Liam Deering is a second-year TAM student who was studying Turkish on a FLAS* grant in Istanbul, Turkey when the July 15 coup attempt took place. He has written the following thoughts on the events.
*FLAS stands for Foreign Language and Area Studies. FLAS grants enable undergraduate and graduate students to study modern foreign languages abroad and in the United States. They are offered through the Center for European Studies and UNC’s six other area studies centers. More information about the grants can be found here.
A TAM STUDENT’S THOUGHTS ON THE TURKISH TRAGEDY
Istanbul, Turkey – one of the oldest and most beautiful cities that our world has to offer. The city streets are filled with an energy that is unmatched. Around every corner is something new to see. From beautiful, vast markets, unique street vendors, ancient mosques and religious holy sites, to some of the best food and drinks that you will find anywhere in the world. This magnificent city that spans two continents has so much to offer its residents and its visitors.
The best thing that Istanbul has to offer is its people. The people of Istanbul are truly some of the most caring and genuine people that I have ever met. Their generosity, hospitality, and willingness to help others are important contributions to the city’s warmth and comfort. The people of Istanbul, the Istanbulu, are very loving people and there is nothing that these people love more than their treasured slice of Heaven – Istanbul.
Unfortunately, Istanbul has had to deal with its unfair share of tragedies over the last several years. These tragedies, often coming at the hands of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) and ISIS, have significantly damaged Istanbul’s tourism industry. Often when we consider the victims of terrorism, our minds jump to the individuals who have been killed or injured as a direct result of the attack. We often, however, have a tendency to ignore the “other” victims of these tragedies. We often forget about the waiters and the shopkeepers, and the tour guides and the bartenders, who suffer significantly as a result of the attacks. These attacks produce large drop-offs in tourism, significantly hurting those who work in the tourism industry. From all accounts that I have heard, Istanbul used to be a bustling city where finding a seat at a restaurant was competitive and the crowds in the streets were difficult to navigate. Now, unfortunately, most restaurants are fairly empty, with their employees having to compete for customers. Many restaurants are closing down and their wait and bar staff are both losing a lot of money. Terrorism is a scary aspect of our modern world, but I ask of you and of myself that we take more time to consider the ramifications beyond the politics, beyond the military, and spend more time considering the tragic loss of life and the impact that terrorism has on the on-going lives of the locals.
One of the most historic and tragic nights in the history of the Turkish Republic occurred on the 15th of July 2016. I, unfortunately, had a front row seat to this night filled with some of the worst that mankind has to offer. The evening began as a lovely reunion between my fantastic Turkish professor from UNC, Didem Havlioğlu, and me. We enjoyed a lovely meal and chat by the Ortaköy Camii. Following our reunion, we went our separate ways, Didem returning to her home and I returning to my apartment for the weekend in Beyazıt. I opted, as I often did, to alight the tram at the Sultanahmet stop. I often did so in order to enjoy the lovely sights that Sultanahmet had to offer – the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), Bazilika Sarnıcı (Basilica Cistern), Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), etc.
I had only enjoyed a few minutes of my walk through Sultanahmet before the deafening and unforgettable ringing of gunshots started ripping through the crowd of locals and tourists. The shooting, which at the time I assumed to be a terrorist attack, forced many, including myself, to flee the area, running for our lives. After a long time of fearful hiding and running, I arrived safely back at my apartment. Unfortunately, many others were not so fortunate, and my heart goes out to them and their loved ones. Their lives should not be forgotten because of our interests in the broader political implications.
Once I arrived back at the apartment, as I was doing my best to calm my very shaken nerves, I was receiving news updates and text messages that a coup d’état had begun in the Turkish state, most directly affecting Ankara and Istanbul. I, of course, then realized that what I had experienced and what was occurring on the Bosphorus Bridge and elsewhere throughout the city were, in fact, related to this coup, and not a terrorist attack. Not very long after this discovery, I began hearing a lot of very loud explosions and rapid gunfire that continued throughout most of the night. It would be an understatement to say that I was in fear for my life and the lives of many of my friends.
The media reports throughout the night that I was receiving were inaccurate in comparison to what I had witnessed and experienced on the streets of downtown Istanbul. I was receiving updates on my phone reporting things that were directly contrary to what I had been seeing in the streets. This was just the beginning of very misinformed and often misleading reporting coming out of the situation in Turkey. I have also found that many things occurred in Istanbul (both things that I personally witnessed and things that friends of mine in Istanbul have reported to me) that have not been covered by the international media.
One of the biggest takeaways from this terrible time in Istanbul has been that it is even more important that we consider what we read in the news with more skepticism than ever before. While reading information such as death tolls, I often find myself accepting the figures that the media report. However, now, following my experience in Istanbul, I will be much less likely to accept these figures at face value. “Official” death tolls that have been reported range between 230 and 300. These numbers are heavily disputed by many of the Turks that I know who are still in Turkey and by several other Turkish sources. There are many reports that the numbers are significantly higher than that. As much as I hope that this isn’t the case, I have many suspicions that it is higher than reported. This is an important lesson going forward.
I would like to take this moment to address an issue that has been bothering me in the aftermath of the tragic events that took place in Turkey. Much of what the media and, in turn, public have been discussing regarding the events in Turkey revolves around politics. Was this a legitimate coup attempt? Was it organized by Gülen? How will the European Union respond? The United States? What will Erdoğan do? Did Erdoğan organize the coup and if so, what does this mean for the future of the country? Etc. Etc. Etc. I am not here to address any of these questions, despite the fact that they are crucially important and their answers will certainly help shape the future of Turkey and its international relations. I am more interested in something that the media and the American and British publics seem to have ignored: the lives that were lost during this political battle. At least hundreds of innocent lives were lost on the 15th of July. These were fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, adults, children, and people of all sorts of ethnicities and religions. I saw men shielding their wives, parents shielding their children, strangers risking their lives to aide the injured, and strangers carrying people away from an incredibly dangerous situation. During this tragedy, where undoubtedly the worst of humanity was on display, I was blessed to have simultaneously experienced some of the best of humanity. On the 15th of July 2016, I can truly say that I saw a multitude of true and genuine heroes in Istanbul. While I do not know any of their names nor do I know their stories, I refuse to let them die as “just another victim.” We have a habit in our society to lump victims together as one group of people who just stopped existing as a result of tragedy. I learned firsthand that morning that this is far from the truth. The stories that we typically hear after these events involve what the shooters did, what the bombers did, or what the “bad guys” did – we rarely take time to learn or discuss what the victims and what the “good guys” did. I hope that this is something I and others can begin doing going forward. I lost a few people to whom I was close as a result of these terrible tragedies and I ask for thoughts and/or prayers for them and their families along with all of the victims of the Turkish tragedy. We may not get detailed background stories on all of these victims as we did with many of the victims in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, San Bernardino and others, but that does not make their lives any less special nor any less important.
I began this piece by discussing the beauty and magic of Istanbul. I described the lovely and amazing people that help make Istanbul as special as it is. I want to now make it clear that my opinion of this fantastic city has not changed. In fact, I would bet that Istanbul will recover and become an even better city than before. The amazing people of this city will not let this tragedy define them. Istanbul is a city that has been occupied for thousands of years, the 15th of July 2016 will not define the city. I am heartbroken and frankly devastated over the events that took place in Istanbul that evening. I can only be thankful that I was physically unharmed and that I have lived to be a voice of what happened on the streets. I am confident that Istanbul will rebound as strong, if not stronger, than ever and I cannot wait to return to the city that I fell in love with this summer.
I would like to take a brief moment to thank UNC and especially the Center for European Studies. Their love, support, encouragement, and assistance during this time has been nothing short of spectacular and is incredibly appreciated. This experience has truly shown a light on the true meaning of the Carolina Way. I have never been more proud to be a Tar Heel!
Thank you very much for taking a moment to read my thoughts on the terrible events that took place in Turkey. I do hope that my words can act as a reminder of how real these events are.
Liam D. Deering