ISTANBUL, Turkey — Since 1960, Turkey has faced four "successful" coups. That’s an average of one every decade or so.
On July 15, 2016, a faction of the army attempted another coup. But this time, thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, and faced off against tanks, snipers and warplanes. Those acts of defiance broke a decades-long cycle of political instability and strengthened democratic rule.
That night, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on citizens to fight back against the rogue soldiers. Turkey says they were motivated by US-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen.
Despite encountering explosions and men with guns, these protesters stood firm. In total, 249 people died and more than 2,000 were injured.
AYSE AYKAC, 44-YEAR-OLD HOUSEWIFE
Ayse Aykac, a quiet housewife from Turkey’s Black Sea region, began reading the Quran when she saw the breaking news that tanks were rolling down the streets of Istanbul.
Ayse was a family woman who adored her children and spent much of her time cooking.
When her husband, Mustafa Aykac, said he was going out to resist the coup, she closed her Quran and told her husband that she was coming too. Mustafa, who had been her partner for 27 years, sternly rejected her request.
“No, I am coming,” she repeated forcefully to her husband, in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner. Seeing her resistance, he had little choice other than to allow her to come with him. That night, his wife, who had shied away from street protests all her life, was determined to take to the army-occupied streets.
Her teenage sons also wanted to come with their parents, but Ayse told them firmly to stay at home. Leaving their children at home, the couple drove their car to the Bosphorus Bridge, which was blocked off by pro-coup troops. Mustafa got out of the car to investigate the situation, telling her to stay in the car. But when he turned, he saw her locking the car and walking towards him.
It would be better if she stayed inside the car, he told her. But she again refused. So the couple continued their journey together on foot, walking down the highway to the bridge at a fast pace, to meet their adversaries.
The highway before them leading up to the bridge resembled an apocalyptic scene with so many people in the darkness, pierced only by the lights of the bridge.
Ayse dragged her husband by the hand, urging him to march ahead of the others, in an unusually daring mood. They ended up in the front row of the hundreds of protesters.
“I do not know [for sure], but I guess my wife was in a hurry [to meet with her destiny as a martyr],” Ayse’s husband told TRT.
Suddenly, the shooting spree began.
“My wife was hit. She fell down,” Mustafa said, speaking in a state of shock, even one year later. “I tried to cover her, but I didn’t really grasp what happened. I asked her what had happened. But there was no response.”
A sniper bullet had hit her, passing through her arm and piercing her chest. Mustafa’s memory of what happened next is hazy, but he recalls yelling out like a madman. His wife, meanwhile, spoke calmly. “There is only one God and Muhammad is his messenger,” she said, reciting the Islamic confession of faith. She whispered one more word he couldn’t understand.
She was rushed to the hospital, but her life couldn’t be saved.
“I have no way to recover from this shock. It was like we were in a science-fiction movie. For me, it is still like that. Like a movie, a scenario. I still can’t believe it. I don’t think I can ever believe that this actually happened to us,” said Mustafa, who has since been suffering from depression, which led him to abandon his job as a furniture maker.
“Every morning, when I wake up, I feel like she is right in front of me.”
“My mother didn’t usually go outside for these kinds of things [like she had on July 15]. This was the first time for her,” 25-year-old Selim Aykac, one of her sons, remembered. That night he rushed to join his parents in the hospital.
“[On July 15, she went outside] because she thought the country was in danger,” said Selim, who couldn’t finish his words under the wave of emotions and tears.
HASAN GENC, 44-YEAR-OLD FURNITURE MAKER
Hasan Genc was having tea with his friends when they heard that something major was underway. He jumped on his motorcycle and rode home to watch the news about what exactly was going on in the country.
When he reached home, he was just in time to catch Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaking through a smartphone, appealing to the country’s masses to resist the coup attempt.
“I invite my nation to the squares of our cities [to oppose the coup],” Erdogan said in a dramatic call against those within the country’s military apparatus who were trying to overthrow him and the democratically elected government.
“Our president was saying that this is a mutiny and our people need to hit the streets [to oppose it]. He said that if you go outside tonight, [you can save the country]. Tomorrow could be too late,” Genc, a 44-year-old furniture maker, told TRT.
Genc didn’t hesitate. He went straight to his garage and got on his Honda JRF motorcycle — he is a passionate biker, like the rest of his family. As he rode his motorcycle towards Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, which was later renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in memory of those who died that night, a policeman tried to stop him. The officer warned him that pro-coup soldiers were shooting people indiscriminately.
But Genc continued, regardless.
“There is a Turkish saying that if you think about your end too much, you can’t be a hero. If I had thought about what I was doing [that night], I would not have been able to ride my motorcycle straight towards the tanks,” he recounted.
“I didn’t want to think. I told myself that if I die here, well, I die. And I drove my motorcycle towards the tanks [without hesitation].”
When he got closer to the tanks, he was shot twice from snipers positioned on the bridge. One rifle bullet pierced his right shoulder. Another shot struck his left leg. The bullets did not hurt him as much as the identity of those firing the shots hurt him.
“Our soldiers were shooting at us. When we went out, we didn’t take even a stick with us. To be hit by our own soldiers hurt me so much. I started crying,” Genc said.
One of the pro-coup officers — his insignia suggested that he was a colonel — approached him as he lay on the ground. “Well done, commander,” Genc greeted the officer, sarcastically congratulating him for shooting an unarmed civilian.
The colonel asked the wounded Genc why he was there. “I was surprised to hear that question which I should have asked him,” he recounted.
The officer wasn’t finished with him, however. He ordered one of his foot soldiers to go behind him — apparently an order to execute him. The soldier readied his rifle.
Suddenly, a woman miraculously showed up at the bloody scene to challenge the colonel. Even now, Genc doesn’t know how the 40-something woman was able to brave the heavy rain of bullets to reach his side. Finally, the officer gave in to the woman’s demands and allowed for Genc to be carried away by two soldiers to a relatively safe area, out of the danger zone.
He was rushed to the hospital by other protesters. He later learned that the woman who literally saved his life was Hatice Kubra Ciftci. In the wake of the 1980 coup, her father had been persecuted and sentenced to death for his political activism.
YUNUS EMRE EZER, 38-YEAR-OLD ADVERTISER
“The most painful day of my life was the day when I learned my father had been martyred,” said Meryem Nur Ezer, the nine-year-old daughter of Yunus Emre Ezer. Her father was killed when anti-government forces opened fire on a crowd of ordinary Turks who were protesting the coup.
“I cried. Sorrow crept into my heart. I was happy [before his death], and that happiness turned into grief,” Meryem told TRT.
Her father was born in Cankiri, a province in the Black Sea region. He worked in advertising. The evening had started out much as any other night — Meryem had baked a chocolate cake for her father, before everything changed, forever.
Like thousands of other Turks, he took to the streets in protest that night as soon as he heard the news.
“My mother tried to persuade him to stay at home. [But] if she had locked the door, he would have gone out the window. Nothing could have prevented him from going out that night,” Meryem said.
Yunus and his brother Faruk went to Vatan Avenue, one of the clash sites, in the working class neighbourhood of Fatih. When they arrived, there were not many people, but soon the ranks of the protesters swelled to over a thousand. After forcing the soldiers out of the area, the crowd moved on to the Sarachane neighbourhood.
When his wife called him at around 1:30 am, the soldiers behind the coup attempt had already shot some protesters.
“A 30-year-old kid was just killed in front of me. He was hit in his heart,” he told his wife, Fatma Esra Ezer, over the phone. After that conversation, he and his brother decided to run towards the military units.
“March, Faruk, march … If they win tonight, we will be in their hands for another hundred years,” Yunus Emre told his brother, Faruk.
He called his wife a couple minutes after they charged, telling her that the situation was pretty chaotic. When his wife asked what they would do, he told her they were trying to come back, but they could not. Fifteen minutes after this final conversation, he was killed.
One of his friends called Fatma to say her husband “was martyred.”
Yunus Emre was buried in the Edirnekapi Martyrs’ Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in Istanbul, which dates back to the 1453 Ottoman conquest of the city. The cemetery mostly hosts people who sacrificed their lives in battle.
His brother survived, but is traumatised. Every night, he returns to the spot where his brother died and chain smokes his way through one or two boxes of cigarettes.
Yunus Emre’s daughter saw him in a dream. He brought two boxes for them, one for her and another one for her mum.
“We opened the boxes. In my box, there was a bouquet of roses. In my mum’s box, there was a Quran and a rosary,” Meryem said.
“He said, ‘These are gifts for you.’ Then, he was gone again.”
SAFIYE BAYAT, 34-YEAR-OLD HOUSEWIFE
On a seemingly ordinary Friday Safiye Bayat was at home while her husband was out driving, and her two children were at her parents’ house. She turned on the television and saw images of tanks rolling down the Bosphorus Bridge which connects Istanbul’s Asian side to the European side.
She lives in Istanbul’s neighbourhood of Uskudar, on the Asian side, not far from the bridge, and decided to see for herself what was going on outside. The 34-year-old mother of two walked alone down the highway, soon reaching the bridge where the rest of the protesters had gathered to oppose the coup plotters.
As she neared the bridge, she was stopped by police officers. They told her that the bridge area was too dangerous and they, themselves, were awaiting their orders on what to do. But she begged them to let her continue.
“Let her go,” a high-ranking police officer told his subordinates.
Bayat, originally from Turkey’s Black Sea province of Kastamonu, marched towards the legs of the bridge, where the tanks and troops were gathered.
“When I reached the bridge toll counters, I saw two young guys holding a big Turkish flag. They told me not to go further; that it was too dangerous,” Bayat recounted.
She refused to heed their advice, saying that she wanted to confront the soldiers directly about why they were there.
“Why do you block my Bosphorus Bridge? What is your aim?” she asked the pro-coup soldiers, standing in front of the tanks. “These tanks have no business here on the bridge. They need to go back to their barracks right away.”
When the pro-coup commander ordered his troops to prepare to shoot her, she crossed her arms and stood there defiantly, telling them that their threats didn’t scare her.
“You will open this bridge [to traffic],” she ordered them, launching into a long tirade. It was an unusually bold move by a Turkish civilian and was captured by television cameras. A frustrated soldier can be seen pushing her and grabbing her cellphone and throwing it away.
The Turkish military had successfully overthrown four different elected governments since 1960 — every previous coup had been successful.
“You are going out there to die,” she told TRT, explaining the motivations of the anti-coup protesters like herself who took to the streets that night.
When she returned to join the rest of the protesters, putschist security forces opened fire on the protesters. As she tried to help another woman who had been wounded, she was herself shot in the leg.
“We were armed with nothing but our innocent bodies and our honourable stance,” she said.
Tears were flowing from her eyes after she fell down, she said, “not because of the pain, but because of my eternal thankfulness to Allah.”
“Thank God, I was honoured [in this particular place]. I fell down next to my brothers.”
Bayat has chronic pain in her right leg and walks with a limp, but says she is proud to be a veteran of the July 15 protests.
IBRAHIM YILMAZ, 25-YEAR-OLD IMAM
The night of July 15, 2016 left 25-year-old Esma Kilicaslan Yilmaz a widow and her baby fatherless. Her young husband, Ibrahim Yilmaz, lost his life in a barrage of bullets fired by the coup plotters.
Esma and Ibrahim had married in 2013. The young family had just spent what Esma describes as a perfect year in a rural village in Erzurum, a distant eastern province of Turkey, known for its cold winters. She worked as a Quran teacher and he was an imam. Electricity often cut out in the mountainous hideout and temperatures would drop below freezing levels, but she remembers that time fondly. Ibrahim was also a qurra hafiz — a rare status achieved by someone who has memorised the whole text of the Quran using many different types of pronouncation.
“It is 1,500 kilometres away from Istanbul, and I was not used to a life like that, having been raised in Germany. But I was living with a man with whom you could live anywhere [on earth],” she recalled the days with her beloved husband in Erzurum.
Ibrahim loved his only daughter so much, his widow told TRT, that he insisted on being the one to put her baby to sleep every evening.
“It is a bond of love between me and her,” he would always tell his wife.
The couple’s daughter was nine months old at the time of the coup.
The family had come back to Istanbul during Eid break in the summer of 2016. After visiting Ibrahim’s family, Esma flew to Germany to visit her own family there. Her husband stayed in Istanbul.
“A few days after I went to Germany, the July 15 incident happened,” she said, describing that night as a bolt of lightning which struck the family in the middle of a wonderful life.
Esma was watching news of the attempted coup unfold from Germany — not knowing at that very moment, her husband was one of those taking to the streets in protest in the working class Istanbul neighbourhood of Fatih.
“When I heard about the coup attempt, a terrible fear gripped my heart. I was so worried and distressed. But my father told me not to fear; that our state will overcome [the attempted coup]. ‘God willing, nothing bad would happen,’ [he reassured me],” Esma said.
But she feared that the country would also lose some of its sons on July 15.
“Let’s see which honourable citizens will be martyred today,” she told her father, unaware that one of those "honourable citizens” would be her husband.
Soon after, she learned the painful truth when her husband’s bloody pictures began circulating on social media. She also saw pictures of her father-in-law, hugging his dead son’s body as he sobbed uncontrollably. She still thought that he might be mistaking his son with somebody else.
“Maybe, he was not the one I thought. But parents could not mistake [someone for] their children. He was their son. How could they mistake their son with somebody else? Surely, it was him,” she said in a trembling voice.
It was all the more difficult to learn of her husband’s death so impersonally, through strangers on social media.
She hoped that the news was wrong and that her husband was still alive. She called those who knew what happened there without any doubt. “They said he was martyred. The news was right.”
She wanted to return to Turkey as quickly as possible, for his funeral, but airports were still controlled by pro-coup security forces.
Despite the pain her husband's death caused her, she believes he died for a good cause. She considers her husband’s sacrifice similar to those made in the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915 — when Turkey’s predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, won its last major victory by defeating foreign invaders in World War I.
“They can not take our country from us, either with treason or tanks and rifles,” Esma said, tears streaming down her face. “No matter how much we suffer, we will not give up our lands and will not surrender them to anybody.”
SEE OUR FULL COVERAGE
July 15 marks a symbolic victory for the Turkish people. They showed the world they would determine their own destiny. It was the first time in Turkey’s 94-year history that a military coup failed. One year on, we bring you heroic stories from the night and talk to the people, politicians and analysts about how the country is moving on. FULL COVERAGE