Watching the Guards
In September 2006 I was arrested in Istanbul for displaying a collage picture I had made of the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in the role of a pet dog owned by George W Bush. Charged with insulting to the dignity of the Turkish authorities’ I spent 10 days in Turkish police custody 3 days in prison, and seven days in the Detention Centre for Foreigners’ where I was called a guest’, and instead of being put inside the overcrowded holding center along with the other foreign detainees, had to endure the company of the Turkish police who detained them, sharing their company and sleeping on a row of chairs in a windowless office.
After 10 days I was suddenly released without charge and told to leave the country my residence permit no longer valid.
The following is extracts from a diary I kept during my enforced stay with the guards at the detention center.
Saturday 16th September 2006
I’d been given the impression that I was to be released in the morning, but that turned out to be a lie. Instead, I was told that I was to spend two more nights here (it’s the weekend) and that I am to be deported to England on Monday, after someone, (a friend’) has been sent to get my passport from my flat! Or if I want to stay, I will have to be taken to Ankara for some reason, to appear before something or someone.
A poor young Somali has been here most of the day, wanting to speak to some friends in the lock-up. They won’t let him in with them because he’s only 16. He’d already spent 15 days in a prison cell himself (lucky fella!) after having been picked up with no passport. The chief asked for money for a photo of him to send to the United Nations to help him. After getting change from a 10 Euro note he was left with only 5 YTL in the world, so I gave him a tenner.
The Turkish news (the little I see of it in my present circumstances) is featuring heavy on the comment by Pope Benedict that Islam had nothing really new to add to religion, and Mohammed had used force to establish it. Prime Minister Erdogan is asking for an apology, and there have been protests around the world.
It’s 8 pm and the guards have changed (some cocky, false-faced cheeky ones). And I’m stuck here for the night again. It’s Hell.
Sunday 17th September 2006
Last night a (mostly Somali) lot of men were called into the office one by one to collect a document with the photos I’d seen them having taken the day before; the Turkish police making condescending comments about each of them, the chief telling them individually in English (after asking me if the phrase was correct) to "Go Home!" He asked one to show where Somalia was on the wall map. Poor fellow couldn’t find it immediately. There are so many here because they are trying to escape the civil war in their country, between the 3 main tribes, although they are all Muslim.
I was allowed to push a couple of the 3 seat benches together, so I had more room to bed down at 12 pm. The light was on all night, and I was subjected to sleep-deprivation by a barrage of noise. The police were in and out of the office, playing something on the computer in here and on the one in the hall outside, shouting to each other and laughing, talking at the same time. The TV was on full volume and the radio; loud banging of metal doors, scraping of chairs on the marble floor; rapping, knocking, pounding, thumping, all magnified perhaps by my state of mind, so that I hardly slept at all.
And now I’m up and the guards have changed, they with cups of tea, and none offered me. There was no water in the cooler upstairs so I had to settle for tap water with its heavily chlorinated flavor. Yesterday I was given nothing to eat until I asked about 4 pm for one of the cheese sandwiches that were being given to the prisoners in the lockup.
The chief on duty last night said he’d seen me on telly showing my poster and being arrested. "Which channel?" I asked. "All of them!" he laughed so the university should know why I haven’t turned up for work, at least.
It’s 6.40 pm now. Again I didn’t get anything given to eat till about 4 o’clock when a trustee casually handed me one of the stale half-loaves left over in the boxes from feeding those in the lockup, stuffed with a few inferior black olives. I ate it to avoid hunger pangs, because I reckon I won’t be being given anything else today.
The cop who shot at me appeared this afternoon, limping from a wound to his knee that he’d got when he fell over in the chase. He’d been off for a couple of days because of his injuries. He showed me the arm, which was badly scraped and red, and he had a plaster on his thumb. He wasn’t swearing or threatening any more, but still angry and blaming me. I said I was sorry, but had merely taken my chance at escape and failed. I told him he was probably considered a hero because he’d managed to catch me; would probably have been fired if I’d escaped.
Monday 18th September 2006
Today’s chief just came into the room to talk to the cop at the desk, and I asked him about my situation. He told me not to worry, then called another cop into the room and pointed at me, asking if he knew who I was. The cop looked blankly at me, so the chief held up an imaginary poster, saying "Protesto! Pankart!" and the cop cottoned on. "Bush" he said so I guess I must be even more famous in the outside world.
Last night I became very depressed for a while, and snapped back at Yilmaz (the humanist’ guard who speaks good English) when he asked what I was thinking as I stared at the revolving electric fan, full of gloom; but later I pulled myself out of it and we talked (not deeply) about things such as books (he hates Orhan Pamuk for saying that Turks had massacred Armenians at the beginning of the last century); music (he hates singer Ibrahim Tatlises because he supports the Kurdish Resistance Movement); and spirits (he believes that djinns sometimes try to possess him.) But otherwise he is a very intelligent man apart from believing in miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea by Moses.
He told me not to put two rows of chairs together to sleep on when I went to bed down at 12.30 because he said he might want to use one himself to kip on during the night; so I spent a tortuous time trying to keep my balance on the restricted space and got no sleep also because the cops had the telly blaring with football matches all night. Eventually, about 5.30 am I noticed Yildiz was sleeping with his head on the desk, so I did put two rows together and was a little more comfortable. The only snatched dream I had was of going onto a beach covered with rotten rubbish and a dead cat, and masses of flies swarmed around me, pregnant with disease probably a Freudian interpretation of this dump.
This morning, sitting in the reception hall, as I was finishing writing my rhyming couplet playlet The King’s New Clothes’ (finished! And good, I think,) they dragged a guy out of the lockup (one who had been working as a kind of trustee, clearing up, serving tea and bringing deliveries.) Apparently they’d found some narcotic stuff hidden in a tube of toothpaste. He was carted off into the stairwell by the particularly nasty group of cops on duty today, who kicked and beat the shit out of him.
Later they did the same to a guy accused of stealing someone’s money in the lockup. As they dragged him out, one cop who didn’t even know the charge slapped him really hard twice across the face and another punched him as he was carted off to the stairwell, one cop grabbing a baton along the way. I think he prodded the guy in the chest or stomach with it, because I heard him coughing and rasping as though winded.
And later this afternoon twice, two troops of new prisoners arrived. As they were let onto this floor, the chief cop (older than the others, and who had been polite and courteous to me before, making me think he might be a nice man,) was waiting at the gate, kicking viciously at the poor souls as they came running in one by one, sending some sprawling across the floor, much to the delight of the other cops, who laughed and applauded. Obviously his party trick.
The last was a group of small-sized Bangladeshis, who are now seated cowering on the stairs, waiting to go through the humiliation of being frisked and barked out by the (just as nasty) cops on duty tonight. They’ve already been slapped and beaten upstairs. Welcome to Turkey!
I went into the lockup for the first time today, as the chief had sent out a minion to buy me a phone-card so I could use one of the phones inside at last. Although it is extremely crowded in there, the floor crowded with bodies lying on blankets on the floor and others roaming around, at least the men in there are people, rather than the devils out here. I decided I wanted to be in there and asked Uncle Chief but he said no, I was a guest’, and it wasn’t suitable for me.
Suddenly loads more people arrived and are lined up in ranks on the stairs up and down, about 200, still in the process of being checked to enter into the lockup, almost too many for the cops to enjoy their sadism; this is a bit too much of a chore.
Most of the men are young and black or dark brown. I spoke to one guy on crutches. He’d arrived yesterday from Bangladesh to have some new false legs fitted at a hospital in Ankara, and his passport and money have been stolen by mafya’. He has the phone number of the doctor, so that may be a help.
At 11 pm everyone was sneezing and coughing because one of the cops sprayed pepper-spray in the face of a bolshie detainee very clever in such a confined space. So – all these extra people are going into the lockup with those already there, which will bring the number up to about 500! Going over the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount tonight, I can’t help identifying these detainees as the poor in spirit’, the meek’, they who hunger and thirst after righteousness’, the pure in heart’, those which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’
There’s a picture of Ataturk (obligatory) on the office wall, and I was staring at it earlier while the cops were maliciously persecuting the prisoners, thinking "what do you think of your children now, Mr Ataturk?" And how will these people describe the Turks when they return to their own countries, based on their treatment here? Cruel and horrible.
They didn’t get all the new arrestees processed (too many) so all the upstairs, step by step, are still crammed with dark-skinned detainees who spent the whole night crouched there. In comparison, (although I hardly slept a wink) it must have seemed to them (able to see me through the open office door) that I was in the lap of luxury, stretched out on the two rows of chairs that I’d managed to push together.
The filth were in for a little cake party in the office here in the early hours, chatting and giggling away, playing loud music, laughing and boasting about people they’d slapped and kicked, imitating the plaintive pleas of their victims. "Brother! Brother!" I had my face covered with my shirt so they weren’t aware that I was listening.
Yildiz has arrived for the day shift with an "Oh my friend! How are you?"
"How do you think?" I asked, and told him he worked with devils.
Another guard asked what was wrong with my face, and indeed my skin has become red, blotchy and flaky. (I suspect scabies, not having had any fresh fruit or vegetables for so many days.") Itchy too.
"Allerji," said the cop.
"Yeah," said I. " – To this place."
I twisted my ankle coming downstairs this morning while trying to pass a bottle of water surreptitiously to one of the Pakistanis on the stair. I noticed him holding an empty bottle which he’d hopefully indicated to the day chief, who’d been sitting reading his football paper. He and his mates had just had a little tea party with peanuts at the table in front of the desk, and he imperiously signaled for the man to clear the tabletop off and put the rubbish in a bin bag. One of the discarded things left was a plastic beaker full of water, and the Pakistani looked at it longingly, but the chief clicked his fingers for him to drop that into the bag too, and then sent the guy back to his place with his empty bottle.
I decided to go upstairs to the toilet (I’ve since been told always to ask when I want to go, and must be accompanied) and as I passed I took the bottle from the guy and filled it in the kitchen. As I was coming down several cops were congregated at the foot of the stair talking. I quickly passed the man the bottle, but missed the last two steps and landed wrong on my foot with a painful twist. The guards noticed that instead, and one said: "Be careful."
Earlier last night, with the lockup so full, there sounded like what might have turned into a riot, with screaming, shouting, chanting and banging from the prisoners inside. I lay and listened and imagined the barking sadists charging in with their batons being seized by the furious inmates and torn limb from limb in revenge for their brutality. A bit unChristian of me perhaps, but it didn’t happen anyway.
I was in there today, allowed to make a phone call. The fetid stench was awful. I was approached by a black guy speaking good English, saying he’d seen me on the telly (the Israeli protest.) He’d been in 4 months and said some had been there for more than a year. He said someone should come in and take pictures of the place. It is a scandal. Told him I’d report what I’d seen when I got out.
Today I felt listless and tired, again given nothing to eat until 7.15 when I mentioned that I hadn’t eaten all day. Yildiz, about to go off duty, brought me a tray, saying "My friend, my friend!" He says that to everyone. I asked him why.
"Am I not your friend?" he asked.
"I don’t think so," I said, eating and not looking at him. As I said this morning, how can he work with such monsters, without condemning or reporting them for their cruelty? Again a little unChristian, but hope it might make him think on his way home.
The new lot on tonight is a nasty lot again. I heard some slapping and banging in the hall and went out to investigate but was told to go back into the office and sit down. A little later a Pakistani with a bleeding nose was escorted upstairs, splashing blood on the way, cleaned up with a mop by one of the trustees.
They don’t like to see me watching. The other day the chief took some new inmates into the office for a slapping while I was in the hall, but positioned so I could see through the door. He told me to move my seat further away.
"But I can still hear!" I warned defiantly as I shifted out of eyesight.
Apart from the meanies there are the wishy-washy ones who don’t hit, but smile on the antics of the others, and don’t criticize them.
The Pakistanis who were on the stairs last night and who this morning suddenly disappeared are back on the stairs again, having been stored in a room upstairs, about to be processed to go into the slammer now a batch of prisoners have been deported.
Just bedded down last night on my pushed together chairs, with my shirt covering my face to keep out the light, when I heard: "Do you speak English?" Whack! "Do you speak English?" Whack!
I took my shirt away from my eyes and saw one of the guards with a long stick, whacking the open outstretched palms of the Pakistani detainees crouched on the stairs.
"What do you think you’re doing?" I shouted twice before the head man looked at me but carried on, selecting victims and taking them upstairs, where I’d seen a line of lads standing facing the wall earlier when I was escorted up to the toilet. When I asked why, my guardian said he didn’t know. "Torture," I said. "No," he said. "Yes," I said. And it is.
I woke about 6 am and heard slapping still going on the staircase; then the cops decided to have a coffee break and a giggle before going back for more slapping and degradation
Hassan Bey, the duty officer today, said that I didn’t have to ask to go to the toilet when he was on, but when I went to get a cup of water I was told I had to ask for that, which pissed me off.
One good thing I discovered in the late afternoon is a wide terrace on the top floor, and I asked permission of chief Metin Bey to be able to use it now and again. Went out and discovered the Bangladesh crowd out there (so that’s where they got to!), but they will be back on the stairs for the night (although hopefully not terrorized like last night, as there is a friendlier crew of guards on tonight – I think.) Chatted with a couple of Banglas, but my main delight was to be out in the open air again after a week locked away. The fresh air, the wide sky, the green of the trees in the park (military) opposite, still with their leaves; the swallows still gaming, the young seagulls almost perfect in their flight; and the fascination of watching the people coming and going in the street. Free! I noticed kids in school uniforms must have gone back this week. I will try to get out on the terrace as much as I can
Yildiz on duty tonight, sitting at the table next to the desk eating a sandwich.
"Hello my friend!" I greeted him. He looked at me sulkily.
"You said you weren’t my friend," he said.
"That was yesterday," I said. "I was in a very bad mood."
"When you are in a good mood, I am in a bad; and when you are in a bad, I am in a good," he said. But we’ve patched it up, and he’s just given me half of a chocolate egg he’d brought, along with a plastic spaceship toy inside.
The group on duty tonight is not a cruel lot, and it makes a difference: none of the screaming and shouting and hitting, even allowing some of the inmates to sit out in the hall and drink tea. I went into the slammer to make a call. It really is amazingly crowded, hardly any space left, the floor littered with the bodies on blankets, but there is a comradeship and fairness amongst them. I hear there are close on to 600. The Bangladeshi with the false legs has now found himself in there, not in a very good position (in a chair next to the busy stinking toilet but beggars can’t be choosers.) One of the 2 phones is out of order due to the frustrated reaction of a caller smashing it after not getting through. There is a constant queue for the remaining one all day and night. Another guy said he’d seen me on TV, so I learn that there is one in there somewhere.
Not a bad night compared to others. I retired about 12 with the 2 rows of chairs together. Managed to find the correct switch out of the choice of 6 on the wall, and turned out the light and nobody turned it on after that, or came and played music on the computer. The electric fan was on me. During the night a young prisoner was laid to sleep on newspaper spread on the floor of the office next to my bed’.
Last night the Bangladeshis were put back on the stairs, but after a visit from someone important (all the police stood up when he arrived) and a meeting called upstairs, they disappeared again (back on the terrace?)
They were on the terrace this morning when, after making myself a tea (no-one in the kitchen) I took it through the computer room and out there myself. I sat on a bench around the corner alone, looking at the blue sky and piles of clouds and thought to myself: "This is the life!"
"Not for much longer," said a quiet voice inside, and it was right, for suddenly appeared one of the duty guards and said: What are you doing here? Get downstairs!"
I said Metin Bey had told me I could use the terrace yesterday, and I needed air. Rafik Bey, chief on duty today, was summoned and I told him the same. He said no; I pleaded and told him Hassan Bey had also told me I didn’t need to keep asking for permission to go to the toilet. Rafik Bey didn’t want to lose face, so he told me not to sit in that place because it was near to a ventilation fan from the lockup and dirty air was coming from it. He told me to move the bench around to the front and I could sit there. I did, but in my hurry pulled a muscle in my lower back, suddenly and painfully. After sitting for a while, hoping the strain wasn’t too bad, I went to the parapet and was enjoying watching the morning street life below, when the nasty cop who was beating the Bangladeshis with the stick the other night came up and told me to go inside. He wanted to check my story with Metin Bey, who hadn’t arrived yet.
So I was sitting in the upstairs waiting room when Rafik Bey comes and offers me a glass of tea. I declined, but asked if he could get someone to go out and get me some things if I gave him a list, and he said of course. Went down to the office and the boy on the floor was gone. While I was separating the bed chairs, dragging one row away to put against the wall – ouch!’ my back went again. Now I’m sitting gingerly in my corner of the office, which also functions as a visiting room for the people who come and go. When it gets too full I go out into the hall, and vice versa.
I gave Rafik Bey my list along with 15 YTL, asking for a bar of soap, a razor, a small towel, earplugs from the chemist, a Turkish Daily News, a small notebook and pen, and half a kilo of apples. He said he’d send someone to get the stuff today, but it won’t be quick. He professes to be my friend. – "You are our friend!" – But he said I will probably be here for quite a while longer because of getting documents from Ankara. "The law’s delay," as Hamlet says
Big ruckus at noon. One of the black guys who was ill, gasping for breath the other day, was even more ill today, and there was a commotion inside, shouting and banging until he was let out, where he was retching and screaming "My God! My God!" wanting to be taken to hospital. A trustee spent ages trying to make him swallow a tablet (one they give inmates sometimes) to try to calm him down, but he refused. Some guards forced it into his mouth but he spat it out.
Again there was furious banging and chanting from inside, and some of his friends were let out, saying he should be taken to hospital, outraged that some of the cops were laughing. Anyway, now he’s been taken off to Bakirkoy hospital. The black friends are still sitting in the hall. One is particularly big and rebellious. I like him. I think they’re there to help carry in the cans which are arriving now for lunch.
Lots more arrestees arrived; men, women and children, and there was more violence, punching, slapping and shouting. Groups of barefoot shirtless Pakistanis were brought out of the lockup and taken upstairs, coming down later proudly sporting new sweaters and boots, fitted out for the approaching winter season, gratis I suppose.
An Iranian guy in a very bad condition was allowed out to sit in the hall again, almost collapsing in a coma (drug-induced from pills given him?), he kept falling forward almost onto his head on the floor. Police gave him a cigarette to make him better, but I’ve noticed him with his head in his hands for the last couple of days. In fact he’s ill and should be put to hospital. Too many sad and violent moments to relate. The whole atmosphere reeks of them
The Iranian was carried out of the slammer in a coma last night and laid on a row of chairs in the hall. He looked close to death, his eyes glazed and unseeing, and his breath coming in great snorts after intervals. I said he should be taken to hospital or his death would be on their hands, but after they’d called a doctor (or someone who said he was) from the slammer, who slapped him about the face a bit (a familiar sound around here!), they made him sit up and gave him a cigarette. I helped him to drink water and he came around.
His problem was he’s a heroin junkie with withdrawal symptoms and wanted/needed some pills from the cupboard. They allowed him to look through their selection, and he staggered and searched, rummaging through what was available until someone found a separate plastic bag which contained his stuff. He was very happy and took a pill or two. Thereafter he went into another coma, but a more contented one, and spent the night in the office with me, slumped in a sitting position on one of the other rows
Couldn’t bed down until 1 o’clock because of a wife visiting her prisoner husband, but once I did, and put in my new earplugs what a difference! I could still hear, but sound was muffled and far away, and I actually managed to sleep. Had a funny dream about the Bush family, following mother Barbara and father George as they did the social scene, trying to get George W re-elected. Still however, at 7.30 I was awakened by the sound of the computer music played at full volume, loud enough to be disturbing even with the plugs. I got up and took my notebook and pen to the cop at the desk and asked his name. He wouldn’t give it, saying he was working (playing the same stupid gambling card game on the screen). I said I’d find out and report him; another tubby tall bespectacled cop looked in at the door, and when I went back to my bed’ he turned on the TV in the hall at full volume too.
This morning I washed my face with soap for the first time in over a week and used the permatic razor to trim my beard. Faruk Bey, the fairer chief is on today. |Hopefully he might give me permission to go out on the terrace.
Unfair Faruk (they’re all the same!) wouldn’t let me go out on the terrace. I spent most of the day lying on a 3 chair row here in the office and in the hall, loose change falling from my pocket all the time until I found the ideal place to put it – inside the little plastic toy container from the chocolate egg that Yildiz had given me.
Just remembered – last night late one of the cops sitting smoking says: "Let’s give them some of the old bread." (There were a couple of black bin bags full of stale bread scraps.) So they unlocked the door and called out Bread!’ and lots of prisoners came running, the screws screaming at them, making them kneel down and hold out their outstretched hands. Shining eyes raised in hope, they resembled a troop of supplicant pilgrims. The guard scooped dry crusts out of the bag and doled them into the open palms, and the thrilled receivers scampered off with their treasure to share with starving friends. Eventually the load was finished and the door slammed on the disappointed, still kneeling in imploring supplication.
MICHAEL DICKINSON is an English teacher who lives and works in Istanbul. He can be reached through his webpage at the Saatchi gallery.