This summer, I was arrested in Turkey. It was the wrong time, and I was in the wrong place — visiting the predominantly Kurdish eastern regions of the country. For the first four days I was held in a cell in a police station, before being transferred to a deportation center.
I had come as an activist, trying to document the Turkish military's actions on the eastern part of the country, where a veritable war has been waged on the Kurdish population. My own story of the events leading to the detainment is, however, for another day. Now, I want instead to share what I witnessed, and the people I met, during my time in the deportation center.
For starters, among other things, it was as wide-ranging a group geographically as you could imagine. I shared those confines with women from all over the world: a Russian, two Thai, three Syrians and their children, and then me. We were all in Turkey for completely different reasons, and had each been arrested for completely different reasons as well.
At first I thought the Russian girl was deeply depressed because she had been in prison for so long. It had been more than three months. She rarely spoke a word, most of the time walked about aimlessly, as if she was sleepwalking. The other women all thought she was crazy.
The Syrian women were pious Muslims. While everyone else wore shorts in the summer heat, they were fully covered from foot to head. The three of them had wound up detained because they had been in Turkey illegally after fleeing the war in their country. Mostly, I remember how often they cried, no doubt suffering from the separation (or worse) from their families. The Thai girls seemed to cope better than the rest of us with being in prison — probably because it was hardly their first such experience. A guard had confided in me that they had been arrested as sex workers, though the women never talked about it.
A shared room
I shared a room with the Russian girl. She said her name was Lena. Whenever it was eating time, she threw herself onto the food as if she had been starving. I also found the portions that arrived in our room inadequate, and could easily have eaten three times the amount. It did not take long for me to find out that there was actually enough food, but that the Syrian women hoarded it in their room. The fact that Lena had not noticed anything was indicative of her state of mind. The story she told about how she got into prison made no sense at all. At first it seemed like she might be hiding something, but then I realized it was not the case.
One time the Russian, the three Syrian women and I were all sitting together. "Are you girls or women?" the Syrians asked us. Most of us Europeans have long ceased to define ourselves according to the patriarchal idea that the state of our hymen, or marital status, says anything about us as people.
Arrest of a protester in Istanbul — Photo: Metin Ormanci/Xinhua/ZUMA
I translated for Lena. She wasn't married. That afternoon, she relaxed enough to tell me some more facts from her life. She had lived in Los Angeles in the United States, where, among other things, she had worked as a stripper. When I asked a bit more, she shared a few funny anecdotes from that time of her life. I did not translate them though for the Syrian women. Lena surprised me, too, with those stories. It only made her situation more incomprehensible. How could someone so savvy as her have ended up here, in this prison, without so much as an explanation?
When I talked to the Thai women about the meals, they shrugged, "we don't like the food here." They would buy chips and grilled chicken from outside every day. From then on, they gave us their food trays, which they never touched. The Thai girls explained that they were trapped, because their boss at the massage parlor hadn't paid them their last salary. This meant that they did not have the money to buy their flight home to Thailand, and they had to wait patiently in the prison — like the Syrians, they had already been jailed for over a month.
The Syrian women kept the television on around-the-clock. When I asked why the women did not pass some of the time by playing cards with each other, one replied irritably: "the devil is in the cards, we don't play with that, we play with our prayer chains instead."
It was hard to get angry at these three women, though. The TV reeled off pictures of bleeding, unconscious children, houses blown to rubble and cars burning. Once they showed their home town of Aleppo. They had lost everything in the war. Waafa told me her story: "I come from the eastern Syria. We fled twice for our lives. In the first years of the Iraq war, a lot of refugees came into Syria. Then, the bombs started falling on our village, too. They were meant for Iraq, but the war spilled over on to us. My family and I came to Aleppo then. Ten years later, we had to flee from there, too."
She sighed deeply, before continuing: "We paid a smuggler and crossed the border in the middle of the night. The Turks have built a wall, but the smugglers have put big rocks on both sides to make stairs for people. At the top my husband and I had to lift the children and hand them to each other. My daughter was inconsolable, she said 'I am too tired, leave me behind, I will die right here'."
A Syrian woman on the Turkey-Syria border — Photo: Uygar Onder Simsek/DPA/ZUMA
The day before I had my flight, the Thai girls had news that their embassy was going to pay their tickets home. The joy was immense, and we all hugged. It was the happiest moment in my time there. The guard who brought the news said to the Russian girl, "and you? Why are you not leaving? I looked at your file, there is no reason for you to be here."
In my last hours in the prison I reflected on the experience. There was an obvious irony: Here, the Syrian women called the shots, even if the wider context showed how much they are suffering now in the outside world.
That evening, I was handcuffed, brought to the airport and flown back to Germany. My passport was given to me only once I was in my seat on the airplane.
As soon as I was back home, I talked with a friend from Moscow. We decided to try to contact the Russian embassy in Ankara about the Russian girl. Nothing about her being in jail seemed to make any sense. She needed help.
I think about her often, assuming she was still inside. I had only been locked up for four days in a police cell and three days in the deportation center, but even this short time had a profound effect on me. The fact that I can look out the window and see how the wind runs through the long grass; and that if I want, I can simply walk outside and touch it for myself. In the cell, you see nothing but the walls surrounding you. When we think of "freedom," we first think of larger things. But freedom starts right here, with the small details of everyday life.
Iris Bendtsen wrote about the war in Turkish Kurdistan and has managed a blog about the Kurds for more than eight years.
This is Worldcrunch's international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions at email@example.com.