Revolutionary Martyr from Turkey

Remembering RosaBerna Unsal

by Li Onesto

Revolution #009, July 24, 2005, posted at

Let me tell you about Rosa.

When I heard the terrible news about the government massacre of 17 leaders of the Maoist Communist Party of Turkey and North Kurdistan (MKP), I immediately thought about the many comrades from Turkey I met in the Fall of 2002, when I spoke in Europe about the People’s War in Nepal. Many of them had been forced to seek political asylum, including some who had just come from being on prison hunger strikes. The TKP(ML), the party that the MKP is a continuator of, helped organize the tour and in many cities, the majority of the audience were revolutionaries from Turkey.

I read news reports about how on June 16, over 1,000 soldiers from the Turkish army had encircled and then moved in to massacre the group of MKP comrades who were on their way to their party’s second congress. I watched the videos on the Internet of the mass funeral in Istanbul—thousands marching through the streets, coffins carried amidst a sea of red flags. Family, friends and comrades filing past the caskets, photos of the martyrs on banners, in frames, on posters. Fists in the air amidst garlands of flowers. The unbearable grief and intense anger of the crowd leapt off the screen and hit me in the gut and tears welled up as I thought about what a tremendous loss this was for the revolutionary struggle in Turkey and the whole international communist movement.

I scrolled through scenes of the funeral, then came to the photos of the martyrs. I froze for several seconds, then felt heartsick as I saw a photo of Berna Unsal—who I had known as “Rosa.” She had been the main organizer of my European speaking tour, and for three weeks we had worked closely and gotten to know each other. I immediately recognized not just her face, but her utterly defiant and brave spirit which inhabited her portrait.

The time I spent working and talking with Berna and other revolutionaries from Turkey gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the heroic struggle being waged against the fascist regime in Turkey and a deeper sense of proletarian internationalism.


I first met Rosa in Germany, where she had been working with the World People’s Resistance Movement to organize my speaking tour. She immediately struck me as a very serious and dedicated revolutionary who seemed to have endless energy. She liked to joke around a lot and was never too tired for a political discussion, a strong cup of coffee and lots of cigarettes. Very quickly, I found out that we also shared a deep passion for chocolate that would prove to be a crucial element in our demanding schedule. But more than anything, there was a determination and seriousness that came through, even as Rosa could also be easygoing and playful. She was a committed communist, a revolutionary journalist, an intellectual who was completely fluent in English. She could talk for hours about the big questions facing the international communist movement. And she had been deeply involved in the sharp struggle over political and ideological line within the revolutionary movement in Turkey.

We were halfway through the tour when I found out Rosa was one of the heroes of the 2000-2001 hunger strikes in Turkey’s prisons. It was after a program in Antwerp, Belgium and we were both completely stuffed from a huge late night meal cooked by the Nepali comrades who had organized the program. We were both exhausted but neither of us seemed to want to go to sleep. Suddenly, Rosa started telling me about how she had almost died in prison.

When I first met Rosa, it was clear she had health problems. She was full of energy and was the one to push the rest of us when we would go for days with little sleep. But I also noticed that she would get really bad headaches and tire easily. I had already met a number of revolutionaries from Turkey who had come close to death in the prison hunger strikes. I remember one young couple—they had both been in a coma and temporarily lost their memory from extreme malnutrition. At first they had not even remembered they were married to each other. Then slowly they had gotten their memories back and now they had a new baby. But they were still suffering serious and long-term damage to their health. Now I suddenly realized why Rosa had, at times, suddenly gotten sick and exhausted.

Rosa told me how she had been a student at the university when she was arrested. The fascist government, waging a vicious war against Maoist guerrillas in the countryside, carried out massive repression in the cities. Their “anti-terrorism” law allowed the state to imprison people for many years for simply having a revolutionary leaflet or being accused of belonging to one of the many banned organizations.

On October 20, 2000, several hundred political prisoners in different prisons began a hunger strike to protest the inhuman conditions and attempts by the government to isolate them in individual cells. Family members and other supporters on the outside, in different cities, also joined the hunger strike. And then, on November 19, 2000, this hunger strike was converted into a Death Fast.

Rosa, who was 31 years old at the time, was in Canakkale, a women’s prison, and she was one of the people who went from being on a hunger strike to a Death Fast. Rosa explained how they knew that without food and water they would not survive very long. So they purposely and very scientifically extended the death fast by taking water and certain vitamins. In this way, they were able to stay alive for months. But after more than 200 days, people started going into comas and dying. This sparked international outrage and protest and the attention of groups like Amnesty International.

Rosa told me that right before she lost consciousness and went into a coma, the authorities had allowed her mother to see her. The government was desperately trying to find a way out of the situation without giving in to the prisoners’ demands. They didn’t care that people were dying. But they didn’t want an international incident—just as the Turkish government was lobbying to become part of the European Union. So they tried to get family members to give permission to force-feed those on the Death Fast.

Rosa told her mother, “If you give the authorities permission to force-feed me when I am in a coma, I will never speak to you again.” And her mother promised to defy the enemy. Rosa did go into a coma and came to the edge of death. After she went into a coma, the authorities force-fed Rosa and revived her. The Turkish government was forced to release Rosa and the other hunger strikers who had almost died; and they were allowed to go into exile. Rosa was given political asylum in Germany.

Rosa told me about the night political prisoners were viciously attacked in 20 prisons. Special teams used bulldozers to tear holes in the prison walls so they could rush in and fire without warning. Rosa described the chaotic scene as police and army forces began attacking them. There was smoke and gunfire, people running all around as they were bombarded with smoke bombs, sound bombs, nerve gas and pepper gas. The women shouted slogans and insults as they heroically fought back and refused to surrender. Rosa got even more passionate and angry when she told me how the police poured gasoline on some of the prisoners and set them on fire. Later they lied to the press and claimed the women had done this to themselves. “This was a lie, a big lie,” Rosa said to me, several times.

I remember hearing about one young revolutionary from Turkey who was missing half of both of his feet. He had been part of a guerrilla group that had got stranded in the winter—some of his comrades had died and he had suffered extreme frostbite. He, like Rosa and many other revolutionaries from Turkey I met, suffered permanent and terrible health problems. But these serious injuries didn’t seem to dampen their revolutionary determination and sense of humor. One day Rosa and some other comrades from Turkey were laughing and kidding around in Turkish and I interrupted them, asking to be let in on the joke. Rosa told me how they all had serious injuries, ailments, or sickness, from fighting or being in prison. She said, “We joke about how this one ”has no feet;’ this one “has no hand;’ this one ”cannot see,’ etc. and so because of this, when we have to carry out a task, we really have to all work together!"


I learned a lot from Rosa and will always be inspired by her life and heroic death. When I think of her, I remember what it was like, driving through the Alps during the tour, inhaling the breathtaking scenery, winding through the switchback roads, poking our heads out the window, shouting and pointing as we craned our necks to look so high up — to where the snow-covered peaks jutted up and defied the clouds and strongest winds.