Bleak burial: Turkey’s traitors’ cemetery


In the left-behind village of Ballica, just outside Istanbul on the Asian side, Turkish authorities have established a very peculiar graveyard known as traitors’ cemetery. Tom Stevenson reports.

Two weeks ago a group of military officers believed to be followers of the exiled Turkish preacher Fetullah Gulen launched an abortive coup against Turkey’s civilian government. More than 350 people were killed on the night of the July 15 coup, including more than 100 coup leaders, and it is for the bodies of the disgraced senior officers among them that traitors’ cemetery was built.

Ballica is a grim place and the road into the village is lined on both sides with dozens of dogs that bark and chase incoming cars. Until recently the village’s main feature was a sprawling open air shelter for stray dogs which are rounded up across Istanbul and then dumped in Ballica.

For the village’s residents the presence of traitors’ cemetery is a source of shame, and when asked many denied knowing where the cemetery was in a manner that appeared feigned. The first three men DW encountered in Ballica all claimed not to have heard that their home had been selected for the interment of the unwanted bones of failed coup plotters.

‘Where the dogs live’

A group of children in the center of the village were more up to date with the news and said traitor’s cemetery was “where the dogs live.”

plot of land

copyright: Tom StevensonA place fit for animals?

The cemetery in fact lies in the corner of a large compound on the grounds of the stray dog shelter and to reach it one must pass rows of improvised dog kennels guarded by their often mangy inhabitants.

Before the coup, municipal construction workers were building a newer, larger sanctuary for the city’s strays here, and it was these workers that were asked by Istanbul’s mayor, Kadir Topbas, to build traitors’ cemetery so that the city’s residents “would curse when they saw it.”

The cemetery’s construction falls in line with the vengeful milieu that has emerged in Turkey since the coup and has seen thousands arrested over the past two weeks in post-coup purges. “Those who betray this nation cannot rest in peace, even in their tombs,” Topbas said.

Post-coup crackdown continues

‘No different from animals’

Mustafa Torun is the site manager who built the plot and he accompanied DW down to inspect it. A neat, ankle high wall runs around the 50 by 20 meter site in a clearing on the side of a dry hill dotted with umbrella pine trees.

A white on black sign that readHainler Mezarlığı (traitors’ cemetery) used to mark the entrance to the plot. It’s since been taken down on the advice of the religious affairs ministry but the name has stuck.

“It’s not the villagers that complain, it’s the animal lovers,” Torun said. “They ask why we allow the name of a good project like this to house the dogs to be sullied.”

“What’s their problem,?” another construction worker asked, “the people to be buried here are no different from animals.”

Empty graves

Four graves have already been scratched out of the earth in a row by hydraulic excavators but only one is filled. Thus far traitors’ cemetery has just one inhabitant, the corpse of Major Mehmet Karabekir, a coup leader who killed a local official in Istanbul’s Acıbadem district before being shot dead himself.

a grave

copyright: Tom StevensonAn empty grave in traitors’ cemetery awaits the body of a slain coup plotter

In a Whatsapp group conversation between the senior coup leaders discovered and compiled by Al Jazeera Turk and the citizen journalism website Bellingcat, Major Karabekir emerges as one of the more enthusiastic coup commanders.

“No compromise, no hesitation… crush them, burn them… we continue until the very last drop of our blood… show no compassion… I am firing, firing on the crowd,” Major Karabekir says in a series of messages.

There is a second, regular cemetery in the centre of Ballica. It is skirted by a high stone wall and is well-tended with shade from the old trees that grow around the graves of the village’s past residents, a stark contrast to traitors’ cemetery.

None of Major Karabekir’s family members, who rejected his body after he was killed on July 15, have yet come by to visit him and traitors’ cemetery would be an imposing place to lay flowers if they had a change of heart.

“You can walk across it,” Torun the site manager told DW as we circled the graves. I declined, and stood at the head of the unmarked mound of earth under which Major Karabekir will now lie, where the dogs live.