On a recent stroll through the crumbling cell blocks of Ulucanlar Prison, the former deputy chief of Turkey’s leading spy agency paused in front of exhibits displaying the instruments of cruelty used by security forces in previous years.
The notorious former jail is now a museum honouring the political dissidents who suffered within its walls, and Cevat Ones says he felt regret as he listened to audio recordings of inmates screaming in agony. “It was like the face of the state itself, seeing yourself in the past,” he said.
Turkish spies do not usually speak about their feelings this way. They rarely say anything, and most agents would never dream of sitting down with a journalist.
Mr. Ones, 69, is the exception. He sat down with The Globe and Mail for nearly three hours. Some of his former colleagues are not pleased about him speaking out, he says, but he feels compelled to lobby for peace at this critical moment when the prospects of ending the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey seem hopeful, but also terribly fragile.
Since his retirement in 2005, Mr. Ones has repeatedly broken the tradition of secrecy, writing a book and granting interviews to local television. In recent weeks as the Kurdish insurgency kicks up another spasm of violence, he has ramped up his public appeals for both sides to stop escalating the conflict and return to peace talks. He still seemed cautious about meeting a foreign journalist, however, warning that he would not discuss operational details.
But he did discuss Turkey’s new foreign policy. The official strategy remains “zero problems with the neighbours,” he says, but Ankara now calculates that it must support Arab freedom movements – not only in Syria, but also the Palestinian territories.
He framed those decisions as a matter of getting on the right side of history, as the world shifts toward democracy. Looking back at four decades inside the intelligence world, he now expresses profound misgivings about the human-rights abuses committed in the dirty war against Kurdish insurgents. Harsh tactics only worsened the cycle of violence, a lesson he says NATO should have learned before sending prisoners into Afghan torture chambers.
“If the guns and bombs stop, and the state uses a different approach to reach hearts and minds … with different vocabulary, it would take time, but things can change,” he said.
Born in the coastal city of Bodrum in 1942, Mr. Ones attended school in Istanbul. Even at his law faculty, he noticed Marxist-Leninist student groups becoming more active as Cold War tensions grew.
It was inside one of those left-wing groups, at Ankara University, that a Kurdish political science student named Abdullah Ocalan rose to prominence, In 1978, he graduated to more serious resistance to the Turkish state, founding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Mr. Ones had joined the National Intelligence Organization in 1966, and the PKK became the focus of his career. Turkey inherited the conundrum of Kurdish identity from breakup of the Ottoman Empire, which divided the ethnic group across several borders. (Turkish Kurds now number roughly 11 million to 15 million, in a country of 74 million.) The state’s heavy-handed response to Kurdish demands gave rise to the PKK insurgency, Mr. Ones said.
“We were not able to implement an in-depth democratic structure countrywide,” he said. “That’s why we were not able to solve the Kurdish problem. Because we were not able to solve the Kurdish issue at the time, the armed movement emerged.”
His gentle eyes show no hint of it, but Mr. Ones saw the worst of the insurgency during his postings in eastern Turkey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the peak of a conflict that has killed between 30,000 and 40,000 people.
The fighting might have been less bitter if security forces in those days had limited their use of violence, he said. He drifts into silence when asked for examples, saying only: “I wish that we had today’s understanding of human-rights standards, and sense of universal values.”
Turkey remains far from a model of restraint, however. Mr. Ones says he disagrees with mass arrests of Kurds that swept up an estimated 3,000 people in recent months, most of them held without charge. He urgently wants his government to stand down from its threats of a ground offensive against insurgent hideouts in the mountains of northern Iraq. Such aggressive actions will only heighten the latest outbreak of violence, he said, a spate of bombings and shootings described by the International Crisis Group as the worst in recent years. An estimated 160 people have been killed since June.
For their part, Kurdish politicians and insurgent leaders must stop making demands that marginalize themselves, he said, such as vague rhetoric about “autonomy” that raises old spectres of separatism.
Despite all the bitterness he has witnessed, Mr. Ones says he is optimistic. The regime in Damascus will fall eventually, he says – “They are too isolated to survive” – and he even believes that the Iranians cannot continue for very long with their authoritarian model of government.
Turkey will move in the same direction, he predicted, as upcoming negotiations about a revised constitution will give ethnic Kurds and Turks a chance to establish a framework for co-existence. He suggests abandoning the concept of “Turkishness” in the constitution, replacing it with a more modern definition of citizenship that would bring the country into line with its fellow signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights.
That leap into modernity may be difficult for Turkish politicians, he said, but failure to guarantee Kurdish rights could risk alienating a whole new generation.
“It could be quite difficult to rehabilitate those kids and reintegrate them to the system in the future,” he said.
Still, Mr. Ones senses that the angry youth are increasingly outnumbered by a new generation of children like his own 16-year-old granddaughter, who speaks fluent English and French and sees herself as a part of a globalized society.
“Day by day, I see more educated Turkish children like her,” he said. “They give me hope, because they are world citizens.”