For the thousands of Turks fleeing oppression back home, silence and secrecy in the lands where they seek sanctuary are key to their survival.
By Sofia-elpida Kartali
Three years on from the attempted coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains the most influential political figure in the country – and a figure of fear for thousands of Turks who want to escape his oppressive rule and have no safe place to hide.
For them, Erdogan, or the “Erdogan phenomenon” as some call him, is a despot who haunts their lives, even when they are many miles away from him.
Former military officer posing as teacher:
On a balcony in Thessaloniki, Greece, a man with deep blue eyes and brown skin, a contradictory combination of features that seems to reflect his own situation, sits expectantly.
His wife and two of his daughters sit on chairs nearby, while the third and smallest child constantly goes up and down till she feels safe in her father’s arms. Everyone in the family has his or her story to tell about the nightmare they experienced after the botched coup of July 15, 2016.
But it is Cemal – not his real name – who holds court, describing his descent down the slippery slope of persecution in Turkey, which has driven thousands of Turks, like him, to illegally leave their country.
Cemal says he sneaked out with his family in the autumn of 2017, having spent a year in hiding, without having contact even with his wife and children.
“We felt Greece would be the right solution for us,” he says. “It is a European country, close to Turkey, so we could cross the Evros River and be in Greece within 15 to 30 minutes.
“As we couldn’t leave by plane, we could have chosen other countries like Iraq and Lebanon – but in these countries there is no democracy, so we picked Greece,” he explains.
Cemal is one of thousands of Turks who have sought asylum in Greece; nearly 9,000 requested asylum there in the last three years, according to the Greek asylum service of the Ministry of Citizens’ Protection. He obtained refugee status on August 16, 2018, about a year after he arrived.
It’s a new aspect of the refugee crisis in Greece. But many Turkish nationals don’t register their presence in Greece, planning to head deeper into Europe and further away from Turkey. Like ghosts, they hide in their own country before leaving, and then assume false identities in other countries in an effort to resume a normal life.
The summer of 2018 saw a veritable mass exodus of Turks from “Erdogan’s dungeons”, as some put it, when they lost hope that something might change at home. They couldn’t afford to continue hiding, and many feared that detention in Turkish jails was coming soon.
As one Greek NGO worker reported: “You could spot them everywhere in the Evros region [in Greece], walking along the road passing through villages … They were well dressed and had their wives and children with them.”
Around 12,500 Turkish nationals crossed the Evros river frontier from August 2016 to April 2019 alone, according to a database compiled by Frontex, the European Union’s border agency. Over the same time, around 850 Turkish citizens crossed the Aegean Sea to the Greek islands.
The Greek police avoid disclosing the exact number of Turks they encounter crossing Greek land and sea borders. But Tugba Guven, a former reporter at TRT, the state-run Turkish broadcasting agency, says the real number of Turks who recently fled to Greece may be higher than 25,000.
Sitting in a café in Thessaloniki, a few months before she took off to Germany with her two children to be reunited with her husband, she recalls how her husband, Cevheri, editor of the magazine Nokta, had been detained on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organisation and of making propaganda in favour of the attempted coup.
“People who flee Turkey, especially those who have decided to have a life here in Thessaloniki, are afraid to talk to journalists; they feel safer staying under the radar,” she says.
It is a game of fear. Greece avoids coming under pressure from Erdogan’s regime – as long as these people remain invisible; at the same time, they are afraid to make a mark in public, and stay in the shadows.
River escape might have ended in death:
Cemal 40, took a tough decision as the father of three daughters – to cross the Evros River with his family in a small boat packed with refugees. A short ride of about 30 minutes, their smugglers overcharged them 11,000 euros for a journey that could have resulted in their deaths.
Cemal said the inflatable boat could have capsized at any moment as it was dangerously overloaded. But he felt he had no option, if he wanted to be free and be reunited with his wife and daughters. “My blood ran cold when we were on the boat, but the moment we reached the Greek side of the river, I looked up at the sky” he recalls.
“It was clear that night, full of stars; there I left behind all the burdens that had weighed me down, set my mind free and felt so happy. And I felt happier when I saw exactly the same feeling in my daughters’ eyes. I wish I had taken a picture of that moment,” he says.
Cemal was suspended from work one month after the attempted coup in July 2016. He was dismissed in September. He presented himself to me as a teacher.
What he was not telling me is that he was a military officer – information obtained from a number of separate sources. He was not sure whether talking about his real identity would prove cathartic or harmful. After our conversation, I knew he had decided to stick to this fabricated new identity.
The night of the failed coup, he says he was on a family vacation in his hometown near the Turkish-Syrian border. “We didn’t like what happened that night at all. It was an attempt that had nothing to do with democracy. After that day nothing was the same,” Cemal says.
“I then hid for a year. I don’t want to talk about that period of my life and don’t even want to recall these days,” he adds.
A long uncomfortable silence follows. Cemal clearly remains traumatised by the experience: “I still have nightmares about what I went through that period. These nightmares are so vivid, so realistic that I wake me up in the middle of the night, afraid that I am still in Turkey; but once I realise that I am in Greece I feel relieved.”
The family’s greatest fear now concerns their own safety, and that of their family back in Turkey. “Two weeks ago, the Turkish police raided our parents’ house in our hometown,” Cemal says.
“We trust the Greek government and the Greek authorities. We know that they will protect us if there is a threat,” he insists.
“Greece is not like Bosnia, Albania or like other Balkan countries, where there have been ‘renditions’. But we also know Turkey has developed a huge network of people who work for the MIT [Turkish Intelligence Services]. We also know there are people who are willing to do anything even for very little money in the name of the country, as Turkey is an ultranationalist country.”
Because of this, Cemal and his family are cautious about having any relations with other Turkish people unless they know who they are. “I can’t say we are afraid of them but we do take precautions, as we have been informed that members of the MIT have infiltrated the Greek community to trace us,” he says.
“We’ve heard about two specific incidents recently, one that happened in Thessaloniki and another one in Athens,” he adds.
Cemal recalls one incident that took place in the centre of Thessaloniki at a park, while children were playing next to their mothers. “Suddenly a couple of Turkish people approached them and started asking strange questions. It was as if they were trying to get information,” he says. “They were frightened, of course, and left the park immediately. This incident was reported to Greek NGOs and the Greek authorities.”
Cemal continues with the second incident, in a southern suburb of Athens, which was covered by the Turkish media, the newspaper Sabah in particular, which belongs to Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Cemal says a team from the Turkish intelligence services, who pretended to be journalists, started following members of the community linked to Erdogan’s arch-foe, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen – blamed by Erdogan for the failed coup – gathering information about their whereabouts.
Cemal is one of the few ex-military Turkish officers that agreed to talk to me, while still hiding his true identity. “So far, the number of the Turkish military officers who are in Greece is as high as 1,500 and all of them present themselves as teachers,” a Greek security source said.
“What I hope is that I am not going to be blamed for something I haven’t done,” he repeats.
Pregnant journalist pushed back over border:
Former military officers are not the only “ghosts”; others who fled over the Evros River, only to be pushed back into Turkey, inhabit the same invisible world.
On April 26, a journalist called Tugba – she does not want to publicise her surname – then pregnant, and her husband, Asim, were among 11 Turkish asylum seekers beaten with truncheons in Greece and shipped back to their country.
“We had heard very nice things about the way Greece welcomes Turkish people fleeing Erdogan; we came here thinking that we would be received with open arms,” she says.
Asim continues the story: “Everything happened very quickly. We got off the boat and, after we rested in a forest, we started walking for about two hours. The moment we were heading to a small village, we saw a police car. We told them we wanted to claim asylum. They asked for our identities and took our cell phones.”
Tugba recalls that the policemen seemed friendly: “They even gave us water.”
They had no idea what was about to follow. After ten minutes, a white van, a Peugeot Boxer, approached and those in it told them to get in, after talking to the other two policemen. The couple tried to explain that they couldn’t get in the van because it was filthy and they had children with them.
But that did not work. With no choice, they followed instructions, still believing they were being taken to a police station. As time passed and the road became rocky, they felt something bad was going to happen.
Asim jumps in: “Then we stopped in a place without knowing where we were exactly, and got out of the van. At that moment, one of the policemen, a middle-aged man with black hair and wearing what looked like a soldier’s uniform, told us in English and broken Turkish: ‘You are a big problem. All of you, you have to go back. You have to go back to the other side. This is the order.’”
Tugba and her husband sternly told the policeman that they were seeking asylum. But their conversation didn’t last long. Four people in plain clothes and masks appeared suddenly from nowhere, from behind trees. They held truncheons and were aggressive. “They screamed that they had to go back,” she recalls.
“They grabbed us and pushed us along the river banks towards a boat. As we tried resist, they became more violent. They hit me in my lower back and my limbs and it was very painful. They didn’t touch the children and the women,” Asim continues.
“The moment engraved in my memory for ever is of the masked men hitting my husband. Can you imagine? I forgot that I was pregnant. I even tried to protect him, getting right in the middle of this situation,” Tugba says in a trembling voice.
After giving a lot of resistance, they decided they had to obey. Another man in the boat was waiting to take the asylum seekers back to Turkey. Asim was the last one to get into the boat.
The couple’s story is not an isolated one. About 82 Turkish asylum seekers were pushed back from Greece over the last half-year, 41 of whom were then arrested by the Turkish police. Some of them ended up in jail.
The Hellenic League for Human Rights reported the first incident of forcible deportation from Greece to Turkey of persons entitled to international protection in 2017. They also highlighted seeming indications that the unofficial and unlawful expulsion was conducted in concert with the Turkish authorities.
On the morning of May 24, 2017, a journalist, Murat Capan, fleeing a long jail sentence of 22.5 years, pronounced in absentia, along with two friends, crossed the Evros and sought asylum at a police station on the Greek side.
At the police station, they came across another Turkish family with three children that had also crossed the Evros. A few hours later they were back in Turkey, having been forced to return at gunpoint. Their end destination was a Turkish prison.
Around that time, both the Hellenic League and the International Federation for Human Rights documented a total of 17 pushbacks of Turkish nationals within just a few weeks. Seven of them were children. The League said the pushbacks followed a specific pattern. The Greek police drove the asylum seekers by van to a meeting point, where they were handed over to masked armed men. These men forced them onto an inflatable boat and sent across the Evros back to Turkey.
The Greek authorities have denied authorising or executing pushbacks. But there has been no official investigation.
In 2018, meanwhile, three different human rights organisations, the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment [in April], the Commission for Human Rights of the Council of Europe ([in November] and Human Rights 360, documented pushbacks taking place on the Evros river in violation of Greek national, EU and International law.
All three reports refer to a similar pattern of execution. Rights activists fear the Greek government has been sending back Turkish asylum seekers as part of a secret agreement with the Turkish government.
They note that when former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Turkey on February 5-6, 2019, at a joint press conference with President Erdogan, Tsipras said they had discussed way to make cooperation between their two countries more effective. These discussions reportedly addressed security issues and ways to cope with the activities of networks and traffickers or terrorists on their borders.
Tsipras also stated that certain unnamed initiatives had been taken that might bear fruit in future. These statements raised even more concerns about the prior existence of a tacit agreement between the two countries on Turkish dissidents.
Frontex responded to our queries about alleged pushbacks, insisting that no officer deployed in its operations had witnessed any alleged pushbacks, and noting that no complaints had been made against any officers deployed by Frontex in Greece.
The fear of the forced returnees is useful to the Erdogan regime. As long as they are afraid to speak out, and remain invisible, their stories remain unheard, and Erdogan can continue to pose as a democratic ruler
Tugba says she recognised one of the policemen involved in the her own pushback in the police station of Soufli, where they were detained for three days later, after they had crossed the Evros River once again – this time successfully.
But she says she was afraid of accusing anyone, except for the masked men who executed the violent pushback, and didn’t feel like talking further about that man in particular.
‘The night we were pushed back to the Turkish side of the river, we talked a lot about what we were going to do the next morning,” she recalls.
“Did we have any other choice but to try to cross the river again? We thought maybe it was only bad luck, some bad policemen. The other choice was a way to a Turkish prison”, she adds. She did not want to be one of the hundreds of mothers in Turkey now raising children in prison.
Following this interview, she and her husband left for Germany. The question is, whether they can find peace in Germany. Where and when can they, and many others, stop hiding – and have a life?