Turkey: I refuse!
(15.05.2021) I will start with the first day when I was 19 years old. I was sitting in the garden and got a visit from a talkative friend. He told me that we had to show up for the physical examination. I told him, “I won’t go to the military, you can go.” I can’t explain why I wanted to refuse even then, but there was always a voice inside me telling me that something couldn’t be right with the military service.
My friend was stunned and said, “Rebel against the state! They will make you disappear! Where will you go?” He said many foolish things when I talked back at him. At last he turned to my mother and said, “Aunty, you would also be in trouble, they will pressure you to deny help and support to a criminal.”
I am supposed to be guilty if I don’t join the army. But those who try to force me into the army and give me a gun are considered not to blame.
My mother said to me, “My son, if I, at my old age, had to go to prison because of you, this would be as if my back were broken.” So it was clear to me. Even if she had sent me to my death at that moment, I would have gone.
I went to the physical examination and was declared fit. After a while, it was time to join the military. 2006 I was sent to the barracks in Manisa.
That’s when the nastiness started. Every day they complained about me and the friends I had made in the army. My friends were listening to Ahmet Kaya (a Kurdish Singer) and spoke Kurdish! I can’t speak Kurdish myself, but my friends spoke Kurdish. Some soldiers complained that it was a terrorist language.
A friend of mine couldn’t help himself and asked, “Commander, if an Argentinean comes here, can’t he speak his language if he doesn’t speak Turkish?” The commander replied, “He has a state. According to that, those who don’t have a state can’t speak their own language.” A completely different idea.
One day I was standing in the queue and the corporal came up to me. He said, “You now have a week’s punishment/guard duty.” I retorted, “You can’t just punish me as you see fit. On what basis are you punishing me? Are you a judge? What is my fault?” “You will do as I say.” “No, I will not comply.”
That night I was supposed to stand guard. But I didn’t get up. The corporal tried to wake me up and to force me to go on guard duty. I argued with him. We argued for 10 minutes. He told me, “If you don’t get up, I will hit you next time.” I said: “Try it!”. Then he said “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Then he left.
The next day he complained to the corporal. He called me in. My friends warned me before I left: “Don’t be silly, we are only here for 28 days. Why don’t you push the guard?
The lance corporal asked me, “Why are you disobeying the order?” I replied, “I have done nothing to warrant punishment.” He replied, “I will cut off your head. If you are punished, you have to obey the order. You have no right to resist.”
The lance corporal said he knew that my friends had said, “Look, we are only staying here for 28 days in total.” I didn’t go into it. I silently thought, yes, I will leave and never come back. But then a lieutenant came. He instructed me, “If my lance corporal punishes you, you have no right to appeal. You cannot question the order!”
He continued: “He will give the order. And if you appeal against it, it will be passed on to the commander-in-chief!” It then went through my mind, so if he ordered me to kill myself, I would have no right to appeal.
Then I thought silently, “mum, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, but I can’t bear this injustice any more.”
The day came when we were transferred. I was able to go home. But when the day came for me to go back to the military, I didn’t go. Another friend of mine did not go either.
Then the other families gathered and came to our house. “Onur is setting a bad example for our children. Because he doesn’t go, our children don’t want to go to the army either.” My mother again started to harangue me and beg.
Our neighbourhood is far-right. Actually they have a Kurdish background, they are either families from Muş or Afrin, but they became more Turkish than Turks.
Again, I couldn’t disappoint my mother. I took on the neighbourhood, but I couldn’t fall out with my mother! Maybe this was my biggest mistake, but what could I have done?”
I was supposed to go to a place called Tekirdağ/Hayrabolu. It was the first time I had heard the name. Did such a place even exist in Turkey? And after I was there, all the bullshit started again: “Fatherland! I sacrifice myself for you, every Turk is born a soldier!” Brother, I was not born a soldier!
“You take the gun!” “No, I’m not taking it!” “You take it!” “No, I’m not taking it”. Then beatings!
After two months they took me to hospital. Before I was transferred there, I had such a fight with the corporal that the soldiers next to me started shaking. Everyone was afraid of him, he struck mercilessly.
But I was sure I would not endure this cruelty any more, not even for my mother’s sake. I was not allowed to leave the barracks to go to town. So I planned to be referred to the military hospital or the hospital and then escape. But I had to wait for the referral to the hospital.
Two months passed, but it was still not my turn. I went to the staff corporal and told him that I wanted to go to the hospital myself and not wait for transport. We argued. After a big argument, I got permission and left. I did not come back.
Once again my mum, again my relatives, again the people from the neighbourhood, they all descended on me. My mother said something so trenchant to me that it would have been easier for me to have died than having to hear these words: “My son! I always wanted you to join the army and become a martyr and go to heaven and take me with you!” Look, the sadness of her words!
At that moment I lost my faith in the love of God or heaven. Actually, I believe in the existence of God, but not in a God who wants war, but in a God who wants peace. I don’t believe in the God of hate, but in the God of love.
Others said there was no escape from death or military service. It is impressive! Who made these people say such things? I am both angry and sad.
On the one hand, I also see these people as victims of this system. It is not easy to stand alone against a whole system, even an armed system. When there is talk of soldiers, people start trembling. They say they will make you disappear, oh huh. In short, they were very afraid of the military.
When I first said the word conscientious objection, some people went crazy: “Shit, get lost, what is conscientious objection?”
As a conscientious objector in the military
I consistently refused military service and tried to live a life like any other citizen. But it was difficult, almost impossible.
I went to the café and discussed military service with people. But they wouldn’t let me. A few people dressed in civilian clothes came and asked me to show my identity card. I said that I had it at home. “What is your name?” “Hasan.” “Don’t lie, right, Onur Erden?” I jumped up but immediately they threw me on the floor. Three people who were beating me put me in the back of a police car and sat on me. They took me to the police station, undressed me and left me dressed only in my underwear.
I had hidden 10 sleeping pills in my underwear. If I was caught, I wanted to take them and die to avoid being tortured. I suspected they would torture me.
I took the pills when I got the chance. Afterwards I fell into a kind of stupor. I was not asleep, but I was not awake either. In this state they handed me over to the gendarmerie. The gendarmerie put me in the back of a car, one soldier on my right, one on my left.
They took me to hospital where I was treated with an infusion. Then they put me to bed for a while. Then they took me to the gendarmerie station and put me in a cell. When I came to, I took the bed sheet, went to the toilet, tied the sheet to the window and put it around my neck. I was overpowered. When I woke up again, I was surrounded by soldiers. They removed all the sheets from the cell. The commander told me I was just bluffing, fooling them....
They called my father and said that I had hanged myself. My father told them he didn’t care. The torture didn’t destroy me, but those words from my parents destroyed me.
First they took me to the military unit. There I had the opportunity to run away and climb to the third floor of a building. I looked out of the window and thought: What if I don’t die then, but survive? While I was still thinking about the fact that these villains would torture me despite my injuries, one came from behind and caught me.
They pulled me in through the window. I just thought, what is going to happen will be even worse.
I was in their hands for about five days and did not answer any questions. I did not eat or drink anything. They arrested me and took me to the military court. The prosecutor and the judge went crazy because I did not respond to them and did not do what they wanted. The prosecutor threatened me with electric shocks.
A military car came and took me to prison.
Sometimes I wonder, what is military service? Military service means war, war means killing, rape, violence, the loss of people’s limbs, arms, legs and eyes, means orphans. I will not be among those who claim that the military system has created something good for the world, something better than violence and rape.
I wonder what militarism is doing to this world. I cannot imagine any other scenario than the one I am experiencing myself. In the civil war in Syria that started a few kilometres from our house and after bombs exploded in our district, the bodies of some of my friends and their families were picked up in pieces. Unfortunately, 14-year-old Fatma Avlar, who was hit and crushed by a rocket fired 100 metres away from us during the Turkish army’s battle with the YPG, is the concrete painful proof that I made the right decision.
They handed me over to the military prison. At the door, selected butchers were waiting for me. “He won’t do what we said,” they explained and handed me over.
They wanted me to stand at attention and bow down. I didn’t. A soldier grabbed my hands and forced my head down. I lifted my head up again. He said, “You’ll see”.
They dragged me by the arms and took me into a room. 8-10 soldiers beat me, some with a baton, some with a kick. Some with their fists. This went on for several minutes. I had not eaten nor drunk for five days. I was very weak. I fell to the ground and fainted. But they poured cold water on me and continued with the beating.
They wanted me to undress. I didn’t. They got angry and started hitting harder. I did not answer their questions and they beat me. They tore off my clothes to rape me with a baton. One soldier grabbed my hands and pushed my head between his legs. Then a soldier came in and spoke to me: ‘If you do what we say and answer the questions, I will take you to the common room.’ When I did not do what he said and continued not to answer their questions, they called the commander. A soldier left and came back after a few minutes and declared, “The captain says: “fuck him!”
They started banging my head against the wall. My eyes went black, I couldn’t see anything. Then they took me somewhere and put me in a bed. By the way, they had put a uniform on me beforehand. After a while I could see again, but my eyes and head hurt a lot.
They came again and took me away to cut off my hair. After that, a sergeant beat me. They took me out into the fresh air and put a glass of cold water to my mouth.
I couldn’t resist and drank the water. After this had gone on for a few times, I said that I would not speak and would not do it. “If you don’t do service, they will give you a 10-month prison sentence.” I told them even if it was 10 years, I couldn’t do it.
July 2006, the first court sentenced me to 12 months imprisonment and reduced the sentence to 10 months with good behaviour, i.e. 6 months 20 days would be half to get out. I asked for a paper to appeal. They wouldn’t allow it. “You are already guilty. Who are you going to appeal to? You are a traitor to the fatherland.”
During my time in prison, I was subjected to violence and insults. I had never been in prison before. Every morning they forced me to exercise and kicked me. One day I went to the infirmary and told the doctor that they were making me exercise and I was being beaten. My arm felt numb, but who are you telling this to? The doctor is also a soldier.
He called the other soldiers and said “that now they should let me train more so he can see who is complaining to whom.”
In short, every moment of the six months and 20 days was worse than death, but it passed.
After I was released on parole, they gave me a report that they could not transfer me to the barracks because it was outside the provincial boundary. I would have to report to my unit within a day, as required by law.
Hunted as a leper
I did not know what to do. I did not know any organisation to make my voice heard. I also did not know people like me.
The military unit was in Tekirdağ and I had been in the military prison in Çanakkale. I got on the bus and went to my hometown Hatay. While doing so, I thought, how can I fight, where can I get support?
I didn’t have the opportunity to get a lawyer either. Which lawyer would dare to take on such a case? I did not know.
I came to Hatay, but I became a leper. Everyone harassed me every day, my family, the people around me, insults, abuse, they excluded me.
I could not go home. I slept in mosques and empty houses. I tried to stay away from those who knew me, but almost everyone knew about me: everyone knew everyone.
One day a police car came to a carpentry shop where I was sitting. I started to run. They chased me, but I managed to escape and left the city. I spent the day in the fields.
On my passage across the countryside, on another day when I was sitting at a sawmill run by my aunt’s husband, I saw the police car coming. Again I ran away. They pulled out a gun but with people present they could not shoot. I managed to escape again.
Cursing, they threatened my aunt’s husband, “If they let him come here again, we will arrest you right away.”
The police also went to others and told them to help the state. Such criminals must be caught. I could not understand what crime I was accused of to have committed.
I spent some time outside the city, in the fields or in the cemetery. One day, when I was outside the city in the cemetery, I noticed someone drawing near fast. I started to run. Then a plainclothes police car stopped right in front of me. Three people got out. I turned around and started running. This time they opened fire, but they couldn’t catch me because there were thick trees in the cemetery. Once again I managed to escape.
I realised that I could no longer stay in this city, even in this country. I asked a friend who felt for me and asked him to get me a fake identity card. After a while I was able to get it and go to Northern Cyprus with it.
I was planning to go to Southern Cyprus via Northern Cyprus to apply for asylum. But a friend warned me: “They will torture you. They will force you to burn a Turkish flag and film you doing it. They will tell you if you don’t do it, we will deport you to Turkey and there you will be tortured even more. They will transfer you back to Turkey.”
I then decided to stay with my friend in Northern Cyprus with my fake passport (identity card). I tried to sell roses on the street. This went on for a while. But one day, for some trivial reason, we had a fight with a friend. He threatened to expose me. So I could no longer stay in North Cyprus.
I went to another county near my hometown and started living under a false identity.
One day my mother called me and said that the TV remote control was defective. I went and had it fixed. When I left the house again, I noticed two policemen in plain clothes. I turned around and ran, but two more people came out of a corner and caught me. It was in March 2009.
They took me to the police station with beatings and handed me over to the gendarmerie. There I was insulted and put in a cell. After that I was taken to the military unit in Tekirdağ, later to the military court and to the prison of the 2nd Corps of Çanakkale/Gelibolu.
When we arrived there, the soldiers who had brought me took off my handcuffs to hand me over to the other soldiers. I took the opportunity and ran away. I ran into the school, which is next to the military unit. I jumped down from a wall. The sergeant who was chasing me pulled out his gun and said, “Stop, Onur. Or I will shoot you.”
I said, “Shoot. Then I will escape torture.” After I said that, he put the gun away again. I was surprised, but I wished he had shot because I had to experience worse than death afterwards. I kept running.
The sergeant stopped a person on a scooter who was on the road and caught up with me. I wasn’t able to run anymore. So they got hold of me. They threw me to the ground.
In the military court, a soldier stands in front of me instead of a judge. Soldiers on the right and left with G3 rifles. I explained: “I am being tortured in my own country. How long will the soldiers do this, those who are supposed to protect us? I was treated inhumanely. They threatened to rape me. They wanted to take my money. Endless violence and insults.”
I told this to the soldier who was sitting there as a judge. He said if you have a complaint, write a petition to the military prosecutor. I did.
When I arrived at the prison, the soldiers were waiting for me and immediately took me to Major Mustafa Inam’s room. He told me, “You have complained?” “Yes.” “Who are you complaining to. Torture is a normal thing and you are a criminal. Haven’t you heard about Guantanamo, they torture much worse there. We will torture you even more now.” They threatened me with more torture. I was no longer afraid. “From now on I will complain everywhere and over and over again.” “I understand,” he replied, “you have nothing left to lose.” “Yes, you have left me nothing more to lose.”
Now the Major said, “I promise you that from now on no one will touch you. Stop complaining about us.” “No,” I replied, “I will not give up.”
It went back and forth, there were threats and finally I said, “Take me to the cell. I’ll think about it.” So I got rid of that, at least for a short time.
Any military system is cruel. Once in my cell, I continued receiving threats from other prisoners.
One day the major came to my cell and said that if I kept up my complaint, he would deny everything and pin the blame on other soldiers. Who knows what will happen to these conscripts then. Then the soldiers asked me not to complain any more, “we are just doing our duty, we are just carrying out orders”. But that doesn’t change anything. In fact, they are soldiers by choice and they like to torture, otherwise they would not be able to do it.
I wrote the petition and put it in my pocket to hand it over to the prosecution. But on the way to the court, the soldiers searched me and found the petition. The major said he would withhold the petition. Actually, everyone knows how it is, but I wanted to resist. Then I was in court. The trial was held and I was sentenced to 10 months in prison and provisionally released.
Now I sent my petition from the outside to the military prosecutor of the 2nd Corps and the Supreme Court judge. I also sent the letter to the Prime Minister. At the same time I sent emails to some news portals and went to see a lawyer in Atakya. I could not find any journalists who could criticise the military system.... Or I sent the emails to the wrong journalists.
I told the lawyer that I wanted to exercise my right to conscientious objection, that I had been in prison twice and that I had been tortured. He replied to me: “You will not find a lawyer to defend you because they will be charged and imprisoned even if they seek a trial.”
He asked me if I knew what asylum was, adding, “In short, the only way is to flee Turkey.”
Escape to Cyprus
I then quickly went to northern Cyprus and fled from there to southern Cyprus. From December 2009 to July 2013, I tried to be recognised as a refugee because of my conscientious objection in South Cyprus. But I was rejected. So I had no chance to live there as a conscientious objector.
I lived illegally in South Cyprus for another year. For a while I had no accommodation. Supported by an Eritrean friend I had met in Cyprus, who is also a conscientious objector, I settled in a place (boarding house). But it was a big mistake - for someone who was living in the country illegally.
During that time I learned that militarism in Eritrea is as bad as in Turkey. I cannot imagine militarism being a good system anywhere in the world. In some countries, military service is voluntary and professional, but militarism kills.
It wasn’t long before the police came to the boarding house, raided us and arrested me. In South Cyprus, all the courts had rejected my application.
The South Cypriot police not only arrested me, but also confiscated all the documents I had. They took me to a solitary cell in a police station.
Then I heard about the establishment of a conscientious objection association in Turkey. This was a positive development and gave me hope. Now there would at least be an organisation that would understand me and was in Turkey. It was only later that I learned about the other conscientious objectors who had existed in Turkey, like Tayfun Gönül. In my opinion, there was no association in Turkey until 2013.
After I was detained for 20 days, they deported me to Istanbul via Jordan in July 2013.
Deported to Turkey
There they arrested me and locked me in a room because according to customs I was wanted by the military court. They took me to a police station and put me in a cell there.
The next day I was taken to Kasımpaşa military prison (Istanbul). With the help of conscientious objector Oğuz Sönmez, lawyer Davut Erkan was organised. He was waiting at the entrance.
I was very worried. I could not get over the experiences I had after entering the military prison. In Cyprus I had been treated for my anxiety and took medication. But that had not made it better, in fact worse.
Thanks to the lawyer Davut Erkan, it was the first time that I was not tortured in a military prison. But the systematic repression never ended.
After a week, they took me back to Gelibolu Prison. There I was in court again. Unfortunately, the judge was also a conscript soldier. He said that he was actually “a civilian judge”. “I serve the state, but they also want me to work as a judge in the service of a soldier.” He continued, “I understand you, but there is no law under which I can let you go. If you agree to do military service, I will not arrest you. And if you complete your military service, I will drop the case.” I refused.
I went back to the military prison. Again they greeted me at the door, but there was no physical torture, this time there was psychological torture. The so-called body search is done by undressing and bending down. But this time they were more merciful with me. For example, two soldiers held a bed sheet around me.
Before, this search had been violent in front of many soldiers. They also undressed me by tearing off my clothes. They sounded, “You have such a nice ass.” This time the treatment was humane, so to speak.
The struggles of the conscientious objectors and the actions of the Conscientious Objection Association had an impact here. There had been some changes in the military prison. Excessive sentences were refrained from, torture was banned in some places, though not everywhere. The compulsion to wear a uniform was abolished except in certain circumstances, and compulsory training or work was also stopped until further notice.
But there were soldiers inside who went crazy when they heard the word conscientious objection. I said I wanted to go to hospital. They replied, “You refuse to do military service? And you want to go to hospital?” I applied for an identity card. They replied, “You are not doing military service? And you want to have an identity card? There are people who say you don’t deserve citizenship of this country.” I replied, “I am not enthusiastic about it either.” After a month-long struggle in military prison, I received an identity card.
Vicious circle of persecution
In the meantime, the remaining sentence of the probation of my first sentence had to be dealt with. I expected the judge to add this to the new sentence as well. The judge said that he would convert the last prison sentence into a fine with a daily rate of 20 TL and assess my imprisonment with 100 TL. Thus, the state should then pay me 3,000 TL in arrears. “They have imprisoned you for too long,” he said. He could deduct the fine I would still be given. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a treasure.
At the next hearing he told me: “I can’t keep you any longer. I know you won’t do military service and so you will go back to prison. But now I have to release you.” And so it happened. But they issued another marching order to report to the barracks within a day. While still in the military office I wrote on the document. “I refuse.” The commander was stunned: “Why do you refuse?” “I cannot obey that order.” After some back and forth, they let me go.
I returned to Hatay. Again the police came to my house and took me to the recruitment office. A report was made there and I could leave again.
The laws had changed in the meantime. Before, I was taken to the military unit in handcuffs. Now they took me to the military office, made a report and threatened me with prosecution if I did not report within two days. It was better than before, but the persecution didn’t stop there.
Back in Hatay, I was saddled with family and economic burdens. I had problems finding a job. I thought of going to another city to get rid of the pressure and find work. So I went to Antalya. But then, in the summer of 2015, the gendarmerie came to catch me.
When I entered the director’s room, everyone had gathered there and was already waiting for me. They told me that I was wanted for offences against the military penal code. I was supposed to explain it to them, but I already knew they wouldn’t understand. If I told them I was a conscientious objector, they would reply, “What is that?” Then the police station and the military office would follow. I did not argue with the officials. Then I was released under the threat of referring the case to the military court. Another criminal case was opened. My job was terminated.
I made a few more similar attempts, but the police kept coming wherever I went.
After that, they came to my place of accommodation several times and took me away. I was also arrested of the buses several times, and additional criminal casses were opened. I could not settle anywhere in Turkey.
There were two criminal cases in 2018-2019, both of which ended in 10 months’ imprisonment. The second final prison sentence could have been converted into a fine.
I went to an open prison in Kırıkhan (Hatay) in December 2018. After 22 days, I was released on parole on condition that I work in a hospital and report to the police and provide a signature.
When I was working in the state hospital I started looking for ways to escape from the country. I found a way, but had no idea what lay ahead.
Escape to Germany
I decided to flee to Germany, which I thought was the safest country. in 2020 I reached Germany, but I was in a miserable condition, physically and mentally. I knew that I could apply for asylum in Germany. But refugees have to live in a situation reminiscent of Turkey. My application was rejected.
I understood that opponents of war seem to have no right to live in this world. In fact, there is no reason for conscientious objectors having to declare themselves. Rather, reasons are needed by those who force us to be trained on weapons and learn warfare.
We cannot have a peaceful world by producing more and more weapons and bombs. The biggest criminals are the countries that go to war for their own interests and force innocent citizens to participate. No state has the right to force its citizens to do so.
Onur Erden: I refuse! May 15, 2021. Published in the booklet "Conscientious Objection in Turkey", May 2021. Editors: Connection e.V., War Resisters International and Union Pacifiste de France