In Istanbul, a life on hold as terrorism grips city
(The world is once again reeling from a series of terrorist attacks targeting major cities. Three suicide bombers in Brussels on Tuesday killed 34 people and injured more than 125 more. Last Saturday, terrorists struck in the center of Istanbul, close to where Gabi and I gathered with family and friends for a reunion in June. Our friend Muge Ertilav is manager of the Stories Hotel in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, located blocks from where Saturday’s blast occurred. A smart, savvy and delightful young woman, Muge helped us plan our reunion, became a friend and part of our expanded family while we made our way around Istanbul. I communicated with her after Saturday’s attack.)
Muge Ertilav was in class Saturday morning when the lecturer paused to check an alert on her phone. “Something happened in Istiklal,” said the professor, stunning the class with news that a suicide bomber had attacked the popular shopping and tourism destination at nearby Taksim Square in central Istanbul.
“I couldn’t understand…I always believed that terrorism cannot happen in Istiklal. It’s in the heart of Istanbul and there are thousands of people from all around the world walking on that street,” said Muge, 26, in an email days later. “No one can do this to all those people who are only here for traveling.” The attack has left Istanbul – and much of Turkey – in a state of crisis, paralyzed by the latest in a series of bombings throughout the country.
Five people, including two Israeli/Americans and the suicide bomber, died in Saturday’s attack, which also injured 35. The attack was launched at a relatively quiet time of day along a busy walking street in the heart of Istanbul. Had the attack occurred hours later, during the hectic evening hours when Istiklal is packed with shoppers and revelers, there would have been far more casualties.
Saturday’s bombing was the latest in a series of recent terrorist attacks in Turkey. On March 13, Kurdish insurgents killed 35 people and injured 125 more when two suicide bombers attacked a crowd in Ankara. On Jan 12, a Islamic State suicide bomb attack in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square near the famous Blue Mosque killed 10 and injured 15.
An attack on Istiklal was unthinkable, she said. Envision a suicide bomb in Times Square, or Faneuil Hall, or Oxford Street or the Champs Elysees, on a busy Saturday morning.
“The protection should be the most than any other places. I had the feeling that if it happens here in Istiklal, it would never be the same – and will not.”
Her immediate response to Saturday’s attack was similar to how people throughout the US reacted when the planes struck the Twin Towers.
“I grabbed my phone and started to check Twitter. It was true; it did happen in Istiklal. I was scrolling down on my screen and some people started to share photos from the scene. I saw body pieces, injured people, people who trying to ask for help with desperate faces. I can’t tell you how awful that was.
“I was crying silently in the classroom. My heart was beating so fast. I called my boyfriend who I left at home but didn’t know if he was out or not. Istiklal is where we walk everyday to go work, to buy coffee, to eat… Finally I reached him and he was safe.”
Meanwhile, police cordoned off the neighborhood as Istiklal became a crime scene.
“There was no access to the scene for a long while. Police closed the small streets that connect Istiklal. Body pieces were everywhere, on the shops’ windows, walls. For the first time I wanted to see the details cause I needed to know what I might be facing in the future. I’ve seen photos that show the badly wounded people.”
“Then my phone started to ring… calls from my friends and my family and my colleagues… They wanted to know if I am okay. They were so scared. When they heard my voice, they took a deep breath. You worry a lot if there is a little chance that your loved ones might be passing by that point.
I wanted to know if everyone I know is safe. I called the hotel I work and checked if all my guests are safe.”
Tourists canceled reservations, further devastating an industry already struggling with declining visitors worried about safety.
“There were already hundreds of hotels closed for the last 3-4 months,” she wrote. “Thousands of people works in this sector. We have been affected so badly.”
Some tourists reacted instantly to the attack.
“People even left the city on the same day. We had cancelation emails. Some expat guests were called back by their countries.”
The images will haunt her forever, she said, and for now have rendered a familiar neighborhood off limits.
“I still haven’t passed from Istiklal since Saturday. It is not that I am afraid. It is just I feel like I would feel that moment again and that would hurt me a lot. I am empathizing for those people for their loved ones…and it is even hard for someone like me.”
Like many Turks, Muge has questions about the government’s role in the cause of the ongoing conflicts as well as steps it took to prevent this and other attacks.
“We were warned about possible terror attacks by reason of Nevroz (the traditional Iranian new year celebrated by Kurdish society). “I don’t know by who, but we received a shared message says that 19 bomb attacks had been planned already in all around the country for 20th and 21st of March which is the dates of Nevroz. There have been photos shared from streets from shopping malls from squares that show all empty yesterday. “
Responding to reports of an imminent threat days before the attack, Germany closed its embassy in Ankara and consulate office in Istanbul.
“You may have heard of the warning by German Intelligence on Thursday. They warned their people and closed the German high school and the embassy which are located in Taksim. Other day (Friday) Turkish media was insulting Germany to make a false intelligence. Turkish media is sided by the government and they make headlines whatever they are asked to make.
“Some people might be thanking Germany to be warned before.”
She is resigned, bitter.
“There is of course enhanced police presence after bombing. But after bombing, does it matter?”
She wonders why the government is less effective at protecting its people and visitors than at controlling discourse and civil disobedience.
“It is always the same if something happens and conditions are against the government. They (install) jammers or slow down all communication. There are no limits on movement because the government believes that we should live like a normal day.”
Sporting events have been postponed. Istanbul’s notorious traffic jams are non-existent. Popular shopping areas, usually jammed at all hours, are eerily quiet.
“Meanwhile. we are all trying not to go out unless it is necessary.”
What is the future for Turkey?
“Whoever you ask this question to, they say, ‘We don’t know that’, except the 49%, of course (49% of Turkish citizens voted for the ruling AKP party in November of 2015. AKP is the party of controversial Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)
“I can’t define the meaning of ‘future’ while everyday life is such a risk.”
“Here is a total mess. Media is lying every day about good people. If we find something to laugh about in a day, we find ourselves lucky.”