The Descent

Turkey went from democracy to dictatorship in a matter of months, and has stayed that way. One refugee explains how it happened.

Katie Botkin

Katie Botkin is the Editor-in-Chief of MultiLingual magazine. She grew up in a deeply religious US microculture, and has taught English on three continents.

Image of Katie Botkin
Image of Katie Botkin

Katie Botkin

Katie Botkin is the Editor-in-Chief of MultiLingual magazine. She grew up in a deeply religious US microculture, and has taught English on three continents.


t is 2018. Emre Alpsoy sits at a bar on the Greek island of Zakynthos, watching a soccer match. He has traveled by ferry from Athens, and tomorrow, he’s boarding a plane bound for Amsterdam. He has a fake visa in his passport; maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. He needs to get to Germany, he says, so he can begin life again. He’s been accepted as a refugee in Greece, but unfortunately, there’s not much opportunity for him here.

In Turkey, he taught Ottoman language and literature at a university. Spoken by peoples of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Turkish was heavily influenced by travel and multiculturalism. After all, the Ottoman Empire sat at the crossroads of the Eastern and Western worlds for six centuries. During the peak of Ottoman rule, words of foreign origin outnumbered native Turkish words: Arabic and Persian loanwords comprise up to 88% of the vocabulary in Ottoman literature.

Alpsoy has a deep affinity for the language. He recites Ottoman poetry with palpable feeling, the ancient cadences contrasting with the blare of Greek TV. He taught this poem in classrooms before Turkey’s dictator imprisoned upwards of 40,000 people as political enemies, including Alpsoy. “Being just an ordinary person was enough to go through what I’ve lived. The fact that your only crime against the State is having speeding tickets doesn’t change this situation,” says Alpsoy.

Alpsoy’s story coincides with Turkey’s descent from a free and democratic country to an authoritarian regime. The story begins on July 15, 2016, the day a would-be coup was enacted against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey. According to official Turkish pronouncements, while Erdoğan and his family were vacationing in the southern seaside resort town of Marmaris, political opponents tried to capture and kill him. However, the attempt was quelled. “I was happy about it because I would prefer even the worst democratic governance to a coup,” says Alpsoy.

Afterwards, the coup was used as an excuse to vilify whole classes of people. Those who did not favor Erdoğan as a politician were accused of being terrorists. People with even a passing association with the Gülen movement, which the Turkish government claimed was responsible for the coup, were rounded up as criminals. A moderate Islamic practice that follows principals of volunteerism, social service, and secular political rule, the Gülen movement was begun by Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, who currently lives in Pennsylvania in the United States. The Turkish government has not produced any evidence that Gülen was responsible for the coup, and the US government has refused to extradite him back to Turkey.

Regardless of the lack of evidence, emergency decrees called Kanun hükmünde kararname (KHK) were issued in Turkey, and laws that normally required parliamentary approval came into force by prime ministerial decree. People were fired from their jobs — and arrested, tortured, and even murdered. Some were journalists and editors from an ensuing media purge. In March 2016, for example, the government seized control of Zaman, a newspaper that had been critical of Erdoğan and his party. The fact that Zaman — and other media outlets like it — had gained extensive readership and international popularity did not help save it.

Many more of those who lost their jobs were academics. 6,070 academics were dismissed from state institutions due to KHK decrees, and 2,808 more lost their jobs with the closure of 15 private universities. Following the coup, a total of 8,878 academics were dismissed — nearly 15% of the academics then working in Turkey.

At the time, Alpsoy was working as a lecturer at a university in the small northern port city of Zonguldak while writing his doctoral dissertation. 13 days after the coup, his phone rang — a summons from the Dean’s Office. “Of course, I was very scared,” says Alpsoy. The Dean, says Alpsoy, “was a really kind man. He was at a loss for words and couldn’t tell me the truth.” With no other excuses to fall back on, the Dean brought up the fact that Alpsoy was doing a doctorate at Fatih University — ostensibly, his acceptance to this other university was the reason he was going to be fired on the spot. Alpsoy’s office was locked, and all his belongings and books were confiscated.

At first, it wasn’t too terrible. Alpsoy received his salary for three months and took a mini-vacation. On October 29, however, he saw his name on the expulsion list in the newspaper. Here, says Alpsoy, his “first banishment began” — he was excluded from society, barred from traveling abroad. “From that day on, no one could employ me. I became a criminal person, to whom people turn their backs.”

At the time, Alpsoy thought that surely, sooner or later, the government would understand that he was innocent and correct their mistake. After all, the night of the coup, he’d been playing guitar and drinking beer, utterly oblivious to the events unfolding elsewhere. So, eventually, he would resume his work and continue his PhD studies. “Until then, I just needed to wait and do something useful.” This illusion was shattered in April 2017 when he was arrested on terrorism charges. Detention and interrogation, he says, were awful. “It was the worst experience to have and it is still hard for me to even talk about.”

Finally, he appeared in court, which is where he first learned what he was accused of. The charges stated he had associated with Gülen-influenced institutions: he’d worked at a certain state-recognized institute as a teacher back in 2006; he’d worked for Zaman newspaper for six months a few years prior, where he’d penned unfavorable articles about Erdoğan; he’d undergone vaguely “suspicious” travel; he’d used a chat program called ByLock, then available on Apple Store and Google Play.

“I didn’t know how to reply to these assertions,” says Alpsoy. “Besides, there wasn’t anyone listening to me. I faltered a bit and was able to say, ‘Sir, I can’t see anything criminal about this; they were all legal institutions when I was working for them.’”

The judge stood up and said, “All right, arrest this guy.” That was his last statement before Alpsoy was placed in the prison system. “I knew prisons solely from American movies,” said Alpsoy. He thought there would be a big yard to play sports in and a cafeteria, but the reality was quite different. For five months and 12 days, he was detained in a small ward designed for seven or eight prisoners along with 27 other men. The wards were all overflowing with political prisoners, and it was up to them to manage their lives in confinement. “I stayed in a very orderly ward, much like a small state. We solved all our problems democratically,” says Alpsoy. They prepared their own food and arranged how they slept. The wards were still outfitted for seven or so prisoners, with one dull butter knife for cutting food to be shared among everyone. They also had a single brush without a handle they all shared. When a former judge was transferred to their ward as a prisoner, he started writing petitions to get a brush handle and a second butter knife — 25 petitions in total. He was eventually successful. A prison guard came in and threw a brush handle at him.

Alpsoy read approximately 60 books during his confinement and spent a lot of time thinking. “My body was imprisoned but my imagination and soul were free.” He started to lose his sense of reality, though, he says. Once, when he was overwhelmed, he called over the guardian and asked, “I wonder, Officer, do you have the keys of this place? We could be anywhere in the world.” After every bad incident, he told himself, “This is the worst thing that has happened to you. I mean, it can’t get worse.” At first, he says, “it was really hard, but later, I got used to it. Most of all, you miss soil and nature when you’re in prison.”

Alpsoy briefly went back to court. “My case file was complicated. I did not even receive my indictment,” he says. Before the hearing, he stayed in a cell on the basement floor. You could hear the cries and screams of women, he says; children wailing because of hunger. “While I was walking through the corridor with lots of soldiers and police officers, I saw many children and women in cells,” he says. The women and their children were members of Gülen. “There are still thousands of them in prison. Children who were punished along with their mothers by the government,” says Alpsoy. “People from different backgrounds: teachers, housewives, doctors, journalists, and many other professionals.”

When he got out of prison, he was still a convict, and he worked for his cousin’s construction company. “At all costs, he looked out for me,” says Alpsoy. “To work in construction was heavy and backbreaking. Additionally, I was scared of people.”

He was afraid due to the political climate. “There is a group of people in Turkey who could be easily manipulated. The politicians know how to do it, especially by using religious arguments. It doesn’t matter which religion it is. A politician making policy while holding the Quran in his hand has a target group, for sure. No matter how educated they are, some people got manipulated because of religious issues.” Because of this, he was afraid to identify himself or to meet new people at work. “When you search my name, you would see the news about my arrest. My situation could not be called living anymore. Nevertheless, I survived and continued to live,” he says.

Alpsoy continued to appear in court hearings, and, every time, he was afraid he’d be re-arrested. He made a decision: he was going to flee Turkey, and no longer be part of his country’s hunt for political opponents. “Either I was going to be a victim of this witch-hunt, or turn over a new page in my life,” he says. “I don’t feel any regret, but I saw many regretful people on the way here. That’s why it is a difficult decision to make. Going back is almost impossible.”

After years of accepting refugees from Turkey and elsewhere, Greece has taken a hardline stance and has temporarily suspended acception of asylum applicants.
Source: Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.

For the last time, Alpsoy did all the things that he loved to do in Istanbul. “I enjoyed the view of the Bosporus. Then I strolled around the streets. And then it was time to go.” He paid smugglers to lead him to Greece, along with a band of strangers who would escape with him. They walked for many hours in the dead of night; Alpsoy describes carrying the children of strangers when they grew weary. Finally, they arrived on the banks of the Evros River, which separates Turkey from Greece as it winds its way to the Thracian Sea. They got into a boat and crossed in the darkness. “It is the common story of many refugees,” says Alpsoy, “If the Greek border security detected us, they would turn us over to Turkey. That means each of us would be imprisoned for a long time. The instinct to survive makes you do such things!” Still, that would not be the worst that could happen, as he would find out speaking to other refugees later. “I saw many people on this journey who lost their children and spouses in the Evros river, people who lost their children in the cold waters and never found them again.”

Once they landed in Greece, the band of refugees found a phone and called the cops on themselves. They slept on a floor, and were taken to a refugee camp the next day. At the time, some refugee camps in Greece were supported by Translators without Borders, given the number of languages spoken there, and the camps were not always well-equipped. Camp volunteer Emily deTar Gilmartin described the conditions as less than ideal, sometimes full of disease due to the close quarters.

Alpsoy was apprehensive of what he saw. “They brought us to police custody at the end of the day. A small room.

There was a toilet inside but the door was broken. No light, no water, and this place was malodorous. I thought to myself, this must be the end of the line.”

However, a woman came in and interviewed Alpsoy in Turkish. He told her his story; how he’d been arrested for having been a teacher and a journalist. She interrupted him with a joke: “Ah, so you’re a terrorist.” He was relieved to see that she understood.

He was granted a permit to stay and travel in Greece. “It was a kind of asylum,” he says. While he waited for his papers, he met other refugees who were also in limbo. “All the immigrants I saw there were people who escaped from war, death, oppression.”

He got permission to order pizza. “A huge amount of pizza,” he says “We shared our pizza with other people in the waiting room. That was why we ordered quite a lot.” He received his papers the next day and decided to go Athens.

“In the beginning, I stayed mostly in hotels at Omonoia Square where many prostitutes stayed. A few days later, [muggers] threatened me with a knife and stole my money.” They didn’t get everything: he still had his reserve cash, his cell phone, and his passport. Still, “I felt as if I were on the edge of a cliff. Though I had experienced many things, the idea of losing everything I had in the country where I was a refugee was troublesome.”

So he found an Airbnb run by a Greek woman in a quieter part of the city. “This energetic, white, short-haired lady welcomed me with a warm smile on her face. It was such a good feeling. There were some sorrowful historical problems between the Greeks and us, but it wasn’t an obstacle to our friendship. I saw how sad she felt after I told my story to her. She had a three-story house with a big garden. It was a beautiful house in which many people from different countries take a vacation for a few days. Yes, this place was perfect for me to feel safe.”

The Greek woman, Mata, affectionately began calling him her son. He passed the time with Caroline, a French woman living in the house with her dog, and other housemates, most of them there for only a few days. They took Mata’s car to the seaside and swam in the Aegean, ate oranges, burned coffee grounds in her garden to try to keep mosquitos away. “I was sleeping at nights and spending my time in the kitchen or garden in the daytime,” he says. “I stayed there for about three months. I started to feel safe and good again. It was like a holiday. In no time I had friends from all over the world. I am still in touch with most of them, and we talk occasionally. I got used to them so much that it was even hard for me to leave.”

From Athens, he wants to go to Germany, so he’s come to Zakynthos with a fake visa in his Turkish passport to try to make it to Amsterdam. He’s going to pretend to be coming back from holiday, just so he can make it within the borders of Germany and seek asylum. He’s chosen Germany due to its asylum policies, and the fact that he thinks he’ll be able to pursue a PhD in Ottoman literature there eventually. He’s drinking at the bar, trying to get into the mindset of a tourist. I think it will work, he says hopefully.

It is 2018, back in Athens. The attempt did not work, nor did subsequent attempts. “At first, I was really nervous,” he says. “But one gets used to everything quickly. After some time, I felt nothing strange about it. Being distinguished among other passengers at the airport, walking under police supervision, passing by curious or insulting gazes of the passengers, and finally going into custody.” Meanwhile, back in Turkey, Erdoğan is re-elected president in the same state of emergency conditions imposed after the 2016 coup.

Drachenburg Castle in North Rhine-Whestphalia, the region where Alpsoy is now straying.

It is 2018. July. Alpsoy is running out of money — he’s spent 10,000 euros already. On his seventh try, he boards a plane to Amsterdam. “I trembled until the plane took off,” he says. “A young Brazilian woman sat by my side. She thought that I have aviophobia and tried to calm me by telling how often she flies, and there isn’t anything to be afraid of. However, I was thinking that police could deplane me soon. I started to calm down after the plane took off. I was in the sky… On a plane… Henceforth, I could take a deep breath. I was somewhere without boundaries. I thought to myself that all countries seem pretty much the same from the sky.”

On July 10, 2018, he steps out into a free world. He has a Czech ID with a name on it that he can’t even read. “For a couple of days, I became a citizen of a country I had never been to. It was difficult to describe this feeling that also deepened the emptiness in me and the distance between myself and reality. I had to ask myself heaps of times: who am I?

It is July 2020. “It’s been two years since I came to Germany,” he says, but even still, “I just stop on the street and think who I am, what I am doing here? I wake up still at night, ask myself ‘Am I really here, or am I only dreaming in prison?’ Because freedom is not easy to regain, once you lose it. And I wouldn’t expect that other people give it back to me. I had to struggle to regain my rights, the meaning of which I didn’t know before I lost them.”

Alpsoy is happy — although given the state of his application, and the fact that he still does not have an ID, he is not allowed to travel, even within Germany. “Somehow I achieved to be imprisoned again but within larger boundaries,” he says. “Indeed, the idea of not having an identity or state pleases the marginality of my soul.”