Letter from Ankara – 1

As we’re posting this letter from earlier today, police has started to attack protesters – 9/6/2013, 21:00 time in Turkey:

Letter from Ankara

As many of you know, three days ago I traveled from Jordan, where I live and work, to Turkey, to see first-hand what has been happening in relation to the demonstrations taking place across the country and the government’s and police forces’ response. Below are some of my thoughts and observations.

I’m not sure what I expected before traveling. After seven sleepless nights spent scouring the Internet for every crumb of information, media and analysis I could find, I was exhausted. My impression before traveling to Turkey was that there was an incredible amount of unity, energy, and optimism, fueled by unprecedented police brutality demonstrated in response to a peaceful protest to save one of central Istanbul’s last remaining public green spaces. But since then the protests have become about much more than that [https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151619900523774 for the brutality;http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21579005-protests-against-recep-tayyip-erdogan-and-his-ham-fisted-response-have-shaken-his-rule-and for the analysis]. Maybe I thought the Turkish Airlines cabin personnel would make mention of the demonstrations. Maybe I thought Istanbul’s international airport would have become a center for the international press. What was I expecting, marches and demonstrations by the baggage carousel?…

That day I visited Ankara’s main Kizilay square. Nothing like the images we’ve been seeing of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. No stands, maybe a handful of people, but otherwise, business as usual. As we drove through the city, I saw a few armored vehicles and maybe more teams of police strolling through the streets than usual, but nothing earth-shattering. Wait for tonight, I was told, everything changes at night.

I visited Kugulu Park, which has become the center for demonstrations after police repeatedly dispersed those gathering in the city center. Some energy at last, I thought. The entire park had become one giant commune. People in tents, reading on benches, free food and beverages, public poetry readings, a marching band performance, cameras, barbecues, a lost and found box with someone’s car keys inside. I experienced an incredible sense of community and ownership, and heard harrowing stories of people who had been attacked in that very same park just three days earlier, again while they read, slept, and exercised their right to assemble. And in a park, of all places.

That night, if you had no idea what was going on, you could be forgiven for thinking the country had just won a national football game. So much dancing, so much singing. The only difference was people were wearing helmets, had goggles on their foreheads, and scarves around their necks – ready to be put on at a moment’s notice. Everything can change in one second, I was repeatedly told, it just takes one person to start yelling, “the TOMA [armored water cannon crowd control vehicle] is coming!” for everyone to start running.

But that night nothing happened. People sang and danced and if you walked 200 meters away from the center of the protests you might think it was another night in Ankara, save for the vulgar graffiti everywhere. People later dispersed. Strange, I thought. This is the night the Prime Minister is returning from his tour of northern Africa. If something was going to happen, wouldn’t it be tonight?

Something did happen that night. Upon his return, the Prime Minister spoke to a crowd of his supporters at Istanbul’s airport. There he rejected the demands of the protestors, insisted Istanbul’s Gezi Park would be renovated, and called on the “50 percent protesting in the streets” to respect the other 50 percent who don’t agree with them. Instead of calling for dialogue and investigations, his speech became a show of strength, almost daring the protestors to back down.

I traveled to Turkey to get a better sense of the mood on the ground, to gauge people’s sentiment, to see how they were coordinating and see what might be needed. But the sentiment and the needs are changing from day to day, hour to hour. Before coming I thought, “the world needs to see what is happening. They need international press attention.” But no violence (yet) means no attention. Back to square one.

On Friday there was agreement. After Friday prayers, there will be violence in Ankara.

But on Friday, after noon prayers and throughout the day, there was no violence in Ankara.

I spent the day in Kugulu park, speaking with people, listening to stories of how the police marched in that morning to demand the tents be cleared. Apparently a few members of parliament were also there and documented everything. But a new tactic had emerged: let the crowds sing and dance into the night, then arrive in the morning in civilian clothes to carry away the protestors’ tents.

Friday’s singing and dancing started at 5pm, and again carried on into the night. We visited Kizilay in the city center to see if there were any attempts to ‘re-take’ the square. There were none. It seems people were afraid to gather, and Kizilay would remain free of protestors. My friends told me it was because after being attacked once in that square, and realizing there is absolutely nowhere to run except tiny side streets which are exceptionally dangerous, people were hesitant to march there again. Ok, I thought, so people are now afraid. Wasn’t this entire movement to put an end to fear?

Friday night while people danced in the streets, I had the good fortune of running into a large group of my friends from high school. We stood to the side, and I asked them where they thought this was all going.

With one exception, the mood ranged from pessimistic to uncertain. “People are dancing, but for what? What have we achieved, what have we accomplished?” asked one. “Nothing has changed, nothing will change. We Turks have the shortest memory on the planet. We’ll forget everything and Tayyip will get most of what he wants.” There was still agreement that Istanbul’s Gezi Park would be saved; but the other demands for pluralism, an end to the Prime Minister’s overbearing paternalistic ways, and an immediate and transparent investigation into the widespread police brutality were unlikely, they sensed. That day I thought, what these people need is a unifying factor. Some way to articulate their ideas, some way to communicate that this is not just a street party. it was evident that people were determined to celebrate the lack of violence, but no one cared about channeling this energy into something more than a process. No mention of a possible outcome. Back to square one.

Saturday morning I went back to Kugulu Park, where the crowd swelled throughout the day. The stalls kept getting bigger. A friend who works for a publishing firm brought seven boxes of books to donate to the free public library they had established. One group was collecting ideas for protest signs from the crowd, of course with lots of laughter. The best ones were used. Stationary shops nearby were all donating pens, markers, and blank signs. “Anything we can do to help,” was all they would say, even when people insisted on paying. At one point an elderly lady came to me with a plate full of freshly sliced watermelon and cantaloup. “None of you are eating any fruit!” she said, smiling. I took one and passed it along.

After two days of quiet, there was agreement. The police had understood. The Prime Minister had understood. Even if he didn’t publicly acknowledge it, he had realized these were not demonstrations that would be quelled by brute force. People would sing and dance in the streets, take a few pictures, have a bit of fun, and the lack of response would probably take the wind out of the movement’s sails. Sensing this calm, the group began to walk towards Kizilay square. Mothers, fathers, children and the elderly all joined. Supporters of various football teams, the usual creative slogans, and a general air of invincibility. The mood was that with enough people, the police wouldn’t dare attack. After all, they’ve seen that everyone disperses after a few hours anyway.

That’s when the tear gas began.

I saw people moving before I understood what was happening. The water cannons had spoken. Nobody could hear them of course (I would have thought that for such an expensive vehicle, they would have installed some stronger loudspeakers. But they’re inaudible from 10 meters away) but everyone knew that “if they said something, it can’t be good.” Before I knew it the vehicles were in the square, and I was filming.

Apparently quite a few people have, I guess this is the correct medical term, a Special Forces gene within them. It emerges after a week of attacks on protestors. People have figured out that the best way to avoid the water cannon is to get right next to the vehicle. They literally use the vehicle as protection from itself. Dozens of people charged the water cannons, grasping the front, while others tried to spray paint the front windshield.

People were already running when the noise bombs started. Others were crying for people to remain calm, and walk slowly away from the attacks. I say attacks because there was no such thing as a “clash” between police and protestors. When a trained and fully armed side attacks an unarmed group, why would it be called a clash? I lost my own five-person group within seconds. People running everyone, older women crying because their eyes were burning. One strong muscly man was vomiting on the side of the street. Another had collapsed with his chest convulsing. In the rush one woman fell to the ground, and at least four people, without breaking their stride, picked her up and carried her off.

I provided everyone I saw with a water/antacid mix I had prepared earlier. The relief in their voice, the gratitude in their eyes told me that if that is all I did throughout this entire process, it made a difference. As I ran into a side street a group behind me carried a man whose face was drenched in blood. A tear gas canister had hit him squarely on the side of his head. People were crying for medics, while others warned the group not to trust the ambulances – a few days earlier there were reports from Istanbul of tear gas canisters being fired from a roaming medical vehicles.

When I tried contacting my friends they gave me directions of where to go. I checked Facebook to see the latest and saw an update that a group of police were headed straight for where they told me to head. The phones were down and an immense sense of helplessness washed over me as I realized my friends were about to be cornered, and there was nothing I could do to help them.

I took another side street, constantly trying to move south, towards Kugulu Park. Moments later someone yelled for us to run. Why? I turned around and saw a team of special force police with shields and batons, charging for the side street where we were holed up. The collective panic of a charging crowd fleeing from robocop-type officers is a sensation I will never forget. At that point nothing else matters. Only escape. We’ve all read what happens to those who are detained [http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/sex-as-a-police-punishment-.aspx?pageID=500&eid=258]. Thankfully, I saw a message from my group, telling me not to go where they had been and meet somewhere new. Ten minutes later we all met up. No injuries, no detainees, everyone was safe.

Events continued throughout the night. I can say with full confidence that not once did I do anything that should have deliberately endangered me or those around me. Not a single slogan, not a single act. All I had done was to be present. Because of the nature of my work I am obliged to avoid any political demonstrations. What happened last night had nothing to do with politics. This was the attack of a combative and deranged group of heavily armed police against a group of people who chose to be in the city center that night.

First I thought the violence needed to be covered. Then I thought the violence had stopped and people needed a voice. After last night I saw the violence continued and people need protection, encouragement and support. I felt they need more people like the roaming medic who was walking through Ankara’s backstreets with a makeshift red crescent on his arm and a spray bottle of water and antacid, asking if anyone needed help. I felt they need more people to speak out against the government’s intransigence, and more people to document the police’s outright brutality.

That night I saw someone with a camera with the word PRESS on his jacket. I went to him and asked who he worked for. He said the New York Times. I asked how they were portraying the events. He said, no one cares unless people die.

Back to square one.

All I could think of was to stop the source of this gas. Don’t let it be sent somewhere where it’s used by a force who doesn’t know how to use it [http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/lufthansa-stop-gassing-us/]. I still can’t see where this is going, no one can. Especially not with all this gas.

Isik Oguzertem

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