Academic for peace
Bediz's desk at the University of Osnabrück (Credit: Stella Schwendner)
Bediz Yılmaz-Bayraktar says she just wants a quiet life. She sits in a café in the northern German town of Osnabrück; the untouched borscht soup in front of her has gotten cold. There are too many things to tell. How she lost her position at her home university in Turkey and had to come from the Mediterranean to this middle-sized town, notorious for its bad weather. How she would rather go to prison, than be separated from her family any longer. How a quiet life is out of reach for a politically conscious Turkish scientist.
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How it began
“Let's start at the beginning,” Yılmaz-Bayraktar says. She was born in 1973 to a family of academics in Ankara. To pursue a university career was the natural choice. She studied political science in Istanbul and then moved to Paris for her PhD. In 2006, she finished her dissertation at the French Institute of Urban Studies, on the social exclusion of internally displaced Kurdish people in a slum neighbourhood of Istanbul.
She went back to Turkey and settled in Mersin, a sunny city at the southern Mediterranean coast. She and her husband Serdar Ulaş Bayraktar took up positions at Mersin University. Things were going well. Bediz enjoyed the liberal city, the sea, the relative freedom of academic research at the University of Mersin. But then the trouble started.
The view That Bediz and Ulas see from their flat in Mersin, Turkey (Credit: Stella Schwendner)
Pictures in the family flat in Mersin (Credit: Stella Schwendner)
Political activism seemed to flow easily from academic life for Yılmaz-Bayraktar. She started to be active at the educators union at her university. The union is left-leaning and has ties to the Kurdish community, a community that Yılmaz-Bayraktar was researching. Mersin is the only city in the Western part of the country with a municipality controlled by the pro-Kurdish party HDP. Yılmaz-Bayraktar had close ties with the municipality, consulting for it on urban policy.
Yılmaz-Bayraktar was very sensitive to the mounting tensions between the Kurdish minority and the Turkish government. The ethnic minority of the Kurds had been experiencing tension for decades, even centuries, with multiple uprisings and violent suppressions. In 2012, 1700 Kurdish activists went on hunger strike. “That’s where it started,” Yılmaz-Bayraktar says. “People were about to die.”
A group formed of concerned scholars and the educators union, in which Yılmaz-Bayraktar was active. “We wanted to persuade people to stop their hunger strike.” At that time the group was small, Yılmaz-Bayraktar says. But once it had formed, it grew and stayed in touch via e-mail.
In 2015, tensions rose again, with nightly curfews affecting hundreds of thousands in the Kurdish provinces and an estimated hundred civilian deaths stemming from military intervention. The group, calling itself “Academics for Peace”, was revived. This time it was to have an impact.
In December 2015, the group collectively prepared a petition speaking out against the military intervention of the government. “This was a crying out, a scream,” Yılmaz-Bayraktar says.
The text was sharply worded. “We will not be a party to this crime,” it starts and goes on demand that “the state to abandon its deliberate massacre and deportation of Kurdish and other peoples.” The “Peace Petition” was published on 11 January 2016, together with a list of 1128 people who had signed it. “Many I knew by name, many not,” says Yılmaz-Bayraktar.
The group had mainly been a loose virtual network of people who shared their convictions, but had never met each other in real life.Although the government’s response was very harsh, in just one week the number grew by another 1000. “The people who signed the petition after it was public are the ones who were the really brave, because they knew what the consequences were,” says Yılmaz-Bayraktar . “We didn't.”
Only one day after publication of the petition, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned it, calling the action a betrayal. The state was going to strike back with full force against the unruly scientists. They would be charged with terrorism and some would be sent to jail.
In Mersin, Bediz and Ulaş were expecting the police any day. Weekends were especially tense, since they had been warned that that is when the officials like to come. For weeks, they stayed with Ulaş 's mother, to protect their sons from the sight of their parents being arrested.
But in contrast to other cities, nothing happened. The authorities refrained from action. Instead, it was the university that took the part of punisher.
An effective way to castigate the rebellious academics would be to rid them of the opportunity to pursue their livelihood. After some private universities started doing so, the University of Mersin would be the first public institution to dismiss the signatories of the petition, says Yılmaz-Bayraktar . “The method was not to renew their contracts.”
Assistant professors would be on limited-term contracts. Many were not even aware of it, says Yılmaz-Bayraktar, since the continuation of contracts was mostly a formality. But starting in February 2016, whenever a contract of one of the signatories at the university would come up for renewal, it would be declined, Yılmaz-Bayraktar says. The reasons given were random at first, like that paperwork was supposedly submitted too late.
“Until then the university was boasting to be one of the most democratic,” says Yılmaz-Bayraktar . She blames the new rector for the change of course.
At the beginning, there was lots of moral support from those colleagues who had not signed the petition for the ones who did. Many sympathized, but had their reasons not to sign, Yılmaz-Bayraktar says. But with time, a distance grew between the two groups, stemming from the different fates that would await them and boosted by the actions of the university administration.
Bediz and Ulaş deposing their defences for the investigations opened by the University of Mersin: "We made it like an open-air festivity." (Credit: Bediz Yılmaz-Bayraktar)
Yılmaz-Bayraktar tells the story of a colleague who got dismissed and had a farewell ceremony at the university. “It was completely harmless,” Yılmaz-Bayraktar says, “just some food, drinks, and traditional dances.” But the rector opened an investigation into everyone that attended the ceremony. “This creates fear.”
With rising tensions in Turkish politics, things only got worse for the activist scientists. In July 2016, a part of the military attempted a coup d’état and Erdogan responded with a state of emergency that gave the government additional power and intensified the purge against critics. According to reports this resulted in more than 50.000 arrested and 160.000 fired from their jobs.
That same month, Yılmaz-Bayraktar 's contract was one of those not to be renewed.
What should she do? The only realistic option for her to stay in science would be to go abroad. She had studied in France, but found no way to go there immediately. But she discovered an opportunity to go to Germany on a short-term fellowship. In November, she left for Berlin.
Her husband Ulaş stayed in Mersin with their children. He had also signed the petition, but his permanent position as associate professor could not be cancelled as easily as hers.
Ulaş at home (Credit: Stella Schwendner)
This changed the following year. In April 2017, at the time of the constitutional referendum that would overthrow the parliamentary system and give the president additional power, Yılmaz was visiting home from Germany. Two weeks after the vote, at 8 o’clock in the evening of April 29, a Saturday, the government issued statutory decree number 689 based on the state of emergency. It featured the names of 3974 of people to be banned from public office, 484 them university scientists, 21 at Mersin university. All of the scientists had signed the petition. Two of the 21 were Bediz and Ulaş.
Yılmaz-Bayraktar did not have a public job now anyway, but decree number 689 made sure that she would never be able to take one, even at a different university. “This was hostility by the rector of the university,” Yılmaz-Bayraktar says. The universities‘ administrations have been providing names to the government of scientists they find suspicious or simply dislike, Yılmaz-Bayraktar says. Her husband Ulaş now would also lose his job. How would they provide for themselves and their two sons?
What if Yılmaz-Bayraktar could go back to Germany? She had secured a Philipp Schwartz Initiative for threatened foreign scientists and had a position at the University of Osnabrück. Yet the decree had made it practically impossible for Bediz and Ulaş to leave the country; they would be stopped at the border. But there was a loophole, one that provided a brief opportunity.
The couple knew from previous decrees that they only fully entered into effect on the following weekday. Since Yılmaz-Bayraktar had the visa already and it was weekend, a unique opportunity presented itself. Should Bediz try to leave that night? The family gathered for a discussion and finally agreed it was better to try. Only the youngest son disagreed: Mom should stay home and sell vegetables.
Not even six hours after decree 689 was published, at half past one at night on 30 April 2017, Bediz Yılmaz-Bayraktar left home and drove to the airport of the nearby city Adana, kissed her husband Ulaş and her two sons goodbye and boarded a flight that would take her to Germany.
Hristio Boytchev is a investigative health and science journalist in Berlin, Germany. He writes for The Economist, The Washington Post, Nature, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit and Die Welt. He was a reporter for the investigative newsroom Correctiv, where he did an undercover report about alternative therapies for cancer patients. After studying biology at Dresden University of Technology he did postgraduate studies of journalism at Complutense University of Madrid.
Bediz Yılmaz-Bayraktar graduated from the Department of Political and Administrative Sciences, Marmara University, and received her PhD degree from the French Institute of Urban Studies (University of Paris VIII) with a dissertation on the social exclusion of internally displaced Kurdish people in a slum neighbourhood of Istanbul. After working as Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at Mersin University for more than 10 years, she has been dismissed for having signed the Petition of Academics for Peace (January 2016). Since February 2017 she has been a Philipp Schwartz Fellow at the Institute of Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, University of Osnabrück.