Cüneyt Cebenoyan: A Turkish Leftist Who Spoke the Unspeakable

August 21, 2019

After Cebenoyan died in a car crash on August 3, 2019, most of the people in this political circle who expressed their condolences said the following while speaking about his struggle: “He had lost his parents and son in an earthquake, and lost his sister in a terror attack.” But who are to blame for this terror? The answer remains unknown or unnamed.

The PKK does not organize massacres, commit murders, or kill children. People are killed by bombs or explosives, just like what happened in Tunceli province last month when two siblings, eight-year-old Ayaz and four-year-old Nupelda, were killed by improvised explosives they found when they were playing in a field. This is how the situation is understood by Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) proponents, the Turkish left and some liberal groups in Turkey. They mostly condemn cases of violence without stating what or who exactly they are condemning. This is because according to them, the PKK cannot be condemned. They assume that the PKK fights for peace just like its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Protection Forces (YPG). For them, the PKK’s sole aim is peace and “democratic” politics while they recruit children, make them blow themselves up in suicide attacks, and liken them to mythological figures in their media outlets. To give an example, the former BDP (former name of the HDP) deputy Sabahat Tuncel said the following words during a ceremony held to commemorate Zeynep Kınacı, who carried out a suicide attack at a military ceremony in 1996, leaving eight soldiers dead and 29 wounded: “We owe our current freedom and political presence to this fight and friends like her. We must see her suicide against the system as part of our own fight. While commemorating our martyrs, we must not only stand in awe of them, but also see their life idols as our own idols.”

There was no parliament member who blew himself or herself up by imitating the kamikaze idol Tuncel pointed to. However, many children and young people trained by the PKK and made “commanders” when they are around 15 or 16 years old continue to follow this idol, killing others in suicide attacks or in other ways. Just like 26-year-old Seher Çağla Demir, who organized a suicide attack against a military vehicle in Ankara, killing 36 civilians and injuring 349. Following the attack, the HDP Chair Selahattin Demirtaş’s brother, Nurettin Demirtaş, wrote a long eulogy for the young woman which was published in the pro-PKK newspaper Yeni Özgür Politika, likening her to Hercules and a lotus flower. They are not the only ones paving the way for such idols or valorizing their deaths. About six or seven years ago, a privileged leftist professor, abruptly said the following after a televised interview I conducted on social policies in Turkey: “Love PKK, they are nice people!”. A very insincere and problematic statement. To put it simply, it is impossible to make these groups acknowledge the fact that the PKK commits murders. But would it be possible to convince them through a distinguished name? A socialist who lost his older sister in a PKK attack, but still voted for Selahattin Demirtaş? This was the case of film critic Cüneyt Cebenoyan, who died recently in a car crash. He tried to convince his peers of these facts but was instead excluded from their circles and subjected to many accusations and aspersions. He was being “killed in social terms” to use his own words.

Cüneyt Cebenoyan was born in 1960. After graduating from St. George’s Austrian High School, he studied Economics at Boğaziçi University. Cebenoyan was a prominent film critic who was imprisoned for 15 months because of an article he wrote entitled “Junta” in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup. He was a member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC), the Turkish Film Critics Association (SİYAD), and was a jury member in many national and international film festivals. He wrote film reviews for magazines like Roll, Express, Sinerama, Sinema, Empire, Altyazı and Milliyet Sanat and hosted radio programs on cinema and music at Açık Radyo station. He also contributed opinion articles to the left-wing and dissident Birgün newspaper since the newspaper’s establishment. He was a film critic also wrote on political and societal topics.

How it would be like to take a stance against the acts and discourses of the PKK, and its proponents who regard the organization as a left-wing group fighting for freedoms and democratic politics?

Cebenoyan had a successful career, and surely penned many seminal articles on cinema. But more importantly, he had virtues that made him look for the truth. He also fought to hold on to life without showing any hint of hatred or rage despite the tragedies he went through. He lost his older sister in a PKK attack, and lost his parents and son in an earthquake. In one of his articles, he writes: “Stefan Zweig does not answer the questions on Nazi Germany in Brazil since he finds it obscene to speak without taking any risk. Talking about Germany entails no risk in Brazil, so he does not talk (From Maria Schrader’s film Vor der Morgenröte). An intellectual takes risks, does not keep up with trends.” Cebenoyan took a risk, since a risk cannot be taken only in response to the official discourse. He was dissident. In any event, it is always prestigious for a leftist to take a risk against the official discourse, whether the act is sincere or not. But how it would be like to take a stance against the acts and discourses of the PKK, and its proponents who regard the organization as a left-wing group fighting for freedoms and democratic politics?

Rather than bringing prestige, taking such a stance will cause exclusion in these political circles. On December 30, 1994, the PKK organized a bomb attack in a popular café located in Istanbul’s Taksim neighborhood. Cüneyt Cebanoyan’s sister, archaeologist Yasemin Cebenoyan, as well as renowned writer and film critic Onat Kutlar who was at the café to meet his wife Filiz Kutlar and their friends to celebrate their wedding anniversary were killed in the attack. A necklace Kutlar bought for his wife as a gift was found in his pocket. Initially, it was claimed that the bomb was planted by the Islamist terror group IBDA-C. Neither Cüneyt Cebenoyan nor Filiz Kutlar were left alone at the time. People lamented for the losses and condemned the attack. Subsequently, the police apprehended the perpetrators of the attack, who turned out to be PKK members. The two perpetrators confessed that they are the members of the PKK and organized the attack “to hamper tourism”. Cebenoyan wrote a piece about it in 2017, in which he said:

“My sister Yasemin Cebenoyan was killed by the PKK on December 30, 1994. To be more specific, the attack was organized by Deniz Demir (a student at Istanbul Technical University) upon the directive of Mesut Ünsal. The bomb was prepared in Hamit Şen’s house. Then, Gülşen Özdemir and Deniz Demir planted it at the café of the Marmara Hotel. (…) Some of the perpetrators were apprehended, Deniz Demir confessed organizing the attack, and was released from prison only after nine years, before the case was over. Hamit Şen also confessed abetting the attackers during his interrogation. (..) For years, I have expected and requested an apology from the PKK. Although I expressed this request in the subtlest way possible, I only faced threats and insults in return. And it finally dawned on me that no one, at least no one in the PKK’s interest, was accusing the PKK of killing Onat Kutlar, Yasemin Cebenoyan and many other innocent people. The organization did not care about me at all, I did not have the slightest authority. In the absence of a demand that will strain them, the PKK continues to go its own way and keeps its acts that cannot be defined in any other way than a terror attack.”

The two victims were commemorated in this political circle even after the PKK was revealed to be responsible for the attack, for which Cebenoyan wrote another article:

“The PKK, the murderer of my family, is not blamed by a considerable part of leftist and liberal groups. There are many examples to that. To name one, Ayşe Emek Mesci wrote a piece titled “Sanırım Dönmeyeceğim (I guess I won’t return)”, which was published in daily Cumhuriyet on January 10, 2019. ‘(…) Then Filiz left. When she was still on her way, that malicious bomb exploded, tearing Yasemin Cebenoyan and Onat Kutlar away from us and their loved ones.’ The perpetrator is not specified in the article, which is neither a singular case nor out of neglect. It is either expressed this way or not expressed at all. The bomb exploded and killed them. But who is to blame? The bomb?”

The damage is done; the family is in mourning; but what would you do if the killers are valorized by your own circle? He describes this situation in the same article:

“The approach of society plays a key role in healing the wounds of an attack, offense or any injustice. If the assailant is respected instead of being accused, it becomes almost impossible for victims to retrieve their mental health, complete their mourning and go on with their lives. This is exactly what I have been experiencing. (…) To employ a simile, you cannot make a Holocaust denier accept the fact that the Holocaust really happened. Similarly, you cannot make some people accept that the PKK has killed many, including Onat Kutlar. The denier does not care about the devastating effect of not naming the killers on the victim.”

The situation is not peculiar to this particular case, but when motivated by a certain political stance, applies to all the murders committed by the PKK. Orhan Koçak, a name in the same dissident group, reflected on Cebenoyan’s feelings in an article he wrote for Birikim magazine: “Cüneyt rightfully expected the acknowledgment and conviction of the vagrancy that took his sister from him and Onat Kutlar from all of us.” So, planting a bomb in an inner-city café and killing two people was described simply as “vagrancy”. Alas!

Cebenoyan explains in another piece:

“They oppose you with intellectual arguments and call Barthes for help: ‘Fascism does not prevent speech, it compels speech.’ First of all, I do not have any authority to compel anyone to speak. Secondly, this argument is not true in every case. The ruling power may compel you to speak or remain silent. And I have no power. Besides, remaining silent may sometimes mean acting as an accomplice. (…) We cannot get anywhere with slogans and catchphrases that are claimed to be pertinent anytime and anywhere. I can as well produce many counter-slogans: ‘Don’t remain silent, or you’ll be the next.’, ‘Those protecting murderers are accomplices to murder’, etc. Or, I can quote the words wrongly attributed to Brecht but actually belonging to Martin Niemöller: Those who do not speak up when they come for the communists, the social democrats and the trade unionists find no one left to speak up when they come for them.”

Although the PKK’s role is not named, the attack is still remembered with many written pieces since the two victims are notable intellectuals. However, a deafening silence prevails in the face of numerous other massacres of the PKK. For instance, in June this year, it was announced that one of the perpetrators of the 2016 bomb attack near Istanbul’s Beşiktaş Vodafone Park that claimed 46 lives, was apprehended in Hakkari province. This was followed by complete silence. In response to this, Cebenoyan tweeted: “They organized a mass murder in my dear city, in Dolmabahçe. But when I look at the social media activities of the people who might have been there at the time of the attack, I see that the PKK is not condemned. They just wait, hoping that ISIS would be responsible, but it turned out it was not ISIS. After that, only silence… A thousand different examples can be given to this. Murders are considered permissible as they think people kill or die for the sake of the sacred war fought by the PKK.”

After remaining silent for years despite his grief, Cebenoyan spoke out in the past two years. Two years ago, after 15-year-old Eren Bülbül was killed by the PKK in Trabzon province, he gave an interview to a newspaper in which he remarked:

“I voted for the HDP’s presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş in 2014. Didn’t I know about the PKK-HDP ties back then? Of course, I did, but Demirtaş had a positive discourse, so I voted for him so that they would do politics in the Parliament and no other murder like my sister’s would happen again. So, did everyone around me. But after seeing that the HDP administrators who carried the caskets of mass murderers were not discharged from the party, I will not vote for the HDP again. Of course, Kurdish people have confronted a great deal of problems. For instance, a horrendous massacre was organized in Dersim in 1938. For years, it was said that ‘there is no such a thing as a Kurd’. Many unidentified murders were committed. But none of them can legitimize the atrocity of the PKK.”

After Cebenoyan died in a car crash on August 3, 2019, most of the people in this political circle who expressed their condolences said the following while speaking about his struggle: “He had lost his parents and son in an earthquake, and lost his sister in a terror attack.” But who are to blame for this terror? The answer remains unknown or unnamed.

Kılıçkaya worked as a journalist for Cumhuriyet and Milliyet newspapers. In 1992 she moved to Paris and completed her studies in International Relations. After returning to Turkey in 2009, Kılıçkaya started working for Habertürk. In 2016, she formed a three-part documentary on DAESH.