Purged: The officers who cannot go home to Turkey

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Maria Psara meeting two unidentified Turkish officers

Last July, a botched military coup led to fighting on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Quickly peace was restored, the perpetrators were arrested – and a purge began of thousands of people, from judges to teachers, accused of links with the plotters. As Maria Psara in Brussels explains, the purge reached as far as Belgium, where its effects are still being felt.

Sitting at the back of a small cafe in Brussels, the two men were looking around to check whether they had been followed. The two women who accompanied them were silent, waiting for a signal that it was safe to talk.

Ibrahim had already told me that they all feared for their lives.

“The Turkish media call us ‘terrorists’ and say that Turkish or even Russian intelligence should kill us,” he said. “Turkish officials describe us as traitors and advise people to attack us if they meet us.”

A year ago, Ibrahim and Abdullah (not their real names) were high-ranking members of the Turkish military delegation to Nato. Now they are jobless and de facto stateless – two of the myriad casualties of a purge that followed an attempted military coup in Turkey a year ago.

Ayse and Deniz (also pseudonyms) are the wives of two other purged Turkish Nato officers. All their lives have changed dramatically. They have lost their homes and their incomes and may never be able to return to the country of their birth.

After the unsuccessful coup on the night of 15 July 2016, tens of thousands of civil servants, judges, teachers, journalists, and others were arrested, suspected of being followers of Fethullah Gulen, the exiled cleric who is supposed – although he denies it – to have orchestrated the attempt to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Among them were hundreds of military officers, but those serving abroad felt safe. It was clear, at least, that they had not taken any active role in the fighting.

“The Turkish army has more than 600,000 personnel,” says Ibrahim. “If an army of this size has decided to carry out a coup, it does not need the few officers it has abroad to execute it. The ones in Turkey would suffice.”

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One of the officers holds his cancelled passport

In August, however, lists of names began to arrive in Brussels every Friday after business hours – they were the names of officers who had been suspended or dismissed without explanation.

At the end of September, a long document with 221 names arrived at Turkish missions abroad, including the Nato headquarters in Brussels and in Mons, nearby. In it, the Turkish General Staff ordered the officers to return to Turkey immediately, again without explanation.

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