Turkish Korean War veteran who inspired film ‘Ayla’ passes away at the age of 91

Photo: Sabah / Murat Şengül
Photo: Sabah / Murat Şengül

Süleyman Dilbirliği, a Turkish soldier whose experiences in the Korean War inspired Oscar-nominated "Ayla," passed away at the age of 91 Thursday.

Dilbirliği was hospitalized after he suffered respiratory and renal failure while attending the movie's premiere. He remained in the intensive care unit of Haydarpaşa Training and Research Hospital in Istanbul ever since.

In a statement, the hospital said that Dilbirliği's condition had worsened in the past week, and that he died due to multiple organ failure.

The non-commissioned officer, who was a member of the Turkish Brigade during the Korean War, was a father figure for Kim Eun-ja, an orphan South Korean girl, and his story of helping the 5-year-old girl in 1950s was discovered by filmmakers and turned into the tear-jerking drama "Ayla: The Daughter of War," which debuted last month. Kim and Dilbirliği last met when Kim, now 71 years old, visited Dilbirliği in late November at the Istanbul hospital he was undergoing treatment.

Kim's parents were killed in the war and Dilbirliği found her alone in the woods. He decided to bring her to the Turkish garrison and looked after her for 14 months.

However, when the troops had to return to Turkey after the war, she was entrusted to other troops there. Then, she was sent to an orphanage. The South Korean woman said in earlier interviews that her life after she was forced to part ways with the Turkish soldier was "spent missing him."

During an Istanbul event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, Dilbirliği talked about Ayla, and South Korean officials began a search to locate the girl. The two finally met in 2010 in South Korea in an emotional reunion and frequently wrote each other over the years. Kim recently toured Turkey for the premiere of the film.

Turkey joined the Korean War under the U.N. command during 1950 and 1953 to support South Korea against the North and communism. A total of 741 Turkish troops were killed in the war. The Turkish sacrifice in the war coined the term "blood ally" for Turks in South Korea.

A funeral will be held for Dilbirliği at the Selimiye Mosque on Friday in Istanbul and he will be interred at Karacaahmet cemetery.

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