The current atmosphere in Turkey is marked by conflict, tension and political polarization that spills over into culture. Yet a recent film, “Ayla: The Daughter of War,” takes on one of the rare events in Turkish history that is not controversial: the way Turkish soldiers helped South Koreans in the Korean War, during which Turkey was part of the UN coalition.
“Ayla” is the latest Turkish attempt to produce internationally competitive movies with big budgets and global appeal. Earlier this year, “The Ottoman Lieutenant,” a Turco-American production, flopped at the box office. Turks hope that “Ayla,” a tale of compassion and self-sacrifice between a Turkish soldier and a Korean child, will be more successful. Earlier this month, a 17-member committee of representatives from the Ministry of Culture and cinema organizations selected the film as Turkey’s nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
“Ayla,” based on a real story that took place during the Korean War, depicts the bond between a Turkish soldier in Korea, 25-year-old Suleyman Dilbirligi, and Kim Eunja, a Korean orphan. It is a tale of sacrifice, love and solidarity against a backdrop of war and death. The movie features strong actors from Turkey and abroad. Ismail Hacioglu plays the young Suleyman, while Cetin Tekindor plays the Turkish soldier at an older age. The young Ayla is played by Kim Seol.
The story begins with Suleyman, a noncommissioned officer who finds a little girl at a destroyed village in South Korea. Her parents are dead. He and the two soldiers with him take the girl to the Turkish base and look after her for months. As they are unable to pronounce her name, they name her Ayla, a Turkish name that means “halo of the moon,” because of her round face. Ayla and Suleyman establish a familial relationship and when the young soldier has to return to Turkey after 15 months, he wants desperately to take Ayla with him and adopt her. But Korean law forces him to leave the girl behind and Ayla is sent to a boarding school built by the Turkish soldiers called Ankara Orphanage.
Director Can Ulkay told Al-Monitor that both Suleyman and Ayla are still alive today. “The film, based on a true story, reflects how love, compassion and care can flourish in the most difficult conditions and how bonds of compassion and love can overcome barriers of language, geography, ethnicity and time,” he said. The film also shows how Suleyman and Ayla came together after 60 years, in 2010 and again in 2012. Their reunion had been widely covered in the Turkish and Korean media.
So why did Turkey join the Korean War and why did the war leave such a strong mark on the history of both Turks and the Koreans?
The Korean War had a special place in Turkey’s national history because it was the first time the Turkish Republic participated in a multinational military operation.
The first military action of the Cold War, the Korean War started when the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th parallel, the boundary between the Soviet-backed Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the pro-Western Republic of Korea. The United States saw the conflict as a war against communism and urged its allies to join in. Turkey, which had remained neutral in World War II, saw that it would need to fight this time on the side of the Western bloc if it wanted to continue its strategic alliance with the United States. While England and France committed smaller forces, Turkey participated in the war with a brigade of 5,090 people, including 2,590 officers. The force, named “North Star,” served under the command of US Army. By the end of the war, Turkey suffered a total of 734 deaths and 2,147 wounded soldiers, according to the records of Turkish Veterans Association.
According to Erhan Cifci, a historian who specializes in the Korean War, the war had a special place in Turkey’s national history because it was the first time the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, participated in a multinational military operation. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Cifci said, “The Turkish army, which was not involved in World War II, had never been tested outside Turkey. The Korean War gave it the opportunity to test its out-of-border capacity and ability to be part of an international command.”
Asked about the mark the Turkish soldiers left in Korea, Cifci quoted the testimony of Lt. Bahtiyar Yahya: “The Turkish soldiers had a very humane approach toward the Koreans. It is this approach that was appreciated.”
The story of Ankara Orphanage, which started as a makeshift school in a few tents on the Turkish military base in Suwon, is a testament to the Turks’ kindness. The tents became a building constructed by the Turkish soldiers, who also contributed money for supplies. It was eventually used as a boarding school for orphans.
“Ayla is my gift of war,” Suleyman Dilbirligi said in a 2015 interview with Milliyet when he was 92 and had reunited with Ayla. “Shortly after I went to fight in Korea, we went to a village that had been attacked by the Chinese. It was a cold winter day. A little girl of five or six years old was alone, crying and screaming. Seeing that we could not leave her alone there, we brought her to the camp, washed her and cut her lice-infested hair. We collected money and we bought her clothes, shoes and a nice dress. Her name was Kim Eunja. It was hard for us to pronounce the name so we named her Ayla because she had a round, moon-like face. Ayla stayed with us and became the lucky charm of the group. When we left, after a year, they placed Ayla with all the children together in the Ankara Orphanage in Suwon.”
The story is quite different from most of the films Turkey has made about the wars it fought. For example, “Ertugrul: 1890,” a 2015 Turkish-Japanese production that tells the story of the Ertugrul, a frigate that sank shortly after leaving Japan after a goodwill visit in 1890, through a love between a young Japanese woman and a Turkish soldier. The film, though supported by the Turkish government, found little success at the box office.
“Ayla” focuses on a bond between two people of different ages and backgrounds who do not even share a common language. Its producers hope it will charm the Foreign Language Film Award Committee, which will announce its short list on Jan. 23.
orphans, turkish foreign relations, turkish foreign policy, history, korea, oscars, films