The around two hundred young men and women around a burning barricade in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Okmeydanı joke around, the atmosphere is relaxed. But then an aerosol in the fire explodes, BAM, and the group scatters. Right under the surface, the tension is high. The battle can begin any moment.
It’s Thursday evening, 13 March. The day after Berkin Elvan was burried. Berkin is the latest victim of the massive anti-government protests last summer. He went out to get bread for his family in June 2013, was hit in the head by a teargas canister shot by the police, slipped into a coma and died 269 days later, early on Tuesday morning.
Tens of thousands of people joined the funeral on Wednesday. It was perfectly peaceful, until after the little boy was laid to rest: then the police decided it was enough with the massive mourning over the loss of a boy because of brutal police violence, and started the violence again. Two people died. A policeman in the eastern province of Dersim/Tunceli suffered from a heart attack, reportedly due to too much teargas, and passed away. And a young man, Burak Can Karamanoğlu, was shot.
The tension Thursday night was all about the second death, of Burak Can Karamanoğlu. The circumstances around his death are vague, and the Istanbul governor plainly claimed: ‘A youngster identified as Burak Can Karamanoğlu died after a verbal scuffle between two groups turned into a fight in which firearms were used’. Later the DHKP-C, a leftist group designated as ‘terrorist’ by Turkey and also held responsible for the attack on the American embassy in Ankara in February 2012, claimed responsibility for Karamanoğlu’s death.
The murder happened in Okmeydanı, the neighbourhood where Berkin Elvan lived and died. Burak Karamanoğlu was not from Okmeydanı himself, but from Kasimpasa, a conservative area not too far from Okmeydanı where PM Erdogan spent part of his childhood and where he still has a solid supporter base. Okmeydanı, at least some parts of it, is known as an area where the DHKP-C has many supporters. In short: when Kasimpasa and Okmeydanı get together, trouble is likely, especially when tension is running as high in the country as now and even more so when from both sides somebody lost his life.
Curious about what would happen and about how present the DHKP-C really is in Okmeydanı, I took a cab, together with a photographer friend, to the neighbourhood. We passed a few policemen on a corner and walked down the road, towards a fire, in the middle of the Piyalipasa area. There were several blockades, the biggest one in the middle of a road: two burning piles of rubbish, and a huge door standing up, with the text ‘Berkin Elvan Blockade Front’ on it, painted in red. There were some two hundred men and women around the blockade, and down and up the road were two more blockades.
Against who? Against the police and against ‘fascists’, they told us. ‘Fascists’ is an often used word in Turkey, mostly referring to a group you radically disagree with. For these young people, the fascists are AKP-supporters from other area’s than theirs, this evening more specifically those from Kasimpasa. ‘We are defending our neighbourhood’, a 18-year old man told me. ‘You know our organization, don’t you?’, he asked, pointing at the shutters behind him, DHKC in huge red letters painted on it.
We were welcomed by the youngsters, almost everybody was willing to talk and behaved friendly. But during the evening, the atmosphere got more tensed. The group heard that there were ‘fascists’ coming from Kasimpasa, trying to enter Okmeydanı. The ‘fascists’ had to be prevented from entering against all costs.
The preparations against the ‘invasion’ started. All of a sudden a big part of the group had their faces covered, mostly with red cloths – the symbol of ‘Halk Cephesi’, People’s Front. Then I saw a whole lot of Efes beer bottle’s turned into molotov cocktails. A few people were holding wooden sticks, others started breaking big stones into pieces.
Nobody had any problem with the presence of foreign journalists. But that didn’t make me feel particulary safe. Neither did the prospect of a group of opponents coming from Kasimpasa who just lost a friend and may want some sort of revenge. I could only guess the exact identity of the people who were apparently on the way, but both most logical guesses were not comforting me.
Die hard AKP-supporters are not fond of foreign press, as they believe the propaganda of their leader Erdogan that there is an international conspiracy going on against Turkey (= the government) and that the foreign press is part of that conspiracy. If it were ultra nationalist on the way, it would make the prospect worse, since they are known to be (very) violent. On top of that, both groups are always protected by the police, so any help from that side was not to be expected either.
On twitter there were reports of violence in the area around Okmeydanı, but it was impossible to tell which reports were true and which were not. People asked me on twitter what was going on, but all I could say was that I was safe, and that there was tension but no clashes and no groups from other neighbourhoods. I had no clue what was going on in the areas around us and it was too dangerous to check it out. A weird feeling: were we in the eye of a storm? And if so, how were were ever going to get out?
‘It has begun’
Then slowly the trouble started. A small group of young men ran towards the corner where a police vehicle was standing and threw fireworks and one molotov. The others applauded. A bit later from a street behind us a group of young men came running, and it seemed police were reacting with teargas in the streets that we couldn’t see. ‘Basladi’, the group said, ‘it has begun’.
As I walked around trying to assess the situation, I saw kids behind windows watching the scenes, women sitting on the stairs outside their homes supporting the youth of their neighbourhood, and people throwing cardboard boxes from their houses to contribute to the burning blockade.
I asked a young man: ‘I’m not sure what is happening. Who started the fight? You, or the police? The police didn’t shoot our way, right, so why throw the molotovs? I don’t understand.’ He shrugged his shoulders: ‘Catisma’, he said, ‘Clash’, adding nothing else. It didn’t matter to him: maybe the police started, maybe not. And what if the police didn’t start?, he seemed to be saying. I concluded: in this area, the DHKP-C rules, in cooperation with the PKK. They don’t defend themselves against authorities, they actively fight them.
I didn’t wait for the moment the teargas would be shot in our direction. Via the side streets, the gas was coming to us anyway, my eyes and throath were suffering. A young woman sprayed a mix of milk and some other things in my face to stop the burning feeling. It helped. We asked some people the safest way out. Walk down the road, keep going down down until you reach the main road. Then you are out. And that’s what we did.
A more detailed report with many pictures and a video is available at Beaconreader! I report there at least on a weekly basis, and you get accesss to the stories for only 5USD per month. For that reasonable price you also get access to all other Beacon writers!
And here is a piece by social anthropologist Jenny White, explaining why it is so scary that different groups start fighting each other on the streets. Follow her on twitter!