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Turkish Men Are Required to Serve in the Military—but Many Climbers Don’t Want To

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Oğuz Öztürk on Kıstepesi (5.11c), Kapıkaya, Turkey.Elif Tosun

“Now, I am supposed to go to the military,” explains Mert from Geyikbayırı, a village near Antalya in western Turkey and home to a robust local population of climbers. Aesthetically, it couldn’t be further from the army’s bare, dusty barracks. Pine, olive, pomegranate, and orange trees blanket the hillsides. On the valley’s north side, sunbaked limestone walls wait for next winter, when the Turkish climbers will share this crag with international tourists who come to sample the 2,000 sport routes. Like all Turkish men between the ages of 20 and 41, Mert is required to serve in the military. Guys like him comprise a big portion of the Turkish climbing community.

“I don’t want to go. I will do my best not to go. It’s a waste of time, [and] time is the most important thing in my life,” the recent engineering grad tells me. Mert had planned to move to Australia this summer. Besides the work and travel visa available for him there, leaving his country of origin also offered a path to avoid military service. However, his plans are now on hold due to COVID-19. Like Mert, many—though not all—Turkish climbers do their best to delay or avoid military service.

In Turkey, as soon as men finish school or turn 20, they’re conscripted. Almost all serve in the army infantry, with variations on placement depending on luck, education, and social status. As of 2019, mandatory service now lasts six months. The new law includes an option for educated men to pay 31,000 lira ($6,000) and spend only 21 days doing basic training. That’s not pocket change. The minimum wage was 2,000 lira ($300) a month when the law was passed. Unlike most countries with mandatory conscription—e.g., Israel, Norway, and Austria—Turkey doesn’t have exemptions for religion or a civil-service option; in fact, the only exceptions are for those classified as having a severe mental or physical disability. Conscientious objectors are often persecuted.

Oğuz, a co-founder of the Ankara bouldering gym Kısakaya, which closed permanently due to the pandemic, did his mandatory service in 2009. He was 26 and had just finished his master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He felt he had no choice. Luckily, Oğuz says, “I can eat anything, sleep anywhere, so the military was not very hard for me”—other than adapting to the social dynamics. “I was not afraid,” he says, because of an “unwritten rule” that educated men are not generally deployed to eastern Turkey, where there’s an ongoing armed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), near the border with Syria, or serve in dangerous roles. Oğuz instead spent his time “serving tea, gardening, push-ups, programming, giving math lessons.”

Rather than arranging to complete the service, many climbers delay their obligation as long as legally possible by enrolling in (but not necessarily attending) higher-education programs or leaving the country. After either the age of 27 or 33, depending on one’s education, the only legal alternative is to live elsewhere. Staying in the country, as most do, means occasionally getting caught. The “runners” rack up fines and find irregular employment. “They make you sign a paper,” says Furkan, an avid sport climber, “that you will go to the military in 15 days. But of course, you won’t. They give you a fine every time.” A climbing lifestyle goes well with hiding—no leases, alternative employment, and so on. Mert, for example, stopped applying for engineering jobs when most needed him to have already served, and now does rope-access work instead.

I asked Uğur, a human-rights expert and social worker, if this stance is widespread in Turkey. “The society is very militaristic,” he explained. “In the constitution, there is an article which says every Turkish person is born as a soldier. We had a court case more than 10 years ago where a doctor said, ‘No, every Turkish [citizen] isn’t born a soldier; he’s born as a baby. Here’s the proof, here’s a baby.’ And the court asked some expert to prove if the baby is a soldier.” Uğur now lives and works in Berlin, Germany. Even today, for young men in rural Turkey, he continued, to get married “you have to do your service. Otherwise the society doesn’t accept you as a man. Not in the Kurdish area, but in most of the rural areas.”

The opposition to military service is more widespread among those who attend college, says Uğur; according to the 2019 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development education report for Turkey, 21 percent of Turkish young men and women (ages 25–34) had a bachelor’s degree. Climbers in Turkey generally fall into this social stratum. Accordingly, opposition to service is widespread among climbers. There remain many barriers to higher education in the country; 43 percent of Turkish young adults have not completed high school. For these men, options for reducing their time in the military or paying their way out are often out of reach. University graduates, in contrast, can postpone their service for up to two years after graduation and apply for specialized loans to pay the hefty buyout—and many do.

Throughout childhood, Mert assumed he would go: “I thought it was a good thing, because of what they taught in school.” Onur, an entrepreneur and traveler now living and climbing in the UK, had a similar experience: “I saw it as a mission to do and a challenge.” His father served, but Onur and both his brothers are in a limbo state. “I was curious and wanted to experience it,” he says. “Then, I heard lots of stories and my curiosity just passed away.”

During early adulthood, worldviews expand. At 20, Onur thought it would be a waste of time to “be a regular [soldier] with no personality and obey, making tea or food or driving around some high-ranking official.” Now, at 26, his objection is political: “I do not consent to the current Turkish government’s perspective about soldiers. Soldiers in their 20s are dying for nothing. Even in 2020, Turkey has lost young people in Syria and Libya just because of the government’s wrong decisions.”

For Battal, a seasonal resident in Geyikbayırı, his mindset evolved from passive acceptance of the duty to serve as a holy obligation into a philosophical objection. “I started thinking individually,” he says, “and I realized this military situation, this war, this idea of ‘army’ [is] unnecessary … I am an anti-militarist person. And I am a pacifist.”

Many Turkish climbers have waited for a pardon-and-buyout opportunity. One such opportunity came for Battal in 2013.

“I postponed until the day I was not able to run away anymore,” he says. The military police came looking for him after he became insured at a job, which in turn revealed his location. He continues, “I signed a paper that said I will [go to the base] in 15 days. During those 15 days, a temporary law was passed that guys over a certain age can pay not to go. I paid 18,000 lira. So basically, I bought my freedom”—to the tune of roughly 2.5 months of income. And, says Furkan, “I didn’t want to give up my freedom for a nonsense thing.” In 2018, he and a dozen other climbers took the opportunity when the government provided a short window for men born before 1993 to pay a hefty fee and serve just three weeks.

For these climbers, conscription is a weight not easily shed. And while they certainly aren’t unique in their opposition to conscription, their desire to avoid it and social resources are striking, from sharing strategies for how to avoid service to connecting Turkish men to communities outside the country. Not all draft-dodgers are pacifists, nor do all climbers oppose the military. But a common thread ran through our conversations: Time is precious. And truly, what else does a climber need?