23rd April jubilation

The Turkish nation’s first step towards independence, taken exactly 80 years ago, is celebrated around the world today as Children’s Day.

It is Friday morning, 23 April 1920. An enthusiastic crowd has gathered around the historic parliament building in the Ankara district of Ulus to celebrate the nation’s independence. For the 115 MP’s who first met here under the roof of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey proclaimed the good news that the government had passed into the hands of the people. Ever since that day, the 23rd of April has been celebrated as the ‘Day of National Sovereignty’, because ‘national sovereignty’ or independence means that the right to govern belongs to the nation. And the National Assembly had taken that right away from the sultan and given it to the people.

According to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, national sovereignty is the antithesis not only of the sultanate but of all forms of personal rule, old or new. “There is no monarch, no dictator in the Turkish State or among the Turkish people who founded that state. The whole world should know that there is no longer any power, or any office at the head of this nation and this state. There is only one power, and that is the sovereignty of the nation.” Thus spoke Atatürk, and in doing so he was affirming in the strongest terms that the highest authority belongs to the people.

Children’s Day was added to National Sovereignty Day in 1929 at the initiative of the Society for the Protection of Children. And Atatürk’s love for children played a big role in the creation of this special day for them. Over his lifetime Atatürk adopted eight children: Afet (İnan), Sabiha (Gökçen), Fikriye, Ülkü, Nebile, Rukiye, Zehra and Mustafa. Two other children, Abdurrahim and İhsan, were also his wards. But all children were worthy of love in his eyes. There is no need to have witnessed that love in person to feel it today. Just a brief glance at some old photographs will suffice to confirm the boundless love and compassion for children that the Great Leader felt in his heart. And the 23rd of April is further proof that Atatürk regarded the nation’s children as its future and the guarantors of its sovereignty. “Little women, little men!” he said, in an earnest expression of his faith in children, “Each one of you is a star, a ray of light, a rose of the future! It is you who will bathe the country in light. Never lose sight in your striving of how important and valuable you are. We are expecting great things of you!”

On that first Children’s Day back in 1929, the children of Ankara tramped through the streets of the capital singing marches. The first ‘children’s ball and afternoon tea’ was held at the Ankara Palas hotel with Atatürk himself in attendance. In Istanbul, too, children gathered around the monument on Taksim Square for a long march to the accompaniment of the Navy Band. Children’s plays and other entertainments were staged at the Tepebaşı Theater. Then, in 1935, the celebrations of national sovereignty and of the nation’s children were combined in ‘National Sovereignty and Children’s Day’. When the United Nations declared 1979 ‘The Year of the World’s Children’, an organization was put together by Turkish State Radio and Television (TRT) aimed at encompassing all the world’s children. The first TRT International 23rd April Children’s Festival was celebrated in Turkey in 1979 with the participation of five other countries: the Soviet Union, Iraq, Italy, Rumania and Bulgaria. Now the festival is held annually with the participation of children from approximately fifty countries. The festivals, which were held in the capital Ankara from 1979 to 2000, have spread today to all the major cities including Istanbul, Izmir and Antalya.
Invited by the children of Turkey, some twenty thousand children from 100 different countries have taken part in these festivals up to now.

In a record for Turkey, 62 countries are joining in this year’s festivities, which will take place in Antalya 16-25 April. This 29th annual festival is also welcoming some brand new visitors: Equador, Ivory Coast, Montenegro, and the Republic of Guinea. This year’s gala program to be held at the ancient theater in Aspendos is going to be lively, humming and chock full of fun. Aspendos’s little visitors will first be welcomed with 15,000 carnations. One by one each group will then take the stage in their authentic native costumes to perform the songs and dances of their country. One of the biggest attractions of this year’s
23rd April festivities is a photography exhibition on the theme, ‘The History of 23rd April in Photographs’, to be mounted 16-23 April at the Rahmi Koç Museum in Istanbul, at the Turkish Parliament building and the Kızılay Metro Stop in Ankara, and at the Migros Shopping Center in Antalya.

Every child in Turkey is familiar with the excitement that begins already in early April. We all have memories of this holiday. Every school puts together its own program for the occasion. Plays are written, rounds composed, poems memorized. Everything is for the children on that day. Some head for the funfair clutching a balloon, others are ensconced for the day in the seat of the governor, the speaker of parliament, or even the prime minister. Over the years Turkish children have made the acquaintance of the other children of the world through the TRT’s colorful 23rd April broadcasts. During the nearly week-long celebrations the visiting children stay with Turkish families with children of the same age, and when the visitors leave hearts inevitably constrict. Every year pictures of warm hugs and tearful good-byes fill the newspapers. And this year will be no exception. Most important of all, the bonds of love and friendship among the world’s children are going to be further strengthened as the children, speaking in unison, express their pure and heartfelt message: May the whole world live in peace!