Interview series with Turkish political refugees (4): Ercan Jan Aktas
Ercan Jan Aktas conducted academic work in Turkey on the state, violence, militarism, and social peace. As an activist, he took place in the anti-war movement and conscientious objection. He was forced to leave Turkey after the events of July 15. Currently, there are active court cases against him. He lives in Paris.
In this interview series, we will be compiling the stories of people who left Turkey for various countries across the world as political refugees, exploring their lives before and after their migration. We will talk about the significant breaking points of their lives as Turkish citizens who were forced to migrate as political refugees.
Rachel Hebun Ozdemir and social scientist and activist Ercan Jan Aktas discuss his story.
Ercan Jan Aktas belongs to the Kocgiri tribe. He is a social scientist and an activist. He was arrested as a college student and imprisoned for nine years, after which he began working with civil society organizations (CSOs). In 2005, he announced his conscientious objection, and participated in the anti-war movement. His writing was published in various news portals. Besides the books to which he has contributed, he is also the author of two of his own books. He took part in the establishment of the Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK) and had roles in its Education Council and Ecology Council. He lives in Paris where he continues his academic work.
What was the most important breaking point of your life and when did it occur?
During the intense warring in Northern Kurdistan, journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders in the cities of Turkey would dwindle in number one by one because they were Kurds or dissenters, until their bodies were discovered under bridges or on the sides of roads. At the time, I was a student at Cumhuriyet University. My friends from school had bought the Ozgur Gundem Newspaper (“Free Agenda Newspaper”), so that the police wouldn’t come and collect it early in the morning. That morning, the paper came out with the headline "They Killed Musa Anter.”* I was struck dumb, and unable to form a single thought. At 74 years old, Musa Anter had been an elderly Kurdish intellectual. What degree of hostility was it that made the state of the Republic of Turkey capable of shooting down this person in the middle of the street? This event was the catalyst that sharply severed all my ties with the Republic of Turkey. That was the first time I experienced the feeling of “I will never forgive this state.”
Can you tell us about yourself? What had you been doing in Turkey?
I am from the Kocgiri tribe, I said hello to life in the midst of a harsh geography and tough political climate. The education system and the routines of daily life taught us what it is to face life as a Kurdish and Alevi individual from a working-class family. At university, my oppositional identity consolidated and I began to get organized. I took part in the Kurdish Freedom Struggle between 1990 and 1994. What followed was my time as a political prisoner; when I walked the streets once more after 9 years, 4 months, and 15 days, I found myself in Istanbul.
After I completed a CSO Education at Bilgi University, I became even more involved with CSO work. I had one leg in the academy, one on the ground. My working interests were the state, violence, militarism, and social peace. I declared my conscientious objection in 2005 and began activism as part of Turkey’s anti-war movement. On the one hand, I continued writing for newspapers and online publications such as Ozgur Gundem (“Free Agenda”), Demokrathaber (“Democraticnews”), and bianet; on the other hand, I was also engaged in activism.
Also during this time, I began to take part in the foundation work of the Dut Agaci Collective (“Mulberry Tree Collective”) coordinated by Pinar Selek.** Our work focused on social peace and reconciliation. As part of this process, I took on the responsibility of two oral history projects and their publication as books. Our books were, “The Witnesses of War Speak; I Died, You Speak for Me,” and “September 12 in Stories.” Afterwards, my own book, “Letters to Sertav Ciya” was published. I had a role in the founding of HDK and worked in its Education and Ecology Councils.
As these and other parallel projects were ongoing, the third most significant breaking point in my life was staged in Turkey: July 15. From then on, my life resumed at obligatory addresses.
“For a century, the state did everything in its hands to form a military system composed of Turkish Sunni men.”
What sort of life did you lead before the July 15, 2016 coup attempt? What did you experience during the July 15 period, can you tell us about this?
On the one hand, due to the anti-war movement, my life was busy with activism, social science studies, and writing; I was occasionally writing journalistic interviews and news. I was continuing my work on my novel “To Leave.” I was also running an establishment called “Roof Cafe” in Taksim with my friends. That night, the night of the July 15, 2016 coup attempt,*** caused my anxiety of “how will life continue in this country?” to skyrocket.
Before getting to July 15, I want to share a little about June 7, 2015. For a century, the Republic of Turkey has done everything in its hands to form a military system composed of Turkish Sunni men. They sought a homogenous Republic without Kurds, Alevis, labor, women, leftists, socialists, Armenians, LGBTI+ people. They left no method untried in this endeavor. But, throughout the century, there were always those who resisted this pressure and violence.
On June 7, 2015 all these resistors showed alongside the HDP that a Turkey without war, without conflict, without othering was also possible. The possibility of this other Turkey, that is, one far from hate, violence, anger, and war alarmed the “Muslim,” “nationalist,” “conservative,” “Kemalist,” nationals and locals who for over a century had made their lives on the back of violence, conflict, and war. That night, when they said, “at most, you can make a movie about peace,” it had not occurred to me that they would stage something like July 15.
On the night of July 15, I was at a friend’s house in Chinagir. I began to think that life in this country would become indefinitely more difficult than it had been for those who were “othered.” When we stepped outside to buy groceries for the house, we found ourselves in the midst of a frightening throng outside the Galatasaray High School.
Terrifying bearded men dressed in mullah outfits holding items to be used as weapons were marching towards Istiklal Avenue snarling. I was spooked by this sinister sight. Potential murderers that they were, they were each looking for people to make bleed. Due to my oppositional identity and the fact that I appeared on the media and press now and again, my fear that “if someone recognizes who I am, they will kill me here and now” heightened. As such, we moved away from the crowd and began to make our way through the back streets. With the spiral of violence at its peak that night, our lives began to take a much more terrifying form.
What exactly had you been accused of in Turkey? Why did you have to leave, what was your reasoning?
The July 15 coup attempt had happened, the horrific war in Northern Kurdistan was ongoing. For the first time then during those days did the thoughts, “I can no longer live in this country” begin to cross my mind. Then, three cases against me were filed. I was among those people whose door was beaten down by police officers during the 5 AM dawn raids in the first wave of mass social media operations.
When and how exactly did you leave Turkey? When you look back at those days, what did you experience? What sorts of difficulties confronted you during your process of leaving?
I left Turkey on October 10, 2016. I left the country for two conferences being organized in France’s cities of Paris and Lyon. I, who had always said, “To leave is a good thing, as is to yearn,” experienced for the first time after this journey a leaving that was not good, and that yearning was a lack of peace that escalated internally without pause. I had come to Paris with a visa valid for only a month. As my visa was nearing its expiration, I told my friends who had organized all the conferences and solidarity for my exit from Turkey, “I can't do this, I won't be able to stay.” When he responded, “There is no country for you to return to, you will go to prison again,” I reconsidered my decision, and the new phase of my life began.
Can you talk a little about your new life as a political refugee? If we look back at the first step you took into this new life, what did you feel, what kinds of emotions did you experience?
I had been finding my way with the support of the good people around me. I became a person who was taken by the hand to school at the age of 45. As Babet prepared sandwiches for my long bus rides, Gerard would roll cigarettes on the ash tray for me. During this period, I was walking every day through mountains, hills, and paths. I had never considered that yearning could ever trouble me so.
But it is also out of the question to put a pause on the struggle. And so, I continued to write. I worked intensively with my friends for the week-long International Conscientious Objectors Gathering in Paris at the Peace Ship. For a year and a half, I have been a Sociocultural Mediator at a foundation in Paris that works with refugees. In every way, life in Paris is tiring and difficult. To escape France, the people in my life and I are working on new projects.
Have you been able to adapt to the country you live in as a political immigrant?
Yes, now we’ve come to the most difficult thing. Life is good, people are wonderful, there are new opportunities and academic work that I have rediscovered at the age of 45; yet the gaping hole inside me hasn’t closed up. In this new life, I have met wonderful people — I always say, my biggest source of wealth are the good people I have accrued. And I continue to do so. But I have been unable to find a solution to my feeling cold.**** Which is why I say, for me to become normal, that is, for me to warm up again, I must return to the streets from which I came. There is no other way.
What do you see when you look back at Turkey? What sort of country were you imagining, did your perspective on your home country change after all you’ve been through?
When I look to Turkey from France, and from the different European countries and, I see a total abdication of reason that vigorously persists. How can a system try this insistently to cut off from life those it calls its “countrymen,” how can a system have such enmity towards its own nature, its own rivers and forests, how can a system fear to this degree dissidents who say, “will not acquiesce to your tyranny?” On the morning of each day, I look at news portals to see what is going on in Turkey. The more I look, the more my anger grows.
“For months, I did not unpack my luggage, almost as if I could return at any moment.”
If Turkey makes a return to democracy and justice one day, would you consider going back?
I would not be exaggerating if I said that I have considered going back each day that I have spent exiled from Turkey. Because I did not unpack my luggage for months and lived as if I would be returning at any moment, my life here did not fully take root either. Three months ago, last month, last week, yesterday; the mentality of “why am I trying so hard here, why not return to Turkey, whatever happens can happen” lives on with me.
No matter what happens, “aren’t there thousands of friends and comrades imprisoned who await us?” What I mean to say is that I might be in Turkey before any of that much awaited justice ever comes.
My heart hurts when people from Turkey reach out to me just about every week, saying “Ercan, there is no possibility of me living in Turkey any longer, I want to leave, what can I do?” It doesn’t seem ethical to say “yes, I did leave, but you shouldn’t.” I can’t convince anyone that I have come but can’t find completion, I have come but my heart and mind are always there, I have come but a body by itself is not sufficient to make a home for yourself anywhere. Let me say my piece here. DO NOT COME!
*Musa Anter: Kurdish journalist and writer who lost his life as a result of an armed attack on 20 September 1992 in Diyarbakir, where he was to attend the Culture and Art Festival.
** Pınar Selek: Author and sociologist, whose acquittal in the case of the 1998 Spice Bazaar explosion in which 7 people were killed and 127 people were injured was overturned by the Court of Cassation.
*** The July 15 Coup Attempt, the 2016 Turkish Military Coup Attempt, or “Operation Lightning” and “Operation Peace at Home,” as the responsible parties call it, was a military coup attempt in Turkey between July 15-16, 2016 by a group of soldiers within the Turkish Armed Forces who define themselves as the Peace at Home Council.
**** Mehmet Uzun is referring to his book 'Pomegranate Seeds; “And just as I was about to go out the door, my mother called out: Cover your heart, people are cold, you will be cold!”
*Rachel Hebun Ozdemir
Trans woman journalist in exile with an International Press Card. Author, political refugee, conscientious objector, antiwar activist. Journalist since 2005 in Turkey. Focuses on stories of people, wars, conflicts, intelligence, diplomacy, human rights, the climate crisis, migration. Left Turkey following the constitutional amendment referendum in 2017 and had to migrate to Germany. Tried for TCK 318. Has four published books. Presents special reports, documentary content, interviews, and news from earth on YouTube.