Prison Nr. 5: 1980-1984, a documentary about the Military Prison of Diyarbakır

Prison Nr. 5: 1980-1984

Went to see the film ‘Prison Nr. 5: 1980-1984’ today. It was playing at the film festival here at WOCMES in Barcelona. An emotional and sobering 97 minutes into the hell that was the Military Prison of Diyarbakır.

The film by Çayan Demirel (2009) weaves together personal narratives of the men and women who were former inmates (including Ahmet Türk) with black and white footage from the early 1980s, scenes of snow-covered mountains, and drawings by Zülfükar Tak. Tak was also a prisoner at Nr. 5. He was arrested in 1980 and during his time in the prison, he sketched a series of drawings that represent the horrors of the abuse and torture that occurred there. The drawings were smuggled out.

Sample drawing by Zülfükar Tak

After the military coup of 12 September 1980 in Turkey, thousands of Kurdish political activists were arrested and put in the Military Prison of Diyarbakır. The Turkish military authorities called the prison a ‘military school’ where the prisoners were in ‘training’ to be ‘proper Turks.’ It was a sadistic policy of Turkification that included beatings, rape, and being hosed down with ice-cold water if prisoners did not memorise Turkish songs or repeat nationalistic phrases in Turkish. Prisoners who only knew Kurdish were not exempt. Prisoners were forced to eat faeces, rats, and vomit, often simply for the amusement of the Turkish guards.

Thirty-two of the prisoners died during those four years. Hundreds were maimed. Thousands were forever changed by the brutality endured there. Some of them, no longer able to withstand the conditions, took their own lives. Many of the prisoners staged protests, setting fires or going on death strikes.

It is a hard film to watch, but it is a film you must watch. If you really want to begin to understand even some of the suffering the Kurds have endured in Turkey, start with Prison Nr. 5.

The film was named the winner of the best documentary prize at this year’s Ankara International Film Festival.


Note: for more on this subject, see .pdf download:

Welat Zeydanlıoğlu, Torture and Turkification in the Diyarbakır Military Prison” in Rights, Citizenship & Torture: Perspectives on Evil, Law and the State, Welat Zeydanlıoğlu and John T. Parry (eds), Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2009, pp. 73-92.

5 thoughts on “Prison Nr. 5: 1980-1984, a documentary about the Military Prison of Diyarbakır

  1. I met the director and watched this doc at the most recent London Kurdish Film Festival. It is a good doc and first of its kind, I mean it is a difficult subject to make a doc about. However, I don’t think it was hard hitting enough, and did not manage to capture enough of the “reality of Diyarbakir”, but maybe over the years I have become de-sentisised having read and written about this subject. The translations were also not that good, I think because of it the audience might miss out on some of the details. There was also some “artistic” footage that really did not needed to be there. These issues aside it is a very geniuine attempt to render a very difficult topic. I have written about the prison and what happened there, would you want me to send it to you?

  2. Welat,
    Yes, the English subtitling was really bad and distracting. Not knowing Turkish I did feel that I wasn’t getting the details.

    I would very much like to read what you’ve written on the subject. Thanks for offering to send it along.


  3. Many thanks for an interesting report on what seems like a captivating documentary. Although I haven’t seen the film itself, I feel that discussions revolving this prison often neglect Diyarbekir’s wider history of brutal prisons. Prison No.5 is the modern one built in the post-war era to accommodate the expanded capacity needs of the province. For Kurdish history we also need to take into account the old Ottoman prison in Diyarbekir’s fortress ([i]içkale[/i]), where the Armenian and Kurdish elite of the city was imprisoned and destroyed in 1915 and 1925, respectively. In other words, Diyarbekir has a history of brutal prisons and we need to discuss how and why this was/is the case. For example, in a recent article a Kurdish journalist largely misses the point:

    Allow me to quote from an essay I wrote on the issue:

    “The most powerful symbol of the multifaceted silences imposed on the mass violence of the Young Turk era must be the strongly fortified citadel in the north-eastern corner of Diyarbekir city. Many urbanites and neighboring peasants revere this ancient redoubt as one of the most important historical monuments of their country. The stronghold – what remains of it – stands on a small elevation overlooking a meander in the Tigris river. It is impressive if only because of its position: both the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic built their state apparatus in the compound to instill a long-lasting deference. Anyone who comes here, enticed by one or another historical narrative, is at least vaguely familiar with Diyarbekir’s record of violence, and assumes history to be dormant within these dark, crumbling walls. The compound shelters the governorship, the provincial court, and most notably the infamous Diyarbekir prison. The latter building might be considered as the single most evocative landmark of mass violence in Diyarbekir: in it, Bulgarian revolutionaries were incarcerated in the late nineteenth century, Armenian elites were tortured and murdered in 1915, Sheikh Said and his men were sentenced and executed in 1925, various left-wing activists and Kurdish nationalists were kept and subjected to torture during the junta regime following the 1980 military coup, and Kurds were tortured and frequently killed in the 1990s. Up to the year 2002 it housed the security forces of the Turkish war machine including gendarmerie intelligence operatives and special counter-guerrilla militias. This sad account of Diyarbekir’s central prison reflects the city’s century of violence, during which none of the violence was ever mentioned in any way at any of the sites. In the summer of 2007, the area had been cleared of security forces and was being converted by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to an open-air ‘Atatürk Museum’.”

    For more, see:

  4. Welat,

    I don’t know whether you will see this now, several years later, however, for a school project I am doing a dissertation on prisons around the world, and have chosen Diyarbakir prison as one of them. If you are willing, I would be very grateful if I could read what you have written.

    Many thanks,
    Lily Duncan

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