On Friday, July 15th 2016, a contingent of the Turkish armed forces attempted to overthrow the elected government of Turkey. I was in Istanbul at the time, and this is my recollection of what happened throughout the night.
That evening, military forces broke into the broadcasting room of TRT News and handed the anchorwoman a document, which they forced her to read on-air.
“The Turkish Armed Forces have taken over control in order to restore constitutional order, democracy, maintain human rights and freedom. The political administration has lost all legitimacy has been forced to withdraw.”
She then concluded the broadcast by declaring the imposition of martial law, with a curfew in effect until further notice.
10:02 pm: Friend’s Rooftop
I had gotten together with a small group of friends in the sleepy Istanbul neighborhood that I reside in. On the menu for the evening was dinner and cocktails–an excuse to get together and have a few drinks and a bit of lively conversation amongst fellow ex-pats.
After finishing dinner we retired to the rooftop balcony to imbibe in the cool air of the summer night. Someone’s phone notification went off–there was a apparently a coup going down at that very moment.
We all proceeded to get on our phones to verify if this was, indeed, the case. Drinks sat untouched on the balcony as we all independently confirmed that yes, the Turkish army has blocked–with tanks–the two main bridges that separate the eastern and western parts of the city.
We try and see if we can spot any disturbances from our view overlooking the Golden Horn–the strait that separates the two main areas of western Istanbul. Squinting, we can make out what seems to be a line of stopped traffic on the Atatürk Bridge, just south of us. Apparently, traffic to the north is backed up, but traffic heading southward seems to be fine. Other than that, there isn’t any visible sign of unrest.
An announcement had been made on TV just a short while earlier that the military was now in control. All flights in and out of Ataturk International Airport–the third largest in Europe–had been cancelled. The president’s residence in the capital of Ankara was under siege. The president himself–Recep Tayyip Erdoğan–was nowhere to be found.
Needless to say, this put a bit of a damper on our get-together. We decided to disperse and head to our respective homes to see how the night played out, but not before withdrawing cash from the ATM and stocking up on essentials, such as water. That’s what the locals were doing, and they’ve been through this type of thing before–they know how it is.
11:36 pm: My Apartment
I dragged a couple of 10 liter water jugs up the three flights of stairs leading to my apartment. First thing I do is check the news on my laptop to see if there are any coup updates.
The president is in an undisclosed location, outside of Istanbul. Using the Facetime app on his iPhone, he urged government supporters to take to the streets in Istanbul and Ankara to show their support of the government.
Both the current government and the military claim to be in control, but from what I see on the news it looks like the military has the upper hand at the moment. The government seems to have been caught completely off-guard.
I look out from my balcony, but I still can’t see or hear anything out of place.
Is this going to be the first successful coup in Turkey in twenty years? Will this be the eve of a new chapter in Turkish history?
I decided that I had to go and see for myself. If history was being made, I wasn’t going to sit idly by and miss out on experiencing it firsthand.
12:50 am: Atatürk Bridge
Good thing I decided to walk, because the bridge we had glimpsed from the rooftop was now completely closed to vehicle traffic. A few people were crossing on foot, but all in the opposite direction that I was heading in.
Upon making my way across the expanse I spotted a group of men standing around the closed gates. Some were yelling loudly, some were arguing, and some were filming the proceedings with their mobile phones. I made my way over to the opposite side and sat for a while, observing what was going on.
Now, unlike some countries I travel to, I’ve found that I can (somewhat surprisingly) easily pass for Turkish most of the time. As long as I keep my mouth shut that is (I speak enough Turkish to get by, and my accent is pretty convincing, but once the conversation goes beyond the basics I’m quickly outed as a foreigner). I used this fact to my advantage, keeping quiet while constantly checking my phone for updates. No one paid much attention to me.
This was definitely one of those times that I wished I spoke better Turkish though. Why are those two guys fighting? Who put this group of seemingly random dudes in charge of the gates that closed access to the bridge? Which side are they on–the military, or the government? There wasn’t much I could do besides guess.
Across the Golden Horn bridge. It’s closed to vehicle traffic. Crowds on either side, fighting verbally.
— Scott Brills (@scottbrills) July 15, 2016
Cars keep coming over from the south side of the bridge, but upon seeing the closed gates they do a U-turn and head back in the direction they came. After about 15 minutes of what seemed to be a back and forth debate, the crowd decides to open the gates on the bridge, thus allowing vehicle traffic to resume.
A few cars trickle in and the crowd slowly disperses. I keep hearing the word “Taksim”, and guessed that the bulk of them were heading to the main city square, to join fellow protesters.
I decided to head in the same direction.
1:42 am: Taksim Square
After a fair bit of walking through the deserted city streets, I arrive at what is definitely a mass protest taking place. Taksim has a long and illustrious history of hosting gatherings of all sorts, and tonight was definitely going to be one of those.
In the center of the square sits a statue commemorating the formation of the modern Turkish republic in 1923. At the moment, it’s covered with people waving Turkish flags, singing in unison, with some perched at the top waving homemade banners. The situation doesn’t look to be all that unruly, and I assume that these are just pro-government citizens doing what their president asked of them: go to public places and show your support.
The crowd consists mostly of men–of all ages–although a few of the younger ones on the periphery seem to be with their girlfriends. Although there was definitely tension in the air, there didn’t seem to be any outward violence happening.
Many in the crowd had their phones out to record the historic gathering. I followed their lead and did a bit of the same, while simultaneously sending out a few tweets to update on what the situation was like. I circled around the monument to grab a few different angles of the scene–it was dark, and the lighting was harsh, so I needed to take a few shots to get anything decent.
I was about to grab a video clip of everyone climbing all over the monument when everyone started running away from the center, towards me. I followed their lead, and jumped into an empty fountain along with two other men, crouching behind a small stone wall. I didn’t know what was happening, but in these situations I’ve found that it’s generally best to follow the lead of the locals. After a few moments of nothing happening we got back up. Everyone proceeded to return to what they were doing.
I headed just a bit north to see a long line of barricade gates surrounded by police officers. They were suited up in bulletproof vests, with some shouldering assault rifles, while others had small arms drawn. The general mood was one of confusion. People porously moved in and out of the barricade gates while the masses of police officers stood watching the protesters on the monument. There were no arrests happening, although a few were giving orders to a few of the protesters. Most seemed to just be…waiting.
I heard shots fired. From where? Targeting what? I was around the crowd of police, and it didn’t seem to be from them. A group suddenly appears carrying an older man towards the barricade. He’s shot in the leg. He was one of the protesters by the monument, where I was standing just a couple minutes earlier. A few of the good samaritans head off and search for an ambulance. Many of them are just crowding around to take pictures with their phones. A voice of reason tells them to put their damn phones away and back up to give the guy room (well, that’s how I translated it in my head).
Who shot this guy? Was it the police? I didn’t see any military guys around…and why would they be shooting at civilians? It didn’t make sense, and I could understand why it seemed like no one knew what was going on–because no one did.
At Taksim square right now. Hundreds of protesters–presumably in favor of the government. A few people shot, presumably by police. #turkey
— Scott Brills (@scottbrills) July 15, 2016
An ambulance roars up, sirens blaring. It stops a ways away, while a few people tending to the man look up in consternation. Oh–it’s picking up a different gunshot victim. Another ambulance shows up, next to the first. Then a third ambulance arrives, and the crowd assists the wounded man into the back before the it speeds out of the square.
I didn’t want to get in the line of fire, so I proceed past the gates to the north of the square where bystanders are watching the scene unfold. I figure that the dozens of police officers in front of me should afford decent protection should something happen.
2:42 am: North Taksim
From across the road I can see the central police headquarters. Officers stream in and out of the compound, with crowd control trucks–complete with battering rams and water hoses–heading off to some unknown destination (which turned out to be the bridges that were blockaded by the military).
I can’t see much from this angle, and the gunfire seemed to have stopped, so I start circling around to the northeast where there is a raised area that other people seem to be spectating from. I try and head straight across an empty part of the square towards the monument, but a group of police officers yells at me to not proceed further, so I turn around and look for another route. To my left is an area covered with trees, with a staircase leading up to the top. I head up the stairs and am yet again told off by a police officer, who seemed to be doing recon from atop the platform. I mutter an apology and hurriedly make my way out of the trees, circling around to the area where some people had gathered to watch the protesters from afar.
As I sit on the steps to regain my breath, an Arabic news channel reporter live streams coverage of the events in front of me. Things seem to be dying down. I hadn’t heard any gunfire for a while now, and the crowd seemed to be dispersing a bit.
The police use a loudspeaker and make an announcement. A foreign reporter walking nearby asks those around me if anyone can translate. Apparently the military has given up–the coup is effectively over. The majority of the crowd starts cheering and clapping.
— Scott Brills (@scottbrills) July 16, 2016
After a few minutes I get up and continue circling the perimeter of the square, taking pains to not traverse too close to anything I shouldn’t. Just before I get back to the monument I see a military truck parked by itself off to the side. There’s a driver inside in his uniform and helmet, with a growing crowd of people surrounding the truck, angrily confronting him. It’s the first military personnel I’ve seen all night. I wonder where all of his buddies are, and why he’s just sitting there by himself. (I later found out that more military personnel had been at the base of the monument when I had first arrived, but had been surrounded by the crowds.)
Things seemed to take a turn for the worse, because more and more people begin to shout at the driver. He slowly puts the truck in reverse, heading towards the line of police. I continue walking towards the monument.
3:03 am: Monument of the Republic
There’s still a sizeable number of protesters at the statue, although the people climbing to the top and waving banners from before are now gone. I see blood all over the street, on the curb. I don’t remember seeing that there before.
What looks like a small commercial delivery truck is parked right next to the monument. How’d that get there? WHY is that there? It too is surrounded by people, some of whom are hitting the side of it with their hands, while others argue with the driver.
I start to get a bad feeling in my gut, and figure it’s time to head out. It’s getting a bit too quiet.
Just then a jet flies directly overhead and makes the loudest sound you can image–a sound like a bomb going off at close range. At the same time a hail of gunfire erupted out of somewhere towards the north, where the police barricades were. People started fleeing in every direction. I ran as fast as I could towards the main street, around the corner and away from danger. I run as if my life depends on it. I’m scared.
(Below is a recording of what was happening around me, as I sent a voice message to a friend.)
I make it around the corner. People continue running down Istiklal street, the main commercial artery of midtown. A few slow down a bit, sensing they are out of danger. Nobody turns back to return to the monument. Nobody heads to see what exactly just happened, or if anyone got hurt. It’s everyone for themselves at this point.
Another blast of gunfire. This time from an old man just across the street from me, who for some reason has a pistol in his hand, which he is firing into the air. Myself and a few others start running yet again, this time down a side alley, then continuing even further along another route perpendicular to that.
Gunfire erupted yet again, from the direction of the square. I got back on my phone to send another voice message, but just then another flyover created one hell of a blast, rattling the windows all around me.
OK–I’m done. No more. Time to head home.
4:14 am: Homeward Bound
Upon reaching the bridge I had crossed hours earlier, I find that although the gates are open, traffic is a mess, with police riot trucks on either side of the road. In addition, someone has parked a backhoe in the middle of the road for some reason, and taxi drivers are yelling at him to move it out of the way. Traffic is flowing in both directions on both sides of the bridge, albeit slowly. Incoming traffic (to the Taksim side) is pretty much at a standstill because of a pile-up.
I arrive home just after five in the morning. I’m shaking from the massive release of cortisol in my system, even an hour after the last round of shooting happened.
I continue to hear a few more F-16’s strafing the square all the way from my room–the crowds must still be there. Tenacious! I check the news for updates once more.
My neighborhood is still silent as could be–you would never know what was happening just a couple miles to the north.
Eventually my nerves calmed down enough to make sleep a possibility. Time for bed.
The next afternoon everything seemed to be pretty much back to normal. No more jets flying overhead, no more sounds of gunfire from across the water.
Apparently the soldiers manning the tank blockades on the bridges surrendered peacefully just after sunrise, once they were surrounded by police forces and angry protesters. Holdouts in Ankara continued fighting from inside of the ransacked presidential palace for another day or so, but they too eventually had no choice but to give up.
The president, back in Istanbul (he had apparently been on holiday in the south of the country), has already rounded up over 6,000 military personnel, judges, police officers, and other political adversaries that he says were a part of instigating the coup.
Some people say that the president himself orchestrated the entire thing, and that is was just a ploy to assert power, prevent any real coup attempts, and to swiftly dispose of any dissidents in the ranks. President Erdoğan says it was a plot orchestrated by his political opponent– Fethullah Gulen–who is in exile in the United States. Gulen, for his part, initially released a statement opposing the coup, but now states that Erdoğan was probably behind it all along. We will most likely never know for sure what the truth is.
The next night pro-government crowds once again gathered at the Monument to the Republic–this time in celebration.
Cars drove up and down the promenade, honking their horns incessantly, while passengers hung out the windows and cheered.
Families gathered, waving their Turkish flags on the same spot where blood had been spilled just the night before.
What a difference a day can make.