As I'm writing this piece, I have the news on in the background hoping in vain to hear something about the protests in Turkey. Although, I'm not quite sure why I bother because what I do hear, it makes me shake my head -- no, no, no, that is not what is happening and I turn once again to Twitter and Facebook for more 'accurate' information. Why do I care so much? Well, because I was there -- at least for the first days when things turned violent.
Ironically, I was on a trip to Istanbul to research the city for Suitcase's September issue on Metamorphosis. I hadn't banked on seeing a literal transformation right in front of my eyes.
In the days leading up to the protest we asked around about the changes happening in Istanbul. "It is getting too extreme," they would say. "Restrictions have been fast-tracked through the government on education, alcohol and even public displays of affection. This is not the Turkey that Ataturk would have wanted." Then they would backtrack -- "Wait. You're not going to write anything bad about Turkey, right?"
By Saturday morning news had started trickle through to us via friends, avoid Taksim Square. Our Internet connection was horrendous and news sites didn't seem to be covering it -- it couldn't be that bad... We wondered whether we should move. After trying to ring the British Embassy (which was closed) and the front desk of our current hotel, we realized that nobody really knew anything and we decided that we were just going to go. Turkish television had nothing either. The news channels showed a cooking show, celebrity news or other current events.
Fast forward 6 hours, we tried to leave the hotel and the doorman screamed at us, we realized that things must be more serious than people had let on. We left anyway. There were thousands of people streaming down Dolmabhaçe Cd leading to the Prime Minister's office. We bought three gas masks from a street vendor, but all we saw were hoards of people of all ages waving Turkish flags, and occasionally chanting in Turkish for Erdogan to quit. We were worried that we would stand out too much but the sense of amity was so strong -- it was enough to be there. "Tell them back home, they are censoring our news," protestors told us and were eager to be photographed.
Eventually we returned to our hotel to save everything that we had documented. Still nothing significant on the news -- any information was coming in via Twitter. Around 7pm we entered the restaurant to get some water where a few guests were huddled at the window. I saw that the protestors were being forced off the main road up our street and the police were hurtling gas bombs at them. There were small children, older women and tourists all caught in the crowd- they were screaming and clutching at their faces, squeezing lemons into their eyes to counteract the effects of what I guessed was tear gas. We quickly shut all the windows as the gas started seeping into the area where we were all standing.
The next few hours are blurred as we saw a mainly pacifistic crowd pelted with tear gas and then the water cannons came out. Hundreds of people filtered in to our street at this point as the last few defiant protestors stood on the main street and were pelted with a mixture of gas and water cannons. I checked the news -- 11 casualties. I couldn't believe that. There were at least five people completely unconscious on the street beneath us. Passersby were trying to revive them with milk and lemon before the next wave of gas. The hotel doctor came to help with the worst casualties and the ground floor became a makeshift hospital.
With things moving so fast, we were fully reliant on social media -- were they really using Agent Orange? We did see orange gas... Were the police really using out of date tear gas? Was a woman really dead? We had no idea but could only guess.
Things deteriorated further when the anarchists appeared. A Turkish protestor next to me hinted that Erdogan had planted anarchists to make the other protestors seem like hooligans, when the majority were well-educated and non-violent. There was a horrible moment when they had finished graffiting the walls and turned to look at us. Paused. Then started digging up the cobblestones to throw at the windows. The gas was so intense at this point that we needed to go back to our room. My team had given their masks to hotel staff so we were covering our mouth and eyes with our clothing. The gas inside the hotel was so bad that I had chemical burns on my face the next day, God knows what it was like for all the protestors who were fully exposed.
At 3 a.m. on Sunday we realized our research trip was ended. As we drove to the airport, I searched on my phone #direngeziparki -- error loading search results. They had cut off the Internet.