory in this modern, dynamic and beautiful Turkey.