Penning Words from Exile
ON JULY 15, 2016, FACTIONS WITHIN THE TURKISH MILITARY ATTEMPTED TO OVERTHROW THE GOVERNMENT. The Presidential Palace and Parliament were bombed, and tanks rolled through the streets of Istanbul. The coup attempt failed, but by the time the dust settled, hundreds had been killed and Turkey was placed under a state of emergency.
The Turkish government blamed U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and his followers for the coup attempt. The Gülenists claim President Erdogan himself staged the coup in order to purge Turkey of enemies and reinforce his power.
Following the coup attempt, there was indeed a widespread purge. Hundreds of thousands accused of affiliation with the Gülen movement were ultimately fired from their jobs, subject to travel bans, or arrested. 189 news outlets were closed by the Turkish government, and hundreds of journalists were arrested.
The European Parliament and most member countries have repeatedly denounced the crackdown in Turkey, saying in a February 2018 resolution that it “...expresses its deep concern at the ongoing deterioration in fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law in Turkey...urges the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those who have been detained only for carrying out their legitimate work, exercising freedom of expression and association and are being held without compelling evidence of criminal activity...”
As the crackdown in Turkey unfolded, many of those wanted by the government attempted to flee the country to avoid imprisonment. As of October 2018, more than 41,000 Turkish nationals have applied for asylum in European Union countries since the coup attempt.
Abdullah Bozkurt considers himself among the luckiest of those forced into exile. “You know, in 2015, at my paper, we covered the refugee influx to Europe,” he says. “We were in Greece. I never imagined I’d be one such refugee.”
Bozkurt was Ankara bureau chief of Today’s Zaman, a flagship Turkish newspaper. The paper covered corruption investigations and as a result, ran afoul of the Turkish government. In March 2016, three months before the coup attempt, the government seized control of Today’s Zaman, claiming it was a Gülen-affiliated publication. Undeterred, Bozkurt opened his own news outlet, Muhabir.
He tried to cover the coup attempt and its aftermath. But ten days after the attempt, the Turkish government issued arrest warrants for 42 journalists in one day. Bozkurt decided he needed to leave Turkey. He planned on going directly to Sweden, but booked a flight to Germany to avoid arousing suspicion. “It was a stopover for me,” he explained. “There is such a huge Turkish population in Germany, and so much business back and forth, so I figured it would be less of a red flag than if I booked a flight directly to Sweden.”
As Bozkurt made his way to the airport, he was petrified. “Already, I’d heard about a journalist friend attempting to leave the country and being caught at the airport,” he said.“They issued an arrest warrant for him on the spot and took him to jail. I was so afraid as I was passing through immigration at the airport, but I got through and got out.”
A day later, an arrest warrant was issued for him and police raided his Ankara office. A little more than a year later, he learned that his apprehended colleague received a sentence of life in prison.
At first, Bozkurt figured he could ride out the post- coup crackdown and eventually return to Turkey. “In previous coup attempts, there were periods where some people went into exile—academics especially—but then were able to return to Turkey. And I thought maybe that would be the case this time.”
Then, a few weeks later, an arrest warrant was issued for one of his colleagues. The police couldn’t find the wanted man, as he’d already gone into hiding, so they arrested his wife instead.
Bozkurt realized his wife and eldest son might be at risk of arrest if they remained in Turkey. Shortly after his own escape, he was able to get his wife and three children out of Turkey and has been able to resettle them in Sweden. Bozkurt knows he is lucky. So many of his colleagues are in prison in Turkey, and many who managed to flee had to do so without their families.
He misses Turkey, but enjoys many aspects of his new life. “Living in Europe, in Sweden, is a mix of good and bad, like anywhere. I love the Swedish people. They’re open and accepting. And I love the cheese! Even more than the cheese in Turkey.”
Still, the adjustment hasn’t been easy for him or his family. His eldest son had been nearly finished with high school, but had to completely start over in Sweden because of the difference between the two educational systems. Rebuilding a life in a new country has also been challenging for his 15-year-old daughter.
When asked if he’d found a Turkish community in Sweden, Bozkurt explained that the Turkish diaspora in Europe is heavily divided. There are many Erdogan supporters with a fervent vitriol for those branded “terrorists” by the Turkish government. It’s so severe that when Bozkurt encounters a fellow Turk he doesn’t know, he pretends not to be Turkish.
“There are the Turkish people, who support Erdogan... and Erdogan fuels this sentiment in the diaspora. He urges people to attack the critics and the minority groups. He makes it sound like their patriotic duty.
“But there’s also the concern over Turkish intelligence. They could grab me, as they have done with many others,” he says. Turkish intelligence operatives have abducted more than 80 Turkish citizens from 18 countries since 2016, bringing them back to Turkey. Bozkurt believes that his work makes him an especially attractive target.
In 2016, Bozkurt founded the Stockholm Center for Freedom, a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the lesser covered news in Turkey. It started with the desire to report on the arrests and incarceration of fellow journalists. “It really pissed us off...Committee to Protect Journalists and the other groups only reported some of the names of those in prison, but they missed so many. Some were regional journalists, but some were bureau chiefs. Prominent people. It was a really unfair oversight.”
By Stockholm Center for Freedom’s count, there are 238 journalists in prison in Turkey today; Turkey is the top jailer of journalists on earth.
Bozkurt thinks a return to Turkey might be possible in the distant future, but he is happy to put down roots in Sweden. “It will take generations for Turkey to detoxify from this period. From all of the xenophobia caused by the government and the media which is controlled by the government at this point,” he laments.
“Because of this worry, so many journalists in exile have stopped writing, stopped working. They’re afraid to be targeted.” Bozkurt says for him, continuing to spread knowledge of the ongoing persecution in Turkey is worth the risk.
“Our journalist friends in Turkey, in prison, cannot express themselves. We have to be the voice for them.”
YÜKSEL DURGUT SAYS HE FELT FREE FROM THE MOMENT HE CROSSED THE MERIÇ RIVER FROM TURKEY TO GREECE, a dangerous route the Turkish government estimates more than 4,000 people have risked in order to avoid arrest.
In Turkey, the government censors online content. Access to Twitter, certain websites, and even messaging services are sometimes blocked. To circumvent this, Turks use VPNs to access these things through proxies.
“As soon as I set foot in Greece, I deleted my VPN app from my phone. I was free.” Durgut said.
The night of the coup attempt, Durgut was in Istanbul working for the now-shuttered Cihan news agency. Being a journalist in Istanbul, he rushed to the main flash points of the coup attempt to report. “I didn’t go home for a week,” he said. “I was reporting for many foreign news agencies.”
Like Abdullah Bozkurt, Durgut had difficulties with the Turkish government even before the coup attempt. He covered corruption cases, and then the Gezi Park protests. But it wasn’t immediately clear to him that he would be targeted for arrest. “I had done nothing wrong, so why would I worry?” he mused.
A week and a half after the coup attempt, while Durgut covered the situation in Ankara, police in Istanbul came to his home looking for him. His family was terrified. A day later, his news agency was forcibly closed by the Turkish government. He was finally located and arrested in August of 2016. He was held in Istanbul’s notorious Silivri prison for more than a year on pretrial detention.
Durgut had to undergo heart surgery in June 2017. He was returned to prison immediately after. “They wouldn’t let my family visit me. Even the drug dealers got to have visits. That hurt the most,” he said. His health continued to deteriorate, and two months later, he was released from prison to await his trial.
Durgut was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, but allowed to remain out of prison pending an appeal. He decided to flee to Europe, setting his sights on Germany as a final destination.
Durgut’s sons remains in Turkey. He is lucky to be free, but he has lost a great deal. “My sons are still in Turkey. I want to bring them here,” he said. He doesn’t like to talk about it, but his wife divorced him after his imprisonment. He says his best friends were too scared to knock on his door after that, fearing they, too, would be arrested.
“I am not worried for myself. I never worried for myself, even when I was prison. But I worry for my children, who have to live in Turkey with such an uncertain future. And I worry for my father, who is in prison for 2.5 years for no reason.”
Durgut’s father, like thousands of others in Turkey, was arrested and imprisoned for having a bank account at Bank Aysa, which the Turkish government says was run by Gülenists. Earlier this year, the Turkish supreme court ruled that deposits and other banking transactions into Bank Aysa accounts could be considered aiding and abetting a terrorist organization.
Durgut eventually made it to Germany, where he is struggling to resettle and resume his journalistic work. “I’m 46 years old,” he said. “I have been a journalist for 25 years. But I lost everything. My earnings, my home, my family...my whole life went into one backpack so I could cross a river.
“For 2.5 years now, I have been living out of this one bag. In prison first, and now here.” He misses basic creature comforts, like being able to relax and watch movies on television in a home of his own.
But Durgut is thrilled to be in Germany. “People here have been so accepting, the opposite of what it is in Turkey now.” A German journalist he’d befriended gave him a camera, knowing all of his equipment had been seized by the Turkish government. “This was inexplicable kindness tome.”
Durgut says he doesn’t really miss Turkey, and after all he has been through, he never wants to return. “I consider myself a world citizen. Because if your vision is wide enough, all lands are your homeland.”
— This article appears in
Are We Europe #3: Uprooted