Young Turks (with cash) dodge draft

$5,200 can keep recruits from going to fight against Kurdish rebels

Turkey's most popular rock singer, Tarkan, may not be Turkish for much longer. The star has held out serving in the military, and while he tours in Europe his country is stripping him of his citizenship.

Tarkan may be Turkey's most prominent draft dodger at the moment, but his aversion to the military is far from unique. In the past few years, there have been a growing number of young Turks who don't want to interrupt their careers - or jeopardize their lives - to spend 18 months in the Army.

Military service is compulsory in Turkey. But like Tarkan, many are stepping up their efforts to avoid service, defer it, or shorten the length of time spent.

Like Americans who balked at serving in Vietnam, some Turks do not want to tangle in the military's 15-year war in southeast Turkey against Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy - a conflict that has left 30,000 dead.

Not only has Tarkan made headlines, but also a controversial book that's critical of military service. "Mehmet's Book" was published last fall, describing the hardships of 42 soldiers sent to the southeast. The State Security Court banned the book last month, and copies of it were swooped off bookstore shelves.

One of the book's contributors is described as a college graduate working in a bookstore in a town on the Aegean. "I read all the laws regarding military service to avoid it," he writes. "I was desperate."

He figured that his only way out was to go on a crash diet to get his weight below 100 pounds, which would exempt him from service under a disability clause. "It wasn't easy, smelling the bread," he writes. "I was escaping places with the smell. To escape the military, escape the smell."

Eligible for service: 660,000 yearly

Every year, 660,000 young men - nearly the same number as in the entire Turkish armed forces - turn 20 years old and become eligible for service. An estimated 40 percent of the Army is engaged in the southeast, where according to Amnesty International, 2,000 soldiers and civilians died last year in fighting related to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was sentenced to death by Turkey last month.

Figures indicating how many young Turks are trying to avoid the usual 18-month service are more difficult to pin down. Requests to the government in Ankara for this information went unanswered.

"Military service has a profound and incredible effect on this society, even though it often goes unspoken," says Serdar Degirmencioglu, a psychology professor at Middle East Technical University in Ankara.

The military is a powerful institution that has overthrown the government three times in the republic's 75-year history. Nearly everyone is afraid to talk about service, whether they have done it or not, for fear they will be harassed, arrested, or called immediately to service. Discussion of the Kurdish conflict is taboo, and a law also forbids in any way "alienating the people from military service."

Furthermore, Turkey allows no conscientious-objector status. Both the Istanbul and Izmir branches of the War Resisters' Association have been banned. Draft dodgers are put in prison where sometimes, according to reports from Amnesty International, they are tortured.

Service can be deferred for higher education, however, and shortened to a month for those who work abroad. So the most determined young men are earning graduate degrees, then scrambling for foreign jobs. If they succeed in settling abroad, though, many have no desire to return to Turkey, and the country is denied some of its most capable work force.

Those who can work abroad for three years may pay the equivalent of $5,200 and are only required to serve for one month. This is commonplace for Turks who were born and live abroad but want to keep their Turkish citizenship.

Socializing and seminars

Conscripts say that during the four-week term they wear uniforms, learn how to salute an officer, and spend an afternoon learning to shoot a rifle. Other than that they spend their time socializing and attending seminars on Turkish culture and history, to prepare them to defend Turkey in debates.

"If someone tells me there's a problem in Turkey, I can answer," says one soldier, Mehmet, who completed his month of paid service this summer before going back to his job in the United States.

"I had so much fun. Everyone was very gentle and very polite. The commander was a nice guy and kept telling us we're the little cultural attachs of Turkey."

Others, however, found even the short service to be trying. One soldier requesting anonymity, who served a month in 1997, called the seminars "brainwashing sessions that anyone in his right head cannot believe or stand." He said that to inspire nationalism they were shown gruesome pictures of victims who had reportedly been killed by the PKK.

When the paid-service policy started, men could accumulate time working abroad by going back and forth between Turkey and a foreign country, according to Namik Tan, a political counselor in the government. Now to earn the exemption from regular service they can only return to Turkey for a month of each year.

Mr. Tan concedes that some Turks are going abroad specifically to shorten their military obligations. "It's a concern not to make it abused, which is why the three years has to be uninterrupted," he says.

There soon may be a new option for those like Tarkan who may lose their citizenship for not serving. A bill coming before the parliament would let outcasts reapply for citizenship when they are 38, granted they pay $7,500 and are willing to report for month-long duty. Waiting until they turn 40 would cost $10,000 under the proposed bill, but would clear them of all military obligations.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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