Welcome to the Cemetery of Traitors
As Turkey’s purge picks up speed, a graveyard on the outskirts of Istanbul has some worried about what’s to come.
ISTANBUL — Perched on a forested hillside in the distant outskirts of Istanbul, the town of Ballica seems a world removed from the bloodshed of a failed military coup that killed hundreds of people in Turkey just two weeks ago. But these hills now host an unsettling monument to the military putsch: On the edge of town, a low stone wall and sun-blasted patch of soil mark Turkey’s “Cemetery of Traitors.”
Four days ago, a soldier who fought to overthrow the country’s elected government was buried here, the first to be interred in the rocky, barren enclosure. He numbers among more than 350 people who died on July 15 and 16, when rebel jets bombed the seat of parliament, coupist tanks and troops killed demonstrators, and mass street protests stopped an insurrection that almost plunged Turkey headlong into civil war.
No tombstone marks the lone grave, which appears to have been hastily filled in — and then driven over — by a construction excavator. Three freshly dug holes wait in a row nearby.
Since the coup on the night of July 15, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has moved swiftly to memorialize the bravery of anti-coup protesters, planning public monuments and rechristening Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge — where scores of unarmed protesters were killed by rebel soldiers — as the “July 15th Martyrs’ Bridge.” The cemetery, built on the orders of Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas, has proved a controversial add-on to the list of post-coup public works.
“Those who pass by will recite curses,” Topbas recently told attendees of a massive post-coup rally in central Istanbul. Days later, Turkish newspapers published photos showing the new burial plot, complete with a sign reading “Cemetery of Traitors” at its entrance. The Diyanet, Turkey’s religious affairs agency, soon protested that the sign — though apparently not the cemetery itself — would prove insensitive to grieving families and ordered it removed.
The shame implied by the cemetery’s location, however, remains: The plot lies in the annex of a sprawling, open-air dog shelter run by the Istanbul municipality.
In the nearby town of Ballica, local villagers are visibly upset. “I cannot believe they would do this. They did not even ask us for permission,” said Ramazan Kayali, the owner of Ballica’s sole tea house. “Even the dogs in the shelter will be slandered because of their presence.”
Many Turks would share that grim sentiment, given the legacy of military takeovers that rocked Turkey in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. After seizing power in 1980, a military-run government jailed more than half a million people, killed hundreds by firing squad or torture in prison, and inadvertently midwifed a Kurdish insurgency that has cost some 30,000 lives since 1984.
Turkish authorities — along with the country’s three major opposition parties — blame the recent coup attempt on Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Pennsylvania-based cleric whose followers are suspected of infiltrating key positions in Turkey’s judiciary, police, and military. Ankara has demanded his extradition from the United States, where he has lived in self-exile since 1999.
A 2–year-old crackdown on Gulen’s organization has exploded in the wake of the coup, extending to scores of state institutions, media outlets, schools, university professors, and businesses. State media report that more than 15,000 people have been detained since July 15, 8,000 of whom have been formally arrested. Turkey’s military has dishonorably discharged more than 1,600 personnel, including 149 generals and admirals — roughly 40 percent of the military’s top brass. Some 131 media organizations have been shuttered, and detention warrants have been issued for at least 89 journalists. International observers have expressed alarm at the pace of arrests and reports of torture in detention centers.
Yet even the family of the one man buried here, in the Cemetery of Traitors, has refused to come to his defense. On the night of July 15, Maj. Mehmet Karabekir led a group of rebel soldiers attempting to capture a telecommunications center in central Istanbul. Turkish media allege that Karabekir is the soldier who, in a disturbing video captured on the night of the coup, appears to shoot Mete Sertbas, a lone, unarmed demonstrator who had attempted to talk pro-coup soldiers into standing down.
In a WhatsApp conversation between coup plotters analyzed by the citizen journalism website Bellingcat, Karabekir reportedly ordered his subordinates to fire into crowds of demonstrators in the coup’s final, panicked hours. “Crush them, burn them … no compromise,” a message attributed to Karabekir reads. “I am firing, firing on the crowd.”
The major was later killed in a shootout with police and buried in Ballica after his family refused to receive his body. “My son became a killer — if only he had been martyred honorably,” said Karabekir’s mother, Mine Karabekir, in an interview with Turkish media outlet Haberturk.
Nonetheless, some in Ballica see the graveyard as a disturbing, unwanted first in their country’s history. “Every human being should be entitled to a proper burial, no matter one’s past,” said a local worker, declining to be named. “Never in history have we created something like this graveyard.”
The infamous leader of the 1980 coup, Kenan Evren, was given a formal state funeral when he died at the age of 97 in 2015. Evren served as president between 1980 and 1989 but was also found guilty by a Turkish court in 2014 and given a life sentence. Talat Aydemir, an officer who launched two failed military insurrections and was executed in 1964, was buried in a cemetery in the heart of the nation’s capital of Ankara.
In recent days, Turkish leaders have mulled even more radical breaks with their country’s recent past. Calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty, abolished in Turkey in 2004, have been gathering force. Turkey’s last case of capital punishment was carried out in 1984, when police executed a leftist political prisoner arrested by the military junta in 1980.
“I’m sorry, but this fate fits today’s coupists,” said Ismet Hutuk, a resident of Gocbeyli, located a five minutes’ drive from the cemetery. Shot in the arm by soldiers on July 15, Hutuk nursed a mass of bandages that engulfed his left hand.
“I could not believe there was a coup that night, until I saw our President [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] speaking on TV, telling people to go to public squares and airports and challenge the coup,” Hutuk said. He promptly gathered his two sons and sped to Sabiha Gokcen Airport in Istanbul’s eastern suburbs. They soon found themselves among hundreds of civilians and police who were fired upon by soldiers barricading the entrance to the airport.
“I saw a woman shot right in front of my son. At least 10 people died,” he said as he reviewed grainy online cell-phone footage of the event.
Hutuk — who identifies himself as a supporter of Turkey’s ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party — believes that foreign media coverage has focused too heavily on the actions of Erdogan and the AKP and has missed the rare showing of national unity that has emerged post-coup. Indeed, solidarity has persisted, with major national parties staging joint rallies in opposition of the coup and Turkish politicians re-establishing dialogue with longtime foes. The Gulen movement, meanwhile, has proved a convenient scapegoat for the government and opposition parties alike.
But Turkey’s old fault lines are sure to re-emerge. In the wake of the coup, Erdogan has revived his plans to build Ottoman-era barracks atop Gezi Park, a rare bit of Istanbul green space — the planned demolition of which ignited anti-government protests in 2013. Attacks by Kurdish insurgents have continued since the failed coup, casting doubt on hopes for a reset of peace talks. Purges of state employees and the closure of media outlets, made easier by a three-month state of emergency declared by Erdogan last week, could widen in the coming months.
“We were all together against the coup,” said Turgay Balikci, a local taxi driver and this correspondent’s companion for a day. “But it can’t last.” Balikci embraced the government’s crackdown against the Gulen movement and dismissed allegations that arrests have, for now, targeted government opponents unaffiliated with the coup plotters.
His worry instead turned to the graveyard and what it symbolized. “The media calls the family and asks, ‘Your son is a traitor — will you claim his body?’ How can you say anything but ‘no’ to that? People are so afraid.”
“And now people say, ‘Bring back the death penalty! Hang them!’” Balikci added. “People have stopped thinking. Where we are headed is not good. It’s not good at all.”
Photo credit: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images