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April 5, 2001
The Coup, Part IV

The days immediately following the coup brought a welcome sense of peace across the land; suddenly people weren't being mowed down in a hail of gunfire while walking to school or sitting at a cafe and everyone was no doubt happy about that. In trying to restore order, though, the generals took on the entire leftist movement, jailing anyone they saw as a threat, which ranged from militants to aging professors reading Marx underneath a bare 40W bulb.

Within a few days of the coup the underground started attacking what it perceived as an occupying army, and in turn, the army's grip tightened and its formidable power was unleashed. The mysterious killings and widespread torture-related deaths that grabbed the world's attention in the 1990s can be traced back to this early period.

Turkish newspapers documented a slowly escalating duel.

¶ September 18: A police chief killed; a prisoner killed while attempting to flee during the reenactment of a crime; period of detainment without charges being brought increased from 15 days to 30.
¶ September 20: The accused killer of a military officer sentenced to death on the day the trial starts and ends.
¶ September 30: Armed clash in Istanbul, 5 dead, including a police officer.
¶ October 3: A lawyer for a left-wing union gets despondent during police interrogation and commits suicide by hurling himself from the fifth floor of the building (the first many such cases during the military's rule and in subsequent "turbulent years").
¶ October 8: Two death row inmates executed.
¶ October 14: Domestic flight hijacked (within the next two days, an operation had ended the standoff, with the hijackers captured and one passenger dead).
¶ October 19: The accused killer of a conservative former Prime Minister suffers a nervous breakdown in his cell and commits suicide by repeatedly banging his head against the wall. Somehow he manages to dot his body with cigarette burns while doing this.
¶ October 28: A vehicle is riddled with bullets at a checkpoint after failing to stop, 1 person dead. (We and a lot of other civilians lived in fear that this could happen someday; checkpoints usually were nothing more than a few soldiers standing by the road chatting, and occasionally they would try to pull someone over. One friend was listening to the radio on high one night as he drove by a group of soldiers, heard muffled yelling, turned down the volume while glancing in his rear view mirror and caught the sight of them kneeling, taking aim. He stepped on the brake so hard he almost went through his windshield -- no seatbelt education back then. And another night we were driving by a more formal roadblock and one of the soldiers was holding a phosphorescent sign that said STOP on one side and GO on the other. He was waving GO at us, so we just drove on. Whistling, yelling, chastising ensued. He saw STOP facing him, and that's what mattered. 12 people die in similar incidents within the first three months following the coup.)
¶ October 30: Eight Kurdish militants captured dead in Mardin.
¶ November 4: One policeman murdered.
¶ November 11: Socialist publisher Ilhan Erdost beaten to death in a van during transit from the prison to the court house in one of the regime's most notorious acts of brutality. And on it goes, including the murder of an American sergeant near a US base by a left-wing group (reported on November 16).

The human toll of September 12 would eventually reach staggering proportions, with 15 people executed, many more killed under suspicious circumstances and tens of thousands of individuals detained, sentenced, tortured. But arguably the more devastating legacy in the long term was the culture of repression it reinforced. Universities lost their autonomy and were brought under a single government body that dictated what the professors and students could think, teach, or even wear, as it still tries to do today in the face of rising democratic opposition. Male professors were told to shave their beards or lose their jobs; this was perfectly in keeping with an administration philosophy that once organized military maneuvers called "Operation Militarized Nation." This was just a little piece of the framework whose country-wide goal was the most draconian constitution in the history of the republic, which attempted to legislate freedom of speech and freedom of assembly out of existence by defining any act of resistance, violent as well as nonviolent, as a state security matter and thus subject to trial by special antiterrorism tribunals.

The constitution was to be put before a referendum and in campaigning for the Yes vote General Evren gave history some of the more memorable quotes uttered by dictators. Of course, criticizing the constitution proposal was grounds for criminal prosecution, but the general was free to go on a cross-country tour to praise its virtues to crowds who turned up to see the man who had "ended terror." Every speech he made was televised by state TV (the only channel at the time) in its entirety, and in color to boot (the color switchover was not complete yet, and everything else was broadcast in black and white).

He dismissed the human rights-related criticism as predictable talk coming from "this country's enemies, abroad as well as here among our own." He defended the express-lane executions, including that of an inmate who'd been widely reported to be under the age of 18 and who had protested his innocence to the end. "What shall we do with them?" he asked. "Shall we feed them and not hang them, eh?" And the crowd roared, and passed the constitution with a 92 percent approval rate. Leaving nothing to chance, the No vote was a blue card, which the poll station guards could clearly detect through the thin envelopes, whereas the Yes card was white. In rural areas, it was probably assumed by many people that being seen putting the wrong color in the box could invite a visit in the middle of the night from someone wearing regulation boots.

The ones who came to visit us at 3 am, by contrast, were wearing street shoes. And they were polite. They explained the odd timing of their social visit by stating that it was "standard procedure, to make sure we'd find the subject at home."

The "subject," better known in our house as my father, had of course brought this upon himself by signing what became known as the "Intellectuals' Petition," in which some 2,300 prominent individuals published an open letter to the junta addressing the latter's curtailing of freedoms. You know, life, liberty, and the rest.

General Evren had some choice words to say about this too. "What are we supposed to do with 'intellectuals' like this?" he asked in another famous speech. "What good have they ever done for this country? We know their kind, don't we, how they turn into traitors and then go and die in exile in foreign countries." The man seemed to have studied Il Duce very well.

When the list of people to be interrogated has movie stars and Nobel candidates on it you can't simply go medieval, so the discomfort involved in this particular case was minimal, relatively speaking. Even so, a number of celebrities claimed to have signed by mistake when push suddenly came to shove. One is still remembered today for saying he thought it was some sort of professional guild petition. In the end, only a core group of "instigators" was charged and given probation. But the damage had been done. It was shown that too many dissenting voices ultimately led to chaos, which of course helped the country's "enemies." Keeping people in line was good, a strong rule by a jovial man who could punctuate Limbaugh rhetoric with arched Dubya eyebrows was good. Democracy was bad.

It would be three years before parliamentary elections were allowed again, with all the political candidates carefully and individually screened and approved by the military. In the meantime, my parents were reassigned to hospitals in the country's most conservative region, and they resigned their positions. Ironically this meant they could go into private practice and finally make more money. They were able to buy their first house as they approached their 50s.

The way the military leadership approached dissent in general meant they could hardly tolerate potential threats to the country's unity posed by Kurdish nationalism, which over the past decades had given birth to armed movements frequently and easily, with every other avenue blocked.

In its quest to end this problem once and for all the junta, it is widely agreed now, managed to produce the largest and most violent Kurdish uprising in the country's history. In a few short years, the PKK, which started as a small group of Marxist militants started attracting thousands of disenfranchised, and often tortured, young men and women. This was despite the fact that the group's early raids often wiped out entire Kurdish villages accused of collaborating with the authorities. Not even pictures of bullet-riddled babies eagerly distributed by government were able to diminish the lure of the PKK, not when the people felt under siege, their language banned, their lives shattered and defined by indiscriminate police brutality.

I have already discussed in this journal how, for some among my generation, it was either stay and risk our lives in a war we felt we hadn't created, or try to escape the carnage somehow. Suffice to say that morning by the lake started a chain of events ended up changing everything about my life -- what country I would live in, what line of work I'd be in, who I would end up befriending, marrying, and so on.

Setting aside the matter of death in the actual sense (for the 40,000 people or so who lost their lives), though, the legacy of this catastrophic page in Turkish history ushered in a death of the soul as well. With unions destroyed, civil society organizations banned and press freedom quashed, a particularly savage brand of capitalism was able to swoop in, in the name of bringing progress to a country that had been admittedly drab before. But in the name of catching up, the environment went to pot (impact study, you say? Ha!), debt and consumerism ran amok, and the rich-poor gap widened to Bering Strait proportions. Conniving, stealing, scheming, dealing became survival tools. In the land of outlaws it was either trample or be stepped on. What that does to a national psyche already scarred by its particularly gruesome history is not hard to guess.

Along with the two walkie-talkies my father had brought home a thick department store catalog from the States. I remember looking through it, marveling at all the colorful merchandise they had and we didn't. More than 20 years later, "we" over there have everything that "they" over here have, finally. The same first-run American movies, shopping malls, haircuts, even the same homeless people. And yet somehow all that made it across the ocean leaving behind ideas such as the First Amendment, due process, and antitrust laws.

Regardless of what kind of laws the country would end up with, the generals made sure none could be applied to them. They granted themselves full immunity before leaving office and "giving the power back" to civilians, with a promise to return if necessary -- and they have returned, behind the scenes if not in actual power, many times since.

General Evren took up painting in retirement. He was subsequently ordered by a local court to pay damages to an artist whose paintings he had aped to create his own. It was perhaps admirable, the tenacity with which this man embraced banality even after stepping down from the podium.


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