At first sight, not much in Istanbul shows that the country is at war. The queues of tourists at passport control are long. Everything is running as normal. Main shopping roads like İstiklal are full of people. But those who travel by metro often have to change trains at Yenikapı station, where you now find an exhibition glorifying war and the military.
The exhibition runs under the title “Çanakkale has a message to Afrin”. It exhibits devotional objects of the war in Gallipoli, Turkish Çanakkale, where the Ottoman Empire fought a victorious battle against the British and French navy more than one hundred years ago. The current war in Afrin is seen as a continuation of this. The Ottoman Empire is on its way to being resurrected.
We went to Istanbul as a Working Group of the international antimilitarist nonviolent network War Resisters’ International (WRI), and visited Turkey between the 19th—25th March 2018. The Turkey Working Group of WRI consists of members of Connection e.V., Bund fuer Soziale Verteidigung (BSV), the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) Austria, War Resisters’ International (WRI), La Transicionera (Spain) and activists from Turkey. It was formed during the violent conflict in the southeast of Turkey in 2015/16, and went public with the demand to stop the cycle of violence in Turkey. This time we wanted to meet peace and human rights activists from Turkey, hear about their situation and their plans and actions in view of the war in Afrin and in view of a tense human rights situation.
After our week in Istanbul we can say that the sustained deterioration of the human rights situation is really horrifying. Since Turkey's operation in the north of Syria started, it is very difficult for activists in Turkey to even use terms like “peace”, to criticise the war in Afrin or to demand the return of a peace process with the Kurdish population. Some organisations decided not to publish statements because they saw that the board of the Medical Chamber were arrested just after giving a statement against the war. The Turkish authorities have also started investigations because of comments on social media, so many activists have refrained from giving statements on social media.
What remains in public is the view of the conformist Turkish media. It shows broad support for the war and the policy of the government under President Tayyip Erdoğan. Opposition to the war is barely visible.
Nevertheless, the Working Group found that—contrary to the picture given by Turkish media—popular support of the war in Afrin is not unequivocal. During our visit, we found that human rights organisations are approached on a daily basis by men who do not want to serve in this war. Iin spite of fear and harsh responses by police, there are still activities going on to protest the war. During the week of our stay, for example, students at Bosphorus University in Istanbul dared to unfold a banner saying “No” to the war. They were immediately labelled as traitors and terrorists by the Turkish President. Following this, 10 students were arrested on charges of 'making propaganda for a terrorist organisation'.
Turkish peace and human rights activists have a clear demand about what should be done internationally: arms sales to Turkey should stop immediately. The European Union is still supporting Turkey with high levels of arms exports. A second share of three billion Euros will be transferred for the refugee deal. 80 million has been paid to support the Turkish border patrol, which Turkey used to buy armoured vehicle. And arms trade is still going on – since the offensive in Afrin Germany alone has exported ammunition and other goods worth 4,4 million Euros. And in spite all of the denials, it seems that the release of journalist Deniz Yücel was paid for by Germany with 31 permissions for exports between December 2017 and January 2018, probably including tanks. The activists from Turkey gave a clear comment on this: “The war in Afrin as well as the oppression in Turkey, particularly in the Kurdish regions, is made possible by arms which came especially from Germany, Spain, Italy and Russia. As long as countries continue to sell weapons, these are used for the oppression and the violation of human rights. One main step to hinder this would be to stop the arms trade immediately!”. And we have to add: the continuing support of the Turkish government with money and arms has to be regarded as a legitimation of the policy of the Turkish government and its course of oppression, human rights violations and war. It has to be stopped immediately.
Rudi Friedrich: A visit in Turkey in times of war. April 2, 2018