Last year, writer Tuba Çandar published a biography of Hrant Dink. In addition to interviewing a number of people who knew Dink, Çandar also talked to Dink himself for the book: In that interview, he narrated his memories of his military service.Source: Today's Zaman
It was interesting to learn what mandatory military service means for non-Muslims in Turkey, where the minorities, including Greeks and Armenians, have been suffering with mistreatment and discriminatory practices for a long time. Dink said: “I have been subjected to discrimination my whole life just because I was Armenian. One of these occurred during my military service. During my service in the Denizli 12th Infantry Regiment in 1986, all of my friends except me were promoted to an upper military rank after the military training. I was an adult with two kids; maybe I should not have cared about it. But this discrimination really hurt. Everyone was sharing their joy with their relatives at the ceremony; but I was alone, sobbing behind the barracks.” This topic attracted my attention after reading Dink’s account. Recently another book has been published which may answer my questions. Researcher and writer Rıfat Bali interviewed 80 non-Muslims who served in the Turkish army, and published the interviews in a book titled “Gayrimüslim Mehmetçikler: Hatıralar-Tanıklıklar” (Non-Muslim soldiers: Memoirs-Witnesses). I have just bought the book; I am still reading it. Some of Bali’s interviews were also published in various Turkish newspapers. He makes some interesting statements in these interviews. Below are some excerpts from different interviews he gave to different newspapers, namely Milliyet, Agos and Radikal, which I found interesting:
“Perhaps it is no coincidence that most of those who responded to your call were Jewish and that only a few Armenians told you their stories?
‘Only a few responses came from Armenians. Of course, there are some differences between the experiences of Jews and Armenians in terms of the specific problems they met with as well as their relations with the state. The problems of the Armenian soldiers generally revolve around 1915 [when Armenians were forced to leave Turkey]. While enlisted in the army they witness anti-Armenian propaganda relating to the incidents of 1915, which they find offensive.’
Who are in the most delicate and difficult position?
‘Armenians. They are being tested and questioned because of the 1915 controversy. They have to prove themselves and their patriotism.’
But is not far more difficult for a Jew serving in the army now?
True: they may face offensive remarks about Israel and Zionism. The answer to such remarks is simple: ‘I am a Turkish citizen; the disagreements with Israel are none of my business.’” (Milliyet)
“You are saying that Armenians encounter the most serious problems during their military service; why is that?
‘The 1915 incidents become a matter of discussion every year; Armenians experience serious problems in their military service because of this. The difficulties that the Jews encounter because of the ongoing row with Israel are not comparable to the troubles that Armenians experience.’” (Agos)
“What changed after the 1990s, and have things gotten better?
Non-Muslims were viewed as dangerous through the late 1970s. They were considered dangerous particularly because of their commercial activities. But this changed in the 80s. Now the shrunken non-Muslim population is enjoying the benefits of affirmative action, which has been in place for over the last 15 years.” (Radikal)
Below are excerpts from a former non-Muslims soldiers’ memories related in Balcı’s book:
Yosi Kastoryano says: “When they separated the illiterates, former convicts and non-Muslims from the rest in the selection of staff for different positions, I wondered why I was being considered together with the illiterate and the former cons…”
Arsen Yarman says: “A high-ranking military officer came in, with a list on his hand. He said: ‘Those whose names I call, take one step forward.” Then, he called out: ‘Garo Halepli, Agop Yeşil, Ardaş Altınay.’ We were nine soldiers, all Armenian. He said: ‘You others go get your equipment.’ We were looking at each other, afraid for our lives. We thought they were going take us to another place and kill us. It turned out that they had chosen us for appointment as sergeants. But we were thinking that we were going to be deported.”
I hope that Turkey will someday fully confront its discriminatory and racist practices, and that this valuable work by Rıfat Bali is used as a textbook in out children’s history classes.