In Mexico, there is little talk of the demonstrations in Istanbul. People around me commented on the way in which the Turkish youth were protesting to defend a park, to avoid having a mall built in its place. There was also talk of the violent measures used among the police and the demonstrators, like the use of tear gas. And that is about as far as the table talk got.
Nonetheless, I had the opportunity of experiencing a version of this story that does not appear in the news nor in the mass media. I experienced firsthand a night that I cannot erase from my mind, in which fear, admiration, and adrenaline accompanied me for several hours. During my stay in Istanbul last month, upon finishing a project on communications and climate change that I was selected to participate in, a Turkish friend of mine invited me to stay with her for a few days. Her name is Neslihan and she is a 28-year-old girl who, after getting her degree in Pharmacy, managed to save up and open up her own establishment. Nesly, as her friends call her, enjoys reading, mediating, having a good cup of Turkish coffee, and volunteering at various local non-governmental organizations.
A night unlike any other
On the first day I spent with Nesly, she confessed to me that she had recently taken up an activity that her family was unaware of — since it would cause them much concern — and that she was doing it since the protests began. Every night, Nesly, along with a group of friends, went to help the civilians affected by tear gas in the center of the city.
She invited me to join her nocturnal activity that day. Saturday night. I decided to accept her invitation — How bad could it be? Around 8pm we went to Taksim Square (where the protests were taking place). Along the way, we met up with her friends. One of them gave me an anti-gas mask, “You’re going to need it,” he said. I took the mask from his hands and put it in my backpack while we continued walking. I figured her friends were exaggerating. “Surely he gave it to me just so he would not have to carry it,” I thought.
A few minutes passed, we walked around three or four blocks when suddenly, I started to hear a commotion. My knowledge of Turkish can be summarized in “merhaba” (hello) and “teşekkürler” (thank you), meaning I did not understand what the people were screaming. My friend quickly gave me her hand and just said, “run and don’t let go of me”. I will never forget what I saw, dozens of young people running in the opposite direction of where they were originally walking, screaming, covered either with handkerchiefs or anti-gas masks.
“They’re spraying the gas already,” shouted my friend. Then, in a matter of seconds, we were inside a building on a street that bordered the square. Nothing could be seen since all of the lights had been turned off so that the location would go unnoticed. Only murmurs were heard. There was a big window where you could see people outside, running, and around them thick white lines that the tear gas left behind. All of this happened less than a meter away from me. Deafening screams outside of the building. I felt confused. Why were we inside while the others continued running? Why were we lucky enough to find shelter?
A few seconds passed and they turned on the light. It was a large room, more like an office with desks that had been adapted to be a small infirmary. There was medicine, gauzes, serum, water, a bed, and various protesters in silence. My friend explained to me that this was one of the many shelters where they brought people who were left in the streets, immobile, affected by the gas. They would pick them up and bring them to this place to administer first aid. While she was explaining this to me, I saw several young people enter the office, carrying a boy and a woman by the arm. Both were affected, they could not open their eyes. The boy cried inconsolably. It appeared they had just been shopping.
That image broke my heart.
My friend quickly went next to the woman to help her, saying some words of consolation in Turkish. More people continued to enter, youth that was protesting without any protection, men and women who had been affected by the plastic bullets who came bleeding, or simply people who had gone out to get an ice cream, or were visiting the center of the city and were in the wrong place at the wrong time; all of them teary-eyed, with body parts bleeding and some even unconscious. The majority came with someone by their side who worryingly followed behind them. Many others were alone.
I stayed there for several hours, waiting for my friend to finish her night. I observed as people entered wounded, blind, and very afraid. Minutes and hours passed, and many left much more calmly. I was surprised by the way a solidary group was formed, of pharmacists and medical students, who dedicated their nights and their knowledge of medicine to help those unprotected.
“Many innocent people are the ones being affected and I cannot pretend that I don’t see or hear them,” my friend said to me during a moment when she sat down to rest. It was almost midnight and it was about to be her birthday. She told me that there was no better way to spend her birthday than dedicating it to her people. I simply listened to her in admiration.
At one point, I tried to take out my camera to document the shelter and the people who helped those affected; however, when I took it out of my bag, everyone became fixated on me. I was sternly ordered to put it away since their identities had to be kept completely anonymous. “We are afraid of being identified. We do this to help people, not for any political ideology,” said one of the doctors that was receiving all those affected at the door. I decided to respect their anonymity and went back to my chair. I continued watching. Sometimes young people who spoke English sat next to me and gave me reasons why they found themselves helping out during the protests.
Samet, a 21-year-old medical student, told me that he was helping those affected by the gas since he wanted to demonstrate that “the young protesters are not terrorists, but rather ordinary people invested in the well-being of the residents of Istanbul.”
An engineer, who found himself volunteering because his brother was a medical student, around 30 year old, told me that for him, the most impressive thing had been the use of social networks during the protests. “You ask for gauze or you run out of alcohol or soap, and you put it on Twitter. Less than an hour passes when you already have what you need. People come together in solidarity, it is impressive the way they have organized themselves.”
Another young woman, a flight attendant named Deniz, accompanying one of the people affected by the gas, also sat next to me for a few minutes. After speaking on the phone with the mother of her boyfriend (the one affected by the gas), she told me that the protests had started because of the park, but now they were protesting because “they were tired of living in fear.”
Near the end of the night, another person accompanying a woman that had been a victim of the gas confessed that she had no position on the protests, but that the way in which the police indiscriminately attacked others “could not be tolerated.” It seemed that neither her nor her companion were protesters, they were simply passing through the area.
I don’t think I will ever be the same after having that experience in Taksim. The thing that surprised me most was the solidarity of this group of students and young Turkish professionals. The way in which all of those volunteers left their religious beliefs and even their political preferences behind them simply to help those who were unprotected. The citizens that needed the most help at that moment.
To me, they are the true heroes of the Gezi protests.
* August 5, 2013: My friend Nesly later told me that she stopped her activities as a volunteer in Taksim, along with her friends, since in recent days harsher measures have been taken against the young demonstrators and dozens have been arrested.
Special thank you to Marianna Breytman