Evil Unveiled: The State Murder of a Cancer-Fighting Kid in Turkey

The slow-motion but steady march of Ahmet to his death, after endless chapters of official obstruction for his treatment abroad, is a textbook case of state brutality in plain sight.

In a rare moment of union, Ahmet Burhan Atac is seen with his father at an Istanbul hospital early in 2020.

hmet Burhan Atac, a 10-year-old kid whose epic battle against cancer has become a defining feature of the agony that permeated Turkey’s forgotten community of purge victims, has finally passed away.

He died early on Thursday (on local time) in Turkey. The last words the little Ahmet incoherently mumbled while on mechanical ventilation were the embodiment of what he most craved for during his last moments: a reunion with his father at least for the last time. He died away, uttering “ daddy, daddy, daddy …”

It was not the fact that Ahmet eventually died, but the way how he slowly marched to his (probably preventable) death what struck the public, at least those who closely monitored his situation from the beginning, most.

It was only three hours after I penned down a sketchy piece to map out the contours of his slow-motion but steady march to his destiny. It was a journey played out in plain sight in front of the whole society. And when fate has finally issued its unambiguous verdict, the shared public reaction on social media was an unmistakable combination of despair, helplessness and pure rage.

Wails of lamentation echoed across Twitter as thousands poured their grief and fury. What made people more aggrieved and furious was the fact that Ahmet’s fate is sealed more by the obstructionist measures of the political apparatus than the natural course of his illness. This would not have to be the end of the story. This tragic end would have been prevented indeed.

A Regime of Obstruction

ne of the defining aspect of authoritarian regimes during tumultuous times is the fact that opponents feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crackdown put in place: there are so many tragedies that it simply creates an undeniable sense of resignation on the side of victims that they mostly feel impotent to respond whenever a call for arms for digital (or social) mobilization is issued by activists. As rights activists marshal their efforts for a single case and make some headway in their cause, officials respond with a new crackdown, thus producing more wrenching tragedies.

In Turkey, this is exactly the case. Four years after the government launched a sweeping purge, victims still explore ways to bring their cause to the attention of the public in a climate of fear and official censorship. The story of Ahmet and his slow-motion succumb to life-threatening cancer (which is now in the fourth stage) in plain sight is a case in point to understand this vicious cycle.

For more than a year, Zekiye Atac, whose husband had been swept up in the nationwide post-coup crackdown and put behind bars, has been on a solo crusade to convince indifferent authorities to accompany her son for medical treatment in Germany. Her efforts galvanized many activists from both ends of the social/political spectrum on social media and spurred, albeit belatedly, a response from the government. After months of fudging and prevaricating, the authorities eventually bowed to mounting public pressure and lifted a ban on her overseas travel. Yet, to get to this point, Zekiye’s battle has been shaped by the twists and turns of Turkey’s ever-shifting political scene.

When she was there in March, Zekiye was disheartened by the response from German doctors: it was too late and too little. The young, frail body of Ahmet was (and is) no longer responding to treatment. Anguished and resigned to their fate, the mother and a 10-year-old kid returned to Turkey.

Ahmet’s story has become a reigning symbol of the state-sanctioned brutality inflicted upon so many innocent civilians who had become victims of a guilt-by-association mindset that came to characterize Turkey’s broken judicial system in the post-coup era. The critical moments of fighting cancer were shaped more by bureaucratic intrigues than the natural flow and pace of the illness. Now, the observable boundaries of science shun a professed optimism, no matter what the expectation of the family about the prospect of divine providence and interference. For the moment, all channels of medical possibilities appear to be exhausted.

A State Murder of a Kid

As of this writing, we were shuddered to learn that Ahmet was taken to an intensive care unit. He was put on mechanical ventilation as his situation warranted intubation and additional support, his mother told Bold Medya. But it was too late and too little.

After so many calls on social media and Zekiye’s valiant effort, authorities finally decided to allow the imprisoned father to visit his son in ICU, perhaps to witness his last moments. But, without a reunion last time, Ahmet died away before his father even made it to the hospital.

After Ahmet’s heart-rending tragic end, the judgment in the court of public opinion is unanimous. We are now justified to believe that this is no mere a natural end. This is, beyond any dispute, a state-sanctioned murder of a little kid whose little presence posed no threat to the country, national security, or the government.

None of the cruel machinations by officials for obstructing Ahmet’s treatment were within the bounds of tradition and morality in Turkey, not to speak of the law itself. Yet all the customs and moral architecture of the social fabric have utterly been dismantled, to the detriment of society and anything we hold dear in our social esteem. We are just living through the consequences of this moral wreckage, which indiscriminately devours the lives of people, even the most vulnerable, in the post-coup era.

Note: This piece has been updated several hours after Ahmet Burhan Atac passed away.

New York-based writer. Politics, culture, literary criticism, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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