'Don't bury me in Turkey' - purge stigma nearly drives teacher to suicide

When Vakkas Karakoyun first became a history teacher, at 25 years old in 1997, he thought the profession was made for him, a career that would shape his worldview and give form to his voice as a poet.

In 2008, Karakoyun published nationalistic poetry, praising the sacrifices of soldiers who fought in the Turkish War of Independence. He would never have guessed that a decade later he would not want to be buried in his home country.

“I’m ready to go even to Antarctica, just don’t let my five children live through what I have,” the teacher said.

The turning point came in the days after the failed coup of July 2016, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government purged more than a hundred thousand public servants. More than 15,000 state school teachers, including Karakoyn, were summarily dismissed by emergency decree.

Three years later, even though the charges against him have been dropped, the 47-year-old’s health is in rapid decline, yet he and his family are still unable to draw state benefits like disability and pension. The black mark on his record left by the dismissal makes it nearly impossible to live in Turkey.

“There’s a record left on the system called ‘Code 36’. Wherever I go, the municipality, the revenue office, that code appears on my file,” he said. “It tells public servants to reject all my requests and not to extend services to me.”

Karakoyun said many purged servants end up opening businesses or starting work using the names of close friends or relatives, in order to survive. The stigma that comes with being dismissed is so powerful they are treated like lepers, even by their own families.

“I had about 1,200 contacts saved on my telephone. Not one called to wish me well. The stress and the problems made my health problems pile up. Even my nieces and nephews didn’t call,” Karakoyun said.

“We used to live in one of the best areas in Gaziantep. After being dismissed we had to move to my in-laws’ house because of money problems,” he added. “But my mother-in-law wouldn’t even sit facing me at the table.”

The AKP says the purges were necessary to remove the influence of the Gülen movement, a religious group it blames for the failed coup and is thought to have infiltrated state institutions. Critics say the ruling party took the opportunity presented by the coup and subsequent state of emergency to reshape the state to its own design.

After nearly 20 years teaching children around Turkey, Karakoyun was dismissed by decree. The reason for his dismissal, he said, was sending his children to a charter school – of which the Gülen movement until recently operated a large network in Turkey – and membership in a union. In reality, he was among the countless innocents whose lives were destroyed by the failed coup and subsequent emergency rule.

Karakoyun described the dismissal as the beginning of the end, the shockwave that sent his life into a tailspin. His health problems, which had been manageable prior to his dismissal, took a nosedive, while the sudden loss of income put his family near destitution.

“I’ve lost 90 percent of vision in my right eye and 70 percent in my left eye. I am suffering from failure in both kidneys, and need to go for dialysis three times a week. I’ve had two heart attacks, two angina attacks, and in the end they’ve inserted a stent. I have wounds in both feet because of the diabetes. I’m all but finished,” Karakoyun said.

Those who have been dismissed by decree describe their ordeal as a “civil death”, referring to the stigma that makes it next to impossible to find work or claim their rights as citizens.

Karakoyun described how he chased police and judges for months after he was dismissed attempting to have his appeal heard. He was ignored, he said, until he started his course of dialysis and directly approached a judge, demanding to know whether he was waiting for him to die before looking at his case.

“The judge declared an end to proceedings and told me I was not guilty of any crime. It’s been one-and-a-half years since that judgment, and they haven’t returned my job to me, and they haven’t given me my pension,” he said.

This has left the eldest of Karakoyun’s five children as the family breadwinner. The 21-year-old gave up plans to go to university and began working in construction.

“But you know the construction sector; sometimes there’s work, sometimes there isn’t. Right now, he’s unemployed, and there’s no money coming into our home,” Karakoyun said.

Because they needed to live somewhere more affordable, and wanted to get away from their relatives and acquaintances, Karakoyn’s family settled in Besni, a district in the southeastern province of Adıyaman where he had taught years before.

Even there, they were only able to buy clothes for their children with the help of an official from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The situation Karakoyun and his wife have found themselves in has led them, several times, to consider suicide, he said.

Karakoyun’s greatest hope now is to find a way out of Turkey, even if he has to leave in a coffin.

“The only thing I want is to get out of this country. I don’t want my children to live through what I have. Anywhere that has the rule of law and hears my plea, I am ready to go there, be it Australia, Japan, New Zealand, even Alaska,” Karakoyun said.

“Any country that will accept me with my children, I want to go there and not come back. I’ve already told my children my last will: even if I die not to bury me here, to take my body as far away as they can, and not to return.”


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