In 2014, After sixteen years in exile, I was able to return to my native Colombia. My mother was dead already, so the last time I saw her was the day in 1998 when I boarded the plane with the promise of never returning.
By Jhon Sánchez
But returning is always a door. Once more in Medellin, I found myself looking at photographs that my mother left behind, curtains, the small porcelain figures that she cared for. And inside a wardrobe, there were all my suits, shirts, ties, and dressing shoes. The suits that I wore when I practiced law in Colombia. Mom first, and after my sister took care of them, ironing them, using even starch in my shirts’ collars. I got undressed, and I put on the very first suit I ever bought: a navy blue one with six buttons. I wore it with the same tie and shirt that I used for my graduation ceremony. It was… fulfilling. After looking at myself in the mirror and invoking my mother’s memory, I put all those garments in a bag and gave them to my sister, asking her to donate them Memory had done “her” job already.
I saw a similar scene the documentary Gönderen: İlhan Sami Çomak. İlhan Çomak is a poet who had been jailed since the age of 21. He’s now 47. In the film, his mother opens a chest where she takes out a perfectly folded jacket, and then she shows a picture where İlhan is wearing it.
To do this interview, it was necessary to write my questions, translate them into Turkish and email them to Ilhan’s lawyer in Istanbul. I’m very grateful to the lawyer and the translator for their cooperation. Pressenza will publish this conversation in bi-weekly installments with the hope of calling attention to lhan’s case, encouraging a campaign for his freedom.
İlhan, thank you so much for granting this interview.
JS: How is your health? This is an important question, mostly in times of COVID and considering that you belong to a high-risk population. In addition to that, I would like to know if your poetry has changed due to the pandemic.
ISC: I think it would be more indicative to look at this question from a broader perspective, starting from before the coronavirus.
My health is generally good, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, it’s miraculously good. ‘Achievement’ does not really adequately describe the act of staying alive and well for so many years in the harsh conditions of prison, which by its very nature grinds down your life; that’s why I say miraculously. When you are continuously locked up for as long as 27 years, there’s no need to challenge the body with any additional special horrors in order for it to collapse.
This place is literally a concrete and metal sea. There is no bare earth, none of the flowers and trees that colour life. The sky is measured by the borders of the window and the yard. There are no animals to satisfy your need to touch another living creature and to share your loneliness with. Prisons must have been built to place boundaries around the body, the eyes and the soul. But I’m still lucky; we have some budgerigars, and being able to touch them is a lifeline that quenches my thirst in this concrete desert. It’s somewhat contradictory that my company here consists of birds, who are known for their borderlessness. But on the other hand, the fact that they are reminiscent of freedom makes them the perfect companions and gives me a lot of pleasure.
What I’m getting at is that if you want to find all things contrary to human nature, you should start looking here, in prison. But the awfulness does not just stop there. It’s not inaccurate to say that the soul and body are tested on a perpetual crucifix. Everything that happens here is purposed for that aim. I know full well from my own experience that there are many Golgotha hills here and that each one bears a different torment!
Many people who have been incarcerated for a long time like me are unable to withstand these harsh conditions. In recent years, I’ve seen them struggling with serious illnesses from which they will never recover. Some just can’t take it any longer and die. The thought of dying after all these years, so close to freedom… it fills me with a terrible anguish. The pain is even deeper when I see it happen to people I know.
Bearing all this in mind, it’s important to point out the reality of the conditions here when I refer to miracles in the same breath as saying that, as far as I know, I have no serious illnesses.
For a long time now, I have lived a very ordered life and never compromised on self-discipline. Knowing all the difficulties, I have tried to make my own space here, using the powers of my imagination. I get up and go to bed at regular times. I exercise in my narrow cell early in the morning and keep myself busy all the time. I am always driven by one purpose. The purpose? Poetry of course. Writing poetry, and reading and working towards that end, are at the centre of my life. Poetry, and literature in general, are vital cornerstones for me in countering this “regime of malice”. I organise my life around it. I can confidently say that poetry has made my body stronger by keeping my soul young and fresh. All this creative activity is a major point of resistance that keeps me alive. I write poetry, and it rewards me with a sense of purpose stoked by a familiar feeling of creative satisfaction that can’t be experienced in any other way. It gives me spiritual integrity on the inside and physical health on the outside. It seems we’re good for each other. I appreciate poetry and I believe that it cares for me too. As it has never left me, I think that must be true!
Covid hasn’t caused any major changes in my life. There have been some restrictions in the prison due to the pandemic, but they haven’t had such tragic consequences as the changes to people’s lives outside. In the past year, people outside have been confronted with restrictions for the first time. As I have lived most of my life with the harshest forms of deprivation, I have been more interested in people’s reactions to the changes. I also thought that, after a transient encounter with the life of a prisoner, people would become more empathetic and understanding, that they must surely have a slightly better grasp of the undeniable importance of friendship, affection and social life; surely people now also see the significance of the simple needs they couldn’t satisfy, or which were obstructed, and recognise how they contribute to good health benefits in so many ways.
In fact, on the subject of whether the pandemic has changed my poetry, I don’t think I can say right now as we are separated from the brutality of its full effects in here. Ultimately, our feelings, and the subsequent creative flow, always take some time to adapt to events and we find the words for them later. Even so, I don’t really think my poetry has changed due to the pandemic. Because despite all the emotional pressure, there have been no new experiences to affect my poetry. I have been living this terrible dream for 27 years anyway! Covid hasn’t brought me any new words or viewpoints. On the other hand, I have thought about how hard it is to do what I am doing in prison, moreover to do it after spending what amounts to a lifetime in prison. It has made me think that my poetry should be appreciated in conjunction with my ability, perseverance and constantly-tested determination.
Life has never been easy for me. My poetry experienced the same difficulties throughout all these journeys. I have followed Covid and its lethal mandate with great sadness. Hence, this period has made me feel like a full citizen of the world. It has made me feel a warmer and closer solidarity with all people on earth than ever before. The pandemic also reminded us that people, moreover their problems, should be approached in the spirit of mutual understanding. Was that warning heard in full? I’m not sure. But it made me glad to see once again that my life of struggle has taught me something as sublime as bowing to the pain of others. It’s important to be a good person, to be on the side of good and never forget solidarity. Covid took away many people, but it also showed us the values we should remember. Let’s make sure we take note of that as well.
JS: Can you tell us the reasons for your imprisonment? How would be ways we can contribute to your freedom?
ISC: I am in prison for two reasons; one is apparent and the other, which weighs heavier on the scales, lays hidden under the surface.
The apparent reason is that I was involved in quite a few incidents in Bingöl where I was born and raised. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, there were forest fires in Istanbul while I was a student there one summer. Statements with no relation to reality were given by informants to the police, including the claim that I was responsible for the fires. Along with these, an official report made after I was interrogated and tortured for 19 days was, pretty much chapter and verse, turned into an indictment. It was all finalised when I was sentenced in a court served by a military judge.
The indictment behind my imprisonment is incredibly inconsistent. It is so far from the realities of life or logic that the sentence I received was quashed twice, on one occasion by a Supreme Military Administrative Court. I stood trial three times over a 22-year period. But the original decision of the 3-person commission of the State Security Court, in other words a court with a military judge, was never overturned. While the current laws place limitations on imprisonments that extend to 22 years, I was always sentenced… Moreover, I am Kurdish and for a long time there has been a cruel practice called “enemy law”, which is used to punish the Kurds. This is what I meant by the other less apparent aspect of my imprisonment, the one that heavily tips the balance of the scales.
The reality for people who don’t comply with the state’s definition of a proper citizen is merciless. This is exactly what I have experienced. It’s not an individual thing, from many points of view. No-one can specify where they will be born and who their parents will be. I was born with a Kurdish mother and father. And from the minute I opened my eyes, this fact cast me into a climate of discrimination, oppression and severe economic hardship, in which I was forbidden to speak the Kurdish language I learnt from my mother. I mean, it doesn’t just stop at being a second class citizen. In response to the conflict sparked by not being able to speak your own mother tongue, and by the relentless oppression and discrimination, the state acts with no regard to the law or universal human rights. And I feel I need to stress that this is simply due to being Kurdish. The fact that I have been inside for so many years is the grim yield of this mode of existence.
I’m sure that as a lawyer you must have witnessed it as well when you were living in Colombia. Facts are not so important to the powerful. They are determined to browbeat people into accepting their words as truth. That is why there are courts in this country: to be the hand connecting the words of the powerful, reaching out with impunity to take you by the throat and suffocate you by throwing you into a cell, a hand that suppresses democratic and legitimate wishes, enforcing discipline and keeping everyone in line by delivering these kinds of punishments. As a Kurd, this has been my reality since birth.
Although I’m conscious of this pre-determined fate, I have tried for years to explain and to prove my innocence in court. And I can’t begin to describe how tiring it is. On one hand, I know the reality: I was innocent, I really was innocent. I have to say it out loud. On the other hand, I knew that I was being judged according to “enemy law” and that my words wouldn’t be heard. I think this is my great impasse. I wanted so much to be free and I was naive enough to think that I might be heard by explaining the reality, in other words, explaining that I was innocent. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t make myself heard in all these trials. They didn’t want to hear, so I am still here.
My sentence is supposed to finish in three and a half years time. For six years, my file has been at the Turkish constitutional court after an application from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)in 2014. I’m waiting for an answer to my appeals, but they persist in their silence. Sometimes I wonder if I have been forgotten, because it’s taken so long for them to reach a decision. If they reach a postivie decision, I can leave prison, but I can’t muster any hope. It seems that what’s needed is a power capable of forcing the Constitutional Court and ECHR to act. And I don’t have it. Apart from that, it’s important that friends hear me. Maybe it’s not going to set me free, but it makes my spirit freer. I haven’t been forgotten. Together with my poetry, I haven’t been forgotten. That’s what I want to know. My friends need to remind me of that. That’s my hope.
I came to you, Life
for Ipek Özel
And the tree’s shade buckles,
birds give all they know to their wings.
The wind blows an ovation
and from the sun comes the need to touch.
It is these leaves language
and sweetness are addressing,
now that the time for transgression has come.
Yet, on the hillsides is always the grace of abstention.
Think of the river when you get a chance.
Flowing vein in water’s books, the knot’s wish to be untied.
I’m speaking of the sound of a few colours. By denying
summer embrace the spring and with a few tired steps
forgive me. Forgive this trembling cloud.
I came to you with the pain of hands cracked by the mud
I came to you, saying let childhood climb the garden wall again.
I came to you with the art of breathing sleep into morning.
Don’t pull down my garden wall.
Let the path fill with the soft shapes of leaves.
Let the road dream of being covered up in grass.
There is no city we need to reach. Everything is here.
Open the window. Open it as the horses whinny
in the wideness of the world. Open it without speaking
of the shortness of summer, the never-ending winter.
Open it, that the sky stirs with the hidden symbols of my mind.
I came to you saying, ‘Open the door to the presence of existence’
as the sky stirs in its form.
I came to you saying, ‘Open the door of becoming.
Open the door of existence, to me.’
İlhan Sami Çomak (born 1973) is a Kurdish poet from Karlıova in Bingöl Province in Turkey. He was arrested in 1994. In jail, Çomak has released eight books of poetry and become one of Turkey’s longest serving political prisoners. In 2018, Çomak won the Sennur Sezer poetry prize, for his 8th book of poems, Geldim Sana (I Came to You).
Caroline Stockford Turkish-English Legal and Literary Translator. She serves as Turkey Advisor for PEN Norway’s.
Jhon Sánchez A Colombian born fiction writer, Mr. Sánchez, arrived in NYC seeking political asylum where he is now a lawyer. ‘In 2021, New Lit Salon Press will publish his collection of short stories Enjoy A Pleasurable Death and Other Stories that Will Kill You.
 Translated by Caroline Stockford (PEN Norway, Turkey Advisor).