The stark black letters on white stone in the cemetery are all that remain of rioting that left 17 dead last year in Istanbul’s Gazi neighborhood. The shattered glass has been replaced, the burned cars swept off the streets, the angry leftist slogans on walls painted over. What remains of those two days in March 1995 are memories, and the graves of those killed.
It was close to midnight on March 12. People had come to protest a drive-by shooting that killed two and wounded 15 in this run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of Istanbul. Hours earlier, unidentified gunmen had driven through Gazi and shot up four coffee shops and a pastry shop. The people of Gazi were convinced that ultra-rightists linked to the police had staged the attack.
The news of the shooting brought hundreds out into the streets. When word came that the assailants had escaped, the people rioted. They ran through the main business street of Gazi, throwing stones at shop windows and hurling burning wood in the direction of the police station. Three hours later, near midnight, the rioting had ended but the people stayed on the street — and so did the police.
Between the police and the people, a wall of smoke poured out of an overturned burning car. On one side, dozens of police with automatic weapons prowled nervously back and forth. On the other side, hundreds of people stood around burning fires.
Without warning, the burning car exploded with a large bang that sent balls of flame into the sky. Turkish TV crews ran towards the black smoke as police futilely tried to push them back. Special trucks moved in to clear the debris while demonstrators on the other side of the flames hurled stones into the burning void. Young men hung back near the side streets, pointing out to each other the shattered shop windows and bits of smoldering wood. The shouts of the demonstrators further down the streets wafted past the makeshift bonfires and the burning car: “Death to fascism! We want justice!”
Early in the morning the fires between the demonstrators and police were still there, and more than a thousand people had crowded in front of the cemevi (prayer houses), where men with battered plastic loudspeakers exhorted the people to stay calm. Around the corner, at the other end of the street, riot police and armored personnel carriers were waiting. In the ruins of a watch repair shop a telephone rang without stop.
Overnight, the neighborhood walls became a mural of illegal militant leftist organizations: TIKKO, a pro-Mao armed group especially strong among some Kurds; Dev-Sol, in the 1970s Turkey’s most violent leftist organization; TDKP, a long-time supporter of Albanian communists. The initials may have represented only a fraction of Turkey’s militant leftist groups and the attractiveness of their promises — albeit achieved through violence — of equality and economic freedom.
It had been 15 years since the streets of Turkey smoldered like this. The 1980 military coup (the third in as many decades) brought a sharp and brutal halt to the wave of protests that had paralyzed businesses and universities in the late 1970s. The coup also ended the vicious street fighting between armed rightist and leftist groups — and halted a wave of assassinations that claimed as its victims US servicemen, Turkish intellectuals, foreign businessmen and Turkish politicians.
The generals, who subsequently ruled for three years, had made sure this would never happen again. Some 250,000 people were detained, more than 100 publications closed down and a new constitution that banned more than it permitted was drawn up. The right to organize and strike was stripped from workers, universities were placed under tight government control and laws that banned any dissent against government policy were firmly applied.
This crackdown had been relatively effective until the early 1990s when an 80 percent annual inflation rate had so eroded salaries that workers began to demand the right to strike for better pay. In the southeast, a Kurdish guerrilla war was being waged for self-rule in the mainly Kurdish region. In the west, independent human rights associations began to accuse police of systematically torturing detainees. There were reports of extrajudicial executions of militant leftists by police. Prisoners in overcrowded and poorly managed jails were rioting. Opposition newspapers attacked Ankara’s policies. Promises by both communist and fascist groups were becoming more attractive. Mysterious killings, especially of Kurds struggling for their ethnic-based rights, were on the rise. Even mainstream newspaper columnists began to complain of laws that restricted what could be said or written — especially about the Kurds and human rights abuses throughout the country.
Few expected the discontent to explode on the desperate streets of Gazi, where some 35,000 Alevis — like those throughout the country — were seen as strong supporters of the Turkish state. The Alevis are a minority Muslim sect that deviates from traditional Sunni interpretations of Qur’anic principles. After frequent persecutions under the Sunni-ruled Ottoman Empire, the Alevis became fervent supporters of Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk, and his vision of a secular state free from religious domination.
But the Alevis were also angry. Some complained that Turkey was discriminating against them. Mandatory religious lessons in school completely ignored the Alevi interpretation of Islam. State-financed high schools to train religious leaders only trained Sunni leaders. While state-financed Sunni mosques sprouted throughout Turkey, Alevi cemevis (prayer houses) remained dependent upon donations. The rise of the Islamist (Sunni) Welfare Party, which took control of Ankara and Istanbul in the 1994 municipal elections, only served as a reminder to the Alevis of the potential problems they faced.
The discontent was not only religious. Two months before the rioting, a 35-year old man had died in police custody. Leftist groups had made inroads into the poverty-stricken community, and arbitrary arrests had followed. In Gazi, many of the people originally came from Kurdish regions in the east. They had left, but their relatives visited with tales of security forces forcibly evacuating villages and abusing civilians.
The riots in Gazi were the first violent demonstrations in Turkey since before the 1980 coup (excluding protests in the Kurdish southeast). Such protests, whether by students, relatives of prisoners or small groups of leftists were usually dispersed by a few slams of the police baton. Few expected the Gazi riots to last past dawn.
Cemevi leaders had been on the phone all night trying to get a response from government officials. Nobody came and by morning the thousands standing in the chilly air were angry. “This is not just about Alevis,” said one young woman warming herself by an open stove in the cemevi. “This is about defending human rights and democracy.”
Led by teenagers with scarves pulled over their faces, the mass of people, growing restless, began to move down the street. “We’ll force the police out of Gazi,” they cried, waving big sticks in the air. Shuffling over shards of glass from shattered shop windows, kicking aside remnants of the previous night’s burning barricades, thousands halted before an armored personnel carrier surrounded by dozens of armed police.
On the side streets, young boys made petrol bombs that they tossed in the general direction of the police. One or two police officers ventured after them, scattering the boys with bursts of gunfire. On the main street, two older men in long overcoats climbed onto the top of the personnel carrier and tried to negotiate with the demonstrators. “Disperse and we will solve this. Please disperse,” they repeated. “Police out of Gazi. Gazi will be a graveyard for fascism,” came the reply.
Slowly, the police began to retreat. With each step, the space was filled by demonstrators, who kept up their chants while the police nervously fingered their automatic weapons. Suddenly, when the police moved back again, soldiers appeared in their place. Someone from the crowd jumped onto the armored carrier and forced open the water hose. The water sprayed over the crowd and the security forces. Police clambered to wrestle it shut. Just as the water dripped to nothing, the security forces opened fire into the crowd.
I was standing in a pastry shop alongside police lines when the shooting started. The shopkeeper, his wife, their two small daughters and I crammed behind a metal table. In front of me, police holding their guns at shoulder level shot into the crowd. The only response was the sound of screams and people running away.
When the shooting stopped, a Turkish journalist and I ran through the back streets, trying to find our way to the prayer house, where any dead or wounded were certain to be taken. People were emerging from doorways and side streets. On the main road, small groups of demonstrators were lighting bonfires with pieces of wood and tires. An acrid smell hung in the air.
A teenage boy grabbed me. “Look what they have done,” he said, showing hands stained with the blood of a wounded friend. “I will never forgive them.” The journalist and I walked past the concrete buildings of Gazi, keeping a nervous watch for police. Then, without warning, it started again. The sound of gunfire echoed around us and suddenly police swept down the street from both sides, firing their guns as they ran. We took cover in the shadow of a half-finished house and held our press passes in two hands, shouting that we were journalists. The police ran by us, shooting at people we could not see.
When the sound of gunfire receded we ran to an apartment building and pounded on the door. The door wouldn’t open. From afar we could hear gunfire. We threw ourselves flat at the bottom of the building’s water-filled outdoor stairwell.
“Who are you?” came a shout and I raised my head out of the muddy water. Above me stood a policeman with his gun pointed at my face. “I’m a journalist,” I said in Turkish, trying not to move. There were police all around us, pointing their guns. “Are you a foreigner?” I didn’t reply. He took a stick and hit me. “You are foreigner, I know. All this is the fault of foreigners.” I stayed quiet. He moved closer to me, the gun pointed at my face. “Should I shoot you?”
A minute, maybe more, passed. “Give me your bag,” he said. I slowly lifted my bag out of the water. “Get ready to shoot,” he said to another man as he opened my bag. He grabbed my camera and took out the film. “You wait here until we get back,” he said and left.
After a few minutes, the Turkish journalist and I stood up and started pounding on the door of the building again. This time it opened and we went upstairs, where a family gave us towels to dry ourselves. A curfew was announced on the radio. Police were being withdrawn and soldiers brought in. The apartment overlooked the main street and when we saw the soldiers take up position we knew it was safe to leave. At least the police who had threatened us were gone.
The next day, rioting broke out in another Istanbul neighborhood and three were shot dead. In Gazi, protesters barricaded themselves in front of the cemevi and negotiated for the release of the bodies of the dead.
Two days after the shooting in Gazi, the bodies were returned to the people and the funerals began. Soldiers were later withdrawn from the streets.
Turkish courts have charged more than 100 people from Gazi with illegally demonstrating, and almost two dozen police officers for shooting at demonstrators. Both trials are continuing. If past trials against police torture are any example, the case will drag on for years and then the defendants will escape with light, if any, punishment.
During the days of rioting, Turkish newspapers ran banner headlines promising that Turks would not be taken in by “outside provocation.” Yet the provocation came from inside Turkey, and the riots could have happened anywhere. While the incident has shown the depth of discontent, without real democratization in Turkey, the Gazi riots are sure to be repeated elsewhere.
In January 1996, I returned to Gazi for a memorial ceremony for those killed in the riots. People prayed by the graves while dozens of riot police waited down the road. “Nothing has changed,” said Mehmet, a man I had met at the demonstration a year earlier, “We still haven’t achieved anything.”