“Time doesn’t heal” – remembering the tragic life of Turkish film critic Cüneyt Cebenoyan

On 3 August 2020, the family and friends of Cüneyt Cebenoyan received the news that he and his wife Ayşegül had been involved in a fatal road traffic accident.

The pair were travelling on a dual carriageway in Seydişehir, Konya, around 9am in the morning when Cebenoyan lost control of the car he was driving, hitting the vehicle in front before crashing into the central reservation barrier.

Despite the best efforts of the emergency services, Cüneyt could not be saved and he was pronounced dead at the scene. His wife was taken to Seydişehir State Hospital, where she was treated for her non-life-threatening injuries.

Aged just 58, Cüneyt Cebenoyan was laid to rest two days later at Zincirlikuyu Cemetery in Istanbul. His funeral was attended by people from the worlds of film, media and politics still in shock at the untimely loss of the renowned film critic and writer.

Award-winning actor Ercan Kesal said, “We were children from the same family. We both wrote for BirGün Newspaper. He was a very good cinema critic, a strict intellectual, a solid friend. We are very upset. Everyone will talk about all [the tragedies] that happened to him. He was one of our friends who knew how to exist with courage, and continued his life’s journey with great determination. We will remember him with kindness. His will keep his memory alive by remembering his exemplary life.”

Born in Ankara in 1960, Cüneyt was a left-wing intellectual who had made his name reviewing films. He wrote for Antrakt, Sinema, Empire, Altyazı, Milliyet Sanat, Sinerama, Express and Roll Magazines. He was also a critic for broadcaster CNN Turk. Cüneyt was a columnist for left wing daily BirGün, penning his views about the world around him.

In 2014, he became the host of a new radio film review programme, Erguvani İstimbot, on Açık Radyo, examining a notable film in detail each week with guests. A graduate in economics from Boğaziçi University, his knowledge of and passion for film was phenomenal.

Cüneyt was a member of SİYAD (Sinema Yazarları Derneği / Turkish Film Critics Association) and its international equivalent FIPRESCI. He served on the juries of multiple national and international film festivals, including those in Canada, Cuba, India, Iran, France, Kazakhstan, North Cyprus, Norway, Russia and Tanzania.

Yesim Guzelpinar & Cüneyt Cebenoyan at the Golden Island International Film Festival, North Cyprus, Nov. 2014


He dabbled with acting, appearing in films such as Gözümün Nuru / Eye Am (2013) and Hayatboyu / Lifelong (2013).

A lifelong left-wing activist, Cüneyt spent 14 months in jail following the military coup of 1980. His views evolved after his older sister Yasemin was killed in December 1994 by a bomb planted by the PKK, a Kurdish terror group, at a patisserie in Taksim, Istanbul.

Cüneyt demanded the PKK apologise for Yasemin’s murder. He also regularly called out Turkey’s left-wing ‘progressives’ for empathising with the violent actions of the PKK and other Turkish paramilitary groups.

Tragedy struck Cüneyt’s world again five years after the death of his sister, when he lost his mother Tuncay, father Hikmet and son Ali in a powerful earthquake that devastated İzmit and surrounding areas on 17 August 1999.

In an eloquent piece for BirGün titled Zaman Tedavi Etmez(Time Does Not Heal), published on the fifteenth anniversary of the earthquake, Cüneyt reflected on the tragic cards life had dealt him. The article is translated below.

RIP Cüneyt Cebenoyan, born in Ankara on 16 September 1960, died in Konya on 3 August 2020.


Time Does Not Heal (Zaman Tedavi Etmez, BirGün, 17 August 2014)

I was working with Ece at CNN Türk when the earthquake happened. Perhaps the reason I rejected her request for me to write this article when she called me in Thursday late afternoon, is that I remember those days. I borrowed 30 TL (or 30 million TL) from Ece and went to Yalova, she was one of the first people who shared my sorrow…

But I still don’t know what to write. It has been 14 years, but I am still effected by that quake. I don’t know about my own feelings properly. I am not too aware how my life has changed. Because I am still shaking, I still don’t have all my marbles.

Ayşegül and I got married in 1989. Having a child was a big decision and we were not brave enough. Then a bomb exploded on 30 December 1994.

A PKK militant called Deniz Demir placed a bomb in Opera Patisserie at The Marmara Hotel. Onat Kutlar was going to meet his wife Filiz on that day at that patisserie. My elder sister was going to collect her birthday gift from her friend Beyza. Yasemin died as soon as the bomb exploded, Onat abi passed away after an 11-day struggle for life.

Yasemin’s death destroyed our family. My mum wasn’t be the same person again. She wrote poems, books for her and organised commemoration meetings. She didn’t want to be the same person anyway.

Yasemin didn’t want to leave the house that day and asked my mum to tell Beyza, ‘Yasemin is not home’ over the phone. My mum was either too late to say or couldn’t lie, and Yasemin felt she must talk to Beyza and arrange a meeting. Even if the story wasn’t like that, people who have lost their loved ones still know the guilt of being alive. This feeling doesn’t have to have a logical reason. She died and you are alive. So, you did something you had to do insufficiently. Or you didn’t die. Why?

“Ali decided to be born on 30 December, the day Yasemin died”

Ayşegül and I wanted to respond to death with life after Yasemin’s death. And we decided to have two children. If we were lucky, we wanted to have one of each. That is how we had Ali. And Ali decided to be born on 30 December, the day Yasemin died.

Ayşegül was giving birth to Ali on 30 December 1997 when my mum and dad were at Yasemin’s commemoration meeting. It was such an interesting coincidence of the destiny.

Ali… I cried when he was born as a healthy baby with blue eyes and black hair. Though it wasn’t easy getting used to being a father. But he was a very special child, showing empathy to others even when he was just a year old. Everybody was telling us to use an evil eye amulet to protect him because he was so beautiful.

Cüneyt Cebenoyan, wife Ayşegül, and son Ali


My mum was expecting Yasemin to come back with our new child, so she couldn’t get used to Ali easily. She was still hoping we’d have a baby girl up until the last minute, despite the ultrasounds. Having a baby boy disappointed her. Also, she didn’t want to end her bereavement. In the photos taken those days, she looks like she doesn’t want to hold Ali, but just forces herself. But Ali knew how to make people to love him. My dad fell in love with him immediately. Ali was also very fond of his grandad.

When Ali was born, I was writing at Roll and Express, and also making a radio program at Açık Radyo. And I was doing counselling for a living. I decided to change my lifestyle after Ali was born and started to work at CNN Türk as a writer.

As Ayşegül worked at IBM, we had a babysitter with Ali during the daytime. My parents wanted to go to Fethiye for a holiday with Ali. But they didn’t have seat belts in the back seat. Without this, it wasn’t possible to tie the baby seat, and this was risky. So, we didn’t let them to leave without seat belts, then they gave up their Fethiye holiday and decided to go to their summerhouse in Yüksel Sitesi (complex) in Yalova.

Ayşegül and I were also in Yalova on 14-15 August. My mum ended her bereavement and fell in love with Ali. My mother, who has not laughed for years, speaks of Ali with laughing eyes and says, “He’s spoiled so sweetly!”

We bought Ali an inflatable pool. When I was going to the petrol station to inflate the pool, I saw a dead kingfisher. I have never seen a kingfisher in Yalova before. I saw this amazing bird in the South Aegean or Mediterranean, but in Yalova, Marmara? It was the first time I saw one and it was dead.

This weird scene was in my mind. It was like a messenger of impending doom. I felt sad for the bird, but it wasn’t something to get too worked up about. Of course, these are meaningless coincidences, but the human mind tried to find meaning in the most meaningless of things. Afterwards, my mind was always going to remember that kingfisher.

Cuneyt Cebenoyan, outside House of Co-operation, UN Buffer Zone, Nicosia, Cyprus, 24 May 2014


I saw my mum, dad and Ali in 15 August evening for the last time. We said goodbye and went back to our home in İstanbul, Şişli. 27-28 hours later, I woke up because of a horrible quake. It was so long, so scary. There was a blackout. The phones didn’t work. We went to the street and tried to learn where the epicentre was from the car radio, but there wasn’t enough information. So, we went to CNN Türk headquarters to get better information.

With a journalist’s reflex, Cüneyt Özdemir turned up at the TV channel and was happy to see me there, as he found someone he can put to work early in the morning. I am still ashamed of myself, as I couldn’t say, “I came here to learn what happened to my family, not to work”, and I went to the airport to hire a helicopter.

I remember dreamily searching to charter a helicopter in the shadowy parts of Ataturk airport that I had never seen before. It was like I was in a dream. Ayşegül decided to go to Yalova by herself. I learned the epicentre was Gölcük in the afternoon and departed immediately. When the ferry was approaching the dock, it didn’t look like there was a big problem. I realised something wasn’t right when I said ‘Yüksel Sitesi’ (Yüksel Estate) when I got on the minibus.

When we came to Yüksel Sitesi… There was no Yüksel Sitesi. Many complexes around it had survived the earthquake with no or little damage, but our complex was smashed to smithereens. I thought I had come to the wrong place, but the site’s neighbours Şekerbank Camp and Aydın 6 Sitesi were there. Our complex was supposed to be in between them, but it wasn’t. I found Ayşegül. She fainted when she saw the rubble. I wasn’t next to her. I vomited. I was stunned.

Then the process to remove the rubble started. For ages we couldn’t even guess where they could be in the ruins. One night, I was there when they took a child’s dead body out. He was so black because of the dust. I became vaguely happy it wasn’t Ali. But then I couldn’t forget that child. I remembered that horrible moment with shame.

I saw an incredible solidarity. Lots of people I know, lot of friends including the ones I hadn’t seen for years, came to help. A few days later, Ali’s toys and clothes started emerging from the ground. Now, there was no chance they would be alive. Ayşegül and I didn’t want to be there.

Our friends and relatives pulled Ali, my mum Tuncay and my dad Hikmet out. I have never seen their dead bodies. I still think I should have seen them [dead]. It’s like I still can’t grasp they are dead. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see their dead bodies, that I can’t comprehend they have died.

Our life has changed radically afterwards. Both Ayşegül and I quit our jobs. Ayşegül studied psychology and I went back to radio, then I started to work at BirGün. I started to get psychological help. I did very irrational things, I made myself struggle financially. I am just starting to realise these things. When I say the tremor is continuing, I mean these things. The earthquake took both my past and future from me. Mother, father, and a son…

In 1999, I became a child without parents and a father without a child. Ali, who was born on the day Yasemin died and brought my parents back to life, passed away with my parents.

Life went on. We wanted a boy and a girl; Ali’s sister Elif was born at the end of 2001. I wish her elder brother, granddad, grandma and aunt were also alive. But I am a father, and my daughter makes us so happy.

People who didn’t have big traumas thinks incidents shouldn’t leave any marks behind. They think “It has been many years; these incidents shouldn’t mean anything”. Sometimes the person who is the closest to you can be unsympathetic and behave unmercifully. However, sometimes time doesn’t heal anything. Your scar still hurts secretly.

I don’t know why I wasn’t in Yalova during the earthquake, why I left them there, why I didn’t take my son in my arms and jumped from the balcony, why I didn’t let them to go to Fethiye…