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VICE News

Turks tell the story of a terrifying night as the coup attempt unfolded

Between Friday night and Saturday morning, the world did not know if Turkey had fallen under military rule. Neither did people in Turkey. This is what they saw as a night of violence unfolded.

by Alberto Riva and Asli Pelit
Jul 16 2016, 5:50pm

A man lays in front of a tank in the entrance to Istanbul's Ataturk airport, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. (Photo by Ismail Coskun/IHA via AP)

VICE News asked ordinary Turks, journalists, and visitors to describe what it was like to live through an attempted coup. They described a night both hectic and at times strangely quiet, in a state of suspended animation, while people tried to figure out what was going on and then, once they realized it was a military coup, scrambled for safety.

The stories they told have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Yagmur Cemberli, 26, student, Istanbul

I live in Atasehir, on the Anatolian side of Istanbul. It was a regular summer Friday night and I was at my cousin's wedding with my family in Bahcekoy, on the outskirts of Istanbul, on the European side. We were wearing chic clothes, dancing and sharing the happiness. A minute later it all changed. Alerts from news agencies were telling us the soldiers shut down the traffic on the two most important bridges in Istanbul, the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges.

The first thought came to my mind was that this would be a false report and probably there was nothing to worry about, but we had the fear inside that this was a coup. Since the reports were based on social media, I started going through Twitter trying to pick any tiniest information. In a few minutes everyone was checking their phones and leaving the wedding.

Apparently the soldiers had closed the roads only one way, from the Anatolian side to the European side. While we still had the chance to go back home, we left the worried newlyweds and their families, and got in the car.

The roads were clear until Balmumcu, almost on the water, but after that police were shutting the roads. They let us the pass as the last car, but then we encountered other road closings and there was no way to even come near the bridges. Making calls to our loved ones, friends and family to make sure they were safe and sound, we decided to leave the car in a parking lot in Carsi. The next thing I know, I was walking in my dress with high heels on, trying to catch the ferry to Uskudar, across the Bosphorus. Everyone in Carsi was leaving the pubs and cafes and restaurants to get to their homes. Worried faces were talking to each other trying to understand why this was happening.

"They were flying so low windows were shaking. It felt like they were bombing some place nearby"

We made it to Uskudar watching the empty Bosphorus Bridge in blue, white and red, commemorating Nice. We got in line for taxis as fast as we could but the drivers were unwilling to take passengers — they were scared by the military jets that were flying over Istanbul. My dad offered one driver 100 lira (a trip from Uskudar to Atasehir would cost 30) and he agreed to take us, so we were one step closer to coming home. Unfortunately it was almost impossible to not come across any police barricade. The driver was making a left, no that street was closed, then heading straight ahead, then making a right, nope, people were turning back, change the route again... trucks blocked some streets, police shut off others ... As we passed by, I witnessed people lined up to get cash from ATMs, lined up in front of grocery stores to buy whatever they could.

Two hours later we were home. We turned the TV on, phoned loved ones telling them that we are home safe and sound. As we were watching live the bombing of Parliament, the arrival of Erdogan to Istanbul, and the siege of CNN Turk, imams from mosques were calling on people to go in the streets and jets were flying low over our neighbourhood. They were flying so low windows were shaking. It felt like they were bombing some place nearby.

It was almost six in the morning when I went to bed. Attended a wedding, went through a military coup, watched the collapse of the military coup, listened to the noise of gunfights, heard the prayers from mosques... I had only one thought as I was falling asleep: No matter what's been happening in Turkey for the last 15 years, a coup is never, can never be, a solution.

Aliser Delek, 36, editor on duty at independent broadcaster CNN Turk

What happened at CNN Turk? First a helicopter landed in our garden. 5-6 soldiers came directly to the building and they told us to evacuate. Directors tried to resist but soldiers went up the stairs, the first two soldiers who arrived on our floor where very young and they were shaking. They told us that they were following orders. A captain came, he told us to stop the coverage. We told them we wouldn't. They raised their voices and pushed us around. We escorted some of our friends out, but suddenly many civilians came up the stairs. They walked straight to soldiers, screaming "No to the coup!" and they were chanting Allah-u ekber, God is great. Then came the police. Police and the civilians attacked the soldiers. The captain was arrested. It was hard to understand how cops felt about all this, but soldiers reminded me of children who admitted their mistake, they were all sitting in a corner.

People stream into the CNN Turk offices to chase soldiers out (Photo by Ali?er Delek)

The civilians who arrived to our offices to defend us against the soldiers had a "controlled anger" towards us. They came to help a group that they were told to hate for many years. Their goal was to stop the putschist soldiers but they did threaten CNN Turk staff and screamed at us whenever they had a chance. The reason their anger towards the journalists was controlled was no doubt the fact that CNN Turk was the first network where President Erdogan made his speech condemning the coup attempt. After him all his ministers joined in the news via CNN Turk. These televised stories controlled their anger.

Soldiers in camouflage outside the CNN Turk control room (Photo by Ali?er Delek)

Umut Akdag, 39, international tour guide

My flight from Budapest landed at Ataturk International Airport on Friday at 7:50 pm. I went through passport control around 8:15, left the airport at 8:30 and decided to take the metro to the center of the city. Initially there weren't many security checks at the airport. When I arrived at Yenikapi station at 9 pm in order to transfer to Marmaray (the underwater subway that connects European side to Asia) I was stopped by the police. Civilian policemen with police jackets on were searching bags by hand. I told them that my bag was too full to open, and it would be impossible to close again once they opened it and tried to get out of it, but the policeman told me (he was very calm and nice) that he did not want open anything really but the cameras were watching him and that I had to open it otherwise he would be in trouble. He opened and checked my bag and helped me close it. I took the train and arrived at Sirkeci. I was supposed to meet a friend but he said he was busy so I went to my hotel. Called my highschool friend Hasan who has a bar across the Bosphorus in Kadikoy, he said don't come, the bridges are closed. I thought they closed it because of a possible attack after what happened in Nice the night before. I was hungry so left the hotel to grab a bite. Suddenly I started getting messages from Facebook that the bridges were closed and that F-16s were flying over Ankara.

"Soldiers stopped the bus and told the driver to throw the keys in the water"

I was very close to the mayor's office, and thought, if this was really a coup they would be going there. I saw two big vehicles, they looked like Land Rovers, and the streets looked too empty, I got scared and started to walk the other way. Meanwhile restaurants were closing up, people on the streets looked scared. I had a bite to eat and called my family in Antalya. My sister and mother told me that the government was declaring martial law, and told me to get money from the bank. I managed to get some cash, called another friend and found out he was stuck in Sariyer due to police barricades. I waited for the tram that usually passes every 3 minutes. I waited for 25 minutes and nothing. I walked to my hotel and started watching the news, communicating with my friends and social media. One of my friends told me that he was at the metrobus that crosses the bridge, when soldiers stopped the bus and told the driver to throw the keys in the water and the passengers to walk away. Meanwhile I was hearing helicopters and planes on top of Sultanahmet.

I was very tired, I must have passed out briefly, suddenly I jumped out of the bed with an atrocious noise. It sounded like a fighter jet and it was too close to me, and then I heard the explosion towards the mayor's headquarters. I looked from the window, saw the flames. My friends called to check on me. I stayed up trying to find out what was going on. I fell asleep around 4 in the morning, woke up at 11 and by then the tram was working. Television and social media was working properly. I went to Harbiye to meet a friend. First called him to find out if Taksim area was safe. He told me that it was ok. Tram was free, and nobody was checking passengers for safety. It is 5:30 pm now, and the streets are eerily empty. Some people are walking around, holding Turkish flags, and as they usually do after a soccer game, those in their cars are honking their horns, chanting and singing "Ya Allah, Bismillah, Allah-u Ekber" — oh God, in the name of God, God is great.

Chloe Bordewich, 26, PhD student in History & Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She is in Istanbul for 8 weeks to study Turkish

Strangely enough, this was my second coup in three years: I was living in Cairo in 2013, when the military under Sisi wrested power from Mohamed Morsi. While there were certain things that were familiar to me, like the sound of jets flying low overhead, what was most different about this one was how unexpected it was.

"Our building shook, and I screamed and ran into the hall"

Last night I walked to central Besiktas to meet a group of friends for dinner. We had just sat down outside in one of the neighborhood's crowded alleys and were ordering our food when one of my friends checked his phone and announced that the army had sealed off the bridges here in Istanbul. My first thought was that there was intelligence of a terrorist threat. We looked around and noticed that many of the other people in the area were also glued to their phones and murmuring to each other. But the music was still playing loudly — it was the Beatles' "Hey, Jude" — and business went on as usual. Soon, though, the news updates came streaming in that it could be a coup, and possibly a curfew, so we decided to abandon the bottle of raki [Turkish aniseed liqueur] we'd just ordered and head home. I think it was about 11. In the street, we didn't see any soldiers, but it was only about a 15-minute walk home. Some people in Besiktas were still clearly enjoying their night out, making no move to leave, while others hurried away.

People assembled in Istanbul overnight to defy the coup (Photo by Berkay Inkaya)

When I got home, I joined my Turkish flatmates in front of the TV, where we stayed until about 3am. We watched as President Erdogan FaceTimed with the news anchor from an undisclosed location. Then we began hearing volleys of gunfire crackling like popcorn, most likely coming from the Bosphorus Bridge (about 2km/1.2 miles away from my apartment). We went to the balcony and saw the neighbors leaning out their windows, trying (like us) to figure out how far away we were from the fighting. Throughout the night, we also heard the loud drone of the army's jets flying low overhead. Sometimes they seemed very, very close. I went to sleep at 3am, only to be woken by a thunderous explosion half an hour later. Our building shook, and I screamed and ran into the hall. Of course it woke my flatmates too, and we hovered in the hallway for a few minutes trying to figure out where the safest place was to sit, or hide. This was the scariest part of the night by far. "Stay away from the windows," we told each other. Back on TV, the army had just taken over CNN Türk: the camera was still on but the anchor's desk was empty.

Eventually, the skies quieted down and we were able to sleep. When I woke up mid-morning today, I learned that the coup had failed and everything was back to "normal." The buses were running, stores were open, and people were back in the street.

Berkay Inkaya, 28, engineer

I dropped my girlfriend off at to Beylikduzu and took the metrobus. When we arrived in Avcilar area, we found out that the highway E-5 was shut down. The guy next to me jokingly said "What is going on, a coup?"

I checked Twitter and found out that the Bosphorus Bridge was closed down. We thought it was a terrorist attack. When our bus arrived in Florya, police officers got on the bus and told us that the army took over the country. They told us to leave the bus, and took the keys from the driver. I hitchhiked from there to the Old Town of Istanbul. Before we even got there, soldiers stopped us and asked us to leave the area. We took a different route and arrived in Bakirkoy. He dropped me there and i started walking on E-5 and saw a cop, he was crying and shooting blanks into the air.

"We are terrified. Hope we will never have to go through this again"

I joined another group around Zeytinburnu. We took all the side streets and arrived in Bayrampasa. There we saw the SWAT team, they were trying to stop three tanks and a group of of soldiers, there were a thousand civilians helping the SWAT team. They were making a wall between the police and the soldiers.

We walked past them, and I arrived at my house. I saw hundreds of people in front of the Eyup Police Precinct and all the mosques were broadcasting on loudspeakers "Allahu ekber".

When I finally arrived home, I saw the jets bombing the parliament building in Ankara on live television together with my family. I did not vote for [Erdogan's Islamist party] AKP, I am a nationalist conservative member of a family from the Balkans. As all Turkish citizens who love their country, I condemn these events. We are terrified. Hope we will never have to go through this again.

Zehra Arslan, 27, teacher

It was an ordinary Friday evening for us. We went out with friends aiming to end the hard and tiring week in a nice way. We came to Taksim Square via subway from Mecidiyeköy but there was a strict check at the entrance of the subway station, more than normal days. I even asked the security guys why, and they said it was for precaution. We joked with him and passed.

Everything was normal when we stepped out at Taksim Square. We were a bunch of young people and only wanted cold drinks. The moment we entered the pub, social media was swirling with news of soldiers blocking the suspended bridge over the Bosphorus with tanks, and no traffic was allowed from the Anatolian side of the city to the European side.

It all changed in half an hour. Groups that were having fun half an hour ago started to run in panic.

Next was the news of the coup. We didn't give credit to the news initially and tried to get more details through media. We realized that it wasn't baloney and our families and friends who knew we were out started to call us, saying that there was a coup and it could get worse so we should get home fast.

It all changed in half an hour. Groups that were having fun half an hour ago started to run in panic. We couldn't find a taxi and learned that the roads towards Mecidiyeköy were all blocked. I tried to shot a few snaps on our way, i just wanted to capture the situation only to remind myself that it was not a dream. I thought everything was a dream!

It's very sad, but these are very traumatic days and we trust no one. Anyway, despite of all the risks, we decided to go back via subway. It was the most crowded subway that i have ever seen. Everybody was talking about the coup, and whether the news was real. We didn't know what was waiting for us the moment we came out of the subway.

Mecidiyeköy was like Texas, like you see in movies, everywhere was full of special forces police teams, all roads were blocked, people on the streets were running on the main artery either to the grocery stores to stock food or to ATMs to draw extra money, or simply running home. The lines in front of the ATMs were becoming longer every moment.

We were also hearing the loud sounds of TV news from the shops describing the situation over and over. We finally came home and the moment we were in, we called all our friends that we are safe and sound. We also learned that some of our friends were still out on the streets.

We turned on the TV and got the latest news and talked about what will happen next. The most irritating thing was the jets with very loud sounds.

Around 2 am all the mosques started to pray from the minarets all over the city. It was so weird. This was chaos and we didn't know how to cope with it.

We stayed awake as much as we could but we all dozed off and when we got up in the morning there were so many unanswered questions. If this is a coup, how it is over in five hours? Too much uncertainty in our minds.

Follow Alberto Riva on Twitter: @AlbertoRiva

Follow Asli Pelit on Twitter: @brefootcontessa