The Turkish Scholarly Prisoner

The trendy refrain about scholarship at Duke is "knowledge at the service of the world." Doctoral candidate Yektan Turkyilmaz always knew that his research would situate him amid a vivid ethnic conflict.

A cultural anthropology graduate student, Turkyilmaz was born in Turkey. His work addresses the national and ethnic conflict between Turkey and Armenia that persists to this day. He called attention to past atrocities that the national histories have virtually erased.

As part of his research, he gained access to the Armenian National Archives-the first Turkish national allowed to peruse them. During his two months in Armenia, Turkyilmaz took more than 20,000 digital photographs of old newspapers and other documents. By the time he prepared to leave the country June 17, he had amassed a considerable archive of his own-not to mention the suspicion of the National Security Service, also known as the KGB.

The scholar was thrown into detention cell No. 14 as a spy.

"You are either in this category or in that category," Turkyilmaz says. "If they cannot put you in one of those slots, you become suspicious and intimidating to them."

Part of Turkey's Kurdish minority and fluent in six languages, Turkyilmaz was neither pro- nor anti-Turkey, and this non-partisan position baffled the KGB agents. They interrogated him daily for two months, checking every one of Turkyilmaz's 20,000 documents for state secrets and requiring permission for each image.

He lived in a constant state of anxiety, never sure what would happen to him or if he would eventually be released. Outside the Armenian detention center, a vast international effort was underway to force the government to release Turkyilmaz, but he had no contact with the outside world. He resigned himself to a long stay in a cell.

"It takes you a while to understand that the thing is real. Once you realize that the thing is real and that their intentions are real, at best." Turkyilmaz trails off and starts again. "At some point I was convinced that they were going to keep me at least a year in prison."

After a sham trial, Turkyilmaz was released in mid-August with little explanation and no apologies. He left the country and entered into a media storm.

Turkyilmaz had become the poster child for academic freedom-and an unintentional crusader for the intersection of scholarship and activism.

His task now is to keep this incident from dominating his dissertation.

"Of course I will speak, but I will speak through my work," he says.


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