'I Have a Bad Feeling About This': My Experience of the Failed Military Coup in Turkey
It's been an absurd and frightening few days in Turkey. This is what it felt like to be there.
This article originally appeared on VICE Alps
On Thursday of last week, I flew from my home in Zürich to my family in Izmir. I would stay for three weeks and the plan was to go on some day trips, take my nieces and nephews swimming and just relax and spend some time together. That all changed when the first push notifications about the attempted coup reached us.
Military interventions into politics are a Turkish tradition. Since the Republic was founded in 1923, there have been four coups where the military succeeded in taking power from democratically elected governments. Particularly the coup in 1980 left deep scars in Turkish society, because of General Kenan Evren's brutal crackdown on dissidents.
The military sees itself as a protector of the secular Turkish republic and traditionally follows Kemalism – the ideals of modern Turkey's founder Atatürk. In earlier coups, parts of the military believed that those in power were violating the key values of Kemalism, and felt called to protect the republic.
Since last Friday, a lot has been said and written about the coup – how it came to this and what effect the failed coup will have beyond the hundreds dead, thousands injured and the countless arrests and impeachments. My family and I, Alevi Kurds originally from southeast Anatolia, thankfully aren't among those numbers, but we did experience the attempt like many others in Turkey did. This is how I, a Swiss citizen with a Kurdish background, experienced the day of the attempted coup and its aftermath in Turkey.
Friday July 15th at around 10:30PM (MEST): The military closes the bridges over the Bosporus in Istanbul
My brother and I are sitting in a restaurant in an Izmir suburb and have just ordered a bottle of raki to toast the start of our holiday. Within a few minutes the other guests at the restaurant get restless and exchange wild rumours – they've heard Erdogan has been shot. My brother and I start getting very uncomfortable – one second we're sitting together laughing and the next we're not sure about anything anymore.
The people at the table next to ours whisper about an attack, an assassination and protests. My brother and I try to calm each other down, tell each other that we don't know anything yet. We call our parents and my sister-in-law who are with us in Turkey, to be sure that they're safe. They haven't heard anything about what we tell them.
I catch myself wondering whether I can fly to Istanbul next weekend for a friend's wedding.
While still discussing the rumours with the other patrons, we start getting the first push notifications from Turkish media mentioning closed bridges and blocked streets in Istanbul. The restaurant owner turns on the TV, where we see the occupied bridges. I have so many questions: What's going on? What does this mean for my family and me? But it's not just the big questions that hit me: I catch myself wondering whether I can fly to Istanbul next weekend for a friend's wedding.
After we leave the restaurant we first hear it's an attempted coup on the car radio. I immediately think of my father – the memory of the bloody military coup of 1980 is never far away for my family. It was the start of a time of repression, violence and the persecution of people who opposed it. Will it come to that again? Who could be behind the coup? If they take over, would we soon want Erdogan and the AKP back? How will the AKP and Erdogan respond? And: how will the masses respond? I'm afraid and feel powerless.
Friday July 15th at 11PM – the military announces it has toppled the government
We're sitting at home and watch the message from coup leaders on the state channel TRT. They've hijacked the broadcast to announce they've toppled the government and are now in power. They say they took over to fight the AKP's rampant corruption and its general incapacity to rule. Marshall law has been imposed, as well as a strict curfew. They announce a new constitution which they say will recognise the country's ethnic and religious minorities.
As Alevi Kurds we're a double minority, so we should be delighted with that last promise. But it feels absurd to hear such an announcement from a brand new military regime. Could a military coup be a positive impulse for Turkish democracy? Should I be happy about a coup? Could I ever be?
My father has terrible memories of the coup of 1980 and doesn't think much of military involvement in politics. "The military gets involved to promote democracy and protect the country from a totalitarian system?" he asks with his typical slightly detached scepticism. "Just goes to show how broken this country is. We should be pleased to see a coup? That's never a good thing. No matter who's pulling the strings." I tend to agree with him – my father has had a lot of experience with these kinds of matters and his analysis of political events is usually spot on. State media report the AKP is still in power.
Friday July 15th at 11:30PM – Erdogan mobilises his supporters via FaceTime
By now, users with Turkish IP addresses can't access YouTube, Twitter and Facebook and most TV stations have stopped broadcasting. The first image to appear on TV is a FaceTime video of an interview with Erdogan. He speaks of a devious conspiracy by a clique within the army, and he encourages people to take to the streets, take over key places and airports in the country and stop the military.
It's absurd to hear a man who struck down protests and grossly reduced the right to assemble and demonstrate. But we can see on TV that many Turks are heeding his call. It's understandable that these people refuse to accept a military coup, but we do wonder who they are and what they want, exactly. They chant nationalist slogans ("Martyrs don't die, the homeland cannot be divided") and an Islamist slogan chanted at conservative religious marches. Those chants are accompanied by Mehter marches – traditional military music dating back to Ottoman times.
A friend who is in the city centre of Izmir tells me that there are violent clashes between people on the coup's side and civilians. Thousands of AKP-supporters are protesting in the streets – it looks like the Turkish football team has just won the Euros.
The nationalist Islamist slogans make my family very unconfortable. We all agree that a coup is deeply undemocratic and won't move Turkey forward. But it's also scary to think it could just play straight into the hands of the regime. An attempted coup could legitimise an even more authoritarian rule in Turkey.
Saturday July 16th at 3AM – the coup apparently failed
Every media outlet is now reporting that the coup has failed, and the government claims that everything will soon go back to normal. We're all deeply confused – without realising it, we apparently all had some very small hope that a regime change could possibly lead to more democracy and that hope is now gone. I'm a bit embarrassed about having allowed myself to feel that way. My family have been gathered around the television set for hours, trying to get information about what's going on. We're all deeply confused and it's impossible to sleep. The government threatens revenge and retribution, which is as expected as it is worrying. Our biggest fear is that after this unreal situation, the country will move further and further away from actual democracy.
Saturday July 16th at 1PM – Erdogan sends a text message to Turkey
Everyone in Turkey receives this text message from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Everyone.
"Dear children of the Turkish nation. This action is a coup against the nation, commandeering armoured vehicles and weapons in Ankara and Istanbul, behaving as if it were the 1970s. Honourable Turkish nation, claim democracy and peace: I am calling you to the streets against this action of a narrow cadre that has fallen against the Turkish nation. Claim the state, claim the nation."
The text message is a personal call to continue supporting the current AKP government on the streets. I find it totalitarian and frightening, but my family in Turkey is used to these kinds of messages. The text has a visible effect: on Saturday night, the streets and squares are full of people celebrating the failure of the coup. But there seem to be coup leaders who haven't been found and arrested yet. The text is probably intended to make sure the people will defend the regime against a potential second attempt.
Sunday July 17TH – Turkey has changed
According to the state news agency Anadolu, more than 200 people were killed during or after the attempted coup, 2000 were injured and 7500 were arrested. My family's fears seem justified: according to media reports, Erdoğan has removed almost 3000 judges and banned 21,000 private school teachers from teaching. Almost 1600 university deans have been dismissed and the education ministry fired 15,000 employees.
Videos of soldiers being humiliated, beaten and almost lynched are circulating on social media. A coup is undemocratic and I couldn't support it under any circumstances, but the images of the riled masses are no less terrifying. These people say they're flooding the streets to defend democracy, but I wonder where they were exactly two months ago, when left-wing HDP MPs were stripped of their immunity. Why didn't they protest the unspeakably undemocratic Turkish electoral system, which excludes all parties that have less than 10% of the votes? Where are they when it comes to minority rights, why don't they stand up against the systematic exclusion of the opposition, the oppression of critical media, the persecution of journalists?
Screenshot of tweet by Deniz Yücel
Wednesday July 20th at 10PM – Erdoğan declares a state of emergency
After an hour-long meeting of the national security council President Erdoğan announces that he is declaring a state of emergency across the country. He says it's to protect the people – the freedom of assembly and movement remain intact, as do the freedom of speech and the free press, he claims. But that's not the political reality: we hear and read that people are arrested based on their social media posts. At least Erdoğan is honest about that when announces further arrests. My father's icy commentary is quick to follow: "This country has been in a state of emergency for years. Phases of stability are the exception. We'll see what this means for the country. I have a bad feeling about it."
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