Yannis Vasilis Yaylalı was brought up as a proud, nationalist Turk. From a fascist background, he joined the army in the 1990s, at a time when Turkey was waging its most brutal attacks ever on its Kurdish population. Yannis was eager “to go east and fight the Kurds.” After just a few months in the military, he was captured by Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) guerillas and spent two years as a prisoner of war. Yannis was completely transformed by his experience. He now lives in Roboski in north Kurdistan (within south-eastern Turkey), where he lives as a Kurdish solidarity activist. He is also part of the Conscientious Objectors Association, which gives solidarity to those who refuse to do mandatory military service in Turkey. In January 2016 he was sentenced to seven months in prison for ‘alienating people from military service’. We met Yannis in Roboski in July 2015 and interviewed him about his life.
For a critical introduction to the PKK and Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan see here.
Can you tell us where you grew up?
“I was born in 1974 and my birth name was İbrahim Yaylalı. I grew up in the Black Sea region of Turkey in Bafra, in Samsun province. Bafra was divided into two parts. The west was fascist and racist and the east was socialist. I was born amongst fascist people. At that time the older fascists were fighting the police and they were heroes for us. The Nationalist Action Party (MHP), a nationalist and religious political party, was all around me.
In those days, western films were always played on the TV. In these films the native Americans were bad and the cowboys were good. When we played children’s games on the street, the baddies were always the socialists or native Americans. No-one wanted to be them. The weak people played them. I was following the wrong heroes in those days. I grew up with bad thoughts.”
What was your schooling like?
“In secondary school we had military lessons. My fascist friends loved military lessons but the socialist children didn’t want to be in the class. Officers would teach us about weapons, and we used to learn to walk like soldiers. In school, we were told to repeat every day: “I am Turkish. I am proud to be a Turk.” We sang the national anthem on Mondays and Fridays. We were told in school and in our school books, and on the radio and TV, that Armenians, Kurds and Greeks were bad people.
Every summer I went to the mosque to learn the Koran in the school holidays. I wish I had learned about my own real Greek origin. I learned everything about Turks and I was told that I was Turkish.”
In Turkey, every man must do mandatory military service. Can you explain about your time in the military?
“In April 1994 I went to compulsory military service in Isparta to a mountain commando school for training. Then I had the choice of going to Cyprus. I said: “Did we come all this way to escape to Cyprus? I want to go east to fight the Kurds, to fight the terrorists and protect our country.” So I went to Mardin. The PKK guerillas attacked our bus on the way there but didn’t hurt us. They wanted to scare us.
In the 1990s the government, which consisted of racist politicians, was playing the most dirty games. JITEM [Gendarmerie Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism wing] was a legal organisation but was doing illegal things, killing and kidnapping people, especially in Kurdistan. Even now people are scared when they hear someone say “JITEM”.
I was a sniper in the military. I had an MG3 sniper assassination gun. I even got a prize for shooting. I was lucky that in the end I didn’t have the chance to kill people. I trained for two months and then I went to Gabar mountain in Şırnak, Kurdistan.
We went to a military base on a mountain above three villages.”
What did you do there?
“We were putting pressure on the Kurdish villagers not to help the PKK guerillas. We didn’t let them harvest their fields. We limited their food because they might give extra to the guerillas. We also wanted the villagers to go hungry. Even though we were surrounding the villages, we still told accused them of helping the guerillas. We tortured and beat people. Even when there were no guerillas, we still pressured the villagers to become rangers [a paramilitary organisation made up of Kurdish villagers, also known as ‘village guards’].”
Can you tell us about the role of the rangers?
“In different places rangers worked differently. In some regions they didn’t do much; in others they fought alongside the military against the PKK guerillas. There were two types of ranger: one type was pressured into doing it, and then there were others who volunteered. Some rangers used their power and used their guns to kill people. Lots of rangers occupied and took people’s land, like in Cizre. All of the rangers were given guns.
The rangers had no health insurance and no retirement money. In villages like the one where I live now, the rangers don’t use their guns, except in celebrations. When I see rangers here I know how they were forced into the role, and I can understand them.”
Were you involved in the burning of the villages? [Thousands of Kurdish villages were burnt down or wiped from the map by the military in the 1990s]
“Yes. The population of two villages fled, and these villages were burnt by the military. But the people of one village said, “whatever you do, we will not leave.” We beat people until they were forced to leave their houses. Another military team arrived after us and burnt down the village.
A couple of days before we forced the population of one village to leave, we went there for food. An old Kurdish villager gave us honey, almonds and woolen socks and he didn’t want to take any money for them. We forced him to take the money.
When we went to burn the village I searched for the guy. I was worried about him. I couldn’t see him. When things were quieter I went to the house to look for him but I couldn’t find him. I was in shock. A high officer came and smacked me and sent me back to my team. We were not allowed communication with the villagers because they were good people and the government and military didn’t want us to know this.
I heard lots of stories about tortured civilians, about cutting off parts of their bodies, but I didn’t see it myself.
The military was making negative, racist comments about Kurdish people and guerillas, brainwashing us. They were not separating the guerillas and the civilians. They were saying that they were the same. They needed to brainwash us so that we wouldn’t question anything.”
And how did the military treat the PKK guerillas that they caught? “In front of my eyes, the military dropped a PKK guerilla from a helicopter and he died. They cut whole ears off of other guerillas. I saw an MHP guy with a necklace made from guerillas’ ears. I grew up to be so racist but I was thinking: ‘What are we doing?’”
When you were in the military, you were captured by guerillas. Can you explain what happened?
“In September, five or six months after I came to the military, I was captured by PKK guerillas, close to here, 30-40 km away. Before that, thirty or forty of our soldiers were killed by the guerillas during an army operation against the PKK. We were sent to help. We went on a three day operation to a mountain called Kale Mehmet to push out the guerillas. 500 soldiers searched for them for two days. Rangers told us that there were guerillas in a certain area but we didn’t really believe them. A small group of us went – twenty-five or twenty-six. We went to the top of the hill to get ready for a small battle and prepared with sandbags. It was dark and raining.
Then at around 6 or 7pm we heard bullets above us. The guerillas were shooting. But not directly at us: they wanted us to go back. The guerillas didn’t want to kill soldiers because the military would be glorified and the funeral would be a big occasion in the city. Nationalism would be fueled.
I got shot just above my knee. I ran and fell down with my backpack on in the dark. I fainted by a riverbank. I laid there for hours and hours. I couldn’t stand up, and my other leg was also injured.
Early in the morning I crossed the river and crawled to try to reach a burnt village. I was losing blood and needed food. I used a T-shirt to wrap around my leg. I ate margarine that had been left in the burnt village. I thought I would die, and I knew that there were guerillas around. I had been told not to be captured alive. ‘They’ll skin you alive!’ I had been told, ‘don’t be captured alive.’ I kept one grenade for the guerillas and one grenade to kill myself. I rested in a house. I heard someone and reached for my hand grenade, but it was a kitten who was also searching for food.
I left the burnt village and climbed up to a small cave. Whilst I was sleeping in the cave on the second day, a female guerilla came. She was collecting fire wood. She tried to wake me up by shaking me. This was the first time I’d seen a woman guerilla alive. I had often seen female dead guerillas. I wanted to throw the hand grenade but I couldn’t reach it. She called the other guerillas and they came. They told me to relax and they took my hand grenades away. They said: “We are Kurdish and we’re from the ARGK [now the HPG – the armed wing of the PKK]. You are a prisoner of war.” I waited to be killed and I imagined how they were going to kill me.
They lifted me up and helped me to walk. They took me to a small camp. The guerillas were preparing a meal by the water, using the river bank. They had a fire but nobody could see them. Şerif Goyi came and said to me: “You’re a prisoner of war and we follow the Geneva convention.” In 1994 the PKK were practising the Geneva Convention and a year later they signed up to it officially.
Şerif Goyi said: “When conditions are better we can help you to leave the country, and maybe you can go to Europe.” In Turkey, if a soldier is captured by the PKK, he would be seen as weak and he wouldn’t get help from the government.
The guerillas used radios and stated: “We have captured İbrahim,” so that the Turkish soldiers could hear. This was so that the military knew that I hadn’t run away.
A couple of days later I was taken to a camp on a mule. There was a dead guerilla, wrapped in a blanket, who was also being carried on another mule. When we came to the guerilla camp, close to the border – between Roboski and Uludere – we found that the military were bombing. The guerillas were quite calm but I was panicked. We crossed the border to south Kurdistan [Iraqi Kurdistan] and reached a guerilla camp.
When we arrived, they put me in a cave the size of a room. I could walk a little outside, but not very far. They wanted to check whether I was a professional soldier or whether I was on compulsory service. Mustafa Karasu [Deputy Chairman of the PKK] came and told me: “You’re not a professional soldier.” He told me about the PKK, why they were defending themselves, and he explained that the state of Turkey was colonising Kurdish land and assimilating the Kurdish people.
During my first week in the camp, the Red Cross came and checked my leg. They wrote a report and I wrote a letter to my family. The letter was given to my family a few months later but they didn’t believe that it was from me. In the letter I told them to be calm, and they thought it wasn’t my character, as I come from an aggressive, fascist town. I rang my family months later and they didn’t believe that I was captured. We were sent to war but no-one thought that we could be captured. They thought I was still in an operation on the mountains.
In the military, I had always experienced violence towards people. I saw people from the army chop a guerilla’s body into pieces. I vomited and they said: “Aren’t you Turkish? Aren’t you a man?” Everything was based on violence.
When I was captured, I compared the different behaviours. We had always been told that the PKK were terrorists and very violent. I started to see that the guerillas were talking in a respectful way and they all listened to each other. When I first became a soldier, the military were heroes to me. But when I came to the Turkish military base, I was treated like an animal. I thought it was a personal thing between the officers and myself. But on the other hand, when I was at the guerilla camp, they were respectful; they listened.
When I first joined the Turkish military, the more senior soldiers had asked me to wash their underwear. I always had arguments with them. The guerillas were the opposite. The guerillas never told me to read this or do that. They even said that I could hang a Turkish flag if I wanted. I observed their social lives and this comparison between the army and the guerillas helped to transform me. For 20 years of my life I had been surrounded by violence.
After two months, I was told that psychologically, it wasn’t good for me to be alone. They told me that I could join another camp with another captured soldier who had lost his eye. His name was Mustafa Özülker, and I joined that group. The guerillas and I had political discussions. For eight months I stayed with them in the second camp. I always talked about Kemalism and Atatürk [Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk, was the founder of the Republic of Turkey], and the guerillas were patient and listened to me. I wanted to impose my fascist views on them, and wanted to change their minds. I defended Atatürk and the ideology of the state.
A Turkish newspaper article was read out in the camp where the writer blamed me, saying that I went to the guerillas voluntarily – that I wasn’t captured. They said that I’d had a connection with the PKK before I was captured.
In December 1996, after two years and three months, I was released. I said that I didn’t want to go back to Turkey. In those days there was a ceasefire. But the high officer of the PKK told me that if I went it could be helpful. If a soldier spoke out then this would create more visibility and raise awareness about the state’s violence towards Kurdish people. The Red Cross wrote a report about me.”
What happened when you were released?
“I was arrested when I was released. Seven other soldiers had also been captured but most of them didn’t change their racist views, although Mustafa, who I was captured with, did change his views. The others gave reports about me, about how I talked positively about the PKK. For three and a half months I was tortured in a military prison. They used pressurised water on me. They put me in big barrels full of water. If they put me in water, my skin wouldn’t be damaged so much when they beat me. Military prisons are worse than other prisons in Turkey. The guards slept in the same room as me. Ten to fifteen people slept in the same room.
My case was taken to the High Court three and a half months later. Because of the Red Cross report, they couldn’t do anything. They had hoped to try me for being part of a terrorist organisation. But the Red Cross report had said that I had been captured by guerillas. The guerillas had also announced that I was captured. My case was the first of it’s kind in Turkey, so they didn’t know what to do.
The court said I should be released but they kept me for three and a half weeks in a room attached to the prison, in part of the military complex.
I had been in the Turkish military for five or six months, and I had spent over two years with the guerillas, so I should have been released from my military service. But they forced me to complete eighteen months in the Turkish military. It was like I was in prison.
I didn’t want to go to military again. They took me to Mardin, where my first base had been. I told them not to take me there. They took me to the basement, to a torture room, and I saw blood on the ground. They hung me by my hands on the pipes until morning. Later they handcuffed me and took me to Siirt military base. Then they sent me to the soldiers who had given reports against me. I refused to pick up a weapon. The high officer threatened that he could kill me. Other officers came and told me to go to training. I said no.”
Where did you go after the military released you?
“After, I went back to my hometown of Bafra, the police told the neighbours and the local fascists to be careful of me, to keep an eye on me, to spy on me, and that I was part of a terrorist organisation. The police came to my house many times, searching it. I had [PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan’s books and the police took them. I remember, my father realised that Öcalan’s books weren’t illegal because the books were returned.
My parents told me that when I went missing, they had asked the military if they knew where I was. The military had said that they didn’t have anyone of my name. A relative, an officer, told my father to go and ask at the military headquarters. My father went to the Ankara military headquarters. The military said: “You are Greek, and Greeks and Armenians help the PKK, so don’t look for your son.” This was the first time my father realised that he was a Pontus Greek. My grandfather’s name was Constantin.”
So you changed your name from İbrahim to Yannis?
“Journalists who had come to the guerilla camp told me that I was Greek because they were up to date with the news and it had been reported in the press. This was why I changed my name. Last year I changed my name in the city of Urfa, when we were on a trip to the border with Kobanê. I killed İbrahim when I was in Urfa.”
Being captured by the guerillas really transformed you?
“A friend in Bafra said: ‘You can’t change like this. We used to beat Kurdish people together. How can you change?’ They couldn’t believe the way that I had changed. They were saying that I had been brainwashed by the PKK.
If anyone sees the PKK and doesn’t change their mind, they are like a rock inside.”
Yannis is part of the conscientious objectors movement, which was formed in 2008. Before then, people were forced to go into the military. If they refused to follow orders to carry a gun, they were sent to military prison. In 2013 the Conscientious Objectors Association was formed. There are 200 people in this broad-based association, where volunteers give legal help to those who refuse to be in the military. In Turkish law, an individual can pay around $4000 not to join the army, but this money goes to the government and is spent on the military industry. Conscientious objectors refuse to pay to get out of military service. Onur, a journalist and member of the association told us: “We don’t give one second or one cent to the military.”
Yannis has been charged with two counts of ‘alienating people from military service’ under Article 318 of the Turkish penal code. In January 2016, he was sentenced to over seven months in prison for writing articles encouraging conscientious objection. The court offered not to impose a prison sentence if Yannis agreed not to be involved in political activity for five years, but Yannis refused. He is currently appealing the verdict and will not begin his sentence until his appeal is considered.
Since Summer 2015, people in many cities in Turkey’s Kurdish region have declared autonomy from the state (to read more about the declarations of autonomy click here). Yannis and his partner Meral made statements in an article and on social media declaring their autonomy ‘within their own home’. They were taken to court again, this time charged with encouraging the break up of Turkey as a unitary state. Meral was found not guilty but Yannis was sentenced to a further five months in prison. He is also appealing this verdict to the high-court.
On 26 May Yannis will appear in court again, this time charged with organising workshops on conscientious objection in his village.
If the High Court rejects his appeal Yannis will be sent to prison. He told us that he would appeal to the European Court. According to Yannis, Turkey has been found to be in breach of the law by the European court several times over its treatment of conscientious objectors.
Meral told Corporate Watch: “We have been living in Roboski [in Bakur, the part of Kurdistan within Turkey’s borders] for more than three years and they didn’t do anything, but since the recent war by the Turkish state against the Kurdish movements they have been attacking us. Our rights are being taken from our hands; we are anti-militarists and peace activists. Anarchists, socialists and anti-militarists should pressure their states about what’s happening in Kurdistan.”
She went on to say that the state of Turkey is using their agreement with the EU over the return of migrants as a political tool to ensure that their massacres in the Kurdish region do not come under scrutiny:
“The Turkish state is using the refugees as a political tool, that is why the European states are silent about the deaths of people in cities like Amed and Cizre.”
An abridged version of this article will be published in the next edition of Red Pepper magazine.
Act in Solidarity
Here are some suggestions for how you can act in solidarity with Yannis, the conscientious objectors movement and the Kurdish struggle:
– Campaign against arms exports to Turkey. To read about the companies supplying arms to the Turkish police and military click here and here. Also see Campaign Against the Arm’s Trade’s list of companies supplying weapons to Turkey.