In the summer of 2013, a student from the University of East London travelled to Turkey, her home country. She was caught in the middle of the riots in Istanbul. This is her account of the Taksim Square protests.
Sleeping was impossible. Eating wasn’t a necessity anymore. All we could do was sit in front of the TV, watching the one channel that was brave enough to report the truth. In a nationwide media blackout, the public turned to social media. Who knows the number of lives saved with simple retweets? Names and locations of lost children. Tear gas coming your way. Blood needed. Doctors needed. Lawyers needed. Shelter needed. Twitter was there to help.
The streets were pandemonium. What was a peaceful protest march one minute suddenly turned into war. From water cannons blasting people off their feet and running them over, to pepper spray and tear gas fired directly at the crowd. An army dressed from head to toe in black, complete with black gas masks, like soldiers of hell descending on the people. They have a name. They call themselves ‘Police’. They attack, provoke, kick, punch, slap, drag… And we are called the terrorists? Who do you turn to? Who is your saviour? You are. You as a whole. There is no self. You look out for all.
That morning, my sister and I packed our bags for Taksim Square. We’d heard of the effects the gas had on eyes, several contact lens wearers had been blinded. Lemons were said to lessen the effects. My sister and I both wear lenses, so decided to pack our yellow swimming goggles, partly in jest, but partly because we wanted to be prepared for everything.
Getting to Taksim was difficult. We live on the Asian side of Istanbul, and Taksim is on the European side. Reaching it meant first catching a ferry from Kadikoy across the Bosphorus to Besiktas, then walking. Making our way to the dock in Kadikoy was difficult – the march had already begun. We grabbed a couple of Turkish flags and joined it.
It was the first time I felt a part of something so intensely significant. The trickle of a few hundred people grew by the minute, until thousands of us walked towards the docks. Animated voices, people jumping in joy, skipping even. Coming together to become something bigger. Surrounded by a wall of people, the only direction I could look was up. The sun shone down on us, and I smiled. Even the heavens are on our side, I thought. So, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, we stood. And we sang our national anthem, we sang our hearts out. What can I even say about the voice of thousands of people, as they chant in unison? So loud you can barely hear the words yourself… but you feel them instead. Feel them vibrating through the air, seeping through your skin, pumping through your veins. The heat builds, your heart is beating hard against your chest, the salty humid sea air is making it hard to breathe. The scarlet flags rise against the blue of the sky, and suddenly the moon and stars join the sun.
The ferries had been put on hold, the captains banned from carrying any passengers. Even though they risked losing their jobs, they made the journeys anyway. Thousands of people were transported across the Bosphorus, free of charge.
I felt a surge of dizziness just as I reached the two-foot gap between the dock and the ferry. Without a word, several hands reached for me and pulled me safely onto the boat. We kept singing, and I leaned over the edge of the ferry to take in the view. The breeze carried our voice through the Bosphorus. Passing boats applauded and cheered us on. The smell of tea and simit, a Turkish bread, the view of the Maiden Tower, the Bosphorus bridge… So much beauty and so much history. A city well worth fighting for.
As soon as we docked, we were met by a group of young men with huge sacks of lemons. They passed the lemons out to anyone who would take them, in anticipation of tear gas.
The crowd that greeted us was phenomenal, and I had thought our group at the docks was impressive. There were hundreds of thousands of people, as far as the eye could see and further. Everyone waved a flag, and we became an extension of the flag, an embodiment of what our flag stood for. We marched on, singing our anthem. One body, one voice, one purpose. We walked for freedom, we chanted for our rights. Istanbul groaned with the voice of the people. Slogans rang out, ‘Government resign!’, ‘Tayyip resign!’, ‘Standing side-by-side in the face of fascism!’, and ‘We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal!’
Then, I witnessed the first shocking act of violence I had seen all day. A police van driving at great speed, then reversing into people on the road. The van burst forward again straight into a car, in which a family with small children cowered. This happened less than three feet away from me.
I was rooted to the spot and silently watched as six or seven men ran to the van and surrounded it. And then all hell broke loose. Rocks and shards of glass rained out of the sky, there was screaming, running, my heart was in my mouth. I lost my sister in the crowd, was searching through the arms and legs… And then something amazing happened. It started as a whisper among the roar, then the whisper grew louder and stronger. ‘Don’t’ they cried. The power of the word is lost in translation. The hidden message of stop, don’t harm anyone, calm down… all in one word. The rain of rock and glass stopped. I found my sister. And police, who had so unashamedly provoked and hurt the people, were saved by them.
My sister and I finally managed to reach Gezi Park. Tents, people camping, lying on the grass, playing guitars, singing, laughing. A million miles away from what we’d just seen. White banners tied up on brilliantly green trees; the smell of cooking meat wafting through the air; people handing out pamphlets with legal advice, names and numbers of doctors… Makeshift first aid tents, veterinary tents, canteens, a library made from industrial bricks, memorials for those who had perished in protests… It was all so… human.
It made me so proud. Proud to see that community still existed, that we could depend on each other. It made everything worth fighting for.
It was getting late, and my sister and I decided to return – but when we reached the ferries we discovered that the police, wielding tear gas and pepper spray, had barricaded the docks with water cannons. They were already blasting. People milled around, uncertain. Unprovoked, the police suddenly charged at us, firing their sprays and gas. Everybody ran.
In shock, I grabbed the goggles and tried to pull them over my eyes, but they wouldn’t stay. A few seconds later an enormous orange cloud erupted around us. The acrid smell of stale burnt plastic filled my lungs. My sister grabbed my hand and we ran from the police who were charging us. A jungle of feet, orange smoke, panicked screams… The smoke was fire in my throat and made me heave. In my shock I stopped breathing. Suddenly, a door was flung open to my left, and along with at least 20 others, we threw ourselves through the opening. ‘Upstairs!’ a voice cried, ‘go upstairs!’
I’ll never forget that voice.
We ran up the spiral staircase, as far as we could go, before entering a spacious, brightly lit room. I fell to the floor, and lay on my back. All I could hear was the coughing and spluttering of people in the room, over the muffled bedlam outside. The woman that had opened the doors reached for me, and I was taken to the next room to sit on an armchair surrounded by wedding dresses. I looked around and realised I was in one of the most prestigious designer wedding gown boutiques in Istanbul. I stared at the dresses, so pure and white, unblemished… then at the window next to the display, which kept out the horror of the world outside. Well this is fucking ironic, I thought to myself.
When we eventually left the bridal store, the burning smoke was still in the air, and with hands covering our mouths, we ran into the maze of side streets.
The taxi journey home was a quiet one. We sat slumped against the back seat. How can I possibly describe how I felt in that moment? Relief that I was alive? Fear that I was still so far from home? How about anger at the injustice of it all? Grief for those lost? Shock? Hate? Love?
Have you ever felt an emotion so strong, it’s almost tangible? Could you multiply that emotion tenfold – more? Imagine that kaleidoscope of feelings consuming your entire being.
Imagine what all that does to a person.
Mel Dok is a 3rd year, BA Hons Creative and Professional Writing student at the University of East London. ‘Mel’s Story’ has been published on EnglishPEN.org, and performed at UEL PEN’s Summer Launch Party as well as York PEN’s Listen to the Silence in 2013.