, Istanbul, Turkey, Jul 29 – On a barren plot on the outskirts of Istanbul, where the stony ground bakes under the merciless summer sun, a lone sign gives a macabre hint to the purpose of the arid wasteland.
“Traitors’ graveyard,” read the white capital letters on the black sign, planted on two stakes into the ground.
The cemetery was created to bury Turkish rebel soldiers whose failed July 15 putsch claimed a total of 270 lives but did not manage to unseat the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The low-key location has been chosen to offer minimal fanfare — located near to a construction site where a project to build a shelter for street animals is under way.
The Turkish authorities say 24 plotters were killed in the coup. Only one soldier has been buried in the graveyard so far.
Captain Mehmet Karabekir reportedly killed an elected local neighbourhood leader during the power grab attempt and his body was rejected by his family and relatives.
There is no gravestone on his tomb — just a pile of soil. Next to his, three empty graves have been dug.
“The dead body was carried in an ambulance, with no sirens. He was laid to rest by a handful of people and then it was over,” one witness told AFP.
Civilians are banned from visiting the cemetery and media are accompanied by a security guard.
Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbas, in remarks carried by Turkish media, said the idea to create a “traitors’ graveyard” had been floated during a council meeting.
“Those who betray this nation cannot rest in peace, even in their tombs,” he said.
Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Diyanet, said after the putsch there would not be any funeral services or prayers for the rebel soldiers involved in the coup.
“Funeral prayers are made for the deceased by his Muslim brothers for redemption. But those people, by resorting to that action, trampled on the law not only of individuals but an entire nation,” Diyanet said in a statement.
“They did not deserve redemption or prayers of their Muslim brothers.”
Diyanet excluded soldiers or security personnel who were forced to take part in the July 15 action aimed at bringing down the government.
– ‘Can’t rest in peace’ –
In a sign of the sensitivity of the idea, Topbas said the day after AFP correspondents had visited the site that the sign with “Traitors’ graveyard” would be removed.
He said a meeting of a top council of Diyanet had expressed alarm it could offend families of those killed in the coup and recommended that “it would be proper to remove it”.
“And I have had it removed,” he said, quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency. An official from Diyanet, contacted by AFP, confirmed the decision.
But with or without the sign, the graveyard is now awaiting its next burials and its very existence makes many uncomfortable.
“This is a decision made hastily at the heat of the moment,” said Necip Taylan, former lawmaker from the ruling AKP party and retired professor from faculty of theology at Marmara University.
“We know the society is hurt by what happened,” he told AFP.
“But there have always been traitors. It is nothing new, you can bury in a separate spot… I don’t think it is a good idea to create such a cemetery.”
“This is a disrespect to the homeland, nation and the flag. This is a betrayal,” a middle-aged taxi driver, Yasar, said about the graveyard.
“They deserved the label (traitor),” he said.
Not everyone agrees that a ‘traitors’ graveyard is a good idea.
Campaigners and some theologists say a proper burial is a human right, whatever the deceased has done.
Turkey’s once powerful military, the second largest army in NATO, has staged three coups since 1960, forced a prime minister out of power in 1997, and threatened to intervene in the 2007 presidential elections.
The cemetery has also sparked debate on social media, with one Twitter user asking: “Kenan Evren and his team will also be buried to the Traitors’ Graveyard?”
General Evren, who died in disgrace last year after being sentenced to life in prison, led the 1980 coup after ousting the government of the time.