ISTANBUL, Turkey — Syrian refugees were struck by panic when fighter jets flew dangerously low over Istanbul, often breaking the sound barrier, on the night of July 15 last year.
As the situation turned grimmer, with gunshots ringing through the air, they wondered if the war in Syria had spilled over into Turkey.
Ragda Zaidan, a Syrian refugee, watched her neighbours gather on the street next to her apartment in Istanbul’s Eyup district. “They were talking, yelling amongst each other in Turkish,” Zaidan said. “I didn’t understand what they were saying.”
But as Zaidan began receiving phone calls from her friends and family from different corners of the world, she learnt that Turkey was facing a military coup.
A 47-year-old with a doctorate in Islamic law, Zaidan writes opinions on social issues for a Syrian news website. She turned her television on to follow the news. As she saw images of armoured vehicles and military tanks rolling across Istanbul and Ankara, she began to worry about the likelihood of rogue military units taking over the country and toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
For Syrians in Turkey, it was a moment that not only evoked the macabre memories of the war they had escaped from in Syria but also brought them close to a new uncertainty. The thought of fleeing another home and going down the path of the unknown was too heavy to bear.
“I felt unsure about the future,” Zaidan said. “Every Syrian I know here felt the same. We thought if the coup succeeded, the Syrian refugees will be forced to leave Turkey.”
Many Syrians in Eyup went out onto the streets that night alongside Turks to protest against the coup attempt. They raised Turkish flags, chanted pro-democracy slogans and formed human chains to block the tanks.
In panic, others packed their belongings, thinking they might be forced to leave the country the next morning.
The shadow of the past
A few kilometres away in the district of Fatih, Turkish people traded stories of previous military coups with their Syrian neighbours. “My [Turkish] neighbours recalled long military sieges in past coups, and how they starved for days in their homes,” said Mohamed (name changed).
Originally from Damascus, Mohamed moved to Istanbul as a refugee five years ago, waiting tables at a restaurant outside the grand mosque in the working class neighbourhood of Fatih.
Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the military has toppled elected governments four times — each time plunging the country into an economic quagmire.
After the first coup in 1960, a military junta hanged several politicians, including the country’s prime minister, Adnan Menderes. Another military administration toppled the elected government in 1980, executing prominent figures on the left and right of the political divide.
The coup of 1997, which the country describes as the “postmodern coup,” marked a significant change in Turkish politics, however. As the military overthrew a coalition government of moderate secular and religious-minded leaders in the name of the hardline secularism laid down by the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a large number of people felt dejected. Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul back then. He cultivated support from disgruntled Turks and launched a new political platform, The Justice and Development Party, locally known as AK Party, a political game-changer that won a decisive electoral victory in 2002 and has remained in power until today.
After last year's failed coup, Erdogan gained support from people across the political spectrum inside and outside Turkey, as they perceived the military intervention as a threat to Turkish democracy.
The Turkish government has been facing criticism from activists and opposition leaders for arresting several thousand people with alleged links to Fethullah Gulen.
A cleric who lives in self-imposed exile in the US, Gulen is accused of masterminding the coup, which claimed 249 lives and injured several thousand people. The Turkish government has designated his group as the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO).
Most Syrians in Turkey had no idea who Gulen was before the coup. “We still aren’t interested in knowing who he is,” Mohamed, the restaurant keeper, said.
They care more about Erdogan and his AK Party remaining in power, since the government kept Turkey’s border with Syria open to refugees as European nations began closing theirs.
“I’m pretty sure every Syrian in Turkey would have been handed over to Assad,” Mohamed said.
A threat to the Syrian opposition
Zaidan, the Syrian writer, echoed this sentiment. She believes the ouster of Erdogan would have proved disastrous for the Syrian opposition. “The coup was a move against Turkish people and whoever was behind it was certainly against the people's aspirations,” she said. “That mindset of being against the [Turkish] people means the Turkish coup conspirators are similar to Assad, because he is also against the [Syrian] people.”
On the night of the coup, Syrian opposition condemned the pro-coup military officers and expressed support for Erdogan. The next morning, Syrians living in areas next to Turkey‘s southeastern border carried out demonstrations in support of him.
“We Syrians have been sprinkled like salt all over the globe,” said Hiba Shehadaa, the daughter of Zaidan. “We got calls from our uncles and aunts who are refugees in various countries. They all prayed for the coup to fail."
The 24-year-old Shehadaa differs from her mother when it comes to analysing the possible impact on Syrian refugees if the coup had succeeded. “I think nothing would have changed for us,” she said. “Turkey has always had refugees from other countries. They have had refugees from Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan. So taking in Syrian refugees is not new for Turkey.”
As Shehadaa began talking about day-to-day difficulties Syrians face across Turkey — from joblessness to lack of education — her mother Zaidan was quick to intervene. “I don’t agree with what my daughter says,” Zaidan said. “It’s not a joke to take in three million refugees. Turkey is alone in bearing the burden of Syrian refugees and no country is supporting it. It’s true we are facing many challenges here. But the important thing is to feel safe; we feel safe here.”
"A success for the people"
Zaidan said experiencing the coup and its failure made her hate Assad more. “The failure of the coup was a success for the people,” she said. “They faced tanks and bullets and they succeeded. We did the same in Syria a few years ago but we didn’t succeed. Assad, that tyrant, destroyed the whole nation just to stay in power.”
Zaidan did not sleep on the night of the coup until she learnt Erdogan and the government were no longer in danger the next morning.
Mohamed, the waiter, did not sleep either. He in fact participated in the anti-coup protests and saw his friend, a fellow Syrian, being injured by a bullet scraping his stomach at Fatih’s Vatan Avenue. “We took him to the hospital,” he said. “Thank God he survived.”
Outside the hospital emergency room, Mohamed engaged in banter with his other Syrian friends. “We felt good that we helped our Turkish neighbours in saving their country from harm,” he said. “It was like being part of something revolutionary.”
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