Awakening from the winter sleep – a year on from Tahir Elçi’s murder


Founder of Amnesty International Turkey, Tahir Elçi and his wife Türkan, in Diyabakir 2015. Türkan shares her reflections on the assassination of her husband below. © Amnesty International

A year ago today, human rights lawyer and founder of Amnesty International Turkey, Tahir Elçi, was gunned down at the end of a press conference where he had been calling for peace. Türkan Elçi, his wife, reflects on what happened that day and what it has meant for her and for peace in south-east Turkey.

On that afternoon my phone started ringing and wouldn’t stop. Calls came one after the other.

There had been an incident at the press conference where Tahir was speaking. A shooting. What had happened? Was anyone hurt? Was Tahir alright?

At the time I didn’t realise it, but each person I spoke to was not telling me all they knew. Nobody wanted to be the one to break the news.

I ran to my car and sped through the streets, blasting my horn and swearing at the weekend drivers. Why were they going so slowly? I got caught at the traffic lights. Why were they always red? Why did they take so long to turn green?

As I got closer to the hospital, I heard someone screaming. It took me a while to realise that the screams were my own. I never knew that there are times when a person cannot recognize the sound of their own voice.

I screeched to a halt and ran through the main hospital doors. One of my brothers was there waiting for me. ‘Where is Tahir Elçi?’ he asked.

‘Tahir Elçi is in the morgue,’ a voice replied.

In these lawless lands he managed to stand like a barrier against the lawlessness

At that moment I heard my head hitting the floor.

When I came to, people helped me to my feet and I hurried to the morgue.

A crowd was gathered around me. There was a humming noise and a steady murmur of voices. I could not work out what they were saying. I saw dark circles and then everything started to fade.

I remember thinking at the time that this was all a dream: that I would wake up beside Tahir as the dawn light crept through the curtains and I would tell him about it. Or maybe I would not tell him about the dream, so as not to upset him.

This trick of the mind – the illusion that his death was just a dream - lasted three days. But then it slipped away.

That night, the night that the dream lifted like a veil, the snow had begun to fall. It was early winter and the snowfall was light. I began to think that beneath the ground – where Tahir now lay – it would be cold and that he hated the cold.

After the dream state lifted, the pain of Tahir’s death sunk in like the winter cold, chilling me to my bones.

Tahir's loss has strengthened our belief that, in order to create a better world and look toward tomorrow with hope, we must overcome the imaginary boundaries that divide us

That time was so painful. It is not easy for me to think about it, let alone describe it. It requires me to travel back through dark corridors to that moment that I wish I could leave behind, but know that I never can. It is like pressing a finger into a painful wound: a wound that is still raw and elicits a scream of pain just as intense one year on.

My voice, which now I did recognise, became trapped in my head and turned into a constant monologue.

What I have described so far is a short chronicle of my husband’s death. But the full story of the killings on our soil is a much longer story. It is a story of a land turned into a battleground. A place where death rather than the right to life, has become sanctified and where the actions of the killers have dragged the innocents into their macabre game.

By killing those who stand against war, they made us part of it.

Tahir Elçi was targeted by warring parties while trying to explain the sanctity of the right to life within an orphaned society that is struggling to extricate itself from the tentacles of violence.

His was a small dissenting voice speaking out against the violence. A voice that the fighters did not want to hear. His voice struck a note of harmony that was somehow discordant with their violent overture: a dissonant overture pleasing to their tone deaf ears alone.

Tahir’s leitmotif - ‘that people should not die, that humanity should not be destroyed, that fighting should end’ – had to be extinguished. When it was, there was more violence. In the days after his murder, entire cities were destroyed and people whose names are not even recorded died horrific deaths.

In these lawless lands he managed to stand like a barrier against the lawlessness. He wiped the dust from stacks of files on enforced disappearances and tried to bring those responsible to justice in international courts. But his struggle against impunity made him a target for some who did not want justice to be done.

Tahir was killed in front of everyone’s eyes, gunned down while the cameras rolled. But the hopes of those who demand peace did not die with him. Instead his loss has strengthened our belief that, in order to create a better world and look toward tomorrow with hope, we must overcome the imaginary boundaries that divide us. We must stand shoulder-to-shoulder beside the oppressed and help the victims awaken from their winter sleep.

Tahir Elçi was killed on 28 November 2015, in Diyarbakır.