‘I’ve lived through Turkish coups before. Here’s what I tell my children’
By Cagla Oztek
Insurrection aftermath: a damaged window at police headquarters in the Turkish capital of Ankara. July 18, 2016.
Bad things always happen in the deep dark of night. I have known this since I was 12, when my father woke my sister and me from our bunk beds, gathered us in the living room and told us, in a slow and clear voice, that Turkey was in the throes of a military coup. “If it’s a successful one, there will be blood everywhere,” he said. “If it’s not, there will be blood everywhere. No one will win.”
It was 3 am, September 12, 1980. Much later, I understood what my father meant by “blood everywhere”, even though there was little actual blood on the streets. As a child lovingly protected by her parents, I was unable to see the rivers of blood that were flowing underground.
Some speeches define who we are, or who we will be. They are not necessarily epic or historic, nor are they heard by crowds. On the contrary, they are the kind of speeches that are made by ordinary men and women at extraordinary moments – the kind of speeches that remain hidden in the hearts of both listener and speechmaker forever.
My own history contains a few of them. Two were given by my father, and the third given by me to my children as we watched live on TV and social media the latest coup attempt in my country unfold last weekend.
This time, it was the early hours of July 16. My speech was exactly the same one my father gave in 1980. (“Blood everywhere”, “no one wins …”) This time, I’m the same age as my father when he first explained coups to us. But I’m probably more tired than he was of being insulted, and much more hopeless about my country’s future.
I wasn’t afraid in 1980 because my elementary school teacher had already taught us what to do when we heard gunfire at the bus stop. I watched as my parents put most of their books in boxes and moved them out of the house, their destiny unknown. My parents were forced to quit their jobs in the government and we moved from Ankara to Istanbul. It took a few years for me to realise that the coup meant more than starting a new life, in a new city with sorrowful parents.
The constitution and the parliament were abolished after the generals took power that year. Elected politicians were tried, jailed and banished. (Two years later, the generals adopted a new constitution, and in 1983 they held an election for a new parliament.) Meanwhile, statistics gathered by the Turkish Grand National Assembly and other organisations disclosed that more than 1.5 million people had been blacklisted, which led to 30,000, among them professors, teachers and judges, losing their jobs. Some 230,000 were tried in State Security Courts set up after the coup; 517 of them were sentenced to death, and 50 were hanged. Fourteen thousand were deprived of their citizenship, and 30,000 became political refugees. Hundreds were murdered by unknown assailants. Thousands died of torture, only 171 of their deaths officially recorded. Around 400 journalists were sued, 31 of them jailed. Newspapers were shut down for 300 days. Thirty-nine metric tonnes of newspapers and books were burned.
My father’s second speech came in the summer of 1988. I was a student of political science at Middle East Technical University. Politics was such a nasty word that the university didn’t include “political science” in my school’s name; my parents were deeply alarmed that I was a member of the students’ union.
My father told me that I had “the right and also the duty to find your way to change the world – but before jumping into anything, think twice or maybe more.
“Any movement needs leaders, activists, followers and sympathisers,” he said. “Choose your camp where you can build your objectivity. And please beware of the police!”
It was the ideal of objectivity that pushed me into the media. I became a reporter at the beginning of the 1990s, when the ghosts of September 12 were still haunting us. Journalism was, still is – and probably always will be – a kind of heaven and hell in Turkey. Reporters (Çetin Emeç, Uğur Mumcu), writers, academics (Muammer Aksoy, Tarık Dursun, Bahriye Üçok, Ahmet Taner Kışlalı) and many others have been assassinated. A young journalist (Metin Göktepe) was beaten to death by police. On July 2, 1993, we watched as 37 people, trapped in the Hotel Madimak in Sivas by thousands of Islamist demonstrators, burned to death – all in the name of God. Some 2,400 political murders remain unsolved.
It was also the era of the rise of the Kurdish separatist movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara still classifies as a terrorist group.
President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency. Official sources put the death toll from the attempted coup at 240, including 173 civilians; around 1,500 were wounded. More than 7,000, mostly police and army officers, taken into custody. A total of 1,577 university deans asked to resign their posts. More than 15,000 workers in the Ministry of National Education suspended. Around 50,000 civil officers have lost their jobs. Government officials seized copies of Leman, a weekly magazine, because its cover satirised soldier-civilian confrontations during the failed coup.
At least some things have changed for my children, now 20 and 16. They’ve lived only under the rule of a single political party, the AK Party, and they got their political educations during the Occupy Gezi protests over the government’s destruction of a small Istanbul park – and what demonstrators saw as a broader threat to their way of life.
The night of the attempted coup, I hated myself for delivering my father’s 36-year-old speech, but my children are preparing a completely different one for their future children. I saw it in their eyes.
Cagla Oztek is the former managing editor of Newsweek Turkey.