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Canary in the Turkish Coal Mine

The Murder of Sarai Sierra

by VANESSA H. LARSON

On February 2, the body of 33-year-old American Sarai Sierra was found in Istanbul – near a section of crumbling ninth-century, Byzantine-era city walls along the Sea of Marmara, not far from the city’s major tourist attractions – 12 days after she disappeared near the end of a solo trip to Turkey. Although the circumstances of her murder are still being investigated, Turkish authorities have established that the tourist and amateur photographer was killed by a blow to the head.

As an American woman living in Istanbul, I have followed Sierra’s enigmatic disappearance and horrific death with a mix of dread, empathy and a certain feeling of responsibility. Not only has her tragic story touched a nerve among women on both sides of the Atlantic, it has drawn attention to the serious problem of violence against women in Turkey, as well as underlining both the price and privilege of American exceptionalism.

In Turkey and the United States, the news has made headlines in almost every major media outlet, with much of the coverage sensationalistic and highly speculative. In the U.S., related commentary has ranged from discussion over whether or not it is a good idea for women to travel alone to the relative safety of Turkey as a tourist destination. Even when the coverage itself is not sensationalistic, user comments on these news websites often show an appalling degree of ignorance and prejudice towards Turkey and Muslims. (Variations on “What was she thinking, traveling to a Middle Eastern country by herself?” are plentiful.)

The incident is particularly unsettling because Istanbul is quite a safe city, burglaries (including, not long ago, of my own apartment) and petty theft notwithstanding. For a metropolis of more than 13 million, there are very low rates of violent crime: Istanbul’s murder rate is lower than New York’s. In six years living in Istanbul, I have felt less fear for my personal safety, or fear of being mugged – or shot – than when I lived in Washington, D.C. or New York City. In the wake of Sierra’s murder, Turks and foreigners in Istanbul alike thus have expressed dismay at seeing this city and country portrayed, unfairly, by some foreign media as dangerous.

And yet whatever the statistics say, expats in Istanbul – particularly women – have been deeply shaken by the incident, because it has hit too close to home: a young American mother of two, vacationing on her own in Istanbul, who apparently vanished during the middle of the day in a busy, central district of the city. How did she disappear, and what if something like this were to happen to one of us? On the night her body was discovered, the Turkish Twitterverse practically exploded with the news, and I called a close American friend and nearly cried. Even my parents – who have visited me in Turkey several times and who know not to get too alarmed anymore when I get tear-gassed at political demonstrations or when a bomb goes off at a U.S. diplomatic mission – expressed their distress, cautioning me, in stronger terms than they had used in years, to be careful.

At the same time, no one in Turkey can fail to notice that, by virtue of her nationality, Sierra’s case has benefitted from an immense level of publicity and a vast expenditure of investigative resources. Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the region and a popular destination for American tourists, so local authorities cannot afford to leave a stone unturned. In addition to working closely with the FBI, the Istanbul police have set up a special unit to deal with her case, assigning the astonishingly high number of 260 officers to analyze thousands of hours of video footage from some street 500 security cameras. In the meantime, Turkish Airlines, the country’s national airline, agreed to transport Sierra’s body back to the U.S. at no charge.

Would the disappearance and death in Istanbul of a female tourist visiting from, say, Indonesia, or a Moldavan woman working as a housekeeper have received such attention? Alas, the answer to that question must surely be negative. Turkey is a both a destination and transit point for sex trafficking as well as a country where organ smugglers are active; their victims, however, are overwhelmingly from poor countries. Zafer Ozbilici, head of Turkey’s Foundation for Relatives of Missing Persons (YAKAD), recently told the Dogan News Agency that in the last two decades, 90 foreign citizens have gone missing in Turkey – 26 from Somalia alone.

Sadly, Sierra is also not the first foreign woman known to have been killed in Turkey in the last few years: In 2008, Giuseppina Pasqualino di Marineo (aka Pippa Bacca), an Italian artist who was hitchhiking from Italy to the Palestinian territories in a wedding dress to promote peace, was raped and murdered near the small town of Gebze.

And what of the far too many Turkish women whose lives are taken each year? While Sierra’s and Bacca’s high-profile murders have received disproportionate attention, they cannot be divorced from a disturbing pattern of increased violence against women in Turkey in recent years. Homicides of women in Turkey shot up by a shocking 1400% between 2002 and 2009, when 1126 women were slain. Unlike Sierra and Bacca, however, the vast majority are killed by current or former male partners – often as part of a pattern of domestic violence against which police have not provided sufficient protection – or in family-sanctioned “honor” killings. Though murder rates have come down substantially since 2010 (across the country, 165 women were killed in 2012), the larger picture of gender-based violence remains bleak: in a 2009 survey, 42% of Turkish women said they had been physically or sexually abused by a male partner.

Just as the disappearance and murder of an American has led to far more concerted police efforts than in the majority of missing-person and domestic violence cases in Turkey, it has also given rise to a telling paranoia. After Sierra disappeared, Turkish media organizations entertained numerous speculations about her reasons for being in Turkey, including the idea that she was a spy or was involved with criminal networks. It was briefly even suggested on the website of at least one major newspaper that there might be a connection between her disappearance and the bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara on February 1 – an act of terrorism that has since been ascribed, without a shred of doubt, to an outlawed Marxist group (DHKP/C).

While it might seem utterly ludicrous for anyone to suggest that a young woman who worked as a part-time assistant in a chiropractor’s office and who had never before left the U.S. would be an American intelligence agent, such is the perceived power and reach of the United States (and particularly of agencies like the CIA) in Turkey that ideas like this were seriously entertained. After Sierra’s body was found and autopsied, Istanbul’s police chief was obliged to tell local reporters that there was no evidence of her being a spy.

There are still many unresolved questions about Sierra’s death but, whatever really happened, this is at the end the sad story of a young, female American who died overseas in unfortunate circumstances in a country where too many women have suffered from violence. Observers in both the United States and Turkey ought to honor her memory by seeing the larger issues and not making her a cause celebre.

Vanessa H. Larson is a writer living in Istanbul.