Living in Taksim During the July 15 Coup Attempt in Turkey
The longest day of my life so far began at 7:20 AM. I never wake up that early but I had finally gotten a good night of sleep. Who knew how much I would need it. I am studying in Istanbul on the ARIT-BU Fellowship from the Department of Education, taking four hours of classes a day at Boğaziçi University, with the hope of building my Turkish fluency into a professional skill by the end of the summer.
After class on Friday July 15, which happened to be our midterm exam, my class went on a three-hour ferryboat tour to the Pierre Loti neighborhood, returning to Beşiktaş for dinner to celebrate. Walking to a bar with friends I noticed that the lights on the Boğaziçi Bridge were turned off. I had never seen this happen before. Just hours earlier the bridge had been lit up with the tricolor in remembrance of the tragic terrorist attack in Nice, France.
While we were at the bar, Turkish friends received an alert from the TRT Turkish state television channel indicating that the bridges in Istanbul had been sealed by soldiers due to a terror threat. A few minutes later, an acquaintance who works for the Turkish media received a call from a source in the President’s office. He told us all to go home immediately and that the army was actually staging a power grab. By this time it was 11 PM, and as we left, the Prime Minister was on television telling the country that a kalkışma girişimi (an uprising attempt) had begun.
On our way home, every single person with a smartphone was walking and reading social media updates, calling friends, or messaging them for the latest updates. Considering that the dispersal of information on official media channels is often manipulated and censored by the Turkish government, Turks know how to receive information quickly via their trusted social media — a reality that in practicality was able to prevent the July 15 coup d’état, but that has also led to increasingly polarized political discourse.
As we reached the end of our half hour walk, the streets were completely empty. The only cars out were speeding; the only people still outside were withdrawing money or buying essential groceries. Most Turkish people are familiar with the realities of coups, having lived through them in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997. At home, I turned on CNN Türk just in time to witness the now infamous FaceTime from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, calling his supporters and all of the Turkish people to the streets to defeat the coup. Sounding stressed and thrilled, he blamed the Gülenist Movement and called for democracy to be defended using the same guerrilla media tactics he so often tries to block for opponents of his government.
The Gülen Movement (or Hizmet, Cemaat) is a socially-minded Sunni Islamist movement that follows the teachings of Fethullah Gülen, a former Erdoğan ally who lives in Pennsylvania in self-imposed exile. Gülen’s network of supporters runs schools, businesses, and newspapers in Turkey and across the U.S. and Muslim world. Since 2013, when Gülenists leaked tapes of top AKP officials linking them to corruption, the government has arrested thousands of suspected Gülenists for plotting to overthrow the government.
By midnight, the sounds of helicopters and F-16s above our ground floor apartment made the coup all too real. I grabbed my camera, went to the roof, and shot these videos:
As I was on the roof, the distant explosions and gunfire from the Bosphorous bridge took a turn for the worse, with soldiers opening fire to ward off the flag waving crowds collecting two blocks away in Taksim Square.
The indescribable uncertainty of not being able to know who was shooting who, who was in control of the government, or whose F-16s were flying overhead was terrifying.
My roommate’s SIM card had been blocked; Twitter and Facebook were throttled to a crawl as I posted a message to family that I was safe for the second time since I arrived in Istanbul. The call to prayer was continuously being sounded to call people to the streets throughout the night, a tactic that has not been used since the Ottoman times. Later, the Turkish Government and the President personally sent texts to every phone in the country, including mine, calling everyone to the street to ‘take back the nation’ and stop the military.
As attack helicopters flew into Taksim Square, I left the roof. Following reports of bombings in Ankara at the Turkish Parliament building, videos showed Putschist helicopters and soldiers strafing the National Intelligence Agency headquarters and shooting protesters throughout Ankara and Istanbul — and I could hear it happening. I was back in my room as the rebelling F-16s began sonically bombing the neighborhood in what I now know was an attempt to enforce the planned curfew. The sonic bombs knock you down, suck the air out of your lungs, and break windows.
My Turkish roommate, who had work in the morning, hadn’t known about the coup until I told him. He had brushed it off and gone to bed, only to be woken up when the front door was smashed by a shockwave. I had my hand on my window for one sonic boom and could feel it move like a liquid.
At the time we had no way of knowing that these weren’t airstrikes against protesters in Taksim.
We could only sit in the middle of our living room away from the windows and wait. A trickle of people outside were fleeing by foot with bags and backpacks, running over the shattered glass that covered the street.
As the sonic booms continued, the groups of people in Taksim increased, and by 9 a.m. the soldiers had stepped down from all of the areas they had been in control of in Istanbul. Across the country, more than 245 people had been killed and 1,800 injured. I finally went to sleep at around 7:30 AM, when it looked unlikely that the coup would succeed. The AKP government has been steadily eroding the ability of the military to influence politics over their past 14 years of leadership, and this coup attempt looked more like an act of desperation than a convincing display of power.
In the past several days, radical displays of patriotism, calls for the death penalty, and mass suspensions and dismissals have marked Turkey’s crackdown on possible coup loyalists in all sectors of the government, academia, and society. Conspiracy theories about who is responsible for the botched coup have continued in the past days, with most official media running the exact same headlines: ‘democracy won’ and ‘the people defeated the coup’. The celebrations began when President Erdogan landed in Istanbul on the morning of July 16, and have continued and are audible from my apartment. The celebratory atmosphere is marked by religious chants and radical government supporters, a drastically different group than were in the square during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Demonstrators have burned effigies of Fethullah Gulen, organized convoys of honking cars and motorcycles, and have continued gathering by the thousands every night this week.
Istanbul had been struck by tragedy many times in the past year, and as many commentators have pointed out, the city just wants to return to normal. Over the weekend people began returning to work and the streets. Public transport is free this week to encourage people to do so. Yet, large flags cover buildings and cars and most billboards in the city herald ‘Hakimiyet Milletindir’: sovereignty is the people’s. The patriotic mood is drowning out the fear of many sectors of society that the growing crackdown in the wake of the coup is a crippling blow to democracy and secular institutions. Over 10,000 people have been detained and millions placed on leave as of July 20th. The Supreme Court and National Court systems have suffered forced resignations of a third of their judges, all of the university deans in the country are being asked to resign, and a three-month state of emergency has been declared.
As I return to classes, police raids are visible from the bus I take to school. The assistant mayor, the police chief, members of the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the commander of NATO’s vital Incirlik Air Base (was used to refuel F-16s supporting the coup) have all been arrested here. The international community has reacted with shock and urged restraint in recent days as the government ramps up anti-American rhetoric. Although my program has not been cancelled, I personally feel that the protestors and crowds at night pose a direct threat to anyone that looks foreign. Newly empowered radicals among them have already attacked people drinking in public, minority neighborhoods, and non-Muslim places of worship. The international situation is increasingly complicated by 8 soldiers seeking asylum in Greece. Turkey’s NATO membership has been called into question and the death penalty reinstatement will almost certainly end Turkey’s languishing bid for E.U. membership and visa free travel. Iran has sealed its border with Turkey. Meanwhile, 14 Turkish Navy ships and Turkey’s Naval Commander in Chief are missing. As I write, Turkish F-16s continue operations in the Mediterranean in search of them.
In the coming weeks, the extent of the AKP’s crackdown will become clear. The economic impacts have begun to appear as Turkey’s credit rating has been devalued. The lira has lost 10% of its value this week and the long-term instability of many parts of the Turkish economy — especially tourism — will likely lead to terrible economic losses in the coming months. There are long term questions about Turkey’s internal politics and international role and the country seems unlikely to pull out of its divisive internal measures any time soon.
I am constantly reminded that I am only a guest in their country, that this is not my reality, and I will never know how unfair it feels to be confronted with the instability and painful loss that these events and this year’s terror attacks have caused. I have never once been disrespected or treated with anything less than kindness during my time here. I feel for the Turkish people who have lost loved ones, who have had relatives imprisoned, and whose loyalty is being called into question by the government. My Turkish professors are incredibly fearful of being fired without reason in the coming weeks. I am afraid of the atmosphere that arresting people for being anti-government on social media or in the street creates. The fear of what is to come is tangible among people in Istanbul and the crackdown is not over yet. For now, I will do the only thing I can: continue to hope for the best while fearing for the worst.
Political developments following the failed coup in Turkey have been moving incredibly quickly since the weekend: click here to read “The Crisis in Turkey: What We Know So Far,” my round up of events surrounding the coup attempt and subsequent arrests.
Noah Ringler is a Communications Assistant at the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans. He is currently studying the Turkish language in Istanbul, Turkey. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of PAAIA Inc.