CUKURKUYU, Turkey: People have come from far and wide to this sleepy Anatolian village in central Turkey to recite prayers, take selfies or just think quietly. The purpose of their visit is simple – to pay their respects at the grave of Sergeant Omer Halisdemir, probably the most celebrated victim of the July 15 coup aimed at ousting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The 249 people who died at the hands of the coup plotters are remembered in Turkey as “sehitler” – martyrs for Islam – and the subject of intense veneration on the first anniversary of the failed putsch.
But none has received the attention of Halisdemir, who became an immediate national hero by shooting two bullets into the head of General Semih Terzi on the night of July 15. Terzi is suspected of being one of the key plotters who was leading the assault on the headquarters of special forces in Ankara. Anti-coup special forces commander Zekai Aksakalli had ordered Halisdemir by telephone to shoot dead Terzi to break the chain of command. The sergeant replied simply “Yes Sir!”.
After carrying out his commander’s instructions to the letter, Halisdemir was himself immediately shot dead by Terzi’s entourage. The ultimate sacrifice made by Halisdemir, married with two children, was hailed by Turkish leaders as the turning point of the night and turned his home village of Cukurkuyu in central Anatolia into a place of pilgrimage.
‘One of the greatest heroes’
Tens of thousands of people have already made the journey to the cemetery in Cukurkuyu to visit the grave of Halisdemir, located at the end of an alley lined with pine trees and flanked by a gigantic Turkish flag. “One of the greatest heroes of the night of the putsch is buried there,” said Aydin, 23, a student who had come to Halisdemir’s grave with his family from Ankara.
“When he fell as a martyr, Omer Halisdemir became the brother of 80 million Turks,” he added. In the province of Nigde, where Cukurkuyu is located, Halisdemir’s image is omnipresent – stuck to the windows of lorries, on the local university that is now named after him, on scarves sold in the street. A statue of him now occupies pride of place in central Nigde.
‘A whole mythology’
The heroes of the coup night like Halisdemir have been given an importance of historical magnitude by the government. “A whole mythology is being built around” the failed putsch, said a European diplomat. “In the official discourse, July 15 has become some kind of second War of Independence,” the diplomat added, referring to the struggle that led to the founding of modern Turkey in 1923.
This is made clear in the large number of roads, schools and parks named after the martyrs of the putsch. The first bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul is now called the bridge of the Martyrs of July 15. “On July 15, these people became heroes,” said Abudurrahman Tarik Sebik, president of the Foundation for the Martyrs of July 15 established after the coup. “But what were they doing on the 14th? One was a taxi driver, another a ship captain and someone else was an academic.”
‘Normal kind of guy’
The cult of martyrs has aroused the greed of businessmen who have shown no hesitation in exploiting their names to make a fast buck. Halisdemir’s widow recently even inscribed her husband’s name in Turkey’s patents register to protect it from misuse. In the wake of the failed putsch, promises flooded into the authorities in Cukurkuyu to help with development. “At the start, everyone wanted to build something here,” said Ahmet Ozer, the mukhtar (senior local official) of the village. “But almost no-one kept their promises,” he added bitterly, with only the cities of Kocaeli and Ankara forking out to build a park and a wall around the cemetery.
At the cemetery, the gardener Ahmet Yesil, a childhood friend of Halisdemir, rummages around in his memory as he digs into the ground. “Omer had the look of a soldier, he had that sharp look. He often said – ‘I am not scared of anything, just of God’.” They met for the last time just a week before his death, during a funeral of a friend in the same cemetery. “I liked Omer a lot,” said Yesil. “He was a normal kind of guy.” – AFP