The morning of Sunday, October 31 was a fairly typical late fall day in Istanbul. As the sun came up, the city slowly stirred to life as Turks shook off hangovers and city workers cleared the refuse and streamers leftover from Republic Day celebrations. On the Istiklal Caddesi, a major pedestrian thoroughfare interspersed with dozens of boutiques and cafés, tourists bundled in jackets to keep off the cold as they walked from shop to shop, searching for deals or biding time on a weekend morning.
I had just left a Mass service and had plans to visit a Turkish bath with a local named Ugur that I had met at a dinner party the evening prior. To pass time until our meeting, I sat on the second floor of bookstore on the Istiklal and looked down on the hundreds of people streaming down the shopping corridor. It reminded me of a busy shopping district in London or Paris, quite a departure from the Middle East environs that had been my home for the past two months.
Suddenly, a loud bang jolted me from my daydream. People down below stopped in their tracks and turned in the direction of the noise, which rang out from the direction of Taksim Square, a hub for tourist travel and shopping located just blocks away. After a few seconds of dazed confusion, most resumed walking with shopping bags and strollers in hand, not quite certain about what had happened up the street.
Within thirty seconds, a police car screams down the pedestrian thoroughfare towards, its horn urging the throngs of people out of the way. A few seconds later, I see the first wave of pedestrians running from the direction in which the noise had come. Realizing that an attack, shooting, or crash must have occurred up the street, I hurriedly pack my things and sprint out of the coffee shop.
While maybe foolish, I move in the direction of the event to document the scene unfolding there. After ten days in Iraq, I felt fairly confident in my ability to sense danger and stay out of harm’s way. Probably too confident.
Adrenaline fuels my effort to weave past fleeing pedestrians and shouting police officers. I duck into doorways, feign confusion at Turkish cops, and push past scores of shocked people as I made my way to the Square.
I arrive to a chaotic scene. Journalists run past with cameras mounted on their shoulders. Police officers scream at each other and the hordes of media to clear the area. People carry the injured towards private cars, which quickly speed away. Paramedics crouch above prostrate bodies lying in all directions around a damaged police van on the far side of Taksim Square. It’s like a scene from a movie.
Like most present, I have a hard time piecing together what had happened. I realize that some sort of bomb had detonated, as the remnants of storefront windows shattered by shockwaves crunch beneath my feet as I move along the sidewalks. But as I ask people around me to explain what is unfolding, most shrug. All are as confused as I.
In the square, journalists begin shoving each other and yelling in Turkish. I stand a safe distance away, behind police tape, looking for a Western journalist to help me make sense of the scene before me. As the pushing and shoving moves from the square into the street, and finally, over to my sidewalk, I find my guy.
He stands above the crowd, a tall, intrepid-looking man with a professional camera and a neatly trimmed beard. I first notice him as a police officer shoves him back while yelling, “my friend, he is dead.”
The shouting turns out to be an overstatement—17 police officers and 15 civilians were wounded by the attack, but only the attacker perished—but the journalist’s composed response to the police officer impresses me. And his American accent leads me to jump at the opportunity to ask about the scene.
“A little after 10:30am, a bomb went off here in the square,” he says in response to my request for clarification. “I live close by and heard the explosion and came running here.”
I ask him about the number of casualties. “I’ve seen at least 5 ambulances,” he responds. “I don’t know if they were wounded or dead, or who was carried away. There could well have been more than that. [The police] are there almost all of the time. So it was likely almost exclusively police.”
While I do not get this journalist’s name, his insights prove uncannily accurate. I can tell that he has been in this type of situation before, given his coolness and attention to detail in the midst of so much chaos.
You might imagine my surprise when, a few days later, this same guy comes striding up to a coffee shop a few blocks away to meet me for an interview. A friend had introduced me to Scott Peterson, the Istanbul Bureau Chief for the Christian Science Monitor, over email. But in our email exchanges, I had not realized that he was the same journalist I had turned to for help on this tumultuous morning.
Mr. Peterson offers a number of insights with me during our hour together, which takes place at a coffee shop just blocks away from the scene of the attack. As a career journalist and war correspondent in Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Iran, among other hot spots, Peterson has no shortage of anecdotes to share. He is a joy to meet (Peterson’s account of the Oct. 31 attacks can be found here).
But none of his perspective can shake the uneasiness I feel in the aftermath of the Taksim bombing. Authorities claim that the man responsible, a 24 year-old named Vedat Acar, acted as a member of the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, an offshoot rebel group that trains dissidents northern Iraq.
Less than a week earlier, I had been wrapping my time in Iraqi-Kurdistan, where I developed deep and abiding friendships with a number of Kurds and learned much about injustices they accuse the ruling Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi governments of enacting against them. I had developed a view of the Kurds as a vulnerable minority group. And I scoffed at the paranoia of Turkish military officers who shouted me down for saying the word “Kurdistan”.
But then there I found myself, four blocks away from the scene of a terror attack, carried out by a Kurdish rebel against civilians and police officers in Turkey’s largest city. Although the vast majority of Kurds condemned the violence—even the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a rebel group hardly known for its pacifist stances, immediately denied involvement and reiterated its commitment to a ceasefire with Turkey—a member of the ethnic group deliberately carried out this bloody attack. And it wasn’t somewhere removed; the blast was close enough for me to hear!
This will be one of the final posts I write on the “Middle East” leg of my traveling fellowship experience. In some ways, it’s positive to close on this topic, as it allows for me to come full circle on describing my experiences with the difficult realities that persist here.
In Egypt, I witnessed Mubarak’s government restricting liberty and human rights through authoritarian policies aimed at stifling true debate. From there, I wrote about the gripping complexities in Israel and the West Bank, where each side defines reality in starkly different terms. In Iraq, I developed relationships with the Kurds and grew sympathetic to their tragic story. But then in Turkey—in arguably the most Westernized Muslim majority city in the world—the threat of violence that looms over the region every day became more real to me than I had ever anticipated…and at the hands of a Kurd.
The restrictive policies I had analyzed critically only weeks earlier appeared in a new light. Even though no one close to me was physically hurt, I felt shaken by my proximity to the bombing. Had I been affected by the tragedy more directly—like many young people in Sderot, Ramallah, or Baghdad—then perhaps I would view all these policies with even more nuance. Perhaps I would even be making the case for them.
Thankfully, no one apart from the suicide bomber himself perished on this Halloween morning in Istanbul. But I will not soon forget the sight of bodies sprawled on the ground or people running with fear in their eyes in the aftermath of a terror attack. This was an experience that will last me far beyond this fellowship.