After Tahir Elçi

Nazan Üstündağ, December 14 2015

It is only possible to make sense of what is going on in Kurdistan today by way of its homology with the American occupation of Iraq. Because in Kurdistan, the state and resistance to the state do not share any legal or social foundations whatsoever. We are in fact discussing two entirely separate worlds that can only be related to one another through the field of violence and that otherwise function according to entirely different logics. Tahir Elçi’s death brings together the grief of losing someone we all loved dearly with the pain of bearing witness to this kind of disjuncture.

It is not easy to get over any death. But the death of Tahir Elçi became a death that seared itself into us by producing its own knowledge through the video cameras that recorded it. Such a death was only fitting for Tahir Elçi’s working life, for his unparalleled pursuit of the truth. The heart-rending speech delivered during his funeral by his wife Türkan Elçi, the unparalleled grief of the MPs from Kurdistan, the silent marches of the people, and the exhausted figures of his long-time comrades in human rights advocacy alongside whom he struggled for many years, embodied as much the mourning of the singular death of a genuinely singular human being as they did the fate and the sense that an era was ending. All of us undoubtedly apprehend Tahir Elçi’s death—the fact that he was shot in the back of the head and fell facedown on the ground—within a historical totality. We lost another person we loved in this procession of people who fall facedown. Vedat Aydın, Hrant Dink….

We understand his murder in relation to the many other bodies made to pose in death on the ground, made to lie facedown, by the state and its hitmen. Maybe he was shot by accident, or maybe on purpose. But, since the moment he fell to the ground, he became part of another history, taking his place beside those other ghostly bodies knocked to the ground, made to pose in death. No forensic report, no crime scene investigation, no ballistic report, and no court decision can change this reality. I have watched the videos many, many times. Among the cameras and the journalists, there is not a single witness who can testify to the death of this person, who spent his entire life gathering testimonies for dozens of unresolved murders and forced disappearances that went unwitnessed themselves. It seems as though a divine hand guarded Tahir Elçi from the injurious gaze of the surveillance videos, the cameras, and the long-barreled weapons.

It seems criminal to me to reduce his killing to the evidence, to try to understand what really happened. As I watch the videos over and over, at any rate, I find myself giving up on the notion of evidence. As if some divine hand ordained Tahir Elçi a great monument of Diyarbakır, right there next to another great Diyarbakır monument. For many years, Tahir Elçi and his comrades struggled with a poise unparalleled in Turkey to keep the rule of law alive. They tried to sustain a universal idea of the law, a legal imaginary that does not discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, sex, or class. That imaginary lies there on the ground with Tahir Elçi now, next to the mosque with the four-legged minaret. Selahattin Demirtaş said, “statelessness is the problem of the Kurdish people”—not because he is smitten by the idea of the state, but because in this world, citizenship is synonymous with having a state. In spite of all of Tahir Elçi’s efforts, the Kurds now have no choice but to live with a state that scorns and ignores—proudly and openly, no less—this universal, objective legal imaginary, let alone the possibility of keeping this imaginary alive.

The current struggle of the Kurdish people has become represented by another body that is leaving the body of Tahir Elçi behind, lying on the ground. This new body is flexible, quick, belligerent. It is agile. No longer innocent, this body is determined, focused on its target. This is because state violence, which follows bodies in Kurdistan one after another, doesn’t give permission for these bodies to pass their flag along unnoticed. The state splits them apart. It opens up distances between them.

The geography of Kurdistan resembles the geography of Iraq. And it is fundamentally changing. Sur and Silvan are springing out of Diyarbakır, Nusaybin and Derik from Mardin. These flexible bodies find freedom from behind the ditches, escaping the gaze of all those watching the city from tanks, surveillance videos, hidden cameras, long-barreled weapons, and heat sensitive drones: they are creating a new geography. The special units and the police, who see everything as a target and who imagine that a bullet could come towards them from any direction, call to mind the American soldiers in Iraq. Tahir Elçi also bears a slight resemblance to Hrant Dink, too. But when Hrant Dink died, more than just his relatives came to bury him. After such a sacrifice, too, the Armenian question was talked about a little bit more. Tahir Elçi was sent off only by his relatives, even if they were in the hundreds of thousands—the Kurdish people and the human rights defenders in Turkey. But we still can’t talk about the occupation. All they talk about is ditches. Maybe we will not be able to raise Tahir Elçi up off the ground, just as we were not able to raise Hacı Birlik or Ekin Wan. But how can we make sense of everything that has happened, except by trying to pick up everything that has fallen down with him, or by creating new beginnings, or by delicately braiding it all back together, or by joining them as equals, there in the ditches?

[This article was originally published on Özgur Gündem. It was translated from the Turkish by Nicholas Glastonbury.]


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