30 years ago, I was a leftist university student, living in exactly the same house that I am living now, then with my mother. I remember how much my mother would be worried each time our doorbell rang from downstairs. Neither her nor I were feeling safe in our own house. And the threat came not from some criminal gang but the “security forces.” The irony or the tragedy of the matter is that three decades on, I still feel unsafe in the same house for exactly the same reason.
In the 1980s, Turkish regime was struggling to move forward, leaving behind years of a brutal military junta, or we, democrats, wanted to believe so. Nevertheless, the political climate was difficult to cope with. So, one day, during my third year of law school, I had to pack my bags to say goodbye to my home, my city, my mother and my motherland. I lived as a refugee in the UK for a long time but my mind and heart have always been here with Turkey. Recently, I returned as an academic, a political scientist, whose main aim was to lead a peaceful life, while contributing as much as I could to the peace process between the government and the Kurdish movement. While in exile, I had had the opportunity to focus on national question, particularly the Kurdish and Irish questions, and I learnt through first-hand experience that what Karl Marx had to say almost two centuries back is truer than ever: “A people that oppress the others cannot be free”.
You are probably aware of the current situation in Turkey. But please allow me narrate my account of what has happened since January 2016. As the peace process collapsed and Turkish forces launched a genocidal campaign in Kurdish provinces, I signed a petition along with 1128 scholars stating simply that “we are not going to be part of this crime”. The petition also included a call to recommence the peace talks. Since then, we have been the target of a hate campaign concerted personally by President Erdoğan. Hundreds of signatories around the country were sacked from academic positions; many were harassed by their nationalist colleagues and students. Erdoğan repeatedly accused us of treason and an infamous gang leader (Sedat Peker) declared that he would “bath with our blood”. The police raided many offices inside universities and houses of signatories around the country. Officially, our court trials for charges of treason continue while most of us have already been penalised by the university administrations that we work in.
In Izmir where I live and work, a parliamentary deputy listed our names in a local daily as “the enemies of the city”, and death threats immediately began to appear particularly in social media. The Izmir branch of an ultra-nationalist paramilitary group publicised the names and pictures of Izmir’s signatories with serious threats and accusations. The threats have been going hand in hand with isolation. Instead of showing solidarity, many of my colleagues stopped hailing me in public. Most recently, the supreme administrative institution of Turkish universities (YÖK) has blocked my application for associate professorship. An old friend from my student years commented once that during those days we were treated by the people as if we were characters from Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed”. It is not easy to become “possessed” again after so many years.
This overdose hatred and systematic lynch campaign is something that none of us were prepared for. We are civilian citizens whose only “crime” is to demand peace. The first reason why I am reluctant to attempt to leave the country for this conference is rather tragic. Since the alleged coup attempt of July 2016, the authorities, without a court decision or legal notice, have been stopping people at the airport, taking their passports away and arresting them. Some peace signatories have also been stopped and arrested this way by the border police. What is even worse is that these scholars, who were stopped on their way to academic events, have then been defamed by the pro-government media as if they were captured while trying to flee the country. This is why I am very reluctant to attempt to cross Turkish border to attend this conference.
The second reason is harder to explain. I guess, my unconscious knows something that my ego prefers to deny: that if I leave, once in safety, I may choose to stay. Although, the danger of persecution is undeniably present, my heart is probably too weak to say farewell a second time to my loved ones, my home, my city, my cat, mother and my motherland.
Returning to my apartment’s history, after so many years of struggle and hopes for democracy, each time my doorbell rings from downstairs I am unfortunately as jumpy as I was 30 years ago. Certainly, it is usually a friend or a salesman but it could well be the local fascist gangs or, even worse, the Turkish police. This is the short story of how I learnt the truth of what novelist Tezer Özlü had to say in the 70s: “This is not our land, but the land of those who want to kill us”.
In conclusion, I beg you to accept my apologies for my absence and ask you to read this letter to the conference participants instead of my presentation.
Dr. Zafer Fehmi Yörük
Izmir University of Economics