ISTANBUL, Turkey (A.W.)—Three weeks before his service in the Turkish military ended, Private Sevag Sahin Balikci, 25, was shot and killed in his army unit stationed in Gumusorgu, near the Kozluk district of Batman province, in southeastern Turkey. The incident happened on April 24, on the 96th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
News about Sevag’s death was first reported by the semi-official Anadolu News Agency. Sevag, it said, was shot after another soldier’s gun accidentally went off while they were joking around with each other. The other soldier, whose name has not yet been made public, was soon after arrested. The unit commanders attempted to reach Sevag’s family to inform them of their son’s death, but they had changed their address a few weeks earlier and instead heard the news from websites that broke the story within a couple of hours. The next day, another statement issued by the General Command of the Turkish Armed Forces contradicted the initial story; it read that Sevag was shot by a stray bullet from his friend’s gun while they were fixing the fences around their station.
“I don’t believe that my son died by an accident on April 24,” said Sevag’s mother, Ani Balikci. “The statement about the accident doesn’t mean anything to me because preventing these accidents is the duty of those who are in charge there. I need an explanation from the Turkish Armed Forces,” she said.
Balikci family lawyer Cem Halavurt told reporters that even if it becomes clear that it was an accident and not a homicide, someone must be held responsible for this. “We are going to sue those who are in charge in the administration,” he said.
According to Radikal daily, the family of Sevag Sahin Balikci requested a full investigation of his death and said it would get lawyers to inspect the autopsy report. Later that first day, however, the family turned more cautious in their statements. Murat Shant Ozdemir, Sevag’s brother-in-law, said they believe what happened was an accident. Ozdemir said that it was a very unfortunate coincidence that this happened on April 24. “We don’t want to link this with anything and we don’t want it to be manipulated by others,” he said.
Ani Balikci’s comments the next day were also more cautious: “We don’t know if it is an accident or not yet. We are going to meet the commanders with our lawyer and they are going to deliver a full report. We are going to visit his army unit station and meet the eyewitnesses. Some people are making false statements on the internet,” she said. “The other soldier who shot my son was his best friend. I sent Easter cookies to the whole unit a day before that. This is not related with April 24 at all. I have no fear from anybody. I already lost my child, why should I be afraid? The commander and the major were at our home and they were as sad as we are,” she said.
The military honored the memory of the private in Diyarbekir on April 25, before the funeral in Surp Vartanants Church of the Ferikoy neighborhood in Istanbul. At the church, Bishop Tatul Anoushian said, “He died while conducting a sacred service. He was very close to his community, society, and country. On behalf of the Patriarchate, the Spiritual Assembly, and our community, I thank chief negotiator Egemen Bagis who represented our government, the chief of staff, his friends in arms, and the non-governmental organizations for their support,” he said, without mentioning anything about the obligations and responsibilities of the state in Sevag’s death.
‘I believe they were talking about April 24’
Melani Kumruyan, Sevag’s fiancée, had a different story to tell. The Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos reported that Sevag had told Kumruyan that he had experienced problems in his unit. According to Kumruyan, a couple of weeks earliest a soldier in his unit lost some money. One of his commanders had held Sevag responsible and beat him mercilessly. Sevag filed an official complaint against the commander for the incident. He later withdrew the complaint under pressure.
“The investigation is ongoing. I want to know who did this and how as soon as possible. I don’t believe that this happened while they were kidding with one another,” said Kumruyan. “I believe that he was murdered. Some fascists in his unit were pressuring him. I think that they were taking about April 24 ,the Armenian Genocide commemoration day, and one of them shot him,” she said.
Kumruyan doesn’t stand alone in her suspicions. Several women attending the funeral at the church told an Armenian Weekly correspondent that they do not believe what the Army Command is saying about Sevag’s death, but that they also cannot do anything about it. No matter what the outcome of the investigation is, the Turkish Armed Forces will remain under suspicion, they said.
The Army Command has attempted to refute those claims through an official statement denying Kumruyan’s remarks. This was neither the first nor last such case in the Turkish Armed Forces, however. A day after Sevag’s death, another soldier, Ugur Pamuk from Diyarbekir, who was serving in Igdir, was also found dead. His commanders claim he committed suicide, the Turkish daily Taraf reported. With this incident, the number of non-combat army deaths in Turkey under suspicious circumstances over the past five years has reached 414.
The army is one of the most closed institutions in Turkey and is a pillar of the Turkish ruling establishment. In the past, it has largely escaped public criticism about its destructive role in Turkish politics and its abuse of power.
Armenian Weekly correspondent Harout Ekmanian filed this report from Istanbul.