ISTANBUL - Fifteen hundred children who have gone missing in Turkey in the past five years have yet to be found, according to Turkish police. The vast majority are from Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. Turkish security forces have now created a special unit to track them down. All this is welcome news for Turkey’s Umut, or Hope, Foundation, which was set up two decades ago by parents of lost children. The group has been fighting a lonely battle to find Turkey’s lost children.
For 20 years, Zafer Ozbilici and other members of the Hope Foundation have been touring the country in a minivan searching for those who are missing.
Ozbilici’s older mentally disabled brother vanished 21 years ago. Since then, Zafer has devoted his life to finding his brother and the country’s missing children.
"This minivan is called the Hope Bus," he says. "For the first time in Turkey, it turned people’s attention towards the plight of the missing children. The bus is covered with their pictures." Ozbilici says when they travel across the country, they are also warning parents to pay attention to their children.
Cevher Kupsi keeps an eye on his two remaining children as they play on the streets. He knows all too well the dangers posed to children. His son Bayram was 5 years old when he disappeared seven years ago. Some neighbors claim he was taken by men driving a dark colored car. For Kupsi and his family, it was the start of an unending nightmare.
"A missing child is a terrible thing. It never leaves your mind free. The door knocks, you wonder if it is about him," he says. "We wanted to move away from here but what would happen if our son came back and none of us are here? We just want our child back, even if it’s just his mortal remains, so we can bury him and visit the grave in the cemetery," says Kupsi.
Some suspect organized crime
Currently more than 1,500 children remain missing in Turkey, 850 of whom have been missing for more than a year. Istanbul has by far the most lost children and Ozbilici explains organized crime could well be behind many of the disappearances.
"Children are exploited, used in child pornography," he said, adding "there are illegal organ transplants and apparently there is a mafia that deals in organs taken from abducted people, including children." But he says the police have failed to produce any hard evidence and that maybe his brother was a victim of the organ trade.
Despite such fears, Ozbilici and other Hope members still spend hours touring Istanbul and other cities, showing people photos of missing children. Ozbilici says the Hope Foundation’s work is not only confined to trying to find children, but also to raising parent awareness of the dangers of child abduction.
"Poor people don't have anywhere to leave their children while they are working during the day because they can't afford daycare, so children spend hours on the streets and fall easy prey to people," he says. Every day they hear reports of strangers approaching children. Ozbilici says, "It's not like back in their villages. It's not safe in the cities."
Spreading the message
Ozbilici and other Hope Foundation members take their message to many of Istanbul’s playgrounds. A mother holding her child says she worries for other children who are playing alone.
"Some people let the children play until midnight, most of them are unattended," she says. "Their main concern is just to have them out of the house."
The military police have created a special child abduction unit to deal with the increasing numbers of disappearances. It's a welcome relief for those still missing loved ones.
Observers say more and more parents are beginning to realize that it is not safe to leave their children playing alone in parks and streets as they may have done in the past. But despite this realization, the photos of missing children appearing on the streets serve as stark warnings to any parents who so far have not heeded them.