In Detention

James Wolff

I was arrested on New Year’s Day. An unsmiling cabin attendant told me I had to get off my flight from Izmir to Istanbul, and a waiting police officer told me that I was wanted. ‘Wanted?’ I asked. ‘For what?’ He shrugged.

After an hour’s wait in a small police station next to the terminal, I was driven to a hospital to be tested for Covid, and then to another police station, where I was photographed and fingerprinted. We set off north along a highway that tracked the Aegean coastline before heading inland. I told myself that I was being taken to someone who would immediately identify the error, berate the escorting officers and return me to the airport with an apology. But what came into view was a tall, red building surrounded by a six-metre-high fence. Bars covered the windows.

Once inside I was instructed to remove my shoelaces and belt. My bag was taken away. From somewhere nearby came the sound of men shouting. I asked with a rising sense of alarm if this was a prison, what crime I had been accused of, how long they would keep me, if there was anyone I could speak to. If I left my passport here, could I stay in a hotel and come back in the morning? A guard took me through a turnstile. ‘Is it safe here?’ I asked. He nodded, then mimed zipping his mouth shut.

He left me in a cell that measured five metres by three. It was empty but clearly inhabited. There were three bunk beds, the tops cluttered with personal possessions: clothes, toiletries, boxes of tea, copies of the Quran, the collected hadith of al-Bukhari, washing powder. Bedsheets had been hung to shield the bottom bunks from view. A barred window looked out over dry hills towards the sea. In the small bathroom, a metal grille just above head height prevented access to the electric cables or water pipes.

I sat in a corner of the cell, not wanting to trespass on anyone’s personal territory. After ten minutes or so a slim, bearded man in tracksuit trousers and a T-shirt came in with a small kettle. He knelt down, made a cup of tea and offered it to me. I thanked him, apologising for my poor Turkish. He told me he was from Homs, in Syria, and also spoke very little Turkish, so we switched to Arabic.

He wanted to know why I was there. I explained that I had been returning to Istanbul, where I had lived for the past two years, when the police had detained me. I wasn’t aware of having done anything wrong. He said that the same was true for everyone in the prison. He had been living in Turkey for several years when the police came to his door early one morning and accused him of being a member of Islamic State. He hadn’t been shown any evidence to support the accusation.

Sometimes, he said, the police would fail to find the person they were looking for and simply detain another Syrian instead. He had been a prisoner for three months and would probably remain in custody for a year, the maximum period a foreigner could be held pending deportation. ‘We all refuse to be deported,’ he said, ‘and they cannot force us because of the war in Syria.’ ‘What happens after one year?’ I asked. ‘They release us. And we wait to see if they arrest us again.’

As we talked, our three Syrian cellmates came in. They cleared one of the top bunks, washed the wooden base and made a bed for me with a blanket and a pillow. One of them found a spare toothbrush and toothpaste among his supplies; another offered me his phone card. They spread a cloth on the floor and laid out a meal of bread, olives and cheese, insisting that I eat.

The following morning I had my first meeting with prison officials. They told me I was in the Harmandalı Geri Gönderme Merkezi, a removal centre for foreigners scheduled for deportation. The G-82 legal code had been applied to my file, meaning that I posed a threat to national security. I asked if it might be a case of mistaken identity. It wasn’t. I asked what threat I posed. They said I was suspected of being a follower of Fethullah Gülen, the exiled cleric accused of instigating the 2016 coup. I said as politely as I could that the accusation was absurd. They told me that I had a choice either to remain in prison and mount a legal challenge to my detention, which would take several weeks and almost certainly fail, or consent to be deported. I chose deportation.

Prison is represented so often on screen that there was an immediate familiarity to it, like a first visit to New York. The queue for payphones, the plastic food trays, even the rubbish thrown from cell windows onto the ground outside – it was new and not new. A doctor asked me if I needed anything. I complained of a headache. ‘Are you bleeding? No? Then go.’ There was always a metal door banging somewhere.

Several days passed while Ankara considered my deportation request. Life was governed by routine: at half past six, one of my cellmates would rise, stand at the door and make the call to prayer. The food was simple but edible. One day we were given an orange, another day breakfast was a piece of bread and a boiled potato. Meat was served once a week. Payphones could be used after dinner, and a small commissary sold cigarettes and phone cards. Meals were followed by an hour in the yard. I would walk back and forth, trying to avoid the football game that surged from one side of the yard to the other. Someone would usually fall in step beside me, and we’d search for a common language in which to exchange stories.

I heard rumours of a floor populated by Russians and Ukrainians, but the other detainees I met were mostly Syrian, Iraqi, Uzbek, Yemeni and Turkmen. A man in his sixties or seventies – a famous Chechen dissident, I was told – was accompanied everywhere by four young, strong-looking men. A French-speaking group from Chad shared a cell. There were several children. I saw a family soon after they’d been told they would be separated: the father and daughter were to be deported to Sudan but the mother, who had a Yemeni passport, would remain in the prison. There were several fights but none that I witnessed. I didn’t see the guards hit anyone. Everyone said that conditions in other immigration detention centres, particularly the Tuzla prison in Istanbul, were considerably worse, with overcrowding and frequent beatings.

Until midnight, cell doors were closed but not locked. Syrian men would come to our cell to drink tea. They wanted news of the outside world. They knew that things were turning even further against them. Talks between Turkish, Syrian and Russian military and intelligence chiefs had signalled that an Ankara-Damascus thaw was underway. Opinion polls suggested that more than 80 per cent of Turks wanted Syrians to ‘go home’. The Turkish government had begun to conduct ‘voluntary’ returns, a practice described by Human Rights Watch:

Turkish officials arrested [Syrians] in their homes, workplaces, and on the street, detained them in poor conditions, beat and abused most of them, forced them to sign voluntary return forms, drove them to border crossing points with northern Syria, and forced them across at gunpoint.

‘You are finding it difficult here,’ a visitor to our cell said to me one evening. I was embarrassed – I am still embarrassed – to admit as much, given the disparity in our circumstances. The others were facing a possible future in which as alleged IS fighters they would be transferred to Syrian government custody, with all that would follow from that; I was about to be deported to a country most of them could only dream of reaching. But the locked door and barred window were making me claustrophobic. For my cellmates, Islam was the answer. One young man was fasting every day between sunrise and sunset to control his libido, a practice recommended in the hadith of Bukhari. A former dentist was giving classes in Quranic recitation. He told me about a dream he’d had the night before I arrived in which a foreigner came to live with them.

The guards woke me early one morning. I sat in a reception area with about thirty men and women I’d never seen before who were quickly loaded into a bus and driven away. A van arrived to take me to the airport. The man in charge handed me my shoelaces and belt. There were two things he wanted to make clear. The first was that I was not accused of being a Gülenist. This had been raised in my interview, he said, merely as an example of the type of offence covered by the G-82 code. The second was that the airline I would be flying with refused to carry passengers who were being deported. ‘For this reason,’ he said, ‘we will not accompany you into the airport. Instead we will drop you outside and follow you at a distance. And when you get to your gate, we will wave goodbye like we are your friends.’


  • 21 July 2023 at 2:06pm
    Delaide says:
    Startling story. I have to ask; any idea why you were deported?

  • 28 July 2023 at 11:30pm
    Trudy Mercadal says:
    Wow. Fascinating. And amazing all that is being done to the Syrian refugees -unjust and surely illegal, too- and nobody even knows about it.