I’ll never forget being attacked by the Turkish police in Istanbul. It was a lull in the Gezi Park protests against Erdogan’s Islamist government. Tourists had come out on a sunny Sunday to stroll along Istiklal Street, which stretches from the Tunnel subway to Taksim Square and is surrounded by stately old buildings, foreign consulates, and modern malls. With no warning, police opened fire on the peaceful tourists, using the water cannon from an attack vehicle while a battalion in metallic suits swept into the crowd behind see-through shields. Others fired tear gas canisters from hand-held guns.
My Turkish husband Omer and I had come to Taksim to meet friends for tea, and we stood up and shouted as we watched the scene below our cafe. I videoed it with my small camera, from my perch in the cafe’s second-story window seat. Other customers leaned out windows and then shut them against the pepper spray. After a few minutes, the attack vehicle made its way down Istiklal Street, and Omer and I followed side streets toward home.
When the Gezi Park protests first started in the spring of 2013, it seemed fun to witness them first-hand, caught up in a joyful expression of freedom as working-class Turks joined students and professionals. Men mingled with women, some carrying children who held flags, all lifting their voices against tyranny. But as I walked down graffiti-labeled streets that summer afternoon and watched a teenager break up rocks to hurl at police, I thought it was not much fun to witness people so desperate to resist their government’s controls that they resorted to violence. I saw a girl, wearing a black helmet and gas mask, uneasily clasp the arm of her boyfriend who carried a “Her Yer Taksim” (“Everywhere is Taksim”) protest sign. I saw an older man, who looked like a university professor, snap photos with his cell phone as a well-outfitted professional news team from Germany hung back near a building.
I didn’t look like a journalist, whom the Turkish police were especially targeting. I thought Omer and I would safely pass as we entered Istiklal Street again. Suddenly, booms echoed on the high buildings around us as the police vehicle attacked again. Tourists and the protesters who had gathered around them fled a wave of pepper spray. Police boots hammered over cobblestones, and I could almost feel them at my back. The manager of a small hotel motioned for Omer and me to enter his lobby. He offered us water to wash our faces and hands. Even though I did not get directly hit with the pepper spray, it hung in the air as thick as smoke, and I was sick for days after breathing it.
I still have nightmares filled with smoke and booming echoes, alone here in my Chinese apartment where I fled just before Turkish police came to arrest me for a photo I’d published. Omer, unwanted in China because he is Turkish, is back in Istanbul. I wonder if we will ever share neutral land.