Contributed by Ali Danis Neyzi
On 17 August 1999, when I was six years old, I was woken up around 3 a.m. in my little bedroom in Istanbul by the books on the shelf above my bed that had fallen on me. My parents entered the room in a state of panic; a devastating earthquake had occurred. The death toll reached 170,480. Nobody had been prepared for this; government damage control efforts simply weren’t enough. The South Korean government, among many others, sent help. South Korean citizens, however, felt embarrassed by what they thought to be grossly insufficient aid, and thus started a campaign that raised approximately US$2 million to be sent to Turkey. I remember the feeling of gratitude as we watched Korean rescue teams save Turkish lives on the news.
Three years later, the Turkish National Men’s Football team won its first major international success in the 2002 FIFA World Cup hosted in Korea and Japan. With the incredible backing of Korean supporters during the games, Turkey reached the semi-final. The third-place playoff match ended up being between South Korea and Turkey. The overwhelming feeling of friendship in that game made it one of the most memorable sports matches I’ve ever seen.
The roots of the strong bonds between these two countries go back to the Korean War. This history, largely forgotten amongst younger generations, was the topic of a recent Turkish film hit, Ayla: The Daughter of War, released this past October in movie theaters across Turkey. The movie tells the true story of Süleyman Dilbirliği, an officer in the Turkish brigade, and Kim Eun-ja, a child orphaned in the war. The film received considerable attention in Turkey, with 621,000 viewers in just its first week. However, despite its shortcomings, the film aims for – and deserves – more international interest. It was Turkey’s entry for the best foreign-language film Oscar but has yet to air in theaters either in the U.S. or South Korea, except for two small Turkish film festivals in Los Angeles and in Seoul. It also hasn’t received much coverage in the Korean press.
The officer depicted in the film, Süleyman Dilbirliği was, in real life, one of the few Turkish soldiers who found and adopted war orphans during the war. When Süleyman found Eun-ja as a child alone, seeing the child’s moon-face, he named her “Ayla,” which means moon halo in Turkish. The film pays attention to his interviews for a documentary made in 2010 by Munhwa broadcasting company and other Turkish news sources, where he stated that he often thought of “Ayla” in his prayers. He even tried to smuggle Ayla into Turkey by hiding her in a guitar case. We also learn from the documentary that when Süleyman went to meet Kim Eun-ja after almost 65 years, he brought her sums of money to compensate for all of the customary payments parents make to their children during religious holidays in Turkey. All this, and especially the intensely emotional scene of the actual reunion of Süleyman and Kim Eun-ja, show that a genuine parent-daughter relationship was formed.
The first half of Ayla: The Daughter of War, is quite well done, depicting the enlistment of Turkish soldiers, the time of war, the adoption of a Korean child, and the role of the Turkish brigade during the war. We are shown a re-imagination of Süleyman’s journey to and experiences in Korea, and receive glimpses of the Turkish Brigade’s involvement in the Korean War, including the interactions between Turkish, South Korean and U.S. militaries. Amidst all the chaos, Ayla’s life becomes a part of into Süleyman’s military base, and the broader Turkish soldier community. The film brings to life the story of how war orphans were looked after. Audiences also learn about the orphanage called the Ankara School built by the Turkish brigade. After a difficult separation from Süleyman, Ayla is placed in this orphanage.
The historicity is accurate and pleasing to the eye. The characters of the Turkish soldiers are realistic, from the popular ideologies of the time to the kinds of radios they listened to. The director’s choice to stick to realism rather a more heroic style of storytelling gave it a universal appeal rather than just serving as a piece of nationalistic propaganda.
The second half, however, disappoints. The plot moves to telling the story of a Korean media company who made a documentary about Süleyman and Eun-ja in 2010. However, this story overextends itself, including more and more characters, from Turkish and Korean documentary-makers to the perturbed daughter of Süleyman. Focusing more on Eun-ja’s life at the Ankara School or on their reunion after almost 65 years would have made the film much stronger. Overall, however, the film revives an important story of compassion that transcended border, culture and language in the midst of war.
Turkey’s Forgotten Place in The Korean War
In the aftermath of World War II, South and North Korea were separated by an agreement between the USSR and the United States to temporarily divide the peninsula with the 38th Parallel. On 25 June 1950, Kim Il Sung’s army crossed south of the 38th Parallel. In a matter of hours, the South Korean army was routed. In a matter of weeks, South Korean forces and population were reduced to the Busan Perimeter.
When the U.N. approved the United State’s petition for a call to arms on June 27, Turkey was the first country from the UN to respond, on the line was also the prospect of becoming a NATO member. The first of the three Turkish brigades was deployed on September 17 and arrived in Busan on October 17. In total, Turkey sent some 15,000 troops to Korea, most of whom were volunteers. By the end of the conflict, 741 of them lost their lives.
Shortly after the deployment of the Turkish brigade, China intervened in the war when UN, US and ROK forces had crossed north of the 38th Parallel. Locked in combat with an onslaught of Chinese forces from November 25 to December 2 near Chongchon River, the order to retreat either arrived late or did not reach Turkish forces. They had come to realize that the Chinese were planning to cut off the UN’s retreat by blocking the critical junction at Kunu-ri, so Turkish forces fought hard against the Chinese near present-day Wawon in North Korea to delay the Chinese. Although the miscommunication between Turkish and UN forces caused large casualties, the two-day delay of the Chinese saved many lives. In the aftermath of the war, Turkey did become a NATO member, and a lasting bond was established with South Korea.
The documentary by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation in 2010 tells the real story of the reunion of Süleyman and Kim Eun-ja. It was the first piece of journalism that drew attention to the Turkish soldiers’ efforts to look after war orphans in Korea. Most of the research on which the film Ayla relies comes from this documentary.
The documentary features interviews with many veterans in Turkey, and Süleyman tells the story of how he adopted Ayla in Korea. As he didn’t know her Korean name, it had been impossible for him to find her. The documentary makers undertook the ordeal to find Ayla by scrutinizing records of the orphanage that the Turkish soldiers had built during the war, the Ankara School.
The children of the Ankara School had stayed close over the years. After they left the school, they continued to have regular meetings. Eventually, one former attendee revealed that his older sister had been a friend of Ayla. Through him, they learned her Korean name, Kim Eun-ja. Once Eun-ja was located, a reunion was arranged.
Another moving moment that reveals some of the deeper themes and meaning of this war story is when a few Korean elders, once orphans at the Ankara school, sing a Turkish military march called, “The March of Ankara.”
The military song they’re singing was presumably chosen by the Turkish soldiers to teach the children the meaning of their school’s name. The song still lives with them today, a remnant of a difficult, but impactful, moment between soldiers and children long ago. The institution continued to function well into the 70s, after which it merged with another orphanage in 1979. The name changed, but a small monument of the Ankara School still remains to mark the location.
The singing of the former Ankara orphans also speaks to the soldiers’ role as guardians of the war orphans – a moment in which militarism gave way to humanism. The nationalism of the lyrics is lost since the singers do not know their meaning. For them, it represents the life that the Ankara School made possible.
Conclusion: Reception of the Film in Turkey and Korea
It is crucial to focus on commemorating the real biographies of the veterans and war orphans themselves. Surprisingly, the press coverage of the film in Korea was minimal. In Turkey, there has been more attention, but it is almost worse. The press has only mentioned the benefits of the film for the incumbent government’s image or its failures in serving as a propaganda tool, depending on the media’s agenda. It is unfortunate that the Ministry of Culture’s sponsorship of the film raises such controversies, and all the while the biographies of veterans and war orphans, and the humanity of the history, are neglected.
What is most important about Ayla: The Daugher of War is that it attempts to tell the story of Süleyman Dilbirliği and Kim Eun-ja as it was, as it is. The story alone captures so much about how humanity continues even amidst the horrible reality of war. The purpose of media coverage of this story should be to merely facilitate access to it. The government’s relation and involvement with it should be a secondary matter. The Turkish troops and orphans, the campaigners in Korea who helped Turkey during the earthquake, and the Korean supporters of the Turkish national football team have proven how humanity can transcend politics and war.
Reportedly, after the premier of the film, Süleyman had told Mehmet Uslu, the producer of the film, “I feel complete. You have realized my wish, and I’ve kept my promise to Ayla.”
On December 7, Süleyman Dilbirliği passed away. Twelve hours later, his wife, Nimet followed him. He was 91, she was 85 years old. They had been taking care of stray dogs and cats with their retirement pensions. Kim Eun-ja had visited Süleyman when he was hospitalized in November, and wept dearly.