Before Turkey reformed its anti-terror laws last July, hundreds of Kurdish children had been prosecuted and jailed for allegedly supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party. Since then, many have been released, but deep psychological scars remain. Efforts are underway to help the children in Diyarbakir in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region of Turkey.
For 18-year-old Hebon Akkaya, this treatment center in Diyarbakir has almost become a second home. He was just 15 years old when he and a couple of friends were arrested near a Kurdish-rights demonstration. He said he could make no sense of what happened to him when they were taken to the police station, lined up, and terribly beaten by huge policemen weighing more than 100 kilograms. He said he just kept thinking "why, why, why?" He said that memory never leaves him.
Akkaya spent more than a year in an adult prison, charged under Turkey's anti-terror law. He was released earlier this year and came to the Human Rights Foundation's treatment center in Diyarbakir after his father persuaded him to seek help.
Social worker Nevim Yakut Gunay is the first person people like Akkaya see when they seek help. Gunay said that for most cases they say, "I was in prison and it is finished, now I can go back to life." She said there is this denial, they say, "I do not need any help." But for most cases you can read from their faces, they have suffered a terrible trauma. She said she starts therapy by asking simple questions and slowly their story comes out.
The Human Rights Foundation is a converted residential apartment with a kitchen and living room. The bedrooms have been turned into interview rooms. It is comfortable and homey by design, to help those visiting feel at ease.
Gunay said the children are encouraged to treat it as their own home and allow them to do simple things, like letting them use the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
The center helps anyone who has suffered abuse or torture, but now much of its efforts and resources are devoted to children. The Human Rights Foundation draws on the expertise and help of social workers, psychiatrists, community workers, and parents. Meetings of the various groups are held to discuss how to deal with the growing numbers of children looking for help. Foundation head Necdet Ipekyuz says they need all the help they can get.
Ipekyuz said they are desperately short of social workers and psychiatrists who speak Kurdish and understand the particular customs culture and traditions of Kurds, which is important in working with these children. He said it is a huge job because all of the family can be affected, and cites a case in which the sister of an imprisoned child was completely traumatized, suffering hysterical crying fits.
Ipekyuz says one of its most important supporters is the group Justice for Children, which was created by parents of the imprisoned children. One of its founders was Akkaya's father, Arif, who explained the network not only works to help their children, but also helps the families to come to terms with what happened.
Arif Akkaya said he has been imprisoned, and his daughter and eldest son have both been taken into custody, so they know very well what prison means. But he said his family was more worried for Hebon because he was only a child. Arif said they felt helpless, and when Hebon came out of jail he was not the same son, he never talked and just wanted to be alone, his soul was gone.
With his new freedom, Hebon Akkaya is making plans to attend university. He said for now he has stopped seeing his psychiatrist so he can focus on up coming exams. But when asked if he considers himself as a child anymore, he smiles.
He said after going through all of this, no child can remain as a child. He said that before he was carefree, but not anymore. The terrible things that happened ended my childhood." He said he is filled with rage and anger, but he now understands there are other ways to fight against injustice, and that is why he is studying hard to go to university and become a lawyer.
While the word lucky seems inappropriate in Hebon's case, he is fortunate for having received help early. But centers like this are only able to serve a few dozen children at a time, while hundreds of others are facing their traumas alone.