Conflict & Justice

Thousands march in memory of boy killed by police; Turkey expands police powers

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Berkin Elvan's sister at a rally on Saturday in Turkey.

Credit:

Julius Constantine Motal for PRI's The World

Wanted or not, a mother’s grief has become a political flashpoint in Istanbul as thousands marched along her side to mourn the death of her son, the youngest victim of Turkey's massive 2013 protests.

Berkin Elvan was 14 years old when he was shot in the head with a police tear-gas canister while walking to the market for bread on June 16, 2013. He died on March 11, 2014 at the age of 15, following a 269-day coma.

His death has mobilized past marches in Turkey, as the policeman who shot him remains free. Saturday’s protest came at a critical moment as Turkey increases police powers. Just two weeks ago, Turkey’s parliament passed the first 10 articles of a controversial, 132-article domestic security bill significantly expanding police ability to quell free assembly and use deadly force during protests, leading to escalating concern that the country is turning into a police state.

Saturday, marchers walked “somberly but angrily” to Elvan’s grave as police looked on along the route, says photojournalist Julius Constantine Motal.

March 7, 2015 - Okmeydanı, Turkey. A boy wearing a shirt with Berkin Elvan's image chants in a march honoring Elvan's memory. 

Credit:

Julius Constantine Motal for PRI's The World

March 7, 2015 - Feriköy, Turkey. Protesters march towards the cemetery in Feriköy where Berkin Elvan is buried. Elvan was on his way to buy bread for his family in June 2013 when a police officer fired a tear gas canister that hit his head. He died on March 11, 2014 after a 269-day coma. 

Credit:

Julius Constantine Motal for PRI's The World

March 7, 2015 - Okmeydanı, Turkey. A woman holds an image of Berkin Elvan's face during a march honoring his memory. 

Credit:

Julius Constantine Motal for PRI's The World

March 7, 2015 - Feriköy, Turkey. People guide Berkin Elvan's mother to her son's grave.

Credit:

Julius Constantine Motal for PRI's The World

March 7, 2015 - Feriköy, Turkey. Finding a moment of silence, three people sit quietly near Berkin Elvan's grave.

Credit:

Julius Constantine Motal for PRI's The World

Within the scenes of national protest and sea of signs boasting Elvan-inspired hashtags, however, was a family trying to find the space to grieve.

“It's difficult to grieve privately when the boy who died has become a [national] symbol,” says Motal, who attended the protests. “You could tell that the family was trying to grieve privately in public. There were people surrounding the family who got aggressive with some of the many photographers who were there.”

Motal said the march started at a cemevi, a place of worship for Alevis — a sect of the Muslim Shia community and Turkey’s largest religious minority — in Istanbul’s Okmeydanı neighborhood. Among the mourners at the cemevi were political officials from two of the country’s opposition parties, the Republican People's Party and the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party.

From there, protesters moved to where Elvan was shot and then to the cemetery in Feriköy graveyard where he was buried.

His mother, Gülsüm Elvan, reportedly collapsed at Elvan's grave.

“Berkin's killers are living their lives but our child is gone,” Today's Zaman, an English-language daily newspaper in Turkey, quoted Berkin's father, Sami Elvan, as saying. “I ask everyone to pursue this case.”