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The Turkish government has jailed thousands of people and fired many more since a failed military coup back in July. Some of Turkey's most Western-oriented military officers stationed at NATO in Brussels have been cut off by their government. And they fear punishment if they go home. Some of them agreed to speak with reporter Teri Schultz if NPR kept them anonymous and distorted their voices.
TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: The month after the failed overthrow of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dozens of high-ranking Turkish military officers serving at NATO posts started getting notice from Ankara they were being suspended, curtailed, fired. Their diplomatic passports were cancelled and they were ordered to return immediately to Turkey. These are some of Turkey's best-trained, highest-ranking military personnel, valued by their NATO colleagues, praised in letters of recommendation seen by this reporter.
They say they weren't involved in the coup and have been loyal military representatives of their government. And yet, this senior military officer says by late September, his name came up.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: (Through interpreter) There were two orders. The first one told 221 of us our assignments had been terminated. The second order added names and said we were under investigation and should return to the homeland immediately. We were not told the charges against us.
SCHULTZ: The officer says he and his colleagues didn't know what to do.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: (Through interpreter) Our first reaction was to go back and defend ourselves as we're innocent of any anti-government activity. We said goodbye to our partners at NATO, then we heard that 17 of our colleagues who did return had been arrested. So we thought it would be better to wait.
SCHULTZ: One officer returned to Turkey for a meeting in October, presuming he'd be safe because he wasn't on any list. That's the last time his wife in Brussels saw him.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) Neither he nor I were nervous about the trip. But then when he didn't return as scheduled, I suspected that something had gone very wrong.
SCHULTZ: She and her three children were left in the dark for days, until finally someone who saw him arrested in Ankara informed the family. Her husband sent a message through relatives warning her to stay in Belgium. The officers and their families now gather frequently for support and to share information. They say just a few of the 56 military officers previously stationed at NATO headquarters are still on the job. Short on money and not wanting the government to know their addresses, many have moved into small apartments, changing neighborhoods and kids' schools.
Some have requested political asylum in Belgium. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirms asylum requests have been made, but he's repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether he believes the Turkish government is carrying out a fair investigation.
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JENS STOLTENBERG: NATO is based on some core values - democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty. And I expect all allies to live up to those values.
SCHULTZ: But the officers say Turkey is ignoring those obligations. They say they feel sold out, both by their country and by NATO. One of the officers explains the purge has taken not only his job but his identity and his financial and physical security. He shares the goodbye letter he wrote to his NATO colleagues.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: (Through interpreter) I am left by myself without any past and, unfortunately, without any future. But my individual losses are nothing compared with my country's losses.
SCHULTZ: They all say they live in fear of each knock at their doors, even here in Belgium. Yet they believe this excruciating limbo is better than the alternative in Turkey. A Turkish newspaper recently quoted President Erdogan as telling a meeting of lawmakers from NATO countries that these are terrorist soldiers who should not be given asylum. He's demanding their extradition. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels.
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