Anni Reenpää

Afraid to get caught for her opinion  – “The witch hunt is really there”

Text, photos and illustrations by Anni Reenpää

The coup attempt in Turkey made Esra leave her home country in search for a place where she could speak out.

Esra’s, 23, first reaction to an interview request was suspicious. “Are you going to publish the article somewhere? Because if it’s going to be published I’d rather not participate, as I don’t feel quite safe.” Later she explains herself. She knows the Turkish community in Groningen and their opinions about the ruling government differ from hers. Talking can have big consequences.

The coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016 shows its effects a year later, when Esra and many other young Turks leave their home country for a western, freer lifestyle. Esra grew up in Turkey and moved to The Netherlands in August 2016. She studies now English language and literature at The University of Groningen and she is willing to speak, with a fake name.

Esra engaged politically in Turkey, in the time when Erdogan was still the Prime Minister. Her first encounter with Erdogan was positive. The Islamist government in 2011 lifted the ban of headscarves in Turkish universities. She was happy for what Erdogan did, as she had only three years earlier started praying, reading the Koran and wearing the headscarf in Mosques.

Two years later, in December 2013, the Turkish police investigation resulted in a corruption scandal in the heart of Erdogan administration. 550 police officers were fired and Erdogan accused the “dark circles,” for the whole investigation.

Esra started to realise that the government was not completely innocent and that there was not much that could be done to fight them.

She studied English literature at the University of Ankara, which was at that time a liberal city. She could ask the police for help, wear skirts, go home with a boy or kiss him on the street and study and write what she wanted. Her parents gave her the freedom to decide on her own opinion, religion and education.

On July 15th she got a call from her friend telling she sees planes flying in the sky in Ankara. Esra, who was with her brother on their way for holidays to Mersin, a city on the southern coast, tried to hear her friend’s shaky voice through the burring sound of airplanes. “What’s happening?” she asked. “I don’t know, but something is different,” her friend said.

At the same moment Esra’s brother, a police officer at the time, received a message saying he had to work the day after, although he was on his yearly vacation.

When they reached Mersin, they turned on the TV, where a news anchor announced a national coup. On another channel president Erdogan gave a live speech via Facetime, sending ordinary people on the streets to fight the soldiers. Esra could not believe it. She started to think that the government was behind it.

Erdogan could benefit from painting a picture of a common enemy threatening the society, she thought. He blamed Fetullah Gülen, an Islamic leader, who he had conflicted with in the past. At the same time he increased the polarization of the opinions in the society.

“I started to feel excluded in my city, my home and my neighbourhood.”

It was only one night, but it changed a lot. People felt pressure to support the government, as non-supporters started to get arrested and jailed. Many women wore headscarves and went with Turkish flags on the squares, to show that they belonged to the ‘right group’. Esra did not.

Living close to Erdogan’s palace in Ankara, Esra was targeted by the captious gaze of the policemen every time she entered or left her house. 

“It was summer, but I was not wearing anything short,” Esra said. Her boyfriend didn’t drop off her at home anymore, but left her on another street, from where she could walk home alone.

She stopped talking to her friends who supported Erdogan, in the fear of getting caught for her opinion. A friend, who she used to have passionate discussions with, only waved to her from far, but never talked anymore.

Even her family stopped talking about politics on their balcony, afraid that someone could hear them. Rumours were dangerous, as insulting the president was indeed illegal.

“I started to feel excluded in my city, my home and my neighbourhood,” Esra says.

You didn’t have to oppose the government to be marked a stranger. A neighbour was asking Esra why her house didn’t have a Turkish flag on the balcony, like all the others. ‘We don’t have a flag,’ she claimed.

Esra’s brother lost his job in the police force and her dad in the internal ministry, for not taking bribes from the government. Her friend was jailed for studying politics and not belonging in student organizations for supporters of the leading party, AKP. “The witch hunt is really there,” Esra describes.

“I was actually scared, it was going so quickly,” she says. “If a person would say that my dad doesn’t support Erdogan, they [the officials] can just get him. It’s a matter of someone saying something,” Esra continues as if having difficulties to believe her own words.

The only solution was to leave. In August 2016, just a month after the coup, she applied for a visa and moved to Amsterdam, and later on to Groningen to study.

For the first time in a while, she could share her opinion and feel safe. She biked home after a party at 3 in the morning in a quiet windy city, crossed parks and big squares and felt nothing, no fear at all. She could spread her prayer mat on the train station, because she wanted, not because she had to. 

However, Esra has to remember to be cautious. “You cannot escape politics,” she says.

She doesn’t talk with the Turkish population in Groningen, most of them born and grown up in The Netherlands. They don’t want to see the reality in today’s Turkey, Esra says. They talk passionately about Erdogan and their holidays in Turkey, but at the same time they know that there is no going back to their origins.

“Everyone knows that the West is better, it’s not a discussion.”

“I usually say to the Turkish people, who have a picture of the Turkish flag on the phone or on the chest, ‘why don’t you go and live in Turkey?’"

“Everyone knows that the West is better, it’s not a discussion.”

Esra has given up on the thought of returning to Turkey. She is afraid that she wouldn’t be allowed to go abroad again, after having publicly expressed her opinion in The Netherlands. “Sometimes it feels bad, because I know Turkey was not like that. I felt as free and as full of opportunities before, just like I do here now,” she says. 

 “I think that it is something that was taken away from me. It’s a restriction.”

In The Netherlands, Esra has learned to appreciate the freedom to express her opinion. “I feel like I belong here, also socially. It is so important for me to go out and talk to people, and not think about what I am talking about, my opinion and my appearance.”

“I don’t think it [the situation in Turkey] is going to get better, but I’m not planning my future depending on that.”

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