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Thursday, 13 June 2013 00:51

"This should have happened a long time ago"

Written by Siri Warrlich

Over the past weeks Turkey has seen a great number of street protests and demonstrations in its biggest cities, from Istanbul to Ankara, Izmir and Antalya. Starting from a small demonstration the protests have grown significantly in size and structure with passing days and have been violently repressed by the police force according to sources on the scene. E&M author Siri Warrlich interviews a young European who has experienced the incidents in Istanbul at first hand.

Two years ago Heidi Hart came as an Erasmus student to Istanbul. Today, she still lives there – and since last weekend, a mask and swimming goggles belong to her everyday attire.

The house was completely contaminated with tear gas, so I am now staying with friends.

"İstanbul'u dinliyorum, gözlerim kapalı. I listen to Istanbul with my eyes closed.“ That is the first line of a famous poem by Orhan Veli Kanik, Turkey's Shakespeare. Istanbul on Wednesday night, 5 June 2013, not with closed eyes, but via skype, sounds like this: Cars honking, singing, whistling… are those cooking pots the people are banging against each other? My friend Heidi Hart, 24, holds her computer through the open window. "Soon, I will join them," she says and shows me her mask and swimming goggles. A little more than two years ago, the two of us together started our Erasmus journey from Mannheim, Germany to Istanbul. Heidi stayed – and recently became part of the protests.

E&M: What is the situation in Istanbul like? Was the outbreak of the protests a surprise to you? 

When the demonstrations first started, I was in Germany for a couple of days for the final exam of my undergrad course. Suddenly there were all these posts on facebook, it was simply incredible to see pictures like that and it made me very nervous to be in Germany. Not being able to do anything, and instead discussing with my grandma how many potatoes we need to cut up for dinner. That's why I knew without a doubt that I had to go back as quickly as possible. I realised that something important is happening right now, something that in my opinion should have happened years ago.

My old shared flat is right at the heart of Taksim, the house was completely contaminated with tear gas, so I am now staying with friends who live just a little further away from Taksim Square. Right now it's nine o'clock at night, and people are flooding the streets again. Very recently the government instructed the police to not shoot tear gas directly into the masses any more. Ever since then the street confrontations have declined. But the protests are continuing with the same force.

E&MOriginally, the protests were triggered by the intention to chop down some trees in Gezi-Park, in the centre of Istanbul, for the construction of a shopping mall. By now, they have extended to many other cities in Turkey and developed into a general protest against the authoritarian governance of prime minister Erdoğan and his AKP party throughout the last years. What exactly makes people join the protests?

The shopping mall was just the straw which finally broke the camel's back. For the past few months there have been repeated protests against some construction projects, peaceful demonstrations to which the police had immediately reacted with tear gas. In addition, the ban of alcohol consumption in public squares and streets has significantly upset people. In the places where one year ago you could sit outside in front of pubs in Istanbul, you now have to go inside to have a drink. And then there was an incident in Ankara where a couple kissing at a metro station were admonished by the police. Each incident taken by itself, all these things don't seem too important. The people have kept telling themselves: "Fine, one more thing, we can take that, we can bear it." But now they just couldn't bear it any more. Erdoğan seems to care less and less about what the people think, that has become clear with the Gezi Park and his initial reactions to the protests, and that's why – for the first time ever – he is widely being challenged. Young and old people together, men, women, students, with headscarves or dreadlocks, so many people in the whole country publicly criticising Erdoğan – in my view that's a huge novelty for Turkey.

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Photo: Heidi Hart

Even luxury hotels, like Divan Hotel at Gezi Park in this picture, open their doors to protestors.

E&M: You said even old people are becoming more critical. But who are the majority of the protestors? Are they mainly young people, or are there people of different ages, genders, and socio-economic background involved?

Originally, when the protests started  the core was mainly made up of young people and people from the alternative scene. They camped in Gezi Park and their tents were set on fire by the police. But by now, and that's one of the fascinating parts, these protests have permeated all layers of society. Old women with headscarves walk around Taksim giving away Baklava and Simits. Cafés, shops and even luxury hotels open their doors so demonstrators can get first aid in their buildings and can wash the tear gas out of their eyes with milk. That's why it frustrates me if the media reduces these protests to young people. Erdoğan uses a similar argument by labeling the protestors as "çapulcular", which means as much as "looter" or "plunderer". But it isn't just the young alternative people anymore, the protests are much too big by now – in Izmir, Ankara, Diyarbakır, all over Turkey the people are on the streets.

E&M: The next general elections in Turkey are only coming up in 2015. Will the protests change anything?

They have already changed a lot. Even young children are around Taksim Square these days. They get to see for the first time that their parents and the people in their country can and do criticise the government and challenge leading politicians. And that is worth quite a lot. It is very hard to say precisely how the situation on the ground will develop throughout the next days. But I think in the minds of the people, these protests have already changed a whole lot.

There was an incident in Ankara where a couple kissing at a metro station were adminished by the police.

E&M: One shocking aspect has been the silence of the Turkish media. Is this a sign of how deeply the freedom of press has been restricted by the AKP?

Of course the media are strongly influenced by the AKP and Erdoğan. Penguins, for example, have become a symbol of the protests. The first days of the demonstrations, when all international media were reporting on the protests, CNN Türk was, at the same time, showing a documentary about penguins. That's why some protestors wear penguin shirts now. The people here try to take everything with a sense of humour. Very recently, however, CNN Türk and Turkish NTV have started to report more openly on the protests. I hope sincerely that this way the news will spread more widely to the people in South East Anatolia and to the countryside and that even more people will realise what is really happening in the big cities at the moment.

In Istanbul, communication currently mostly works via facebook and twitter, people post news, pictures and videos with unprecedented speed. Information about open pharmacies, contact numbers of lawyers – all exchanged via facebook. It's a very tight net of information. In the beginning, there were also maps that showed where the police was moving around at the time, but ever since the gas attacks have declined I haven't seen those on facebook as much.

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Photo: Heidi Hart

Protestors in Gezi Park set up rules, partly to signal their peacefulness: "No stones, no clubs"

E&M:It is being reported that 25 people have been detained in Izmir for supporting the protests via twitter. How did people in Istanbul react?

I don't have the sense that communication via social networks has declined. A few days ago, when the protests had just started, the internet in our area was down for a few hours and of course there were rumours that the government did it. But nobody knows for sure. Generally, however, even if the situation out on the streets may seem exciting, below the surface there is huge fear. Will Erdoğan seize his silence by reacting against the protests even more violently? Will the protests be taken over by radical forces? Will there be civil war? What will the military do? People are very insecure and unsettled. I personally just try to make sure that I stay safe. When the police shoot tear gas people get hit in the head by the cartridges and it is said they are being beaten by the police after detentions. So I try to stay away from the police and I never walk in the first row on the streets. Very recently, some foreign citizens have also been detained for supporting the protests.

E&M:Under what conditions could the protests come to an end? And what's your plan for the next couple of days? 

If Erdoğan apologised and if he changed the strict regulations like the alcohol ban, then the protests would maybe stop. Instead, he tries to silence the protestors with silence on his own part, or by labelling them as just some extremist groups, but for that it is much too late. Throughout the last week, the situation has calmed down in Istanbul a bit, but with the weekend coming up a new wave of protests began. The networks for first aid and emergency supply are established now. With them, the protestors will be able to keep going for quite some time, if they have to.

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 June 2013 09:38

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