Turkey: from one dictatorship to the other

The AKP government of Prime Minister Erdoğan has effectively decreased the once unlimited power of the army. The power of the judiciary was strengthened. But now that power has too strong a grip on society.

Why did you visit wounded demonstrators in hospital? Why did you give interviews to so many TV and radio stations? Why did you attend that press conference? Why did you help get bodies of PKK members back to their families? ‘All legal activities’, says human rights lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag, based in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, ‘but Kurdish politicians and activists are being questioned and jailed for it.’

And not just a few Kurdish politicians and activists were arrested and jailed, but a total of about 4,000 since April 2009. And that number is still rising, because all over Turkey new suspects are still being arrested in what has become known as the ‘KCK trials’. The KCK is an umbrella organisation of Kurdish groups,  including the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the United States. By arresting peaceful, democratically elected politicians and activists under the KCK flag, practicing democratic rights suddenly becomes a crime. Lawyer Yalcindag: ‘And so you can end up in a cell for giving out a press release, for participating in a demonstration or for shouting a slogan.’

Anti-democratic network

Criticism of the firm grip of the judicial power over several opposition groups in Turkey is increasing. It happened gradually. At first, it seemed the increasing influence of judges and prosecutors initiated by the AKP government of PM Erdoğan, which came to office in 2002, would be beneficial to democracy. The judicial power for example started to deal with the ‘deep state’, an anti-democratic network of prominent figures in for example the bureaucracy, army, secret service and the mafia. The unlimited authority and privileges of the army were curtailed, military courts for civilians were abolished and for certain crimes army personnel now have to appear before a civilian judge.

Maya Arakon, sociologist and political scientist and until recently an assistant professor at Yeditepe University in Istanbul, used to have faith in the way the army was dealt with by the AKP: ‘The army has always controlled the country since the foundation of the republic in 1923’, she says. ‘So when the trials against the ‘deep state’ started, I and many others were happy with that. It is not wrong for the government to have more power than the army. But then that power has to be used in the right way for the right goal. It should benefit the people, who should get more rights and freedoms. That is not happening now, even though the government insists democratisation is the goal of their policies.

The power of judges and prosecutors is turning itself against democracy now, claims Arakon: ‘The AKP uses judges and prosecutors to silence opponents. The KCK trials are an example of that. The Kurdish party BDP is the biggest rival of the AKP in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey.’ Conspiracy thinking? The first arrests in the KCK case were at the beginning of April 2009. The local elections, which the Kurdish party won convincingly, were held at the end of March 2009.

An odd alliance

But not only Kurdish politicians and activists are victims of the ever tighter grip that the judiciary has on society. Even the once so powerful army doesn’t escape. An odd alliance: in the nineties the army was so powerful that they could ruthlessly and without fear of punishment get rid of the PKK or anybody they even suspected of having sympathy for the separatist movement, but now they are in a way in the same boat as the Kurdish activists. They are no longer hand and glove with the government, like before, but have become opponents. And they taste defeat.

Part of the trials against those involved in the ‘deep state’ is the so called Balyoz case. That case is about a group of high-ranking, partly retired army men who have allegedly conspired against the AKP government. They had spectacular plans: they would first cause great unrest in society, for example by bombing a huge mosque in Istanbul during Friday prayer and provoke a military confrontation with Greece, and then topple the government.

Lawyer Celal Ülgen, who represents main suspect Cetin Dogan and the other ‘big fish’ Dursun Cicek (once head of the military units who decapitated Kurds in the nineties), doesn’t believe any of it. He opens his Apple computer and says: ‘Now I’m going to convince you in half an hour that the whole case is fake.’

Copied signatures, lost CD’s

He starts a presentation and shows how evidence has been doctored. It’s about copied signatures, about lost CD’s, about dates that don’t make sense. It’s too complicated to explain it all here, but even some people who are not automatically on the army’s side are becoming convinced that the evidence in the Balyoz case isn’t clean.

The problem for both the KCK and Balyoz suspects is that they are actors in a pretty polarized society and they don’t have many allies outside their own circles. Balyozlawyer Celal Ülgen often hears it said that it wouldn’t be the first time that an elected government in Turkey was toppled by the army, and that it is for that reason not unthinkable that the army, which has a deep hatred and suspicion of the AKP, could have such plans again. Ülgen: ‘Many people think like that, and it makes it more difficult to convince people the Balyoz case is based on doctored evidence.’

And every activist Kurd automatically has, according to many Turks, a PKK odour, whether he or she takes up arms or supports the Kurdish struggle as a member of Parliament or mayor. There is sympathy among human rights activists and liberal intellectuals, but in Turkey that’s only a very small group.

Secret material

Doctored evidence, unlawful evidence, indictments for practising democratic rights, it would be less bad if at least the suspects could rely on the independence of the judges in their cases. But they don’t rely on that. They have little reason to. Already during the trials it turns out that (internationally) respected legal norms are not being followed and that judges don’t seem to care. Norms such as the access of lawyers to evidence. Both Celal Ülgen and Reyhan Yalcindag don’t get access to evidence, exactly the evidence that they think has been fabricated or consider unlawful.

KCK-lawyer Reyhan Yalcindag: ‘Private phone calls have been tapped, against all international legal regulations. These taps are being used as evidence, but the lawyers don’t have access to them because it’s considered ‘secret material.’ Balyozlawyer Celal Ülgen: ‘I want to inspect documents about a certain CD, but I’m not allowed to. Consequently I can’t defend my clients properly.’

Another example: the very long pre-trial detentions. Some of the suspects had been in remand for years, sometimes without indictment or without having any information on when the trial would start, continue or finish. That’s not the case for suspects in other high profile trials in which the suspects are close to the government, as became painfully clear in October. In a huge fraud case against board members of Deniz Feneri Dernegi, a charity organisation close to the government, the judges decided to release all suspects from remand.

Destruction of Kurdish political life

‘Because of these sorts of cases, the public’s faith in the judiciary decreases’, says sociologist and political scientist Maya Arakon. ‘People don’t believe anymore that there is justice, and that is very dangerous, because they will take justice into their own hands. Of course you can wonder if things were better before. No, they were not, but that doesn’t justify what is happening now. The judicial power protects the interests of the state, and nowadays of the government, instead of working for civil rights and fundamental freedoms that should protect civilians against the state and the government.’

For Kurdish politicians, she says, it goes even further than that: ‘In their view, these developments are part of the destruction of Kurdish political life in Turkey, and I can understand that very well. They can hardly do anything else these days than defend themselves against all these arrests.’

‘You can’t solve problems with legislation only’

The European Union looks at it with concern, as becomes clear in the progress report published in mid-October. The judicial shortcomings in both the Balyoz case and the KCK trials are mentioned explicitly. It’s all rather sour: the changes that were pushed through under pressure from the EU, and that were meant to serve democracy, look good on paper but, as happens more often in Turkey, something goes seriously wrong in their implementation. EU MP and Turkey rapporteur Ria Oomen-Ruijten: ‘Indeed, you can’t solve problems with legislation only. That’s why the EU invests in the training of judges and prosecutors.’

But what if they are pressured to start the ‘right’ prosecutions and give the ‘right’ verdicts? And what if judges and prosecutors of important cases are being replaced at strategic moments, with an outcome pleasing the government? Oomen-Ruijten: ‘It’s true, sometimes strange things happen. But that’s of course also why we monitor it all. There is no proof that the government directly interferes. Our starting point still is that Turkey is a civilized nation.’

But sociologist and political scientist Maya Arakon doesn’t expect much from the EU:  ‘Europe has its own problems. They now and then send a delegate this way, but their interest in Turkey isn’t sincere.’ Oomen-Ruijten, one of those delegates, strongly disagrees: ‘My report on Turkey and the EU, which will be published halfway mid-November, will be about interdependence in several areas, from economy to the fight against terrorism. But human rights, that’s another subject, more important than anything else. Human rights, the rule of law, those are strict Copenhagen criteria and Turkey has to comply with them.’

A huge paradox

Does Maya Arakon think the tide will turn within a reasonable time? ‘This is Turkey, she sighs. ‘Everything can change in a day and nothing can change in years. I don’t know, but I don’t have much hope.’ The AKP is firmly in charge: the party won the elections last June with a bigger majority than ever before. Most Turks are not directly harmed by the developments in the judiciary and don’t feel very involved in huge, elusive court cases against Kurds and military personnel. They vote based on changes in their own lives, or, in other words, based on a growing wealth and a growing economy.

Balyozlawyer Celal Ülgen clings to Europe. That’s also why he talks to the European press. ‘The consciousness about this matter has to grow in Europe’, he says. ‘Then maybe Europe can pressure Turkey more.’ A huge paradox, because it’s exactly EU pressure that helped erode the power of the army in the last couple of years. An even bigger paradox is that the hope of the Balyoz suspects, military men who still fight bitterly against the PKK, is focused on the solution of the Kurdish question. Ülgen: ‘They are terrorists, and my clients are also jailed based on terrorism laws. If there is ever to be an amnesty law for PKK members, there is a good chance that same law will free my clients too.’ He considers that chance bigger than the chance a judge will judge fair.

Professional journalism? Not in Turkey!

Blue murder is being cried over the lack of press freedom in Turkey. You never hear about the other side of the medal: journalists give themselves too many freedoms. Journalist Banu Güven: ‘Extreme language and polarization sell.’

There is a huge red board in the hallway at Hürriyet, one of the biggest papers in Turkey: Our Basic Principles of Publishing. Twenty rules by which the journalists of the paper have to abide. On one: ‘The essential function of journalism is to inform the public as soon as possible about the truth, without changing or exaggerating it.’ The ombudsman of the paper, the experienced and respected journalist Faruk Bildirici, thinks it is important the rules are posted on the wall, but says: ‘They are broken every day.’

Faruk Bildirici

Check Hürriyet, or any other Turkish paper. Factual, objective reporting is hard to find. As a matter of fact, often it’s not even attempted. One interesting recent example is the reporting on the death of the young Turk Ishan Gürz in a police station at IJmuiden in the Netherlands, early in July. English language daily Today’s Zaman, offspring of the huge Turkish language Islamic and pro-government paper Zaman, specializes in letting its reporting about Muslims who die under suspicious circumstances in Europe get totally out of hand. Without any proof, the headline in the paper soon after Gürz’s death was: “Turkish man dies after severe torture in Dutch police station”. Consequently the death was immediately seen from the perspective of increasing Islam phobia in Europe.

That’s exactly what happened two summers ago after the murder of Arzu Erbas, owner of a children’s daycare centre in Amsterdam. Even when it became clear that the murder had nothing to do with Islam phobia or racism, but that it was Ms Erbas’ extramarital affair that got her into trouble, Zaman kept on writing about hatred of Muslims as motive for the murder.

‘In daily practice, the ethical codes don’t mean anything’

You could call it the other side of the Turkish press freedom medal. The one side is very well known: there is censorship in Turkey, self censorship too, there are dozens of journalists in jail and hundreds of trials of reporters of varied backgrounds (see boxed text). That journalists in the meantime permit themselves extraordinary freedoms in their daily reporting and don’t care about basic journalism rules, is hardly a matter of debate.

Dogan Tilic

Dogan Tilic, professor in journalism ethics at ODTÜ university in Ankara and vice president of the European Association of Journalists, lists: ‘Sexism, nationalism, hate: Turkish papers are full of it every day. Almost every paper and TV station has an ethical code like Hürriyet, but in daily practice they don’t mean anything. That’s because of the most important rule in Turkish journalism: Never go against the interests of the owner.’

On the press freedom index of Reporters without Borders, Turkey this year fell to 138th place, one step above Ethiopia. The worst score in a decade. According to a recent report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, there are 57 journalists jailed in Turkey at the moment (some of them on remand), and there are around seven hundred cases pending against journalists.

Journalists who report on the Kurdish issue and the PKK from a Kurdish perspective, have the highest risk of getting into trouble. They are usually charged with ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’, leading to long prison sentences. There has never been much attention paid to that in mainstream Turkish media. Now that journalists with other backgrounds are also being arrested, like the ones under suspicion of involvement in coup plans, the indignation and solidarity among Turkish journalists is growing.

Almost all media in Turkey are part of conglomerates, which are also involved in banking,  insurance, mining, food and household products, construction, you name it. The motives behind running a paper or TV station are seldom journalistic and usually purely financial. Dogan Tilic remembers a colleague who worked for a paper whose owner was also in chicken. Tilic: ‘They had to write on a daily basis about chicken and the benefits of white meat. Until the ownership of the paper changed hands, after which chicken was off the pages.’

The same applies on a larger scale. Newspaper companies are also in mining, so there was not too much attention paid to a potential environmental disaster earlier this year concerning a silver mine. The same goes for the construction of dams: there is a lot of civil resistance against the construction of dams in natural parks, but you hardly hear about it. And the negative consequences of the wave of privatizations? Hardly news, because media owners bid on state companies being privatised. Related to that: companies can’t be too critical or revealing about governing party AKP, because companies which are not befriended will miss out on lucrative deals.

To sell these papers with the (for the owner) most beneficial mix of news and opinion as much as possible, a sauce is poured over it that the average Turkish news paper readers really likes: nationalism, polarization, sensation, sex and sexism. Anti-Kurdish and anti-Armenian sentiments are stirred up, and in the reporting about domestic violence it seems as if the women who are killed by their husbands are themselves guilty (‘She went out at night without permission and now she is dead!’). Whenever soldiers die in the fight against Kurdish separatist movement PKK, then there is always a paper whose front page the next day is covered with a huge Turkish flag. When recently thirteen soldiers were killed and serious doubts were raised about the question whether it was really a PKK attack or a huge mistake on the part of the military, hardly any paper dared to seriously report about those doubts.

And then there are the ideologically inspired papers, TV stations and ‘journalistic’ websites. Zaman, one of the biggest papers at the moment, belongs to followers of the very popular though controversial Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, and so supports the government and doesn’t publish anything that doesn’t match its convictions, and writes a lot about other enterprises owned by Gülen followers. The Gülen followers also have TV stations. The once important but now marginalized and nationalist paper Cumhuriyet defends the republic, the Turkish army and the rest of the powers that be, and takes every chance it gets to pillory people who think differently.

‘Children of Moses’ has been on best seller lists for years

One step further than that: books and websites. Did you know the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his wife secretly have Jewish roots and conspire with the Israeli secret service to… Well, it goes too far to reveal the whole conspiracy theory here, but the anti-Semitic and racist book is called ‘Children of Moses’, has been on best seller lists for years and is given a cachet of believability because it’s written by a ‘journalist’. The writer, Ergun Poyraz, is now in jail for alleged involvement with Ergenekon, a shadowy network of people who supposedly wanted to overthrow the AKP government. The same goes for Soner Yalcin, editor in chief of OdaTV, a nationalist website. Journalists? Or ultra-nationalists who hammer a sign with ‘journalist’ on their door to give some authority to their articles, and howl with others about the lack of press freedom when they are arrested?

You could just say the Turkish media are a crystal-clear mirror of the political balances in the country and shrug your shoulders at it. But there are deaths to be mourned. The media were one of the powers behind the murder, early 2007, of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. The deeply rooted sentiment that Armenians are traitors was well exploited by some media. And so the underdogs in Turkish society – from Kurds to Armenians, from students with a headscarf to gypsies – are the victims, while they would be getting some support if there was a more professional press which published facts instead of deadly sentiments.

A journalism aimed at peace and understanding

Hürriyet’s ombudsman Bildirici uses the word ‘peace journalism’. ‘We should develop a journalism that is aimed at peace and understanding’, he says. ‘I report monthly to the board of directors about discrimination and hate in the paper, but it doesn’t help much.’ Also on his weekly half page column in the paper he can’t write what he would like to write. Like when the paper published pictures of bodies of dead soldiers and readers responded that they found that disrespectful. Bildirici: ‘I thought: we didn’t get such critics when we published a picture of the dead body of Hrant Dink. But I didn’t write it. The time isn’t right yet.’

Bildirici doesn’t blame the journalists of the paper. They are at the mercy of the wolves. In a healthy journalism climate, the editor in chief defends the journalistic policy against the commercially-focussed publisher, but in Turkey it’s the task of the editor in chief to make sure the journalists do what the publisher wants. Professor and journalist Dogan Tilic confirms that: ‘Young journalists that come fresh from university are usually very idealistic and aware of journalism ethics. A few years later they are part of the system. They are slowly being dragged into it. If you don’t join, your pieces aren’t published of you lose your job.’

Banu Güven: ‘I find it important to choose my words carefully’

Or you resign. Like Banu Güven, for fourteen years one of the most famous faces of the rather journalistic news station NTV. She had a daily talk show about politics with one guest, and was no longer free to invite on her show whoever she wanted. The Kurdish politician and human rights activist Leyla Zana was high on her list, but wasn’t approved. Too controversial. All of a sudden at the beginning of July Güven disappeared from the screen.

Banu Güven

Soon after that she wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Erdoğan, in which she held him responsible for the decline in press freedom. The Prime Minister, who can’t stand criticism, doesn’t need to censor too much because the media now do that perfectly themselves, she states. ‘Extreme language and polarization sell, there is a common terminology that everybody chooses’, she says in a phone interview. ‘But I find it very important to choose my words carefully and not follow the common language. It’s still possible at NTV, but the general atmosphere in journalism is getting worse. I felt I couldn’t do my work properly anymore.’

She had offers from other media, but she turned them down. Güven: ‘I will face the same problems almost everywhere. From now on I will work on my own projects and publish on my own website. Be the journalist I want to be. Ten, fifteen years ago I couldn’t have done that, but now, with the possibilities of internet and self-publishing, it’s possible.’

The army of the Imam

That’s exactly where ombudsman Bildirici sees hope for the future. ‘Stories will always come out, eventually’, he says. ‘The number of journalists who write books or publish online is increasing, and they publish about subjects they can’t write about for their papers. These books often get a lot of attention, because they reveal what would otherwise stay concealed.’

He does realize how sour that sounds. Earlier this year, the well known, reliable investigative journalist Ahmet Sik was arrested because of his book ‘The army of the Imam’, in which he tries to prove that the Turkish police force is infiltrated by followers of Fethullah Gülen. His sources are used against him: he is locked up for alleged links with Ergenekon. Bildirici: ‘The lack of journalism ethics is a huge problem in Turkey. But the decreasing press freedom, along with an increasing number of journalists in jail, is an even bigger problem.’

Will the real Turkey please rise?

The Turkish government of Prime Minister Erdoğan keeps saying it still wants to be an EU member. But in the meantime, they become friends with Iran and Syria and agitate in strong emotional words against Israel. What does the country really want?

The story goes that at the Turkish ministry of Foreign Affairs people start tearing their hair out when Prime Minister Erdoğan lets his Islamic heart speak again. When he for example calls the Iranian President Ahmadinejad ‘my good friend’, or when he uses undiplomatic language towards Israel. Then it’s time for Foreign Affairs to take action and politicians and diplomats work overtime to control the damage, so that Turkey’s goal in international politics won’t be endangered. And that goal is: to take a self confident place in world politics, and especially in their own region.

Emotion, that’s the Achilles heel of governing party AKP in Turkey’s foreign policy. Says Joost Lagendijk, former chairperson of the interparliamentary delegation with Turkey in the European Parliament, and now a teacher at the Istanbul Sabanci University and senior advisor of the Istanbul Policy Centre. And that emotion regularly takes control of Tayyip Erdoğan, the religious Prime Minister of Turkey. ‘But it is not true’, says Lagendijk, ‘that the foreign policy of Turkey is based on that emotion. On the contrary: Turkey’s policy is based on common sense.’

Some say that the AKP government, in power since 2002, shows its real face in its foreign policy. The AKP (Justice and Development Party) is lead by devout Muslims. They have their roots in the political-Islamic movement and (some of them) were active for parties that were forbidden because they were considered anti-secular. The AKP narrowly escaped the same fate, but the party is not in the least trusted by the secular establishment. That establishment – the army, the judiciary, a large number of academics – fears the AKP has a secret agenda and wants to transform Turkey into an Islamic state. Getting closer to neighbouring countries is seen as an expression of that agenda.

‘You could say that before Turkey didn’t even have a foreign policy of its own.’

The fact is, however, that the new foreign policy doesn’t originate from Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoglu, but was already started by the previous government of the social-democrat Bülent Ecevit. That government saw it was time for a foreign policy that was no longer defined by NATO (of which Turkey has been a member since 1952) and the United States, as it was during the Cold War. Says Can Paker, chair of the liberal Istanbul think tank TESEV: ‘The changed relations on the world scene demanded a new approach by the Turks. You could even say that before Turkey didn’t even have a foreign policy of its own.’

This is exactly how Cengiz Çandar, journalist and political commentator, sees the recent performance of Turkey on the world stage. ‘It’s rather sick of the west’, he says, ‘to even ask the question whether Turkey is drifting away from the west or not. Europe doesn’t own Turkey, does it? Turkey is an upcoming power, like for example China, India and Brazil. Is such a country supposed to have its course set by whether it is in line with what Europe wants? Those days are really over. Turkey is more self-confident now and can’t be lectured to any more by other countries.’

This self confidence has everything to do with Turkey’s economic growth, on average about 7% per year since the economic crisis that hit Turkey in 2001. The country has the 16th biggest economy in the world, the 6th in Europe. The Turkish population is huge (72 million) and young: it’s a great market for European products and Turkey can help rejuvenate the rapidly aging population of the EU. The Turkish writer Ugur Ziya Simsek described it like this when he visited Amsterdam earlier this year: ‘Istanbul is a racing and snorting horse, Amsterdam an angora cat sleeping in front of the heater’. You could easily replace Amsterdam with Europe in the simile, and Istanbul with the whole of Turkey.

‘Turkey wants to be a fully-fledged member of the EU, and that means they want to make a concrete contribution.’

The AKP is  generally described as a party ‘with roots in political Islam’, but you could also define it as the party of the rising middle class in the Anatolian cities. Istanbul, with its population of 16 million, is still the economic heart of the country, but cities like Kayseri, Gaziantep, Konya and Denizli have made remarkable progress in the last ten years. The entrepreneurs there are in general devout Muslims, who don’t feel at home with the traditional Turkish parties and feel represented by the AKP: the party represents their religious feelings, but also their trade spirit. They expect a lot from the EU: more religious freedom than strictly secular Turkey offers them now, and a market for their products.

The end of the Cold War gave Turkey a chance to use its potential to the fullest. Economically, but also politically. The countries of the Middle East are a market for Turkish entrepreneurs, but the market can’t be exploited when conflicts or even wars are simmering, like about ten years ago with Syria. For example, years ago Turkey considered the government in the Kurdish region in Northern-Iraq as PKK protectors, this summer the Minister of Foreign Trade travelled to the region with a big group of Anatolian businessmen in his entourage. And last spring Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil, capital of the region.

As well, politically Turkey doesn’t have to consider Cold War sentiments anymore and can openly connect with countries of the former Soviet Union and with countries in the immediate region. But not because it is fed up with the European Union and the opponents of Turkish membership – most notably French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel. Can Paker: ‘Turkey wants to be a fully-fledged member of the EU, and that means they want to make a concrete contribution. They can do that with their growing influence in the region.’

By the way, Paker doesn’t believe that Turks are tired of the EU. ‘At one stage support for EU membership was almost eighty percent, and now it’s only fifty percent, but that percentage is stable, and pretty high when you consider how Turkey is treated by the Union at the moment.’ It is expected that next year support for the EU might grow again (see boxed text).

‘Turkey doesn’t embrace the Middle East out of love, but out of calculation.’

Joost Lagendijk adds: ‘That Turkey is now starts building ties with the Middle East is an important part of the Turkish strategy to become essential for Europe.’ Lagendijk remembers a talk he had on this topic with Foreign Affairs Minister Davutoglu: ‘The AKP government sees of course that some EU countries are not waiting with their arms wide open to receive Turkey. So, said Davutoglu, Turkey has to ensure that it brings the EU good relations with the Middle East as a present when they let Turkey join the pact. Turkey doesn’t embrace the Middle East out of love, but out of calculation.’

And that calculation works the other way around as well: if Turkey wants to strengthen its influence and trade interests in the region, then it’s important to offer those countries more than certain others which want to expand their influence in the region, like Iran. And Turkey has what no other (Muslim) country in the Middle East has: strong ties with the EU. If those ties are cut, Turkey would reduce itself to being ‘just another country’. Political commentator Cengiz Çandar doesn’t want to completely exclude the role of religion though: ‘The AKP especially, with its pious Islamic leaders, is able to make quick and easy progress in the Middle East.’

While Erdogan’s emotions are the Achilles heel of Turkey’s foreign politicy, domestically they are the strength of the AKP. The party is under great pressure and is losing ground in the opinion polls. In the 2007 elections they won 47% of the votes, now it would only be 35%. Opposition party CHP, which now has a new and popular leader after eighteen years, has seen its support grow from 21% in 2007 to more than 30% now.

The next elections are scheduled for the summer of 2011, but already in September there is a big test for the AKP: the party proposed a referendum about a package of constitutional changes that strongly divides Turkish opinion. Among other things, the changes are meant to bring the power of the judiciary more into line with European standards – a sign that the AKP is indeed working towards joining the EU. In parliament, the package of changes didn’t get the necessary two-thirds majority, so now a referendum is needed. ‘Europe’ supports the changes, but the Turkish opposition sees them as a way for the AKP to bring the judiciary under its control. It seems the approval of the population will be given, but the big question is how faithful the AKP electorate will show itself to be.

‘The AKP makes feints, they go in the right direction, but forget to score.’

The popularity of the AKP is diminishing because of economical problems – the economy is growing but at the same time the unemployment rate rose to above 10% – but also because of a failed effort to solve the Kurdish question by giving Kurds more rights. The ‘Kurdish opening’ was announced with a lot of fanfare in the summer of 2009, but in the end achieved little. PKK violence increased, Turkish soldiers are dieing again in big numbers and the AKP gets the blame.

Joost Lagendijk: ‘It would have advanced the relationship with Europe if the AKP had managed to give more direction to the Kurdish opening. Nothing concrete came of it really, such a pity. Just like the talks with Armenia; they started well, but then Turkey decided to set new conditions for further talks, and now the approaches have stopped. The AKP makes feints, they go in the right direction, but forget to score.’

By agitating sharply against Israel after the attack on the aid convoy to Gaza, Erdoğan increases his popularity. He has something to fear from the small and more religious Saadet Partij, which could take some voters away from the AKP if the AKP doesn’t show its Islamic-emotional side now and then. Internationally, things will settle down again. Israel and Turkey are already again on speaking terms.

Pressured by the United States, Turkey still has an interest to keep them as a friend as well. She depends on American intelligence in the fight against the PKK in Northern Iraq, and can’t do much in the region without the support of the USA. Joost Lagendijk: ‘The AKP is actually playing it quite smart: they are still moving towards the EU, but that doesn’t win them votes. Their self-confident and sometimes emotional politics in the region does.’

In June one new negotiating chapter was opened between Turkey and the EU: about food safety. Eighteen chapters are blocked by the EU, mainly because Turkey refuses to open its ports for trade with Greek Cyprus.
Turkey refuses that because the EU doesn’t live up to its promise to allow direct trade between Turkish North Cyprus and the EU. That promise was made when the Turkish Cypriots in 2004 voted in favour of a UN plan to reunite the island (the Greek Cypriots rejected the plan). After that (Greek) Cyprus became an EU member, and the country blocked honouring the promise. That was easy, since the EU has to be unanimous in its support to end the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots. But that will change: thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, now only a simple majority of votes is needed. So if at the end of this year or the beginning of next year the topic is put to the vote again, there will probably enough support for lifting the isolation. Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Davutoglu promised that Turkey will open its ports then, and after that suddenly eight new negotiating chapters could be opened.

Visa obligations
Very likely next year there will also be progress in the ‘visa question’. Turkey criticizes the refusal of the EU to liberalize the visa obligations for Turks. The EU argues that liberalization is impossible because Turkey’s passports are not fraud-proof enough, because Turkey’s borders are porous and because Turkey doesn’t take back refugees who enter the EU via Turkey, as they promised to do. But recently Turkey introduced biometric passports, and a new treaty about taking back refugees is almost fully negotiated. At the same time Turkey works hard to better secure its external borders, with European help. When all that is settled, the EU can probably no longer deny Turks the right to enter the EU with less restrictions, starting with Turkish businessmen, artists and students.

Dutch in Turkey: ‘I want to go home’

Live in Turkey with your loved one: very romantic of course. Or is real life tougher than that? Yes. For Maaike, Ralph, Barbara and Charlene there is hardly any romance left. They want to return to Holland.

(more pictures will be published later!)

Maaike Dekkers (31) lives in Evrenseki on the south coast:

A brother in law moved in with her and her husband: Maaike’s marriage hardly survived that. After four months she was so fed up with it that she sent the brother in law away. Unforgiveable, said Maaike’s husband Veli, because you should support family, unconditionally. Maaike: ‘But in the end Veli understood me. I’m Dutch, I’m not used to something like that, I value my privacy. And besides, his brother didn’t do anything to help. When I came home after a hard day’s work, the breakfast things were still on the table and he was on the couch being useless. I just couldn’t accept it any longer.’

Maaike is sitting in the garden on a typical Turkish sofa with big cushions, under a sun umbrella. Next to her is a vegetable garden and trees, behind which a waterfall can be heard. Behind her a meadow, where sometimes horses are grazing but now some dogs are sniffing around. In front of her the house where she lives with her husband Veli and her sons Semih (17 months) and Kaya (4 months): cosy, one floor, a small leak and a 250 lira rent (about 125 euro). The sand path that leads away from the yard passes by a small creek and fruit trees to a small Turkish village. If you drive a bit further, you come to the tourist town of Side.

A plane back

It would be idyllic if you didn’t know the daily hardships. The demanding Turkish family can be dealt with, says Maaike, but the lack of security and money is getting her and her husband down. Veli works during the tourist season and earns enough for Maaike’s residence permit, a once a year ticket to the Netherlands and of course the daily groceries, and you end up way below zero. Without donations from the Netherlands they would never make ends meet. ‘If we could go to Holland tomorrow’says Maaike, ‘we would go’.

She is ready to let go of her pride, to consider her perseverance ‘finished’. Those sides of her character kept her from taking a plane back to Holland the first year after she moved to Turkey. She arrived in Turkey five years ago during summer. From those days she mainly remembers the neighbourhood women: ‘they came as soon as Veli went to work. When I opened the door, they immediately walked in to the living room. They opened drawers and cupboards, and one of them just left her kids with me when she went to work. My Turkish was bad, I really didn’t know what to do. And I couldn’t find work: all jobs were already taken as it was half way through summer.’

Suitcases packed

The winter was even worse. Veli’s work stopped and he had hardly been able to save any money because he had bought furniture on credit. Don’t tell Maaike you can ‘live on love’ when you don’t have a penny in your pocket. ‘We were together all the time and couldn’t do anything because everything costs money. Except going for walks, but after some time you know all the roads around here, believe me.’ She has been ready with her suitcases packed to leave Turkey and Veli behind, but pride, perseverance and love restrained her. ‘I kept thinking: things will be okay.’

She doesn’t think that anymore. Life in Turkey stays as it is: hard and insecure. She had several jobs, but all temporary, illegal, six or seven days a week and sometimes for only 400 lira a month. Now that she is a mother, working is out of the question: there are no part time jobs, and she didn’t become a mother to work full time (six days a week). Besides that: day care for her children would cost more than she could ever earn.She hardly talks to anybody. In the mornings Veli is at home, but for the rest of the time she is always by herself. She eats with the children; at night when they are asleep she sits on the couch alone. She has no means of transportation, it’s too far to walk to the village. ‘In general I’m okay with being alone’, she says, ‘but not this much.’ She remembers the weeks after she had her second child: her mother was there, but nobody else visited her, not even her family-in-law. ‘Turkish families close? Yes, when it suits them’. Presents that were sent from Holland, like baby clothes and traditional Dutch cookies, either didn’t reach her or the packages were opened. ‘My father is sick and couldn’t fly. He hasn’t seen Kaya yet.’

A third child

Her third child she wants to have in the Netherlands. But when that will happen, she has no idea. She thinks she cannot meet the requirements to get a residence permit in Holland for her husband. The route via Belgium, which many couples use to get around the strict Dutch criteria, also costs money, and they don’t have that. Maybe a third child remains a dream.

Ralph (41) lives in Istanbul:

Starting August 1st he has a job in the Netherlands again. He worked for the same boss before, in a media company. He will be playing tennis again, and running. Meeting with friends in a bar now and then. Taking his five year old twins to the neighbourhood school around the corner. Visiting his family whenever he wants. Getting really good Dutch peanut butter in the nearby supermarket, and a good block of cheese. ‘Maybe it sounds too provincial, but I’m so much looking forward to it!’

Ralph and his Turkish wife Fidan left Holland around two years ago. They were looking for a more relaxed life and settled in the coastal town of Bodrum, where they first met years ago. The children were small and they thought: “if we ever want to live abroad for some time of even emigrate, we have to do it now”. Bodrum turned out to be boring, they moved to Istanbul, Fidan found a good job at a hotel and Ralph started working as a freelance camera man. Everything was fine, Up until the moment Fidan got fired suddenly, without her being told the reason. Ralph: ‘then I thought for the first time: if that is how it works, I’m not sure if we can stay here.’

A good education

What he means to say is: he is adventurous, but when you have children, stability is also important. And a solid income, because if you want to give them a good education in Istanbul and thus send them to the international school, it will cost you a thousand euros a month for two kids. Ralph: ‘An insecure job makes that good school out of reach. A Turkish school is not an option. Turkish education is all about studying and achieving. The boy living next door is ten years old and is sometimes still working on his homework late at night. Horrible.’
In Holland both Ralph and Fidan had a good job, in Turkey Fidan has to provide the financial stability. For Ralph it’s difficult to get a work permit and he also isn’t sure whether he wants to work for a Turkish boss. ‘I see it at Fidan’s work: companies are managed in an immature and emotional way. If the boss doesn’t like you, you’re out. If the manager is incompetent but related to the boss, he won’t lose his job. I can’t really stand that.’ By the way, Ralph’s Turkish is also not good enough for many jobs. ‘Mistake on my side, I put too little energy into it.’

He now runs his own events organisation bureau, and the business is doing better and better but not well enough yet. ‘We had to make a decision now, and the future of our children played a big role. In Turkey children only have to go to school from age seven, but if we want to go to Holland, we have to enrol them in school now.’ Their choice is made.


They will miss Istanbul, and Fidan’s family, which also lives in the city. ‘I have travelled a lot’, says Ralph, ‘and I know no other city like Istanbul. Dynamic, international, great night life. But we hardly have a chance to enjoy it. Fidan goes to work six days a week at eight o’clock in the morning and on week days only comes home between ten and eleven at night. I am responsible for the children. In the beginning I loved parenting, but now I find it difficult: two five year olds demand all your attention, they are basically my social life. I love getting some exercise but I’m not going out for a run at eleven at night after Fidan comes home. There are great clubs here, but they are far from home and we hardly ever go there.’
The good thing is: Istanbul is only three hours away from Amsterdam. Soon things will be perfect. They will live in stable Holland, will both have a job with normal working hours and will have no fear of losing their jobs and being left without income. And when they feel like it, they can catch a plane and enjoy Istanbul for a weekend.

Barbara Lauwrens lives in Istanbul:

When the photo shoot for this story is over and the photographer says he also does advertising photography and film, Barbara quickly gives him her business card. ‘if you ever need a model, or an actress that can also sing, you can always reach me at this number.’ That’s how it works, she explains: in Istanbul work often comes through coincidental meetings. ‘That’s how I got my first film roll: I met an actor and director, and I said: ‘Couldn’t you write a role for me?’. He called me half a year later and now in his film I play a singer.’

Learn the language

It’s another step on the ladder to success. When she moved to Istanbul, one and a half years ago, she thought she’d be much further ahead now. ‘I was going to learn the language in a year’, she says, ‘and then find work. But Turkish turned out to be more difficult than I thought. I already had to turn down an offer to do TV presenting only because my Turkish is not good enough for that.’
It’s important for Barbara to be successful in her work. She had a good life in the Netherlands: after a musical education in London and classical singing at a Dutch conservatorium, she had already been working independently for ten years and made a good living. Then, on a trip to Istanbul, she fell in love. She didn’t want to keep travelling between Amsterdam and Istanbul, and  her boyfriend moving to Holland was not an option because he has a child in Turkey. ‘Then you have to choose: end the relationship, or move.’

Of course, she has had her doubts. ‘I didn’t want to come to Istanbul just for my boyfriend, because that puts pressure on your relationship. So I found a goal in my work, but so far it hasn’t turned out the way I wanted. The film I play in now is my first acting project. Low budget, it just covers my costs. But I can use it to make a good promotional film and hopefully that will take me further.’

Small jobs

Financially she’s okay: she rents out her apartment in Amsterdam, whenever she is in Holland she finds some work to do and in Istanbul she sometimes takes small jobs or gives workshops that are related to her profession, like voice projection. ‘But I’m not prepared to do just anything. I can easily find a job as an English teacher or in another job. Six days a week for 1500 lira, that’s 750 euro. I don’t do that. i want to act.’

In the beginning she tried to find work by going to auditions, mostly for advertising work. But that lead nowhere. ‘I didn’t understand what was happening: they only ask your name, age, height and weight. And because I was afraid they would ask me something I wouldn’t understand I felt insecure, which is of course no good.’ Now she knows networking is everything, and her network is expending. ‘The chances of making it here as an actress are bigger than in Holland, the scene is quite small. I can both sing and act, and that’s rather exceptional here. And also my looks are a pro.’ Not only her red hair and blue eyes are remarkable, she also looks younger than she is. ‘How old am I? Sorry, I will really not tell you.’
A part in one of the many Turkish tele-series, that would be great. But that, so she heard, doesn’t pay so well either; as an unknown actress you may get a thousand lira for an episode, and that’s for one week filming.

Feel the freedom

She rents her place in Amsterdam out for short periods, so she can live there again whenever she needs to. She has all her insurances in the Netherlands, and the two businesses in her name are still registered, even though they are not very active at the moment. ‘If I give that up, I lose all my security. And when I’m in Amsterdam, I want to be in my own house, and cycle through Amsterdam on my own bike. Feel the freedom, because I miss that here.’
Because Istanbul; she didn’t fall in love with it. ‘It’s too big and too busy, the traffic and air pollution drive you crazy and I think huge parts of the city are grey and not beautiful. The Bosporus runs through it, that’s marvellous, but still: I prefer Amsterdam. Or Berlin.’ If within six to twelve months she feels her acting career is really going in the right direction and her Turkish is substantially improving, she will stay. ‘It would be great to harvest the fruits of the seeds I’m planting now. Play beautiful roles, total independence. Like I used to have in Holland.’

Charlene Krutzen-Onuk (31) lives in Alanya on the south coast:

Charlene’s husband Güney is crazy about Holland. The clean streets, the homeliness, the regularity, the nine to five jobs. Boring? No, that’s not boring, that’s peaceful. And when Charlene looks at her own country through her husband’s eyes, she sees it too: Holland is beautiful and offers security. There she can do what she really wants, she says: ‘Have a second child, maybe even a third. I really don’t dare to do that in Turkey.’
And so they will leave Turkey in November. Charlene works for a big travel organisation and can start working in the office after the summer season, in Rotterdam. But they will live in Belgium, because the rules to settle there with a non-EU citizen are less strict than in the Netherlands. If they went direct to the Netherlands, Güney would only be able to come half a year after Charlene, and they refuse to be separated as a family. A few years later, after Güney gets his residence permit, they can move to Holland.

At first sight Charlene’s life seems just fine. She works for a Dutch boss and earns a Dutch income. Güney also works, and her mother in law is always available as baby sitter for their son. Her Turkish is practically fluent, she knows a lot of people, she often works outside and can to an extent choose her own working hours.
The reality is that both Charlene and her husband only work in summer and have to earn their income for the rest of the year. Charlene: ‘And from that income we also have to provide for my mother in law. We pay everything for her: the rent and other monthly expenses, food, clothes, insurance. She has had Parkinson’s Disease for years now and the insurance doesn’t cover all the treatments, so we have to take care of that too.’

She thinks mother in law secretly wishes to join her son and daughter in law in Europe. ‘She doesn’t say it’, says Charlene, ‘but she talks a lot about visiting us. That’s okay of course, but living with us? My husband once proposed to do that here in Turkey so we can save the rent of her apartment, but I didn’t consider that. She is a sweet woman, but I love my privacy too.’

Exploring night life

Not so strange: seven months a year Charlene works six, sometimes seven days a week, often including nights. Her husband works as a DJ in a club and is out practically every evening and night. Sometimes, when she is exploring night life with a group of young Dutch people, she also visits the bar where her husband works, so they can see each other shortly. Every moment they have together at home with their son must remain undisturbed. It must be great, Charlene dreams, to work in Holland and have the weekend off, and the evenings too.
Maybe she will get used to the more relaxed life in Holland. Or maybe she will find it a rush too, once she has the three children she would like to have. You get used to where you live, that much she learned after six years in Turkey. ‘People on holiday’, she says, ‘are jealous of me because I live right by the sea and in such a nice climate, but I don’t even realize that anymore. Like they probably don’t really see how beautiful Holland is.’

But despite all that, she’s not only looking forward to going home. ‘An office!’, she says with big eyes. ‘I will sure take some time to get used to that! Turkey has many great sides, I’m happy here. But ever since we made the decision to move away, my longing for Holland is growing.’ It’s as if she only now permits herself to feel the homesickness.

Pictures of Charlene and Maaike by Hilmi Barcin

Found: the Kurdish opening

It looks like a postcard, Northern Iraq. The mountains, the plains, the colours, the light. But in these mountains the PKK is hiding. And a bit further south, in the middle of such an empty plain, live ten thousand Turkish-Kurdish refugees in a gloomy camp. They want to go back home.

(published with a big beautiful picture of Northern Iraqi landscape – to explain the beginning of the story)

This beautiful, bare, mountainous and colourful area is known for its peacefulness. And that’s how it looks too. But appearances are deceiving: this is Northern Iraq. And by Iraqi standards, it is indeed rather peaceful: anyone walking around here or travelling by car is hardly at risk of being blown up, kidnapped or otherwise harmed, unlike elsewhere in the country. But the desolate north of Iraq is not without problems. Besides regional conflicts (which have so far been fought on the political level), the Kurdish question that has been going on in neighbouring Turkey for decades has left deep scars here. For example, Turkey regularly drops bombs on PKK camps in the mountains of the lightly populated border region. And in a camp close to the regional capital Erbil live thousands of Turkish-Kurdish refugees who have nowhere else to go.

Nothing new, really: the Kurdish question is not something new, and neither are the problems it causes in Iraq. But now there is a glimmer of hope, and that’s new: for the last few months the Turkish government seems to be working seriously towards a solution to the long-lasting issue. ‘By democratic means’, the government of Prime Minister Erdogan announced last summer. The operation was code named ‘the Kurdish opening’.

What these ‘democratic means’ look like is not known in detail, but they have been roughly outlined. The last restrictions on the use of Kurdish in education, media and politics will be lifted, villages and cities that are mainly inhabited by Kurds will get their original Kurdish name back if the citizens want it, and there will be a commission that will investigate the level of discrimination against Kurds. Furthermore, allegations of torture by the Turkish army and army-related security units will be investigated, there will be an independent human rights institute and Turkey will ratify the UN Convention against Torture. By the way: because all Turks benefit from that and not only Kurds, the ‘Kurdish opening’ has been renamed the ‘democratic opening’.

And with that, an old dogma in Turkish politics is shattered. That is: there is no Kurdish question, there is only PKK terrorism and it needs to be dealt with mercilessly. That strategy hasn’t proven itself very fruitful for the last 25 years (the PKK began its campaign of violence with an attack on two police posts in the Kurdish south east of the country on August 15 1984): the PKK is alive and kicking. The roughly five thousand fighters are mainly hiding on the Iraqi side of the mountainous border region and from there fight the Turkish army. They have enough support too: many Kurds believe that it would never have come to the ‘Kurdish opening’ if the PKK had not put it on the political agenda through violence – and they could be right.

Independent Kurdistan

In the meantime, the PKK also abandoned an old dogma: the ultimate goal is no longer an independent Kurdish state. What the exact goal is these days remains unclear: PKK leader Öcalan, who is serving a life sentence on a prison island not too far from Istanbul, earlier this year pleaded for ‘democratisation’ of Turkey and a ‘democratic constitution’ – his complete vision is written down, but the state has so far refused to make the document public. Anyway, the fact that the PKK no longer want an independent Kurdistan certainly makes it a lot easier for the Turkish government to convince the PKK by political means to lay down their arms. Permitting the Kurds to found their own state is totally unthinkable in Turkey, because the unity of the state is one of the pillars the republic is built on. Allowing people to speak their own language, to be really politically represented, in other words to acknowledge their rights, is a bit less unthinkable.

Back to northern Iraq, also known as South Kurdistan – (from that perspective the south east of Turkey is Northern Kurdistan). That’s not terminology you can use in Turkey. Also, the word ‘Kurdistan’ can fan the nationalist fire: Kurdistan doesn’t exist, just look on the map!

But anyone who goes to Northern Iraq and takes a look finds that it does indeed exist. The area is officially not even called Northern Iraq, but ‘Iraqi Kurdistan’: the Kurds have had self government since 1991. Above the entrance to the parliament building in the capital Erbil, on a blue board with white letters, are the words ‘Parliament of Kurdistan – Iraq’, in Kurdish, Arabic and English. Anyone who walks around in peaceful Erbil will stumble upon one after another foreign consulate. There will even be a Turkish consulate here, Turkey recently announced. Also not an insignificant step: it’s only a few years ago that Turkey accused the northern Iraqis of supporting the PKK by not dealing with them firmly enough, whereas now they wage war against the PKK in relative unity, even with the support of the United States.

Safe, but not home

But an important point of contention is still Makhmur Camp. If you drive about an hour to the south-west from Erbil, you end up in the village of Makhmur. Next to that village is Makhmur Camp, sheltering about ten thousand Kurds who fled from south eastern Turkey in the mid nineteen-nineties. The fight between the Turkish army and the PKK was at its dirtiest at the time. The PKK launched bombing attacks against civilian targets as well as on police and army, eliminated opponents and deserters and killed ‘village guards’, civilians who were armed by the military to protect villages against the PKK. Turkey struck back hard: the army and Jitem (a notorious and secret anti-terrorism and intelligence service of the army) wiped whole Kurdish villages off the face of the earth, killed (suspected) PKK members and supporters and innocent civilians, and tortured with a will, especially in the prison of Diyarbakir, the biggest Kurdish city in the south east.

Thousands of civilians escaped the violence by crossing the Iraqi border. There the Kurds had self government since the American victory in the first Gulf war in 1991, so there they were safe. Safe with their own people. But however nice and desirable this self government may be, Northern Iraq was not ‘home’. And it still isn’t for the men, women and children of Makhmur Camp. Home, that’s Turkey. Home, that’s the villages that don’t exist anymore. Home, that is the equally beautiful, mountainous, rough landscape on the other side of the border.

Home and village

Makhmur Camp is a source of contention because in the first place Turkey doesn’t regard it as a refugee camp, but as a hotbed of terrorism. They say it’s a stronghold of PKK fighters and supporters where young men and women are supposedly recruited to the PKK. Turkey says if Northern Iraq is sincere in its fight against the PKK, the camp should be closed. Where the inhabitants should go, they don’t say. Iraq and the United States suggest back to Turkey, back home.

And that’s also what most of the inhabitants want, as the refugee organisation of the United Nations, the UNHCR, knows. Metin Çorabatir, spokesperson of the UNHCR in Ankara, even dares to plea for individual solutions: ‘For every refugee in Makhmur Camp we have to define exactly where he comes from, what is the state of his house and village, and what resources they will have to build a life there. Many villages don’t exist anymore, so for a part of the group we need to see where they could live instead.’ By the way, such an individual approach can also mean that a refugee could stay in Iraq: some Makhmur inhabitants are now married to an Iraqi and have found work in the region, and they must be able to officially settle in Iraq if they wish to do so.


A visit to Makhmur Camp is, at first sight, a piece of cake. Of course there have been journalists before, and, with a good contact, it’s easy to get in. The good contact is arranged: ex PKK fighter and now journalist “K” has taken colleagues before, one of whom is an acquaintance of the HP/De Tijd reporter. A few days before leaving my base in Istanbul  for Erbil, “K” confirms that I will surely get in. So, on the move, to hear from the Makhmur Camp villagers themselves how and why they want to return to their motherland.

On the wish list for an interview are elderly men and women who have been living in Makhmur Camp from the beginning, a young man who grew up there but will not be able to escape his military service if he returns to Turkey, a few PKK supporters and (if available) some PKK members. As well, men and women who found a job at one of the countless Turkish companies that have invested in Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s always nice to see how political sentiments and mutual prejudices are set aside for work and trade.

Hierarchical, strict, military

‘No problem’, says “K”, ‘but you won’t find anyone saying openly that he longs to go back to Turkey, because that’s not the PKK policy. The PKK has the opinion that the refugees of Makhmur can only return to their villages, or what’s left of them, when Turkey fulfils all the demands of the PKK.’

And the PKK’s opinion matters in Makhmur Camp. That becomes clear time and time again in the days I spend trying to get in. A few men who are at least close to the PKK – it’s not clear what their exact status is – are in charge. They don’t officially determine who gets permission to enter the camp, but they do decide who talks to the people living in the camp, who exactly is talked to, and about what. And exactly what the inhabitants say. ‘The camp’, says “K”, ‘is organised like the PKK: hierarchical, strict, military.’

To make a long story short: the camp turns out to be an impregnable fortress. I can’t get in. Just why remains unclear, but it seems to have to do with intensive deliberations about the camp between all sorts of politicians and administrators. Snoopers are just not wanted that week, so it seems. The only journalist that did make it into the camp came in secretly through a hole in the fence, dressed as an Iraqi. Inspiring, but I don’t take the risk.

Exuberant PKK party

A few weeks later, half way through October, it becomes clear why the barrier remained closed. Turkey is in turmoil: a group of 34 Turkish Kurds from Iraq cross the Turkish border. It’s a gesture from the PKK: they call it the ‘peace group’, and through the group they want to show their support for the “Kurdish opening”. The ‘peace group’ consists of twenty six men, women and children from Makhmur Camp (Turkey apparently doesn’t make the link between the PKK and the camp for no reason) and, straight from the PKK bases in the mountains, eight active PKK members. Right across the border in Turkey they are welcomed by thousands of ecstatic Kurds. It turns into an exuberant PKK party, including portraits of Öcalan and PKK flags.

For the occasion a Turkish court is set up at the border, where all group members are questioned. In less then 24 hours they are all free: not one of them was directly involved in terrorism and therefore are subject to an amnesty law. That law was introduced a few years ago to urge PKK fighters to leave the mountains and return home.

A bridge too far

The arrival of the ‘peace group’ doesn’t go down well in Turkey. Not well at all. The sentiments against the PKK and ‘baby killer’ and state enemy number 1 Abdullah Öcalan have always been intense, but reach an all time high now. In many cities civilians take to the streets with huge Turkish flags and portraits of founding father Atatürk (also the founder of the principle of the unity of the state), old soldiers and wounded veterans feel betrayed and rip off their medals and the opposition in parliament accuses the government of negotiating with terrorists and jeopardizing the unity of the country. The arrival of the ‘peace group’ was clearly a bridge too far. Not only because of the active PKK members among them, but also because of the people from Makhmur Camp, who are, in the eyes of many Turks, not refugees but terrorists, or at least terrorist sympathisers.

Cengiz Aktar, academic and political analyst in Istanbul, is also quite angered by the events. He supports the Kurdish opening and the voluntary return of Makhmur refugees to Turkey, but it has to be done with respect for international law, he states: ‘The refugees are officially protected by the UNHCR, so their exit from the camp also has to be supervised by the UNHCR. That didn’t happen. They should have been received by the Turkish authorities. And the authorities should have taken them to the villages they originally come from, or to another place if their village or house doesn’t exist any more. That didn’t happen, in fact these people were left to their own devices and went off to find family on their own.’ As well, says Aktar, refugees have to be monitored for a lengthy period of time after their return, to determine are they doing well, are they safe? This was not arranged for the ‘peace group’. ‘So it was pure symbolism’, says Aktar of the group of 34. ‘When in the future another group from Makhmur Camp returns, international law has to be respected.’

Safety and well being

And of course that’s where the shoe pinches. The support for the Kurdish opening was already not very strong among the Turkish population, and now is decreasing. What if at any one time thousands of people from Makhmur cross the border, are received by the Turkish authorities, are given a house and job by the state, and are monitored at length to keep an eye on their safety and well being? Unimaginable.

Still, that’s exactly what will certainly happen if Prime Minister Erdogan and his team take the Kurdish opening seriously. And yes, they are working on it. The name Makhmur Camp has never been in the Turkish newspapers as much as in recent days, and Internal Affairs Minister Atalay, who coordinates the Kurdish opening, regularly hints that he is talking about Makhmur with Iraq and the United States. On one hand: hopeful. On the other hand: once again, nothing new. There have been negotiations going on about Makhmur Camp for years, but only now does everybody know about it – what you could call progress in itself, of course.

For the people of Makhmur Camp, these are extremely exciting times. All at once twenty six fellow refugees left the camp. Back to Turkey, travelling over the plains and mountains through which they left for Iraq about fifteen years ago. Reunited with their family, breathing the air of home, their own ground under their feet. The hope of living a safe and fulfilling life in the motherland has never been this strong.

(december 2009)

Church in the closet

It is well known what kind of row can erupt when in Holland a new mosque is proposed to be built. But what happens when Dutch people want to build a church in Turkey? This is a story from the southern Turkish town of Alanya, stronghold of Christians who flock here for the winter months. 

In southern Turkey’s Alanya at least twenty poor boys and girls are walking around with brand new shoes on their feet. The children are not aware of the fact that they got these shoes from the Dutch church in their town, nor are their parents. The Dutch church has to manoeuvre between its inner urge to give charity and Rule Number One that the municipal board of Alanya stipulated to the church: thou shalt not convert. And handing out shoes to poor people could be seen as just the first step towards evangelisation. So that’s why the gift is not publicised. And that’s also why the source of the spectacles that will soon be handed out will remain a secret too.

It’s not that the church feels any need to convert Turks to Chiristianity, let that be very clear. The Church, officially called that Dutch Ecumenical Congregation of Alanya (NIGA), was founded one and a half years ago by four Dutch Christians living in Alanya semi-permanently and who missed their weekly church attendance. They decided to take some action and founded a church of their own. Things moved ahead quickly: half a year later, the first service was held. Not just some improvised gathering, but a real service including, with the official permission of the mayor, all the necessities: an organ and an organist, an altar table and a big wooden cross, a pile of psalm books flown in from Holland and even a Dutch minister. There is some confusion about the attendance that first time, but it must have been between seven and maybe even fifteen.

“For the first few months a close watch was kept on the neighbourhood of the church. You never know how ordinary people might react to a church.”


Also present that first time: a group of ‘minders’  paid for by the municipality. During the church service they patrolled outside, and before the service began they checked the altar and under the chairs to make sure the room was free of explosives. Kees van der Have, chairman of the church board, didn’t really find all this security necessary: “But the Alanya mayor didn’t want to take any chances. For the first few months a close watch was kept on the neighbourhood of the church every Sunday morning. You never know how ordinary people might react to a church.”


It turns out that the ordinary people of Alanya don’t react to the church at all. More surprisingly, the majority of the Turkish residents don’t even know that in the basement of the municipal cultural centre every Sunday morning at ten o’clock a group of Dutch people come together to practice their faith. But to a keen observer, the Christians can easily be identified from about 9.30 in the morning: the (mostly) elderly church-goers are neatly dressed – most of the women in skirts, the men in suits – and clearly distinguish themselves from the average tourist dressed in shorts or short skirt and sleeveless shirt. Calmly they walk to the municipal cultural centre, where they can use a room that was made available by the Alanya mayor himself. They chat a bit and then go down the stairs into the basement, take the service programme and a psalm book from the table at the entrance and sit down on one of about 120 chairs.

The basement room is about one third full this Sunday morning in May. The minister is ds. Jelle Loosman, who worked as a pastoral aide in a hospital, and is now retired. Every two to three months the church sends another minister from the Netherlands and hires an apartment in an average neighbourhood in Alanya for him (and, soon to be, her).

Alanya’s mayor can simply decide to revoke his blessing and deny NIGA access to the municipal cultural centre. “Well, in that case we would find another hall.”

So, everything is all set up. Except for one thing: official recognition as a church. That is just not possible in Turkey. Turkey only acknowledges churches of people who have lived for a long time in Anatolia, like the Armenian church and the Greek Orthodox church. The NIGA exists by the grace of the mayor of Alanya, Hasan Sipahioglu. He governs his city on the Mediterranean coast as a merchant would: whatever might bring his citizens more prosperity gets his support. So when a group of elderly Europeans, part of the growing community of European winter visitors in the coastal town, tells him that supporting a Dutch church is good for tourism and can also raise the number of winter residents, he doesn’t see any problem but offers a free hall and gives his blessing. And spends a small share of the municipal budget on a handfull of ‘minders’, who still keep an eye on the neighbourhood and who are always at the ready in times of potential unrest, for example around the time of the release of Dutch politician Wilders’ film ‘Fitna’.



Last March there were local elections in Turkey, and it was an exciting time for NIGA too: if another candidate had won, the very existence of the church would have been uncertain. Sipahioglu won, for the third time in a row, but even that offers no security: if the Christian church in general or the NIGA in particular does something that the mayor doesn’t like, then Alanya’s elected leader can simply decide to revoke his blessing and deny NIGA access to the municipal cultural centre. “Well, in that case we would find another hall”, says Kees van der Have with a shrug.


“A church is of course not like a soccer or table tennis club, but an institution.”


No doubt. But however laconically Van der Have speaks about the Sunday shelter, it hurts him to know that his church can’t get any official status. They considered becoming an association or club, like the Germans who occupy the same municipal hall every Sunday morning starting at 11 for their church service. But a Turkish association must hang a portrait of Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in its meeting place, and maintain a minute’s silence in his memory before every gathering. “That doesn’t really suit a church”, says Van der Have cautiously, for the memory of Atatürk is sacred and sensitive to any hint of irreverence. “But besides that, a church is of course not like a soccer or table tennis club, but an institution.”


Again Van der Have and his folks don’t do things half heartedly: they are busy writing a letter to Dutch foreign affairs minister Maxime Verhagen to ask him to consider this matter in the negotiations with Turkey about entering the EU. A common point of view from Verhagen and all his European colleagues, that’s what they aim at. Jelle Loosman, who has already come several times to Alanya as a minister and is also a board member of NIGA, is drafting the letter. “Of course, it’s basically a matter of freedom of religion”, he says.

By the way, he is not so much apprehensive about the possible whims of the municipality, but more about other foreign Christians in Turkey. Especially American preachers give initiatives like NIGA a hard time. “In Antalya, about two hours drive from Alanya, an American preacher is active. He is here purely to win souls and has a lot of money supporting him. His behaviour reflects on us: if he crosses any lines, then all Christian churches cross the lines. That’s what we dread.”


Christianity became a synonym for foreign, for strange and hostile. And for imperialist.


The Turkish disdain for proselytising  and the attitude of the state towards churches are closely connected. The unity of the nation is one of the pillars of the Turkish republic, founded in 1923 as a nation state that needed to be shaped as homogeneously as possible. Any resident of the republic was from then on two things: Turkish (an identity that before that didn’t really exist) and Muslim. In the Ottoman times Christians made up about thirty percent, and very quickly this shrunk to the half a percent that is the case today: the Christian populations were either killed (Armenians) or banned (Greeks, who were exchanged for Turks who lived on Greek territory) in the years around the founding of the republic. Those who survived or stayed behind were in large part assimilated and now, a few generations later, live as Muslims with a Turkish family name. Christianity became a synonym for foreign, for strange and hostile. And for imperialist, because the countries that wanted to divide up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War – Italy, England, Greece and France – were also Christian. And they already had a bad image, thanks to the Crusades, in which once Constantinople also fell.


The distrust of Christianity is, in short, deep-seated in Turkey. And this deep mistrust is exactly what mayors like that of Alanya have to take into account when they cooperate with clubs like the NIGA. Every attempt to convert a Muslim confirms the imperialistic tendencies of the church, and would make it impossible for the mayor to support the NIGA any longer.


An Islamic state


That Turkish law doesn’t give any freedom to found a church has mostly to do with the relation between mosque and state in Turkey. Religion and state are not separated, but closely connected: all imams work for the state, which controls religious life in every detail. In this form of secularism the state is protected against the influence of religion, rather than the other way around, as in the Netherlands, where secularism safeguards religion against interference from the state. If the state allowed Christian churches to officially exist, this would create a precedent and might give the right to exist to religions other  than the official state Islam. That would, the strict secularists fear, be a threat to secularism and in the end lead to their biggest bogey: Turkey as an Islamic state.


People who visit Fikret see the Jesus portraits on the wall, but nobody ever mentions them.


Nevertheless, a few months ago a Turk was baptized into the Dutch church. Fikret is his name, he is 36 and a fish hangs from the wooden necklace around his neck. For a short while, he wore a cross there, but that made him lose friends and would have even put his job at risk, so now he keeps his faith to himself. People who visit him see the Jesus portraits on the wall, but nobody ever mentions them. It reminds one of how in Turkey homosexuality is usually dealt with: it is tolerated, as long as you don’t come out of the closet, as long as it is not too visible. Fikret still observes the Islamic holidays: “With the Feast of Sacrifice, I slaughter a sheep and give the meat to poor families. If I don’t do that, people might think I’m poor and they would offer me meat, and I don’t want that. I live among Muslims, so I adjust myself.”


Work of God


How did Firket come to his faith? NIGA has nothing to do with that, he hurries to say – of course he knows the sensitivities of his own country very well. He already felt like a Christian for years before, got in touch with the NIGA and took his chance: finally an opportunity to get baptized. Fikret works in religious tourism. For years he has been a guide for Christians who visit biblical sites in the south of Turkey. That’s how he got to know Christians. Many of the tourists he works with come from the Netherlands, and thanks to a flair for languages he even speaks Dutch rather well. That in, of all places, his home town of Alanya a Dutch church was founded, can thus be seen as the work of God himself.


How does his family feel about his conversion to Christianity? His parents, who live in Germany, don’t know anything about it. His family-in-law doesn’t mention it at all. His spouse doesn’t give him a hard time over it. “That’s because I take good care of her and our children”, says Fikret. “If that wasn’t the case, then maybe she and her parents would not have accepted my conversion.”

In the association with other church members, Fikret seems to be the darling of the club. He is young and lively, a real happy Christian. Still, he doesn’t talk much about his faith with his fellow Christians. Also, he doesn’t always understand them very well. That Jesus took the sins of humanity upon himself by dying on the cross is too easy in Fikret’s opinion: “I’m sure more is needed to be released from your sins”. But he doesn’t really want to get into that. “I believe in my own way, and that is good. I feel no need to discuss that so much, not with my fellow Christians and not with Muslims either. You see, I’m not Saint Paul.”


The church members see the poverty that is not hard to find in the rather prosperous town of Alanya.


I’m not Saint Paul: it characterizes the NIGA quite well. The four founders of the church are not Saint Paul, and minister Loosman, himself ecumenically focussed, is even less so. He completed his theological studies with a thesis about missionary work, and he knows exactly what ”the church destroyed with that.” That’s also exactly why he was drawn to NIGA: not any urge to do mission work, but building a church from scratch in which Christians of different creeds can come together.


But at the same time, he says, a church like NIGA can not be blind to the world around it. The church members see the poverty that is not hard to find in the rather prosperous town of Alanya. By chance there were contacts with a school, where not all the children had decent shoes. By now, all the feet are shod. And there is more to come. After the church service, when Jelle Loosman shakes the hand of every church-goer, the revenues of the collection can be counted. The two traditional black bags with wooden grip – one for NIGA, one for parish work – contain about 300 to 400 lira (150 to 200 euros) at the beginning of the tourist season. There is almost enough money to buy spectacles for a group of sight-impaired Turkish boys and girls. But nobody needs to know about that.