A night in Istanbul: democracy is under threat

As the unrest continues in Turkey, Lisa Morrow provides an update of the situation in Istanbul.

Protesters stand in front of a burning vehicle in Istanbul's Taksim Square. (AFP: Bulent Kilic)

At 8.16pm I wrote an email to an American friend who used to live in Turkey. I said, “It is Saturday night here and we (and a lot of our friends I am sure) feel really drained and odd. Although it has only been a little over two weeks since the protests began in Istanbul, it has been momentous and we can’t help feeling we are on the brink of something new – good or bad we don’t know yet. So we are tidying up loose ends and trying to get on with life as normal, only normal has changed”.

A little over an hour later the first post appears on my Facebook page saying the police have moved into Gezi Park with tear gas and water cannon. Just hours before, I read an article on the official Hurriyet Newspaper website reporting that the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has given the protestors occupying Gezi Park 24 hours to leave, otherwise, in his words, “the security forces would know what to do”.

But the 24 hours had suddenly become one, as police informed the people milling around they had one hour to vacate the square. Despite an initial paucity of information it soon becomes apparent that the force and brutality of the police attack is on a greater scale than before.

The crowds are quickly and efficiently dispersed, pushed down Istiklal Caddesi as far as the Galatasaray Lisesi, up Cumhuriyet Boulevard to the neighbourhoods of Harbiye and Osmanbey and down the hill to the main square of Cihangir. At 10.30pm there are tweets reporting the use of plastic bullets and Facebook posts from a friend who writes, “Police and water cannon in Cihangir. Trapped in bufe (takeaway kiosk).”

She had been trying to join the protestors in Taksim Square, but like many people was forced back by police. In nearby Akaretler, down the hill from Taksim and up from the prime minister’s office near Dolmabahce Palace, a crowd of pot-banging, chanting residents begins to form.

This is shown at 11.30pm on HALK TV, the only Turkish TV channel showing more than the approved footage of the clean up in Gezi Park and Taksim Square. They have been covering events from the beginning, in Istanbul, Ankara and other parts of Turkey. During the protests they are fined 146,000 Turkish Liras by the Erdoğan government for showing a preview of a new movie without blocking the cigarette being smoked in one of the scenes.

Over the course of the night, reports come in of children being hit by tear gas. After the Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu called for mothers of the protestors to come to the square and take their children home, on Thursday they responded.

However, instead of coming to claim their children they came to protect them, with many staying throughout the night. On Saturday more people came, bringing their children as well, and hundreds of women and children are now being reported among those injured. A large number of people have taken refuge in the Divan Hotel which has previously protected demonstrators. The owner Ali Koc says that any staff member who refuses entry to a protestor will be fired. This time the situation appears more dangerous, and there are desperate tweets and posts for more doctors, nurses, oxygen tubes and medical supplies.

By the end of the first hour they are also calling for lawyers, with one post alleging people are being arrested as soon as they left the hotel and another stating the police have entered the building and attacked the injured. Doctors are also said to have been arrested. This comes after it was reported the Ministry of Health directed hospital staff to record the names and identity numbers of all protestors injured in recent events as well as demanding reports of doctors not on duty so they can match them up with people giving aid in the many temporary emergency clinics being set up throughout the city.

As more footage is shown on HALK TV of people being attacked by the police and telephone reports give more details, my normally quiet street in Goztepe on the Asian side of Istanbul erupts. Everyone is blowing whistles, banging pots, clapping and chanting. It stops for a while but when the news on HALK TV shows more and more violence towards the protestors my neighbours come out on to their balconies again, calling “Her yer Taksim, her yer direniş” – Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere resist! Democracy is under threat.

Facebook and Twitter are filling with helpful information about the locations of temporary infirmaries, one in a popular night club, another one opposite the Military Museum up the road from Gezi Park in Harbiye. Some banks are also opening as temporary infirmaries and a list of chemists on official night duty are listed. By midnight requests are made for all doors to be opened to the wounded, children to be helped, and taxi drivers and owners of private vehicles to ferry the wounded to hospitals and clinics. The reports come through of other hotels and businesses opening their doors to people, the Ceylan and the Marmara hotels, Halk Döner, Hayal Kahvesi and Tektekçi.

Names of missing children and their parents’ names and phone numbers are also beginning to be posted. The numbers of lost children grows and someone posts on Facebook “I found an 8-year-old called Multu ***** and took him to the Divan Hotel. I hope his family is there. They shouldn’t worry – I gave him a gas mask.”

Meanwhile there are calls for particular blood types to treat children and others being treated in the hotel. Sadly, another tweet reports a woman miscarrying there.

More tweets at 11.00pm report gas attacks continuing outside and inside the Divan Hotel. By 11.45pm people in the basement are having trouble breathing because of the gas. At midnight someone posts a list of the identification numbers on the helmets of the police who are attacking the hotel. In Germany, TV channel ZDF shows footage of police officers trying to kick their way in.

Claudia Roth, a German Green Party politician is also affected by tear gas and takes refuge in the Divan hotel. Photos appear showing people with burned skin (legs and back) and tweets come in alleging the same. Sometime later doctors confirm the water being sprayed by the police TOMA vehicles is mixed with chemicals. A Facebook post states that the liquid being fired from the police vehicles is a mixture of carbonated water and bepanthene.

As midnight passes there is no lessening of the police attacks or of people’s outrage at what is happening. People are not being permitted to leave the Divan Hotel and all the doors are shut. The Jandarma, whose role is to maintain public order in areas that fall outside the jurisdiction of police forces (generally in rural areas), as well as assuring internal security, are called in. The human chain around the hotel is breached and they throw more tear gas grenades into the hotel.

A video filmed there at 3.00am and posted on Facebook shows people panicking and trying to get to other floors via the lifts. When they get out onto a higher floor there are people lying on the floor coughing and moaning in pain. At 1.15am morning videos are posted showing police firing water into the entryway of the German hospital in Taksim. People are calling out “Bu hastane!”, “This is a hospital!”, but the police don’t stop.

When the attack started, the metro service, which brings people to Gezi Park and Taksim Square, had already been shut down. By 11.00pm there are unsubstantiated reports on Facebook that the ferry services and the first bridge spanning the Bosphorous have been closed. At 1.15am a HALK TV news flash announces that the Greater Istanbul Council has stopped all shared minibus services (dolmuş), buses and ferries from taking people to Taksim. They also show thousands of people walking across the bridge from the Asian side of Istanbul towards Taksim. Other footage shows people gathering in Harbiye trying to get back into Taksim while thousands more are walking in from Şişli. At 2.00am a picture is posted on Facebook showing the access road leading to the bridge at Altunizade closed by a cordon of police. At 4.00am it is reported that people walking along the TEM road, also on the Asian side have been stopped by police at Uzunçayır. People report seeing real handguns in the back pockets of the police. Others report that the Jandarma are getting close to the bridge. Other reports stated that despite the clashes people were still heading towards Taksim.

In the midst of the chaos other posts go out, asking people to retain proof of the police brutality. Lawyers fighting to support the protestors are asking for written testimonies, videos, clothing items affected by water cannon liquid, photos of injuries and of police violence. They include a number to call, an email address to write to and website to contact. The Hurriyet website printed that “police has (sic) taken into custody and interrogated more than 450 protesters during the demonstrations which have continued for over two weeks”. However, only four have officially been arrested as of yesterday. All four are purported to be members of the Socialist Democracy Party (SDP) and were accused of throwing Molotov cocktails and fireworks at the police. Facebook posts that were made at the time of this event suggested these provocateurs were actually plainclothes members of the police.

It has been nearly three weeks since this began in the early hours of Friday May 31 and despite the severity of last night’s attacks on protestors there is no sign of it ending. Yesterday the Turkish minster for the European Union, Egemen Bağış, said that anyone entering the square will be treated as a terrorist. Today, Şişli-Mecidiyeköy, Osmanbey and Taksım metro stations, all on the European side, are closed, as is the Kabataş-Taksim funicular. These are the major forms of public transport servicing Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi. There are no reports on the status of metrobuses, city buses or ferry services yet. HALK TV announces people are to meet at 4.00pm today at designated points throughout the city to walk to Taksim Square. Hundreds of thousands are expected to turn up if they can get past the police barricades. The pro-AKP rally set to take place today in Kazlıçeşme, Istanbul, is going ahead. I feel very apprehensive because it’s possible there will be deadly clashes involving Turkish people from all walks of life. I have no idea what sort of Turkey I will wake up to tomorrow.


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