By Elif Kayi
Turkey. In this country, forged, nurtured and closely watched by the military, it is a crime to refuse one’s military service. Despite that fact, hundreds of thousands avoid it.
*awarded with the Freedom of Speech Prize, Marseille 2010
This time of year tourists, especially Britons, are already arriving in a small Mediterranean town on the southern coast of Turkey. The spring sun is beginning to replace winter rains and people already promenade down the streets. Only the restaurant “The Cretan”, which serves Greek specialties, stays closed. The gendarmes were here twice already looking for the manager, but without success.
Warned off by a friend, Kerem T. (not his real name) has decided to keep his head down, hoping the police might forget about him. For the last two weeks he has been hiding in his small apartment about 100 meters from the beach. Kerem settled down with a mug of black coffee and a pack of cigarettes, and told his story. “Don’t think that mine is a unique case,” Kerem says. “There are about 500,000 in the same situation, as you can see on the Internet.” According to the Turkish government, there are even more. Kerem appears nervous and admits later that he has hardly slept for the last two weeks. Ten minutes had not yet passed and he was already lighting his third cigarette.
“I am 34 years old and haven’t done my military service,” he says. It sounds like an admission of guilt because Kerem lives in a country in which the military has a unique role. Even now the population sees Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, primarily as a heroic soldier. We all know the proverb “Every Turk is born a soldier.” Every male Turk between the age of 19 and 40 has to perform his military service, which normally lasts 15 months.
Up to 10 years jail
Kerem has shoulder-length hair and likes to wear Indian cotton shirts and sandals; people of a certain age might say he looks like a hippie. He grew up in a small town on the Sea of Marmara in modest circumstances. His Muslim grandparents came from Thessaloniki after the 1923 convention of population exchange between Greece and Turkey. That’s why Kerem’s restaurant is called “The Cretan”.
“I used to think I would finish my studies and then go to the army like most others. I was perhaps even a bit of a nationalist,” muses Kerem. “Through fellow students, I slowly learned about the political conflicts in this country. I started to think about the state, the power of the military, nationalism and the Kurdish question and decided not to serve in the military,” he explains.
As the guardian of the Turkish Constitution, the military was and remains ubiquitous in the political and social life of the country. The last military coup took place in 1980 and since then the military has threatened to topple the government several times. Furthermore, there is an ongoing armed conflict at the Iraqi border between Turkish military forces and armed factions of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Turkish soldiers who die in that fight are hailed as heroic martyrs.
The Turkish military is seen as all-powerful and is strongly protected by the Constitution. Publicly opposing the army will get one into trouble with Article 155 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). “The alienation of the people from the military” is a punishable offense, which means that all anti-military expression is illegal. Sentences range between six months and two years in prison. The sentence is doubled if the offense is committed through the media.
Living in the underground
Osman Murat Ülke, the first official conscientious objector to military service, was sentenced eight times between 1995 and 1999 and had to stay a total of 701 days in prison. At the end of 2007, he received a letter from the military authorities that he had to complete a suspended sentence of 17 months and 15 days. In 2006, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Turkey for its treatment of Ülke.
Article 24 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right of freedom of conscience, doesn’t include the refusal of military service. This was confirmed in 1991 by the Constitutional Court. There are few open conscientious objectors. Their number is estimated at around 60. They have a difficult stance as Turkey continues to refuse to accept the status of conscientious objectors despite condemnation by the international community. In a report written in 2004 by Swiss politician Dick Marty, the Council of Europe asked Turkey to change this situation.
Not all admit publicly to their refusal to serve in the military. “People like Osman Murat Ülke are the true human rights fighters,” says Kerem. “I am an anti-militarist, but I don’t have the courage or the strength to live a life between prison and threats thereof. Right now I’m hiding.”
The Turkish authorities actually do differentiate between conscientious objectors to military service who admit to it openly and those who are declared “deserters.” According to the minister of defense, there are about 14 million Turks in the age range for military service (between 19 and 40). Of that number, 7 percent are said to be “deserters” — that is more than a million men. Article 63 of the TCK prescribes between one month and 10 years in prison, depending on the seriousness of the crime: nonappearance for mustering at enlistment or for later deserting the ranks.
“My case resulted from the negligence of the military authorities,” says Kerem between draws on his cigarette. “It appeared that the military authorities had forgotten about me; they didn’t contact me, so I just tried not to draw attention to myself and arranged my daily life more or less as an illegal. My restaurant, for instance, is legally run in the name of a friend.” The local authorities in Turkey function as the long arm of the military; even when you apply for a driving license, they check if the applicant has finished his military service. The deserters are thus forced to live under cover. Kerem has lived for several years near a small holiday resort on the coast. At the beginning, there were no problems. “But it’s a small town,” says Kerem. People gradually learned about my situation and now the police have caught on.”
As paradoxical as it sounds, many military service objectors see a glimmer of hope in the economic crisis, which is now having an effect in Turkey as well. Since last fall, many companies started with massive layoffs of their employees. This quite often happens without warning, as many employees work without a written contract. Very few receive unemployment benefits. Therefore, as a last resort, many young men apply to become professional soldiers. In the last month alone, a million candidates applied to the military authorities – one and a half times the number they are able to accept.
The Turkish Constitution provides for the case of a surplus of soldiers, allowing authorities to introduce a short-term system of “buy yourself free”: A certain number of men may pay a fee and are thus able to shorten their military service to as little as four weeks. The fee is about TL 20,000; Parliament has to approve this decision. The first such decree was passed in 1927 under Atatürk.
In 1999, after a devastating earthquake in Turkey, such a decree was passed. It helped the state to quickly raise money. The decree was applicable for men between 26 and 40 years old. Erkan B., a friend of Kerem, was 30 at the time. “I could never imagine going into the army,” says the teacher from Ankara. “I spent my time between school, libraries and books. What would I do in a uniform in the field?” When he graduated from university, he had to find a solution. “I even thought about going abroad – despite the fact that I like to live in Turkey.” Turks living abroad can reduce their military service to three weeks for a fee of 5,000 euros (about TL 10,000). “The earthquake was cruel. More than 40,000 people lost their lives,” says Erkan B., adding, “But the decree after it was my lucky chance.”
Kerem T. was 25 years old then. “One year too young,” he says. “Since then I have been waiting for the next decree. With the surplus of men and the current economic crisis, Parliament could soon go for it,” he states hopefully.
Numerous blogs and Web sites now run discussions among deserters who are tired of playing hide and seek and want to resurface. “If there is no decision about the payoff of military service now, then when? There has to be a vote!” one man writes on a blog hosted by bedelliaskerlikistiyorum.com (I want a “buy yourself free” service). Another one writes that “deserters” are being sent to the Iraki border when they are caught as a punishment. On another website one can read that “deserters” would be punished by three years jail of they do not present themselves to the military authorities by May 13th.
From 35 no use of weapon
There is a consensus among all of those discussing the issue on the Internet: The system of buying your freedom from military service isn’t right. In the end, it favors those who are able to afford those sums. The average wage in Turkey is rarely more than TL 800 per month. TL 20,000 is a large amount of money. For Kerem, though, this case is closed. “Of course it is unfair and discriminatory. Turkey should just acknowledge the status of objectors. But as long as this isn’t so, I personally prefer to pay…”
It is not quite certain, though, that this possibility will be an option for Kerem. At the moment, there is an ongoing discussion in the military and in Parliament to shorten military service from 15 to 12 months. The duration of military service was shortened in 2005 from 18 to 15 months. “I’m fed up,” says Kerem. “If Parliament doesn’t come to a decision by December, I will report to the military – I turn 35 then,” says Kerem. “From that age on, conscripts are not required to use a weapon. At least I don’t have to hold a gun in my hands then.”
The story was originally published in the Berliner Zeitung, on the 28th of February 2009 under the title Nicht jeder Türke wird als Soldat geboren.