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World

Exiled Turkish Military Officer Recreates His Life In The U.S.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I was in a suburb of San Francisco recently visiting a man who is starting over. He's an officer in the Turkish military. We were in his California apartment with his wife and his young kids. They had recreated their former life in Turkey here as best they could. Shoes come off at the front door. His wife's artwork hangs on the walls. This officer described their lives back in Turkey as comfortable. They'd go out to nice dinners. They'd go on vacations often.

How different is life now? Well, we have distorted and masked his voice in order to protect him, and you'll soon understand why.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: We have a good life.

(Through interpreter) In Turkey, we had a good life. We were living very comfortably. I was not thinking about the future. The future wasn't on my mind.

GREENE: Until it was. The officer, whose name we're not using, had to flee his country.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: I took my backpack.

(Through interpreter) I took my backpack, filled it with clothes and gifts from my kids.

Kids. (Laughter).

GREENE: Think about the most consequential stories in the Middle East in recent years. The war against ISIS. The nuclear deal with Iran. The audacious killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. What often gets lost in that mix are troubling developments out of Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Chaos in Turkey.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The tanks have opened fire in Turkey's largest...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Turkey's top general was held hostage at the military...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: An apparent coup attempt in U.S. and NATO ally Turkey tonight.

GREENE: On a warm summer evening in 2016, the military officer we were speaking to was at a park with his family in Turkey when he heard military jets overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILITARY JETS FLYING)

GREENE: He didn't think much of it until he turned on the television a couple hours later.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLDIERS YELLING IN TURKISH)

GREENE: Soldiers had stormed the offices of a Turkish news channel and tried to seize control of the airwaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: (Speaking Turkish).

GREENE: A coup was allegedly underway. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on his supporters to resist...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Speaking Turkish).

GREENE: ...And they did. Erdogan held onto power, and in the nine months that followed, he unleashed a massive crackdown. His government hunted down anyone suspected of taking part in what he said was an attempted coup. He went after academics and police officers, civil servants and military officers - people our officer knew well.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: I have lots of friends there.

(Through interpreter) I have lots of friends like that. I have friends who are tortured and imprisoned.

GREENE: He tried not to worry.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: First, we didn't.

(Through interpreter) At first, we didn't believe that they would come for us. But one day, one of my supervisors called me and told me that, we are suspending your job. I asked him, why are you doing this? He said, we suspect you have used an application.

An application.

GREENE: And this was common in the crackdown. There was a private, encrypted messaging app, called ByLock. Turkish courts ruled that just having it on your phone was enough to prove involvement in the coup. This officer said he didn't have the app on his phone at the time. I asked him if he was involved or did anything that could have made people think he was involved.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: I was with my family. (Through interpreter) I was with my family. I am not involved. I condemned the coup attempt.

GREENE: Still, he worried that his suspension was only the beginning. He got a different apartment to hide out in for a while, but then he decided it was time to get out. He made a plan with his wife. He would flee the country first, and if the route was safe, he'd call for his wife and kids to follow. He left with just that backpack, which had some gifts from his kids. He still has them. He holds them in sandwich bags, and he showed them to me.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: The most important, the most valuable.

(Through interpreter) The most important, the most valuable, are these two poems. It says, my father in Turkey, my darling in English. My son asked me not to read it until I left Turkey. And whenever I read these poems, I would cry.

I cried.

GREENE: This officer and several others set off by foot, hoping they could reach the Greek border.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: Women.

(Through interpreter) Women were carrying babies in backpacks. Some wrapped their kids to their shoulders and walked seven, eight hours. Sometimes we had to enter water that came up to the waist. It was raining.

GREENE: Finally, he made it to a police station in Greece. And then this senior officer, who'd go to fancy dinners and concerts back home, applied for U.S. asylum. He eventually landed in Northern California. His wife and two kids then made the same journey, and they joined him. They have been struggling. This officer has been selling whatever he can online.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: (Through interpreter) Whatever I can find, clothes, I buy cheap from somewhere and sell them at a higher price.

GREENE: He also recently started driving for the ride-hailing app Lyft to make money. And this military officer is not alone. At least two dozen Turkish military officers have sought asylum in the U.S., and NPR has spoken to several of them. Human rights groups say others are still trying to flee Turkey. Now, of course, people who get out may be the fortunate ones. This officer showed us photos on his wall of other military friends.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: The guy on the left.

(Through interpreter) The guy on the left, he has been tortured.

The right person.

(Through interpreter) The person on the right corner is in Greece.

In Greece now.

(Through interpreter) The first girl's husband has been imprisoned.

Imprisoned.

GREENE: And this is all part of the brain drain that has been created amid this crackdown. Erdogan's government has imprisoned thousands of people since the coup attempt. He's also undermined his country's reputation for democracy and human rights, and he's upset this delicate diplomacy where the U.S. and other NATO countries thought they had a trusted partner in a region that could erupt at any time.

Here in California, this military officer had his asylum approved recently. He's trying to build a life here now, though he still does wonder sometimes if Erdogan's government could one day track him down.

UNIDENTIFIED TURKISH MILITARY OFFICER: We are living at risk.

(Through interpreter) We are at risk when we sell stuff. Whenever I see a Turkish name, I think to myself, I don't want to meet near here. I give them another address not near my house, far from my home.

GREENE: As for his actual home, Turkey, he thinks he'll one day see it again. But he knows that won't be soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.