Interview Conducted by Maximilian Popp and Britta Sandberg
Turkish government critic Can Dündar spent three years in exile separated from his wife Dilek. They recently reunited in Berlin, where they discussed their hopes for the end of the Erdogan era and how FaceTime helped keep them together as a family.
Can Dündar, 58, was the editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet. After publishing an article about the Turkish secret service providing weapons to Syrian extremists, he was arrested and charged with espionage. In May 2016, Dündar was convicted on charges of publishing state secrets.
He appealed the decision.
That summer, Dündar and his wife traveled to Spain. Following the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, he took his attorney’s advice to stay in Europe and went to Berlin. His wife Dilek Dündar, 59, flew back to Istanbul under the assumption she would be able to visit her husband whenever she wanted. But a day after she returned, the Turkish authorities invalidated her passport without informing her.
From that day on, she was a prisoner in her own country. She was unable to visit her husband or her son. She was advised to get a divorce. The Turkish authorities even threatened to confiscate her home in Istanbul. This was her life for nearly three years.
Last month, Dilek Dündar was able to flee Turkey. At DER SPIEGEL’s Berlin bureau, Can and Dilek Dündar spoke for the first time about their three years of forced separation, their plans for the future and their newfound confidence following the victory of the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who was recently elected mayor of Istanbul.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Dündar, you’ve been in Berlin with your husband for 26 days after three years of separation. How does it feel to finally be a couple again?
Dilek Dündar: It’s been overwhelming and very emotional, but so, so wonderful. It’s as if we were never separated.
Can Dündar: We only knew something like this from movies about the Second World War: Families that were separated reunite after years. It’s still hard for me to believe that we’re experiencing this ourselves.
DER SPIEGEL: Where did your reunion take place?
Can Dündar: For various reasons, I cannot say the exact place and country. My wife fled illegally, and we don’t want to endanger others who might choose the same path. But I can say that it was in a small café. The only thing she had with her was a bag the size of hand luggage.
Dilek Dündar: It was like in a movie. He ran toward me, I ran toward him, and we met in the middle. Then we held each other for a long time.
DER SPIEGEL: How many times had you imagined this scene beforehand?
Can Dündar: Every single day for the past three years. We tried everything to make it happen: legal ways, political ways, diplomatic ways. In the end, the illegal path was the only way.
DER SPIEGEL: Mrs. Dündar, when did you finally decide to flee? After a long period of silence, you said in a video last February that you were being held hostage by the Turkish government. Had you already made your decision at that point?
Dilek Dündar: I made it shortly after, sometime in the spring, after we tried for two years to regain my passport the legal way. I had waited in vain for a decision by the Turkish constitutional court. Then I recorded the video to raise awareness about my situation. It was viewed more than a million times and yet nothing happened.
Can Dündar: It was our last try. We translated Dilek’s statement into several languages hoping that the European Court of Human Rights would react.
Dilek Dündar: I suddenly felt like I was running out of time. I hadn’t seen my son, who lives in London, for more than three years. I was afraid I wouldn’t recognize him at the airport. So, I decided to leave my country illegally.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you know about your wife’s plans?
Can Dündar: We couldn’t speak on the phone, since everything was tapped. So, we had to use communications from the 19th century. We had messengers who forwarded what we wanted to say to each other. But we never used the word “travel.” We used code words.
Dilek Dündar: I didn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t even say goodbye to my parents, who live in Ankara and are very old, not even to my friends. I packed a bag, three dresses, a hairbrush. That’s it. It was holiday time. I had chosen it because I didn’t want to raise attention. I told everyone I was going to visit friends for a few days. Then I got on a boat. The amazing thing is that I acted almost mechanically, completely emotionless, even though I knew how many people died on these journeys.
DER SPIEGEL: How guilty did you feel about putting your wife in this situation?
Can Dündar: Well, I am not the one who should be blamed for the situation. The biggest blame would have been that I wrote this article about arms shipments made by the Turkish secret service to Syria. I am a journalist. If you marry a journalist in Turkey, then you know what you are getting into. But I was very worried about her. There was a big risk that border guards would recognize her. Dilek’s escape was dangerous in every way. And such a big decision. She packed her whole life in a small bag, left her country, her friends and her family behind. She could not take anything from our house in Istanbul — no photos, no memories, nothing.
Dilek Dündar: The urge to free myself from this situation was greater than anything else. I didn’t want to be in the hands of Erdogan anymore, material with which he could manipulate my husband. While I was in Turkey, Can wasn’t free either. He always had to think about what he wrote and what he said in interviews, because that could lead to new repressions against me.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you feel like strangers when you first met again?
Can Dündar: To be honest, we were never closer. As absurd as it may sound, the last three years have been the most intense in our quarter-century family life. Our son is now 24. All of us spoke to each other regularly on Skype or FaceTime. We shared and talked so much.
DER SPIEGEL: Daily?
Can Dündar: No, not every day, but if one of us had a broken voice or didn’t sound good in another way, we immediately arranged Skype meetings to cheer each other up.
Dilek Dündar: There were still bad moments. When my son graduated from university in London, I could not attend. Can filmed everything so I could watch it on FaceTime. That was very hard. It hurt me not to be there.
Can Dündar: Do you know the term “FaceTime funerals”?
DER SPIEGEL: No.
Can Dündar: It means that relatives attend the funeral of their loved ones on FaceTime because they cannot travel to Turkey themselves. My son told me about it. A relative shoots the funeral and, thousands of miles away, others watch it in real-time on their cell phone or laptop. That’s terrible, but it’s a concept of our century. On the other hand, FaceTime allowed us constant communication.
Dilek Dündar: And FaceTime love.
DER SPIEGEL: The German government wanted to support you, Mrs. Dündar, to leave the country. Were the two of you aware of this?
Can Dündar: Two years ago, I met the chancellor here in Berlin at an event. She came to me and asked me, “How is your wife?” I was totally surprised. I meet Angela Merkel for the first time and she asks me about my wife? She then asked me what she could do. I told her to talk to Erdogan at their next meeting. I wanted to make a joke and said, “He’s your friend.”
DER SPIEGEL: Did she think that was funny?
Can Dündar: She laughed and replied, “He’s not my friend, but I’ll talk to him.” That’s what she did. Afterward, I got a call from one of her advisers, who told me that my wife’s situation had been part of the chancellor’s agenda with the Turkish president.
DER SPIEGEL: Were there more conversations?
Can Dündar: I know that it was a topic again when Erdogan visited Berlin. His answer was very cynical: Allegedly, he said that if it was so important to reunite the family, then send him back to Turkey. All these attempts led nowhere.
DER SPIEGEL: In Turkey, you were sentenced to life imprisonment after reporting on arms shipments by the government to extremists in Syria. There are other lawsuits pending against you.
Can Dündar: I lost track, it must be six or seven. One because of the weapons exports and another because I allegedly incited the Gezi protests. And one more because I allegedly insulted Erdogan and his son Bilal in one of my columns about their corruption case.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you still hold the hope that you might one day be able to return to Turkey?
Dilek Dündar: Of course, you can never give up on that hope. We hope to go back to Turkey again next year.
DER SPIEGEL: Excuse me?
Dilek Dündar: After the election in Istanbul, it has at least become more realistic than before. Two weeks ago, a gate in Turkey opened. Ekrem Imamoglu has opened it. We now have to go through this gate, behind which there are still many obstacles. But this gate will not be closed anymore. We can overcome these obstacles. We want democracy in our country again.
DER SPIEGEL: After all that has happened to you, are you as confident as your wife?
Can Dündar: We were always optimistic, even in the darkest moments. Hope is one of the ways of staying alive in Turkey. But today, there is more reason for hope than ever.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you consider the result of the mayoral election, which got held a second time because of reported irregularities, to be the start of a new era for Erdogan?
Can Dündar: Certainly, because the Turkish voters showed with this election how much they long for democracy. Secondly, for the first time in 18 years, the Turkish opposition parties have united against Erdogan. They formed a democratic alliance, which is an absolute novelty. Third, even Erdogan cannot fight the bad economic figures. It will be very hard for him to govern the country under the currently miserable economic conditions. And it will also be difficult for him in terms of foreign policy.
DER SPIEGEL: You mean because he’s lost authority?
Can Dündar: For a long time, there were two certainties in Turkey: The first was that Erdogan never loses an election. The second: There is no political alternative to him. The election in Istanbul destroyed these certainties. And the world saw. Whatever he does or says, no one can forget the election results in Istanbul. He has lost power and credibility.
DER SPIEGEL: What’s next?
Can Dündar: I think we are heading toward early elections. I expect them next year.
DER SPIEGEL: But who’s going to call the new elections? Erdogan’s current term lasts until 2023. His party surely isn’t interested in ending his term early.
Can Dündar: I forgot to mention a further point. This is also the first time Erdogan has been challenged within his own party, the AKP. I am firmly convinced that this will lead to a split in the party.
DER SPIEGEL: This would mean the collapse in record time of the enormous power apparatus the Turkish president has built up over years. Aren’t you being a bit too optimistic because that’s the kind of outcome you want?
Can Dündar: I don’t think so. Authority is always based on charisma, which is the magnet of power. Erdogan was such an unchallengeable magnet, there was no alternative to him. But now people can watch him lose power. They will be looking for new alternative magnets. The democratic alliance — from liberals to nationalists, from Kurds to social democrats that have come together — will be the new rising power. But above all, Ekrem Imamoglu will be the new magnet. We’ve seen in the last two weeks how many have changed their minds within days, how they started praising Imamoglu and criticizing Erdogan. This will continue now, there is no way back.
DER SPIEGEL: What’s your explanation for Imamoglu’s success?
Can Dündar: Most of the people have just had enough of Erdogan — they do not want him anymore. And then, suddenly, there is someone new. Erdogan gathers his power from seemingly being a challenger of the status quo, the old system. But now, after 17 years, he represents and stands for the old system. He, who always insisted on being the new figure in Turkish politics, and who was successful with this tactic.
DER SPIEGEL: So, Imamoglu was just lucky?
Can Dündar: Not only. But look at both of them. One splits the country, the other embraces all Turks. One stands for continuation, the other is for a democratic awakening. Imamoglu has many advantages: He is young, he is well-prepared, he has charisma. His family combines traditional and modern Turkey. His mother wears a headscarf, his wife is modern. And he smiles. Perhaps that is the most important thing, after all these years under Erdogan, which were full of hatred and anger. For the first time in a long time, there is someone telling the Turks: You can smile again.
DER SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, what happened in the three months between the first and the second mayoral election? In March, Imamoglu led with 25,000 votes, but in the second vote, it was by 800,000.
Dilek Dündar: It was too obvious, a maneuver by Erdogan to contest the election. That pushed people away. They said to each other, “We have cast our votes, and now he does not accept it. Then let’s see how the second election ends.” They have showed solidarity with the victim. And the victim was Imamoglu.
Can Dündar: People reacted against the disregard showed against their will. And they punished the ignorant authorities.
DER SPIEGEL: What are your plans now? Will you stay in Germany?
Can Dündar: Surprisingly, my wife likes Berlin a lot.
Dilek Dündar: Yes, it’s so quiet and peaceful, not as chaotic as London or Istanbul. And the German people are so friendly. So many hug me, give me flowers, cry and are happy with me. Nongovernmental human rights organizations stood firmly by me and helped me to settle down. And then our son came from London and said, “I love this city.” Originally, we wanted to move to London, but now he is probably coming to Berlin. Then all we have to do is to learn German.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you know yet what you might like to do here in the future?
Can Dündar: I think most Germans are unaware that this city has become the new home for many Turks in exile. Many Turkish intellectuals live here now. That’s why we’re planning to think about the future of our country together, perhaps to set up a kind of think tank to create a roadmap for the post-Erdogan era, a blueprint for a new Turkey. We are already exchanging ideas, trying to develop something new, not only with Turks. And maybe, maybe we’ll all go back to our countries in five years, and then they’ll have important posts. And then we will remember those days back in Berlin when we worked so hard to fight for democracy and human rights.
DER SPIEGEL: Mrs. Dündar, Mr. Dündar, we thank you for this interview.