MEDENI Yanat wasn’t particularly conscious of his Kurdish heritage until he was a student at university, but his cultural awakening changed his life, leading to 12 years in a Turkish prison and ultimately to a future as a political refugee in Glasgow.

This is his story, but, as he insisted to me, it is also the story of his people, and so can help to throw light on the current situation of the Kurds in Turkey.

Medeni was only one when his family moved from Kurdish south-east Turkey to Turgutlu, near Izmir, where his parents took on a series of low-paid jobs to support their three children.

When his father took him to school, aged seven, in the mid 1970s, the first question he was asked was if he recognised the portrait of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey with its Turkish ethnic nationalism. And every day he had to recite ‘‘We are Turkish, honest, and hard-working’’.

He also had to learn to speak Turkish. Medeni’s home village is Arabic-speaking, due to a much earlier Arab occupation. While this has made it harder for him to articulate his Kurdish identity, he was saved from the additional persecution imposed on those speaking Kurdish.

Turkish ethnic nationalism has been a central tenet of the Turkish state ever since the foundation of the modern republic in 1923.

Kurdish culture, and those who attempt to express it, have been systematically, and often brutally, repressed. No form of Kurdish resistance has gone unpunished, whether that resistance attempted to take a political route or to resort to armed struggle through the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to which Medeni belongs, operates within constitutional politics, but that hasn’t saved its elected representatives and activists from being sent to prison on spurious charges.

It is the latest in a long line of parties that have been closed down by the government and restarted under a new name.

Medeni’s father’s family, like many other politically aware Kurds, was active in left politics; and shortly after Medeni began school his father was arrested for shouting ‘‘Freedom for Kurds’’ at the May Day demonstration.

For a year, the young Medeni would walk the mile to the prison each week to bring his father a parcel of food. But other friends were in a similar position, and although he didn’t like school, he respected his parents’ hopes for a better future and worked hard, securing a place to study history at university.

His university city of Konya was religious and conservative, and the history he was learning edited out the Kurds, but whenever he went home, he found more friends joining the PKK and getting arrested or even killed.

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One friend lent him a clandestine copy of Ismail Besikci’s International Colony Kurdistan. Medeni compares his sense on reading it to the relief you feel when you are lost in a city and discover somewhere you recognise. Although he couldn’t understand Kurdish, he found that Kurdish culture felt a part of him and he of it; and, even then, he realised that ‘‘this is going to end up in prison, or I am going to die’’.

The National: A piece of Medeni Yanat's art featuring Munch's The ScreamA piece of Medeni Yanat's art featuring Munch's The Scream

SOON after graduating, he started work as a teacher, where he tried to encourage his students to look beyond the official texts – but in his second year of teaching he was called up to the army. Realising that, as a soldier, he could be made to take part in state attacks on the Kurds, he went into hiding with friends and relatives in Izmir.

One day there was a hard knock on the door and shouts of “surrender”. Every week at that time homes were being raided and their occupants killed, branded as members of terrorist cells. To avoid random murder, Medeni’s relatives opened the door, but they had no chance to say anything before masked special forces beat them to the floor, accusing them of an attack on a police car the day before that had resulted in the death of a policeman. The adults were taken away in blindfolds while the children sobbed.

Medeni spent the next 15 days in the police station, but “it felt like a hundred years”. The first question he was asked was whether he was Turkish or Kurdish. When he refused to say he was Turkish, he was told “you will pay for this”.

He was put in a darkened cell, too small for him to sit down in, and repeatedly taken out, blindfolded, to be tortured into a “confession”. He was beaten, sexually insulted, and subjected to electric shocks. Each time, he refused to sign their concocted story, but then they showed him a female prisoner, naked and blindfolded, and threatened to rape her if he continued to resist. “I signed it.”

His “confession” put Medeni behind bars for 12 years. Torture in prison was different from in the police station. The police were mindful to leave no mark that might be visible in court, but the prison warders didn’t care. They beat the prisoners with wood and iron sticks, and Medeni still has the scars.

At that time, Kurdish political prisoners were kept together, and Medeni benefited from their mutual support and protection, and from the PKK’s political education.

Many times, he took part in hunger strikes – protesting prison conditions, protesting the treatment of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, or calling for PKK prisoners to be treated as prisoners of war and not as terrorists. The longest hunger strike lasted 40 days, and together they added up to 600 days.

At the end of 12 long years, Medeni’s friends and family came to greet him as he eventually left the prison, but he emerged in hand-cuffs, and was just able to shout out to them that he was being taken straight off for army service.

When he was brought to the army commander, Medeni told him frankly that after 12 years in prison he could not be responsible for his actions, and he was sent on to hospital. The hospital authorities said that in normal circumstances he would be let off, but for a political prisoner this was not possible, and he must return to join the army after a year.

Medeni avoided army service for that year and a further nine months, but then they caught up with him and took him to a training camp near Istanbul. His experience of the army was very mixed. At the beginning he was fearful all the time that he would be violently attacked, but the commander who had initially threatened to “bury” him grew to respect this strange soldier who refused to comply with normal army rules. He sent him for hospital treatment that he would otherwise have been unable to afford.

Only once was he given a gun, when he had to shoot three shots at a target – the only time in his life when he has held a gun.

When he eventually went home, he found living with others very difficult. His mother would spend all day cooking him special meals, but he just wasn’t interested. Eventually his sister built him a house in a nearby village where he could live alone.

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But he was politically active, and attended his local branch of a forerunner to the HDP. One day they asked him to speak at their public meeting, and he gave a speech where he talked about the PKK ceasefire and the need for a democratic solution.

A couple of weeks later, he was summoned to the police station, where they asked him to confirm that he had made that speech, which he did. He was reassured that nothing was wrong but soon found himself sentenced to a further three years in prison, without a court case This time he wasn’t going to wait around to be caught. He had a passport, but he put in an appeal to gain the time to get a forged visa that enabled him to get into Europe. He chose to come to Glasgow, where his sister had already settled as a political refugee eight months earlier.

When he got to Heathrow, he tore up his false papers and wandered round the airport for three hours before contacting the authorities to commit to a future as a refugee.

Prison left Medeni a different person. Part of him died within its walls. He gets flashbacks and suffers from survivor’s guilt – a feeling that when others are still in prison, it doesn’t make sense to be outside.

When he first saw a British GP he asked to be prescribed sleeping tablets, and when the GP enquired as to the reason, and found out about Medeni’s prison experience, he commented on the seriousness of Medeni’s situation. Medeni was surprised: “What do you mean, serious? I’m quite normal.”

It took coming to the UK for him to realise that years in prison and their psychological aftermath is not most people’s normality. He feels more comfortable when with someone else who has gone through a similar experience.

His psychotherapists have encouraged him to take up art, renewing an old interest and talent that he had not before been able to develop. Many of his artworks include images of Munch’s “The Scream”. He screams, but we don’t know if anyone hears, Medeni observes.

Lives of persecution

MEDENI’S arrest inspired others in his family to become more politically active, and two of his cousins lost their lives as PKK guerrillas.

More recently, his mother became co-chair of the Turgutlu branch of the HDP. Two months ago the police arrested her. She was held in custody for 10 days, and now has to go to the police station weekly as she awaits trial.

While Kurds have suffered a century of persecution at the hands of the Turkish state, the last few years have seen an escalation of – often violent – repression. This has been matched by determined Kurdish resistance.

Election as an HDP mayor means an almost certain prison sentence, those who call for peace are arrested as “terrorists” and protests are violently shut down.

Yet the Kurds insist on maintaining their place on the political stage. More than 7000 Kurds are now on hunger strike for the basic human-rights demand that Ocalan be allowed visits from his family and his lawyers. As I was writing this piece, I learnt that the condition of Imam Sis, the hunger striker based in Wales, has become critical.

If you want to find out more about the hunger strike, and how you can help, please see