Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
How to mourn the loss of a loved one in the absence of a body? How to inhabit grief where
no grave, no funeral ceremony offers space for closure? In Turkey, the bodies of fallen
guerrilla fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are regularly disappeared, their
resting places unknown, if not violently destroyed. Diligently recording the deaths of their
members, the PKK, on the other hand, has since the beginning of its armed insurgency
regularly published so-called martyrs’ albums. These assemble hundreds of obituaries for
fallen guerrillas, penned by friends and comrades. In this presentation, I interrogate these
albums as surrogate burial sites which stand in for where a grave and a body are missing.
But how can words become a supplementary anchorage for violent death? And how do they
contribute to endowing fallen PKK fighters with politically potent afterlives?
I argue that the obituaries in martyrs’ albums are at once celebrations of heroic self-sacrifice
and intimate statements of personal grief over the loss of loved ones. As such, they reveal
the PKK’s culture of martyrdom to be one that has to continuously labour against the
doubts and anxieties spawned by violent death. Celebrating martyrdom emerges as a fragile
endeavour that has to grapple with mortality’s destabilizing affects. Violent death, I suggest,
represents a potent but highly unstable site of emotional engagement, which a moral
economy of sacrificial debt and redemption finds hard to fully tame.