Turkey’s war in the east has killed 60 soldiers in a month. Their families blame the government

GlobalPost
The father of late Turkish soldier Hamza Yildirim (2nd L) reacts in front of his son's flag-draped coffin during his funeral ceremony at Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, Turkey, on July 31, 2015.
Adem Altan

ISTANBUL, Turkey — When Mehmet Alkan collapsed onto the star-and-crescent flag draped over his brother’s coffin, reporters lurched forward, expecting to capture a familiar scene. But Alkan faced the cameras, and directed his anger not at the Kurdish militants who had killed his brother, but at the Turkish government.

A lieutenant colonel himself, Alkan cast away his military cap and shouted: “Who is his murderer? Who is responsible for this? Why do those who talked of a solution until yesterday now say war?” The video quickly became the most talked-about topic on Turkish social media.

His younger brother, 32-year-old army captain Ali Alkan, had died of wounds sustained in an attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on Saturday. At least 60 members of the Turkish security forces have been killed since the so-called “solution process” between the guerrillas and the state broke down one month ago.

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Government officials speak of the fallen soldiers as “martyrs” who died defending their country. Energy Minister Taner Yildiz last week commented that he, too, would like to die a martyr; at a police officer’s funeral last weekend, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked “how happy” the man’s family must be that he had become a martyr.

At his brother’s funeral, Alkan bitterly mocked the politicians. “There is really nothing like sitting around in a palace with 30 bodyguards and going around in an armored car, and saying ‘I want to be a martyr.’ Just go out and do it,” he said. Angry mourners later destroyed a wreath sent by Erdogan.

The lieutenant’s outburst was not the first. Over the past week, the government’s rhetoric has been met with growing backlash at funerals across the country.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters on the 562nd anniversary of the conquest by Ottoman Turks on May 30 in Istanbul.

Election hopes damaged

“People here are furious. Seven soldiers from this city were killed in the last month,” said Ayhan, an engineer living in the southern town of Osmaniye, where Alkan was buried. 

Funeral marchers pelted Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu with coins and stones at a sergeant’s funeral in Bursa last week, forcing him to hide in the city’s municipality offices. Earlier, Müezzinoğlu had suggested that calm would return if voters supported the powerful executive presidency favored by Erdogan.

“How many more will we sacrifice until we elect him as president? Damn you all,” yelled one of the sergeant’s relatives while the crowd chanted “shame on you” and “rot in hell.”

Last Sunday, a woman at a soldier’s funeral in the southern province of Manisa was filmed shouting: “Shame on the prime minister, shame on the president! Let them send their own children!” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in July that Turks were prepared to “sacrifice their sons.”

Turkey slid into political uncertainty after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority in the June elections for the first time since rising to power over a decade ago. After Davutoglu failed to form a coalition government, Erdogan called snap elections on Monday evening.

His critics believe new vote was Erdogan’s goal since the general elections did not produce the desired majority that would allow him to realize his ambitions of a presidential system. But as Turkey has begun fighting both the Islamic State and the PKK, analysts question whether new elections will result in an AKP majority.

"To go the polls at a time when people are being killed every single day can have a downside," Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based EDAM think tank, told the Associated Press last week. "The arithmetic in parliament won't necessarily change.”

Ilhan Tanir, a Turkish analyst and columnist for the left-leaning Cumhuriyet newspaper, believes the funerals-turned-protests could signal a renewed defeat at the polls for Erdogan and his party. “This, the families of the army turning away, may draw some more nationalist votes from the AKP,” he said.

However, Tanir warned it was too early to make a prediction. When 311 people died in the Soma mine disaster last year, mourners also protested against the AKP. “But after that we had a presidential election and Erdogan was still elected,” he added.

Relatives mourn and attend the burial ceremony of three Kurdish civilians, including a teenager, on Aug. 8, in the district of Silopi in Sirnak.

More coffins

In Kirikkale, a town near Ankara where more than half of residents voted for the AKP in June, mourners at the funeral of Sgt. Musa Saydam chased away Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan last Sunday, chanting “the AKP are murderers.”

Saydam’s family, however, felt uncomfortable with the demonstration. “We were against the protest, we had nothing to do with it and as a family, we don’t support their opinion,” said a relative who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Saydam, a father of two teenagers, was killed on Aug. 16 in the eastern province of Bingöl when the PKK detonated an IED as the sergeant’s armored vehicle drove by. The relative, a young man, vowed to join the army and avenge Saydam’s death.

Yet the recent protests mark a significant shift. Funeral ceremonies for fallen soldiers, who are buried with full honors, are a traditional rallying ground for Turkish nationalism. Accordingly, the pro-government press has labeled the angry mourners as terrorists; the liberal newspaper Radikal reported on Tuesday that Mehmet Alkan would face an investigation.

But Ilhan Tanir believes the wave of discontent will only grow. “For three years the AKP have been talking about how peace is necessary and how the mums shall not cry anymore. That’s such a powerful argument that the people believed in it,” he said. “I think as we see more and more soldiers coming back in coffins, we’ll see a bigger and bigger backlash.”