ANKARA — Humbled by a series of coup trials and a gutsy government, Turkey’s military is now called to account by a most unfamiliar quarter — a growing civic movement demanding answers on a suicide spree among soldiers, suspicious deaths and widespread complaints of ill-treatment in the barracks.
In Turkey, where the draft is compulsory, conscripts had for decades returned with stories of draconian discipline, daily torment and heavy-handed commanders acting with impunity. But as the military enjoyed an untouchable status shielded with laws, accounts of abusive practices became no more than soldier folklore retold to relatives and friends. A nation that takes pride in military service, Turks would take maltreatment for granted and even see it as a rite of passage to manhood.
But now that the military’s clout has waned dramatically, grievances long suppressed are bursting out. A civic group called the Platform for Soldier Rights has redefined the issue as a problem of human rights, mobilized parliament and turned up pressure for reform in NATO’s second-largest standing army.
The campaign has resulted in the alarming revelation that hundreds of soldiers commit suicide in the barracks each year. According to official figures that came to light last year, more than 2,200 soldiers have killed themselves in the last 20 years, meaning an average of one suicide every three or four days. Some officials have sought to play down the problem, arguing that other countries have encountered similar phenomena and that the suicide rate in the army corresponds to the rate of civilian suicides in the 20-24 age group. The Platform for Soldier Rights, however, insists that it is two-and-a-hal- times higher and closely linked to maltreatment, beatings and mobbing practices in the army. The number of soldier suicides in the past decade — 934 — has surpassed the army’s death toll from clashes with Kurdish rebels at 818.
“The figures came as a shock. The public had been completely unaware of the issue because the army used to be a closed book. It is a very grave problem that calls for serious measures,” Ayhan Sefer Ustun, chairman of Parliament’s human rights commission, told Al-Monitor.
A report by the Platform for Soldier Rights, compiled from the applications of several hundred soldiers who have sought help, says that 48% complain of verbal abuse, 39% of beatings, 16% of extreme physical activity and 15% of being denied access to health services.
The report offers excerpts from letters that paint a dreadful environment in which ranking officers routinely humiliate soldiers and often beat them for trivial reasons. A major enraged over the disappearance of his cat, for instance, is reported to have beaten a camp guard with an iron rod “until he passed out” and to have then “splashed him with water and beaten him again.” Recounting a beating over a garrison shop that opened late, another soldier writes: “He was punching me and threatening to kill me. Then he said, ‘Faint or I’ll kill you!’ and then he tripped me up, brought me down and spat in my face.” The letters often include desperate pleas for help from soldiers who say they are on the brink of suicide.
Former conscripts say that life in a military unit is determined by the commander’s temper, and not all ranking officers are bullies. But few are those who would not flinch at the mention of “disco” — the ironic slang name of notorious disciplinary wards, derived from the first syllables of their formal name in Turkish. The compounds, intended as a solitary-confinement quarters for major violations, have become virtual “torture chambers,” says the platform’s report.
The wards hit the headlines in late 2011 when Ugur Kantar, 20, perished after three months in a coma, the result of a week-long stint in a “disco” in the Turkish barracks in northern Cyprus. He had been systematically beaten and left under the island’s scorching summer sun, shackled to a chair without water.
Kantar’s case was the first major incident that the then-nascent Platform for Soldier Rights communicated to the media, marking the beginning of a campaign that was quickly embraced by other rights groups and received huge public support.
Parliament’s human rights commission has since begun handling soldier complaints posted to the platform, the government has drafted a bill to abolish the “discos” and soldier rights have become a popular media topic.
In response to the public outcry, the General Staff released a statement in December outlining the measures it is taking. It blamed the suicides on the soldiers’ family problems, economic woes and drug addictions, while pledging to investigate and punish officers accused of misconduct.
“I believe they are sincere in their efforts. Military officials are now coming to our meetings in parliament and addressing the complaints. This would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago; they would not have bothered to even respond to a letter,” Ustun said. The lawmaker explained that a series of complaints handled by his commission had resulted in disciplinary and criminal proceedings against the wrongdoers.
“One officer was even expelled from the army. The progress may be slow, but they need time. You cannot transform an institution of 850,000 people overnight,” he said.
But Tolga Islam, the academic who founded the Platform for Soldier Rights, believes that only drastic measures will make a real change on the ground, pointing to six new suicides reported in January alone. The military, he says, should be placed under the scrutiny of an independent public ombudsman.
“You cannot have a real investigation without transparency,” Islam told Al-Monitor. “A soldier who makes a complaint remains under the command of the very same person he is complaining about, exposed to any kind of mobbing or retribution. Soldiers who witness the abuse do not dare testify against the commander. There is no protection mechanism at all.”
Islam’s misgivings are perhaps best illustrated in the high-profile case of Sevag Balikci, the ethnic Armenian conscript who was shot dead in 2011. The shooting was officially described as an accident that happened when soldiers “joked around” with loaded guns. But as the politically sensitive trial of the perpetrator began, witnesses gave conflicting accounts and some said they had received instructions on how to testify. The Balikci family and their supporters are now convinced Sevag was the intentional victim of a hate crime that is being covered up.
Many other families who have lost sons in the barracks doubt the explanations they have been offered. Emboldened by the new climate, some are bringing up cases that date back many years. A group of tearful men and women, most of them Kurds, held a press conference in parliament last month, pleading for help in uncovering how their sons died. They argued that military courts had become a tool for cover-ups and called for civilian justice to take over suspicious cases. In official papers, the suspicious deaths figure mostly as suicides or as casualties from clashes with Kurdish rebels. In many cases, families take action after receiving calls from witnesses telling different stories or discovering suspicious clues on the bodies of their dead.
True to Turkey’s fiercely patriotic traditions, families would often see off conscripts to the army in boisterous convoys, and meet news of their deaths with, “Long live the motherland.” They may be still staging festive sendoffs, but now Turks are asking for their young men to live long, too.
Sibel Utku Bila is a freelance journalist based in Ankara who has covered Turkey for 15 years.