Kaan Inan (SFS ’14), who is from Istanbul, found himself in the midst of tear gas being thrown by Turkish police on June 1, the fifth day of the protests. The protests began in Taksim Square as a peaceful demonstration against the proposed razing of nearby Gezi Park into a shopping mall. Protests escalated after footage of police brutality on May 28, the day before demolition was scheduled, went viral. Inan was standing in the front of the park when police announced they would allow protesters to enter while they surrounded the most easily accessible entrance, leaving a hillside that provided for limited mobility for protesters to come and go.
“There were gas bombs going off all over. We were kind of prepared — we had gas masks,” Inansaid. “That’s when it got really bad — you couldn’t breathe for three or four minutes. I watched my friend collapse on the ground. We ran down the hillside and onto side streets.”
On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister RecepErdogan issued a harsh warning to protesters and threatened a crackdown if they did not end the protests and clear Taksim Square. The threat comes after he offered a compromise in the form of a referendum on the fate of Gezi Park to protest leaders Wednesday. Despite Erdogan’s efforts to end the protests, the size of the demonstrations grew Thursday.
A group of Georgetown students teaching English in southeastern Turkey as a part of Learning Enterprises, an organization that sends international volunteers to teach in various countries, encountered the protests while attending orientation in Istanbul the weekend after protests began. The volunteers were walking to their hostel when they were forced to turn around while crossingTaksim Square.
“We started walking towards the hostel and suddenly our throats started to close up,” LE volunteer Molly Wartenberg (SFS ’16) said. “I thought the air was just too dry for me until we walked in the square and saw a gang of police officers with shields and gas masks.”
The protests in Taksim Square, the center of political and cultural life in Istanbul, have now spread to more than 60 cities across Turkey. Three people have died while nearly 5,000 have been injured since May 28, The New York Times reported.
“The big reaction to Istanbul was expected, but the reactions across Turkey, that wasn’t expected,” Inan said.
In Washington, Turkish students have attempted to rally the campus community, signing a “letter from concerned Turkish Georgetown students” to increase awareness of violence in Turkey and request support from the Georgetown community.
“Georgetown is a very powerful community, between the professors and students,” Merjan Bubernack (MSB ’15) said. “I think we appeal to the community through this letter just to have the voices heard, the perspective of the young Turk, the person who is out there protesting and might not be heard through the media.”
Bubernack and Cem Yolbulan (SFS ’13) were among 150 people to attend a rally in Lafayette Square on Saturday.
“I went because I felt it was the least that I could do. Although I can’t be physically at the protests in Turkey, if I were there, I would be there,” Bubernack said. “But this is what I could do to show support for the cause, show support for my friends who are participating in Turkey.”
Most protesters, who are generally young, educated and liberal, object to the restrictive actions of Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party, which has acted in what many see as an authoritarian rather than democratic way, though Erdogan speaks about his government as a democratic model to be followed by Muslim countries rising up against dictators.
His government has often jailed journalists in opposition to his platforms and enacted reforms restricting alcohol and banning public displays of affection on public transportation, though Turkey is a secular state.
“The current government and prime minister have grown increasingly authoritarian and oppressive over the 11 years they have been in power,” Yolbulan said. “Turkey has the highest number of jailed journalists in the world, and the conservative Islamist government is trying to impose its worldview on the lifestyles of its citizens.”
Bubernack said she believes that this authoritarianism has been overshadowed by the economic successes achieved during Erdogan’s term.
“Erdogan has been in power for 10 years now,” she said. “From the beginning, he did do good things. The economy has boomed while he has been prime minister. There have been good things coming out of it, but there have been over the years little things that people are starting to wonder: where is this going?’”
The demonstrations have been compounded by perceived corruption of Turkish media, which have been accused of reporting incorrect information regarding the protests.
“The media have lost a lot of credibility because sometimes they just go out and lie so obviously that people can no longer believe them,” Inan said. “It can be very hard for people to negotiate on both sides because the trust factor is just gone.”
This was clear to Inan after turning on the television and hearing contradictory messages just channels apart.
“The Istanbul mayor and governor had a joint press conference; they were saying now there would be absolutely no more police interaction [with protesters],” Inan said. “As they said that, I flipped the channel and could see the police throwing water and gas bombs on the crowd. It’s just a total contradiction.”
Instead, Inan and his friends rely on international and social media outlets.
“Turks abroad use social media — we have to, there’s no one in the protests that trust Turkish media anywhere,” Inan said. “The international media, although they don’t have all the tools, they are more objective.”
But social media have been curbed to a certain extent by government censorship.
“Censorship has been a big issue. People are starting to get afraid that their voice is being heard today,” Bubernack said. “Twenty-five people were arrested for writing about the protests on Twitter, just very basic things that you would think come naturally are being taken away in Turkey.”
In the face of police brutality, protesters have developed a sense of community in Taksim Square.
“You see people handing out food to each other, singing Turkish songs. There’s a makeshift library, a children’s center and tents all around,” Inan said. “When I was there Wednesday, it was a holy day. There were conservative Muslims handing out free food, people from very different lifestyles just meshing with each other. … What was more surprising was just how everyone was able to relate to each other.”
Bubernack, whose extended family lives in Turkey, has also witnessed this phenomenon.
“My cousin is a general manager of a company in Turkey and he is out there protesting with his wife. I have university student friends who are out there protesting. It is definitely a communal process,” she said. “Every day I’ve been sending them texts: ‘Is everyone OK? Is everyone safe?’ And the overwhelming response has been, ‘Yes we’re safe, we’re just very proud and we’re out there voicing our concerns.’”
To keep Georgetown students safe, LE Program Director Adele Stewart (NHS ’13) relied on information from the U.S. State Department to determine if it would be safe for volunteers to travel across the square before heading to the group’s destination in Adiyaman, Turkey.
Earlier this year, Georgetown cancelled its summer program in Alexandria, Egypt, after monitoring State Department information that predicted increased protests in response to food and fuel shortages, though the university is still expecting to send students to Cairo in the fall.
Georgetown does not offer a summer study abroad program in Turkey, but students are planning to study at the McGhee Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies in Alanya, a coastal city in southwestern Turkey, in September.
“If the situation remains similar to what it is now or dies down, which I really hope that it would, the safety issue is not a large one because we have evacuation plans, all of those programs have very, very clear processes in place in case of any emergencies,” Office of International Programs Executive Director Katherine Bellows said.
Even if demonstrations quiet down, Inan and other Turkish students see Turkey facing a much larger issue than the original contention over Gezi Park.
“In the long term, people are concerned about police violent reaction,” Inan said. “This goes all around in Turkey — Kurdish violence in the southeast gets almost no attention. They are also concerned about the government intervening in other people’s lives.”
“I’m not in any way able to say where it will go. I can say that I hope it doesn’t fizzle out, I hope it doesn’t come to nothing,” Bubernack said. “If anything, at least it’s showing a voice, it’s showing a different side than what the world knows of Turkey right now. There is still this beating heart, there is still this questioning and this pride of what Turkey used to be.”
Hoya Staff Writer Eitan Sayag contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.
Photos courtesy Merjan Bubernack, Mutu Yolbulan and Kaan Inan