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Turkey's purged military officers stuck in limbo one year after failed coup

A year after Turkey's failed coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing his purges, accusations and arrests. For some former Turkish military officers caught abroad, their homeland may never be "home" again.

Looking back on the last year of their lives, these two former Turkish military officers still can't believe what's happened to them. On July 15, 2016, one of them was hosting friends at a barbecue in his backyard, on base at NATO's military headquarters in Mons. The other was in an auto dealer's showroom, shopping for a Mercedes. As top officers serving at NATO at the peak of their careers, life was good.

Then, they say, they got phone calls telling them something was happening in Ankara, that members of the military were trying to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both men say they had nothing to do with the plot, and openly wonder, as do many, whether there even was one coming from the military itself. There is plenty of speculation Erdogan created the situation to justify tightening his grip on power and cracking down on the opposition.

Watch video 02:34

Ex-NATO officers seek asylum in Brussels

But regardless of what really happened that night in Turkey, Erdogan's actions since have meant the end of all semblance of normalcy for the tens of thousands of Turks who have been summarily fired, and in many cases jailed, on Erdogan's suspicion they supported the failed overthrow.

And that long arm of retribution continues to stretch to wherever Western-educated Turks were posted, including Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the US. Turkish diplomatic missions received weekly lists of military personnel who were to be "purged:" stripped of their positions, salaries, benefits - their entire identities. Eventually more than two-thirds of the roughly 900 Turkish military officers serving NATO worldwide were labeled as suspects linked to Erdogan's enemy, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in the US.

Watch video 06:07

Turkey one year after the coup - AKP member Harun Armagan speaks with DW

Into the shadows

The officers say they have never had any ties to Gulen, yet "[w]e went from honorable officers to terrorists overnight," one said. 

It quickly became apparent from tragic examples that anyone who followed the government's orders to return "home" would receive a one-way ticket to prison with no judicial process. Most officers, despite the urge to go defend their lifelong careers in person, realized that would be suicidal.

Still, they thought, the harsh emergency measures at home must be a knee-jerk reaction to the coup attempt. They thought things would calm down within a couple of months. But things only got worse at home and only got worse for them.

Watch video 03:21

Internal conflicts plague Turkish military

NATO's military command at SHAPE allowed the purged families to stay in their homes on base for some time, to keep their children in school there and to slowly transition into whatever would come next. But as the Erdogan-loyal "newcomers" arrived to fill their places, the environment grew very uncomfortable, the officers say. "We would look them directly in their eyes as we passed," one said. "They would turn their heads."

Erdogan told governments they'd be "harboring terrorists" if they protected the officers. He called on Turks living abroad, most of whom voted in April to grant him expanded presidential authority, to find them and turn them in. The officers have moved from their former neighborhoods into small apartments, selling whatever they can to survive with no income. Their kids have been put in new schools and told not to speak Turkish in public, to avoid drawing attention.

"We have had a difficult time," one says, but at the same time he acknowledges they are also lucky: alive, not in prison, with their families.

 Belgium holds back on asylum

But now, a year later, they wake up every day reading the news about Erdogan's latest threats toward them and are starting to accept they will never go home again. They don't even know where their next home will be. While Germany and Norway have granted asylum to the purged officers on their territory, other countries, including Belgium and the US, have kept them in limbo.

Watch video 05:27

Turkey: A year after the attempted coup

"We are still stateless in effect," one officer explained. "Legally nothing has changed. We are all asylum-seekers, waiting on a decision to move on with our lives. Personally we have made progress in terms of adaptation, learning languages, putting our kids in school and adapting to society. In that sense we have made large strides."

The other officer says it's hard to say where they'll be in one more year. "I cannot even be sure about tomorrow," he says. "But the way things are developing I would guess we'll still be in Belgium trying to integrate while things in Turkey continue to deteriorate."

Huge march signals hope

At the same time, he admits his deep devotion to his country means there's still a part of him carrying hope. "I just can't accept that Turkey is going to end up like this," he said, "that I'm going to be an outsider in the country I spent my life building ... deep down, I just cannot accept it."

Thousands of Turks living inside the country feel that way too, braving government wrath to march 450 kilometers (280 miles) from Ankara to Istanbul this week to send that message to President Erdogan.

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