Durham Herald Sun, NC
Oct 1 2005

Duke student talks about Armenian ordeal

BY PAUL BONNER : The Herald-Sun
[email protected]
Sep 30, 2005 : 10:22 pm ET

DURHAM -- Unreality began to set in for Yektan Turkyilmaz about the
time a woman at a counter took his passport and, looking around
nervously -- looking everywhere, in fact, but at the passport --
stamped it.

He took two steps and a man who had been following him was joined by
seven or eight others who surrounded him.

Turkyilmaz, a doctoral student at Duke University, was in the airport
in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, where for six weeks he had been
doing research for his dissertation. He was planning to fly to his
family's home in Turkey, then return to Duke for the beginning of the
fall semester.

>From June 17, when he was arrested and jailed, until he was convicted
and released on a suspended sentence 60 days later, Turkyilmaz was
the focus of an international outcry over the state of academic
freedom in the former Soviet republic.

His crime: He had 108 secondhand books and pamphlets in his luggage.
Some were old political tracts from the early 20th century. He had
bought them from ordinary secondhand book vendors. They were for his
dissertation research, he told the security agents.

Now back at Duke, Turkyilmaz reflected on his ordeal during an
interview Friday in his office at the John Hope Franklin Institute,
where he is a humanities fellow.

Some of the 20 books that were returned to him are on his shelves
there, still with numbered tags put there by the "KGB." The agency's
name translates to "National Security Service." But even its agents
still refer to themselves by the acronym of the infamous Soviet
internal police, Turkyilmaz said.

Like UFO to captors

Turkyilmaz is Kurdish, of Turkish birth, which alone could raise
suspicions among some Armenians. Animosity by Armenians over their
decimation and forced removal in 1916 from the eastern part of the
region that is now Turkey still smolders.

The books were valuable, he told the agents, but only to him in his
research into modern Turkey's political genesis in the early 20th
century. And whatever their idea of Turks might be, his research
respects Armenians' claims of genocide. He speaks Armenian and has
many Armenian friends.

"That wouldn't make any sense to them," he said. "The task for me was
to tell them who I was working for. Eventually, they understood what
Duke University was."

It took them eight hours to list all the books, with Turkyilmaz
helping them decipher some Old Armenian titles. They were more
comfortable with Russian.

At their headquarters, they wanted to know his political views, who
his family was, whom he'd been talking to. Did he have any links to
Turkish intelligence? He answered all their questions until, after
many repetitions, he grew weary.

Then he was put into a prison cell. It measured about 15 feet square,
with two high windows and five beds, although he never had more than
one cellmate and seldom saw anyone else but guards.

In a region that has long been a tinderbox of ethnic strife, he had
trouble persuading his interrogators that he was not defined by it.

"But they have their nationalist, primordial categories in their
minds," he said. "I was like a UFO, an unidentified object for them.
That's why they targeted me."

The unreality became his daily existence. He thought of all the
theoretical works about imprisonment he had read and even taught, and
of Franz Kafka's famous "The Trial." At least he got the
Armenian-language immersion course he had wanted, with radio,
newspapers, the few books he was allowed and conversation with his

The law under which he was arrested dealt with missiles and weapons
of mass destruction, lumping with them "strategic raw materials or
cultural values," which the prosecutor said meant his books.

His cellmate told him that he could be held a year without trial.
When he was permitted a visit, he told a friend, "I don't think we
should be that optimistic."

Many people, starting with his dissertation adviser at Duke, Orin
Starn, called attention to Turkyilmaz's situation and petitioned
Armenian President Robert Kocharian. A letter signed by 225
international scholars, including both Armenians and Turks, called
for his release. The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan went to bat for him.

U.S. Sen. Bob Dole sent a scathing letter, and the next day,
Turkyilmaz got a trial date.

Wants to go back

After his trial and release, he eventually found the Armenian
cultural ministry which prosecutors had said maintained a list of the
culturally significant books, the one on which seven of his titles
supposedly appeared.

"They said, 'We don't have a list, but we have the criteria.' I said,
'OK, tell me about the criteria and who decides?' So they say,
'Council of ministers.' I say, 'OK, so what are your criteria?'
'Cultural significance,' " they replied.

He appreciates all the support he received and just wants to resume
where he left off.

"I'm not bitter," he said. And despite doubts he will ever again be
allowed into Armenia, he would visit again.

"I want to go back, because I don't want them to win," he said.

By which he means not the majority of Armenians, who he's convinced
are embarrassed by their country's big-brother ways, but "a couple of
old-style people with Soviet style of thinking, with overtones of
xenophobic patriotism."

Despite having to leave behind many other books and articles he
needed for his dissertation, Turkyilmaz is writing it and plans to be
finished next academic year.

He takes solace in believing that the episode could lead to improved
relations between the two neighbors.

Already, many Armenians have come to appreciate his intellectual
quest and its sponsors.

"Duke is very popular in Armenia these days," he said.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress