Sirin Kilicalp lived the modest life of a school teacher in Turkey, leading classes of more than 40 pupils and struggling to make her pay cheque last until the end of the month.
But when Sirin, 33, had money to spare, she liked to frequent the winding alleyways of an Ottoman-era book market behind Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
After hunting for her favourite novels she would sometimes arrive on a Monday morning at her underprivileged school in northern Istanbul, a bag of books slung over her shoulder. She would slip them into the desks of her pupils before class began.
On October 9, however, Sirin made different plans for the weekend.
Boarding a bus filled with fellow teachers, she travelled to Ankara, the Turkish capital, where activists from around the country had organised a peaceful demonstration against ongoing violence between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK.
“She was definitely an idealist,” says Selda Kilicalp, Sirin’s sister. “The state didn’t want to make peace with the Kurds, ISIS was carrying out bombings in Turkey as it pleased,” she continues, using an acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “Sirin told me she had to raise her voice against this.”
But, she wouldn’t get the chance.
On the morning of October 10, as thousands of demonstrators gathered outside Ankara’s main train station, two people detonated suicide vests, killing 102 and injuring more than 500.
Sirin died instantly.
Although ISIL hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attack – it typically doesn’t in Turkey, where speculation over responsibility can further erode social cohesion and led to finger-pointing between the Kurds and the government – the two bombers were believed to be ISIL members and the Turkish government has blamed the group.
It was the most deadly bombing in Turkish history, and has divided the country.
Turkey’s government and PKK fighters – potential allies against ISIL – accused each other of secretly aiding the bombers, escalating a flare-up in violence that began in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast earlier in the year.
“Sirin spent her life bringing people together,” says Emrah Tuncer, a friend and fellow teacher. “ISIS directed this attack squarely at people like her.”
‘Who would target a peace march?’
Though Sirin taught Turkish literature and treasured the writings of Turkish author and poet Orhan Veli, she was ethnically Kurdish. Growing up on the outskirts of the Anatolian city of Konya in the 1980s when the conflict with the PKK first broke out, she was officially banned by the state from speaking her native language in public until 1991 when the ban was lifted.
Hopeful that peace negotiations between Ankara and the PKK would pave the way for Kurdish language classes in public schools, she began to study Kurdish independently in 2011.
Even when negotiations collapsed earlier this year, Sirin remained optimistic. She was due to earn a teaching certificate from the Istanbul Kurdish Institute in November this year.
Her sister, who shared an apartment with her in Istanbul, was proud of her determination, but she also feared for Sirin’s safety. Her younger sister frequently attended demonstrations organised by Egitim Sen, a progressive teachers’ union.
In July, Sirin told her sister that she planned to join activists delivering aid to the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane, which was devastated by an ISIL siege late last year. She later changed her mind.
That group of activists was struck by a suicide bomber in the Kurdish border town of Suruc, killing 33 people. “After the Suruc attack is when we really started to worry about her safety,” said Selda. “I only let her go to Ankara because she reassured me. ‘It’s in the capital. What could happen there?’ she told me. ‘Who would target a peace march?'”
Like many Kurds, Sirin’s older sister voices fury at the intelligence failures which preceded the Ankara attack.
Police later confirmed that one Ankara bomber was the brother of the Suruc attacker, and that both men were close friends with an ISIL member who bombed a pro-Kurdish election rally in June, killing five. All three men were known to have travelled to Syria as early as 2013. Police questioned, but did not arrest, all three suspects before their attacks in 2015.
Struggling with grief
Emboldened by a sweeping election victory earlier this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party have brushed aside accusations of a security failure.
Ankara has also stepped up its attacks against ISIL cells in Turkey. Two policemen recently died in a shoot-out with fighters in southeastern Turkey.
The Kilicalp family, meanwhile, struggles with the anger and grief that accompanied Sirin’s death. “I try to stay positive as Sirin would have done, I try to support our mother,” said Selda, who quit her job in Istanbul and moved back to her native village near Konya in October.
The Kilicalp family is currently helping Egitim Sen, of which Sirin was a member, to launch a book drive for the small school library in Karaagac, the village where she spent her childhood.
“Things are dark in Turkey, but if Sirin were alive, she would not have given up,” Selda said. “I know she would have kept reading too.”