BY AHMET KOÇAK
July 15, 2016, was a long tiring day. I had landed in the United Kingdom just a day before. I was staying in a large dormitory in Leicester along with a dozen teachers and some 30 students, a group under my responsibility during our stay. We had just settled in, so we played a little football match with the kids to pass the time. I was on my way back to the compound when my phone buzzed with messages from my friends back in Turkey, saying there was a military movement, which seemed like a coup. At first, I thought they were having fun with me as I had left the country only a day ago; I didn’t know how wrong I was.
There wasn’t much to go on at first glance. There was little news of soldiers and tanks roaming around, but it hardly seemed like a full-fledge coup was underway. Hearing stories from my parents and elderly about the coups of yesteryears, from the 20th century where all hell broke loose, this seemed like the early response to a terrorist threat or the beginnings of a weird military practice.
I arrived at the dormitory and headed for a shower, after which I decided to turn on my laptop. I checked the live feed of Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) – a Turkish public broadcaster – from its website, thinking it would provide a clear picture.
There was no feed.
It was at this moment that anxiety set in; something was happening. As I scoured the various news outlets for details, the voice of Tijen Karaş, the veteran news anchor of TRT, pierced through the silence.
The putschists had stormed the TRT headquarters in Ankara and were holding Karaş at gunpoint, forcing her to read the coup statement signed by “Peace at Home Council.”
The couple of minutes were fearful as the statement was read. I had difficulty digesting what I was seeing. What was I seeing? In the stories I know of previous coups, once the statement was read, it’s over; the coup was done. Yet, this affair – which looked like a coup and sounded like a coup but acted like a coordinated terrorist attack – seemed far from over.
Out of frying pan
It was a terrorist attack. After the waters calmed, we began to unravel the mess behind the July 15 coup attempt and it was a mess. The masterminds behind the terrorist attack that took the shape of an attempted coup were the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and its U.S.-based leader, Fetullah Gülen.
Once the attempt was thwarted by the courageous acts of the Turkish people, the reaction against FETÖ would be swift and just. It would also lay bare how much this terrorist group had infiltrated our country, institutions and army.
However, at the time, we were in the dark.
I was alone in my room, thousands of kilometers away in a quiet part of Leicester, my eyes wide open, looking through the internet, hunting for more information, incessantly refreshing every news page every minute.
Into the fire
The coup plotters occupied the famous bridge across the Bosporus, fighter planes were flying over Istanbul and Ankara and TRT was taken hostage. As the night began to set in, the fear grew.
I was in constant touch with my friends in Istanbul who were now on their way to the then Atatürk Airport, which was also under occupation. My family was in Ankara witnessing the bombardment of the Grand National Assembly.
Around that time came the faithful moment as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went on news channels to decry the attempt and call out the terrorists as he urged the people to take to the streets, take a stand.
Many were already out, but the president’s call meant an incredible outpour of people who had the courage to defy the terrorists.
I watched from almost a continent away as my fellow countrymen sacrificed their lives. It was one of my life’s most strange, unique and terrifying experiences. Even though I was not in any immediate danger, I was not one of those trying to take back the bridge, I was almost as terrified as if planes were flying overhead.
I was away from my country, where the shocking events played out. I didn’t know to what kind of a country I was going to return, I didn’t know if there was going to be a country left to return to. I didn’t know what was going to happen to my friends, to my family. I was, I thought, in a kind of “exile.”
There was nothing I could do, no action I could take, no step that could make a change and that is a terrible feeling – to be helpless and yet control your emotions – I found out that night. The feeling of uselessness, hopelessness, fear and despair.
Then, the news of the people’s resistance started pouring in – the good and the heartbreaking.
The people, my countrymen, my friends were fighting against the plotters with their hearts on their sleeve. One by one, the Istanbul airport, various news outlets that were under siege, the TRT headquarters, the bridge, all were being liberated.
There was a courageous battle going on everywhere, with victory news coming out from every targeted location slowly. Step by step, the people were taking back the control of their country. They had foiled the plot, defeated the terrorists.
It was most probably the longest night of my life. As the pale morning light dawned upon the green pastures of Leicester, I stepped out of my room for the first time. I ran into two teachers who were part of our group and stepped out for the first time.
We made coffee and sat together on the grass, trying to collect our thoughts and put it into perspective.
We didn’t speak much, but we all knew how each of us felt. Every one of us had gone through feelings of terror, despair, hope and relief. We didn’t need to express it, but we knew as we could see in each others’ eyes the relief in over 12 hours.
It was a strange few days after the coup attempt where 251 people were killed and 2,734 were wounded that night.
However, I believe a conversation we had with a taxi driver two days after the unfortunate night is what struck me the most.
The driver had probably guessed our origins as we talked among ourselves in Turkish and inquired where we were from. Upon learning that we were from Turkey, he asked, “What is going on in Turkey?”
As we tried to explain to the best of our abilities the events of the night, I realized how skewed the representation of the events of that night were in the foreign press. How people in other countries would probably never be fully able to grasp what happened that night due to the altered perspective of their press.
The taxi driver had read the papers, yet he had no idea what actually happened. Although we live in an age of information where torrents of outlets are vying for our attention, access to the truth and the true experiences of people is fragile as ever.
That access is what must be preserved, protected and cherished. That is the ever-lasting impact of July 15 that has been ingrained in me.