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Psychology Grad Helps Thwart Coup Attempt in Turkey

Military Captain Burhan Colak ’15 on Frontlines of Deadly Rebellion

Burhan Colak poses with fellow members of the Turkish Armed Forces
Burhan Colak '15, third from left, poses with fellow members of the Turkish Armed Forces in the city of Doğubayazit, where he helped put down the recent coup attempt.

By Ed Brennen

While the world watched on television as the failed coup d'état played out in Turkey last month, one recent UMass Lowell grad found himself on the frontlines of history.

Burhan Colak ’15, a captain in the Turkish Armed Forces, came to the United States in 2012 to get his master’s degree in community social psychology from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences. After receiving his degree last spring, Colak returned home to continue his military service and was assigned as chief of security in Doğubayazit, a city near Turkey’s border with Iran.

On July 15, a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces calling itself the “Peace at Home Council” attempted to oust President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and seize control of several key locations, including Ankara (the capital), Istanbul and Doğubayazit.

“A tank brigade moved to take control of our city, however, we managed to convince them to stop,” says Colak, who quickly realized that many of the advancing troops were unwitting co-conspirators in the coup attempt.

“I contacted battalion commanders, who were lied to about the real reason of the military operation, and then I convinced them to withdraw to their base,” Colak says. “Finally, we arrested the brigade general and some other plotters in the headquarters.

“That was the longest night of my life.”

When it was all over the next day, the failed coup attempt reportedly claimed 270 lives, while more than 2,100 were injured. More than 10,000 military personnel (out of a force of nearly 640,000) were arrested, while an additional 1,389 were expelled.

FAHSS grad Burhan Colak poses overlooking Doğubayazit
Burhan Colak '15 says he is OK following the failed coup attempt in his native Turkey, but misses the 'peace, love and trust' he once knew in the region.

“Even though the attack caused a lot of casualties and destruction throughout the country, it was not successful,” Colak says. “Although the military in Turkey is known for its tough stance on secularism and democracy, the headquarters had been infiltrated by members of a religious group and they successfully disguised themselves until recently. When the intelligence service revealed the plot, the conspirators (moved up) the attack.” 

During his two years at UMass Lowell, Colak actively promoted better cultural understanding. He helped initiate a program that paired international students with faculty and staff members over the holidays and was part of the DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge team “Buddies Without Borders,” which spawned the Pair-Up Program now run by the International Students and Scholars Office.

All that now seems a world away for Colak, who is thankful he and his fellow officers were not harmed in the recent skirmish. But he wonders what the future holds for his country, which lies at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East.

“I am OK, for now,” Colak says. “I miss the peace, love and trust which are currently scarce in the country and region.”