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26 Eylül

Turkey’s first day of school, without teachers

The unprecedented purge of state employees hit all branches of the government, but the public and private education took the biggest blow

* [Cover image of National Ministry of Education’s pamphlet, “The Triumph of Democracy on July 15 and in Memory of the Martyrs.” It is actually a mash-up of a stock photo of Süleymaniye mosque with an Anadolu Agency’s photo from Yenikapı “Democracy and Martyrs Rally”]

 
 
 
This week, the academic year has started for nearly 19 million students in Turkey. But for many of them, there were no teachers and no school buildings on the first day of school, some did not even have a house to return to.
 
Turkey is passing through turbulent times. Last summer, the ceasefire between Kurdish militia group, PKK, and the Turkish Army has ended. The intensified armed conflict caused hundreds of civilian casualties and forced thousands of Kurdish people to flee their homes in the Southeast. Those who could return found their houses demolished and their schools burned down; as many as 114,000 children were unable to attend school.
 
Few but striking pictures from the Kurdish Southeast told us story of those days: triumphant special-operations soldiers posing inside torn down classrooms, school buildings used as military outposts, and later, neighbourhood schools permanently converted into police stations by newly built watchtowers.
 

 
Then this summer, the July 15 coup attempt shook the people of Turkey. Putschists not only attacked government’s security structure but also opened fire on civilian targets, killing at least 179 in one night.
 
The attempt was immediately followed by the government’s witch hunt against disloyalty and dissent. Early detentions and dismissals mainly targeted the Gülen Movement, a long-term ally of Turkey’s President Erdoğan which he instantly blamed for the coup; later ones were directed against leftists, marxists and liberals. Coup became Erdoğan’s godsend tool to crack down on all opposition.
 
The social toll of this unprecedented purge of state employees hit all branches of the government, but the public and private education took the biggest blow: In the first week after the coup attempt some 15,200 employees from the education ministry got suspended for alleged links to the Gülen Movement, 28,163 were later dismissed; 11,285 more teachers are suspended for alleged links to the PKK under the government’s state of emergency powers. A total number of 1,043 private schools and 15 universities are closed down purportedly for being affiliated with the Gülen Movement and more than 21,000 private school teachers had their licences revoked by a government decree. A further 2,346 university staff are also sacked.
 
In Diyarbakır, some 3,000 teachers got suspended; this week, even principals do not know when or how the classes will start. In Şırnak, where the bulldozers are currently demolishing buildings damaged by army’s shelling, thousands of families have to live in tents, the city is still under curfew. Similar problems are reported from İdil, Silopi, Nusaybin and Van, the Kurdish towns that were hit by destructive military operations under months-long curfews.
 
Even before the purges, Turkey had a teaching staff deficit with one of the lowest education spending within OECD and with very poor PISA scores. Government’s post-coup plan to address this problem seems to be lowering the criteria for hiring new teachers, and converting seized private schools into religious vocational schools.
 
Insult to injury
 
Since the last military coup d’état in 1980, Turkey’s national education system was criticised for its heavy militarism propaganda, and since AKP came to power in 2002 the secular education was reportedly threatened by rising Islamism. In the post-coup period, the “martyrdom” appears to be uniting both.
 
For the opening of the academic year, Ministry of National Education issued a circular on how to narrate the coup attempt to the children. The announcement on ministry’s website uses the word, “martyr,” 25 times. The circular explains that, “It is our common responsibility to raise awareness among our children on the issues of democracy, national unity and solidarity, patriotism, national defence and martyrdom” and the accompanying week-by-week plan instructs students to write letters to martyrs and set up memorials with verses from Quran on martyrdom.
 
In a twist of history, ministry’s anti-coup circular is ordained by the Preamble of the 1982 Constitution, written under military junta, and the National Education Act, amended after 1971 Military Memorandum.
 
As per the circular, students were provided with National Education Ministry’s pamphlets titled “The Triumph of Democracy on July 15 and in Memory of the Martyrs.” The following videos, again prepared by the ministry, show what the surviving students are further exposed to at the beginning of their academic year.
 
Along with scenes from the night of the coup attempt, the first video features jet planes flying low on cities, helicopters firing on buildings, tanks crushing cars, civilians being shot at by soldiers. Throughout the video, the voice of President Erdoğan is heard reading the “Independence March,” Turkey’s national anthem. The narrative ends with the footage of the huge anti-coup rally led by Erdoğan, particularly focusing on Turkey’s Director of Religious Affairs giving a public prayer, thanking god for saving Turkish nation from the coup attempt.
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJy5VuEoMWY
 
 

The even more dramatic second video opens with the lines “What makes a flag a real flag is blood on it. The land is made into a homeland if it has been died for.” With realistic battle scenes from the Independence War (at the end of WW1), the video narrates the circumstances that the modern Turkey was found. Then it jumps to the July 15 coup, portrayed as a second independence war, with much more graphic, real footage of the explosions and gunshots. It again ends with Erdoğan reading the Independence March poem.
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=canx7X43IO8

 
 
In this second video, the government's accusations towards Gülen Movement is repeated multiple times, the official ceremony programme prepared by the ministry, describes the coup plotters as the “assassins of Gülen” (with religious references) all despite the coup investigation is still ongoing.
 
Where have all the teachers gone?
 
While the government is able to impose its narrative using state apparatuses, the stories of the oppressed are being silenced, even permanently. Since the investigations had started, 13 people committed suicide, five of the incidents took place under custody, some families suspect wrongdoings in their relatives death.
 
Mustafa Güneyler, a 50 years old electronics teacher in Bilecik, was among the 28,163 teachers dismissed by a government decree (KHK 672) on 2 September 2016. He committed suicide at his apartment flat the same day.
 
Ali Derebaşı, a 42 years old pre-school principal in Kayseri, committed suicide in his office on the early hours of Monday, the first day of school. Children were sent home, and the police promptly stated that his suicide is not related to the coup; but his wife, also a teacher, was among the list of suspended and was being investigated.
 
Gökhan Açıkkolu, a history teacher from Istanbul, died under police custody after being held for 14 days. He had diabetes and was hospitalised in his first week in the detention centre. His father said the authorities did not deliver his body, said he will be buried in the “traitors’ cemetery” in Istanbul. He was later buried in his hometown, Konya, but no religious service was provided upon the directive of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate.
 
Songül Kartal, a teacher in Diyarbakır also a member of the leftist teacher’s union, Eğitim-Sen, was in the latest list of 11,283 dismissed teachers purportedly for being affiliated with PKK. She was detained on Wednesday morning at a police raid to her home despite having given birth ten days ago. Her baby was brought to the detention centre with her.
 
While the stories these teachers will not be heard, we had a chance to hear one teacher’s plea for peace during the military operations in Southeast Turkey. The persecution of her, similar to academics who endorsed a Peace Petition, is exemplary of Turkish government’s national-religious education plan, that is closed to all other ideas.
 
Ayşe Çelik, a teacher from Diyarbakır, called in one of Turkey’s most popular night shows, Beyaz Show, to draw attention to human rights violations in the Southeast, and the situation of teachers living the region by government’s request. Her appeal (transcribed below the video) received long applause from the viewers at the studio and much admiration from the show’s host, Beyazıt Öztürk, for speaking up and giving opportunity to public debate of this issue.
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCPV4gQqrbg

 
 
“Are you aware of what is going on in the East and Southeast of this country? Unborn babies, mothers, people are being killed. As artists, as human beings, you should not keep silent to what is happening, you should say “stop” somehow.
 
“I also want to add one thing: There are miserable people who rejoice when children are killed. We are not able to say anything to these people other than “shame on you!” I want to say one more thing, please excuse me. I am a teacher. I would like to call out to teachers who left their students. How will they come back? How will they look into the eyes of those innocent, good-hearted kids?
 
“I can’t speak really… What is happening here is reflected very differently in the media. I mean, I can’t really speak. Staying silent. Please approach the situation with more sympathy. Please see and hear. Give us a hand. What a shame…
 
“Don’t let the people die, don’t let the children die, don’t let the mothers cry. This is all I can say. Thank you very much”
 
[Beyazıt Öztürk intervenes, asks for an applause from the viewers in the studio.]
 
“I actually want to say a lot of things, but I can’t because of the heavy emotions. You also notice, my voice is shivering. Sounds of explosions, gunshots… People are struggling with thirst and hunger. Especially babies and children. Please, be sensitive, don’t stay quiet. I beg of you, please.
 
[Beyazıt Öztürk intervenes to thank her.]
 
“I thank you for allowing me to call in. I am pleased if we are able to have our voice heard at least a little.”
 
After her call, Beyazıt Öztürk thanked her for her affection, promised to do more to let their voice heard, and shared her plea for the peace, using the word, “solving the problem,” as is used in the Turkish political discourse.
 
What followed was everything wrong with Turkey’s definition of terrorism. The pro-government papers demonised the teacher and the host, amplifying the reaction from those who favour government’s heavy-handed military approach in the region. Mr. Öztürk received a death threat from a masked special operations police; forcing first the TV station, then Beyazıt Öztürk himself to publicly apologise and delete the show’s footage from their archive. An investigation was initiated on the host, the teacher, and the programmer of the show for “terrorist propaganda.” The case was later dropped for Beyazıt Öztürk but extended to 30 more people who signed a declaration in support of the teacher’s plea; all are facing 7.5 years in jail, their first hearing is on September 23.
 
Today, the government writes “triumph” on textbooks, glorifies martyrdom on young minds, but in a decade, we will likely remember how the post-coup reactions, more than the attempt itself, has harmed a generation. If there is anything to stop this ill-fated path, it certainly starts with the children.

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