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Story Publication logo September 26, 2013

Turkey: Death in Armutlu


Turkey Under Protest

When protests flooded Turkey, they revealed deep problems. Police brutality, authoritarianism, and a...

Media file: dsc_1189.jpg
Family members in Armutlu walk in memory of protesters killed during clashes with the police. Image by Jenna Krajeski. Turkey, 2013.

On the night that Ahmet Atakan died, Armutlu — the Antakya neighborhood where he had been protesting — was consumed by tear gas. In security footage taken at a nearby shop, flecks of gas swirl past the lens and great white billows, one after another, heave off the darkened pavement like ghosts. A friend of Atakan described his death like the climactic act of a war movie: The roar of police, the frenzy of fighting and running and throwing things, the crack of canister launchers, and the curtain of tear gas which lifts to reveal his friend on the ground. In Armutlu it is widely believed that police use excessive tear gas in order to obscure their worse aggression both from the people on the street and the numerous mounted cameras that might record it.

Further videos released by Turkish police — intended to prove that Atakan died falling from a rooftop and not after being hit by a tear gas canister — show armored Akrep ("scorpion") vehicles at a little past 1 a.m. driving slowly down Gündüz Street by the mostly empty sidewalks and shuttered stores, below the black windows of six-story apartment buildings. From the lip of an Akrep comes a loud crack, followed by a thick streak of orange sparks — the now ubiquitous sound and image of a tear gas canister being discharged at night.

One orange streak runs parallel to the ground, shot in the direction of a side street. Two more shots are angled upward, possibly at balconies or rooftops where protesters have been known to station themselves in order to heave things — bricks, chairs, by a few accounts a washing machine — onto police vehicles. A few voices yell inaudibly. Something that looks like a cinderblock falls next to a scorpion and is immediately pulverized. At about 1:04 in the morning a body appears in the lower left of the frame. It tumbles violently off the sidewalk and into the road, the white band of an undershirt glowing in the Akrep's headlights.

Armutlu is a small neighborhood in Antakya, a Turkish city close to the Syrian border. Protests have been common here since the conflict began in Syria over two years ago, and since the Gezi Park protests started in May they have become intolerably violent. The neighborhood, I was told over and over, is staunchly "anti-war," objecting to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's call for intervention in Syria and his admittance of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey. Armutlu, like a lot of Antakya, is mostly Alawite, a Shiite minority of Arab descent with close cultural — and often family — ties to Syrian Alawites, like Bashar al-Assad. "Anti-war" I quickly came to realize was, for these Alawites, a politically correct term for "pro-Assad."

When car bombs in nearby Reyhanli killed over fifty people last May the protests intensified. Alawites in Armutlu were nervous about the spillover of violence into Turkey, angry at the war in Syria and the refugees, and felt they were being blamed for both. In a speech following the bombs Erdoğan mourned the "fifty-three Sunni citizens," which seemed to Alawites a clear disavowal of non-Sunnis. Pro-Assad protests had already isolated Armutlu, and the bombs — extensions of Assad's bombs — entombed them. But it's only since May, when an environmental sit-in in Istanbul's Gezi Park spiraled into nationwide anti-government protests, that Armutlu has been, as a local aid worker described it to me, a "war zone." Out of six protesters who have died during clashes with the police in the past four months of Gezi Park-inspired protests, three were Alawites from Antakya and two -- Abdullah Cömert and Atakan -- died on Gündüz Street.

"At first the Gezi protests were really peaceful. There were lots of people, normal people, not just activists," Melisa, a local activist told me while we drank tea on Saray Caddesi, a pedestrian shopping street where the Gezi protests had originated. "But people were walking everyday, and so the police started to attack with gas bombs and water." The new violence pushed the protests from the main square to a less desirable neighborhood where protests were already a fixture and where nonresidents would have little reason to visit and no real need to pass through. They moved to Armutlu.

At first, according to Melisa, the protesters followed, including people who had come in from around the city to shout "We are all Taksim." But the solidarity didn't last long. Some visitors to Armutlu, like a Syrian couple I met in a local hostel, were turned off by the pro-Assad rhetoric that tended to pierce the Gezi chants. After leaving Damascus, their house had been destroyed by former colleagues. Their parents update them by saying "We're still alive." The pro-Assad chants "hurt too much," the husband told me. Others were simply frightened. "After the first death people started leaving," Melisa said. But, she assured me, the sentiment of Gezi didn't stop just because the protests were centered in Armutlu. "People don't sleep," she said. "They are always thinking about the protests. But they are afraid to go."

Gündüz street, where Atakan and Cömert died, is about nine blocks long. Each end is capped with a busy roundabout which during the day spins traffic in both directions down Gündüz, past grocers, liquor stores, and the kind of photo studios which will transfer wedding photos onto tapestries. At night, when a protest is scheduled, the street is primed for clashes. Protesters first try to march past the BP gas station at one end of Gündüz to a bridge which will take them out of the Alawite area. Most people I spoke to are convinced that if they made it to a Sunni neighborhood the residents there would join their protest in the spirit of Gezi. The police try to disperse them and prevent them from reaching the bridge, and those who remain to fight -- mostly young men like Atakan and Cömert -- do so under the impression that the police, and Erdoğan, are trying to replace anti-government protests with sectarian war.

The protesters seal off the ends of the street with dumpsters and to this barricade staple they add furniture, building material, detritus from a semi-torn road. "People gather together their trash and give it to us," Samat Girişken, Atakan's best friend, told me one evening in Antakya's Antik Park. Police approach Gündüz in Akreps or TOMA trucks — armored vehicles with mounted water cannons — which are capable of rolling past barricades. They fire tear gas and rubber bullets. The night Atakan died Girişken was hit in the foot with a tear gas canister; he says he was taken to the hospital about ten minutes before Atakan. Like everyone eager to document police actions, Girişken took photos with his cell phone before doctors dressed his foot in a hard white cast. The photos show a foot swollen to twice its size, jaundiced with iodine. A small rectangle of gauze sits near the big toe. Girişken flipped through a dozen images, holding his phone out toward me.

The events in Taksim Square and Gezi Park inspired protests and validated existing ones. LGBT activists, feminists, environmentalists, anti-capitalist Muslims — marginalized groups — used Gezi as a megaphone and got the world's attention. The aggression of the police united people and now their clear impunity in being aggressive may have the same effect. It wasn't a perfect unity, but it wasn't false. Even in geographic isolation — and even with the stigma of supporting Assad — the residents of Armutlu haven't completely severed their link with the rest of Gezi protesters. After he died, Atakan was used as inspiration for renewed demonstrations across Turkey. He became a symbol of police violence and the struggle for freedom of expression. In Armutlu, Atakan is remembered for both these things, but to the Alawites living there he also represents something else: that even among the Gezi protesters there are limits, and consequences, to free speech.

I spoke to a nurse who had been on duty the night Atakan was taken to the hospital. Like much of Armutlu she views their beleaguerment as a product of their links to the Assad regime. Because of this, she thinks, they have become pariahs. Her political beliefs may be extreme, but her grievance could be a Gezi motto. "For the past two and a half years our lives here have been messed up," she told me. "Just because we use our basic human right to protest we are targeted."

On Sunday September 22, Atakan's family led a march from the place where he died to the graveyard where he is buried. A few hundred people attended the march, wearing black and carrying red carnations. Some carried photos of the young man, mounted on pink styrofoam or framed, like the one held by Atakan's mother. The walk took about an hour; they stopped every once in a while to clap or raise their fists and flowers in the air. Three dumpsters at the end of Gündüz Street — a thin barricade which served mainly as a symbol — were moved easily so the crowd could pass. Atakan's family walked heavy with grief, holding each other's arms. At the graveyard his mother's wails were like a sonic boom. Later a friend would whisper to me in worried tones about a conversation he overheard at the graveyard. A few teenage boys had been discussing how much they wanted to die the way that Ahmet Atakan died.

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