PRISTINA, Kosovo – It’s one thing to lose a husband and a father. But it’s another to lose him to the long arm of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his hunt for so-called “Gülenists” around the globe.
On March 29, Yasemin Karabina’s husband, Yusuf, was one of six Kosovo-based Turkish nationals snatched by the Kosovar intelligence agency, in a covert early-morning operation.
The men – all of whom worked at schools linked to the Gülen movement – were extradited and flown back in a private jet to Turkey, being tortured en route according to a lawyer affiliated with the men’s families.
Erdogan blames U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen and his followers for a failed military coup attempt in July 2016.
The men – Cihan Ozkan, Hasan Huseyin Gunakan, Kahraman Demirez, Mustafa Erdem, Osman Karakaya and Yusuf Karabina – were accused of belonging to what Turkey derogatorily refers to as the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), helping Gülenists flee Turkey for Europe and the United States. Photos of the six were widely distributed in Turkish media, which described them as members of FETÖ.
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Nearly six months on from what some local media dubbed a “kidnapping,” the charges relating to alleged terror activities still make no sense to the men’s families or their colleagues in Kosovo, where soul-searching about the country’s relations with Turkey continue.
“Kosovo has forgiven Turkish interference too easily,” was the headline of a recent Op-Ed by Kosovar journalist Nektar Zogjani. But not everyone has.
“Our friends are blamed as part of the coup attempt,” says Nazmi Ulus, the director of Mehmet Akif College, a Gülen-affiliated school in Lipjan, near Prishtina. “How is this possible?” he asks. “It sounds ridiculous.”
Over 100 abductions
It doesn’t seem ridiculous to Erdogan, reelected in June as president for another five-year term. Recent months have seen similar abductions of Gülenists in Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Gabon, while an attempted abduction by Turkish security services was foiled at the very last moment in Mongolia.
Last month, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu boasted that at least 100 alleged members of the Gülen movement have been abducted by Turkish intelligence agents abroad and taken to Turkey in the past two years.
Karabina, Feyza Günakan and Olcay Demirez all had their husbands snatched away that Thursday morning in March, and are now seemingly powerless to do anything. Their stories are reminders that Erdogan’s global hunt for Gülenists comes at a human cost.
At the school in Lipjan where her husband Yusuf was deputy director, Yasemin Karabina recounts the events of that morning. Driving with Yusuf and the couple’s 15-year-old son, their car was stopped by what looked like police forces. They asked Yusuf for documents.
Yasemin Karabina says that after a few minutes, she and her husband grew suspicious; they knew about abductions of so-called Gülenists in other parts of the world. Not seeing any evidence that the men were actual police officers, Karabina says, they started the car again and prepared to drive away.
That was when the men pounced, says Yasemin Karabina. Video from a nearby surveillance camera shows them being dragged from the car – including their teenage son, who Yasemin says was hurt in the encounter. The footage shows her panicking and trying to flag down passing cars, to no avail.
Yasemin Karabina recalls yelling “They’re not cops!” to other drivers. But her husband was gone. “The last contact I had with him was in the car,” she says.
Children without fathers
Karabina’s son wasn’t the only child left without a father. Olcay Demirez has a 3-year-old son with her husband Kahraman; both taught at a Gülen-affiliated school in Gjakova, a city in western Kosovo.
According to Olcay Demirez, her husband went to school before 8 A.M. to help prepare students for a field trip. The students were hanging around the schoolyard, waiting for buses to arrive, she says.
A while later, she continues, three police cars came to the school. Her husband walked over to meet them, shaking hands with the officers. “He had a good relationship with the police,” Olcay Demirez says.
The police told him there was some issue with his identity papers and, according to Demirez’s wife, said they needed to take him to the police station. “They gave a signal to handcuff him, in front of the students,” she says, teary-eyed, “and forced him into a car.”
She hasn’t seen her husband since that morning. “As a mother, as a woman, I’m deeply offended by this situation,” she says tersely.
The four children of Feyza Günakan, who has lived in Kosovo with her husband Hasan Hüseyin Günakan for 13 years, are also without a father. Their youngest is 4 years old.
At home when the kidnappings took place, Feyza Günakan was called from the school with the grim news. But that was only the first shock. Following reports in the Turkish and Albanian media, she soon learned that her husband had been kidnapped by mistake: A man with a similar name was apparently the real target. Yet her husband still languishes in Turkey, awaiting trial.
Although some commentators are suggesting that such brazen Turkish actions won’t happen in Kosovo – or in other countries in the region – again, the “fear of Erdogan” has been struck into Turkish nationals living in Kosovo.
According to recent media reports, several dozen Turkish nationals in Kosovo have already applied for asylum in the country. Meanwhile, the family of one of the men, Mustafa Erdem – principal of the Mehmet Akif College in Lipjan – reportedly fled Kosovo several months ago and applied for asylum in Germany. Earlier this month, officials in Prizren, southwestern Kosovo, even demanded the closure of a “Gülen-linked” kindergarten.
“We still worry about what can happen,” says Günakan. “We have doubts here.”
Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has tried to assuage those fears. According to Yasemin Karabina, Haradinaj told her that “nothing like this will ever happen again.”
After the kidnappings, Haradinaj claimed he hadn’t been informed about the operation. The following day, he dismissed his interior minister and intelligence chief – and later fired a shot at Erdogan, saying the six Turkish nationals “were not deported, they were stolen.” But Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, initially appeared to justify the abductions, telling local media two days after the incident that the men were involved in “illegal actions” and posed a threat to the country’s “national security.” (He later walked back those comments.)
Anger at home and concern abroad still simmered following Haradinaj’s actions. Gülen, for his part, referred to the events as a “hijacking” in a video he released on the incident.
Whatever they are called, the families remain deeply frustrated that the kidnappings were able to happen. “We cannot understand,” says Yasemin Karabina. “It’s a pity that Kosovar politicians have connections with that guy in Turkey.”
“That guy in Turkey” certainly wasn’t pleased with Haradinaj’s comments. Erdogan, who enjoys good relations with Thaci, sounded off in a tone usually reserved for a scolding parent.
“My question to Kosovo’s prime minister is: Under whose instructions did you undertake such actions?” Erdogan said a day after the firings. “How can you [defend] these people who attempted a coup against Kosovo’s brother country, Turkey? You will answer for this.”
Whatever Kosovo and its leader think of Erdogan’s style of rule, Turkey may not be a friend the Balkan state can afford to lose. Alongside being a strong advocate for its international recognition and eventual accession to the European Union and NATO, Turkey also has considerable economic clout there. (It was also the one of the first countries to recognize Kosovo after it unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008.)
According to Esin Muzbeg, general-secretary of the Kosovo-Turkey Chamber of Commerce, Turkey is set to be Kosovo’s third-largest source of foreign direct investment as a share of GDP for 2018.
Turkish firms run Kosovo’s sole international airport and the country’s electric grid, and are building billions of dollars-worth of new highways. State agencies such as Turkey’s official development assistance organization have also been very active in restoring Kosovo’s Ottoman-era heritage. Meanwhile, a large, new, Turkish-funded mosque is planned for downtown Pristina in an ostentatiously Ottoman style.
But Erdogan has also tried to exert pressure in other ways. A few years ago, Kosovo’s government revised its history textbooks under Turkish pressure to paint Ottoman rule more positively. And in 2016, while the attempted military coup was in progress, Kosovar journalist and editor of Gazeta Express, Berat Buzhala, wrote a satirical post on social media calling on Kosovars vacationing in Turkey to back the coup. As a result, Buzhala told Haaretz, Turkey’s ambassador in Kosovo called for his arrest.
And critics don’t have to be public figures to feel the heat. In February, the Pristina premises of a self-described “tiny socialist commune” were searched by Kosovar police after they announced a Kurdish music night in solidarity with the defenders of Afrin – the Kurdish-held town in northern Syria that was under attack from the Turkish army at the time.
But there are many Kosovars who see Turkey in a much more positive light. Abdulhadi Krasnic, for instance, is eager to promote the many shared cultural ties between Kosovars and Turks: Nearly 20,000 Kosovar citizens are ethnic Turks and Krasnic is mayor of Mamusa, the country’s only Turkish-majority municipality.
“Whoever is in power over there, a strong Turkey can only help Kosovo,” Krasnic says.
Krasnic supported the arrests of the six men – they were Turkish citizens linked to an organization that tried to overthrow the elected Turkish government, he says – but does not think the abductions and deportations were carried out legally.
Despite the pledges of support from Haradinaj and others, the wives and families of the deported six men still fear for their futures. The Kosovar prime minister’s press office declined to answer several requests for comment for this article, stating, “We consider this matter closed.”
“The Erdogan regime is following us. His long arms are everywhere, especially in the Balkans,” says Ulus from Mehmet Akif College. “They are not our friends.”
But Ulus – who proudly notes that Gülen-affiliated schools have been in Kosovo since the late 1990s – remains defiant. “We are not going anywhere. We are here. We have come to serve,” he says.
Una Hajdari contributed to this report, which was enabled by Reporters in the Field – a Robert Bosch Foundation program hosted with n-ost, a media development network.