July 15 would change our unsuspecting lives forever. Here is a first-hand story of what went down that fateful night.
July 15, 2016 would rock the way we saw the world, but that evening it was just another Friday and the beginning of a long-anticipated weekend.
7:45 PM, July 15
I was finally on my way home from a long day at work, when my colleague and friend at the economic research institution I worked for invited me to tea. He’d gone out of his way to make me comfortable in this new country I had moved to. To someone who was still getting used to the country, this was deeply appreciated.
That night he introduced me to Gazi Cafe, a teahouse (çay evi) with a long-standing tradition where Turks came to unwind, share stories and meet friends.
As he drove me home, I looked out the window and marvelled at how quiet the streets were.
“This is Ankara, not much goes on around here,” he said, pulling up to a red light intersection.
Seconds later a convoy of Armored Personnel Carriers cut across the intersection with no regard to traffic, in a visible rush. One of them skidded, before correcting its course. None of them slowed.
‘How odd,’ I recall thinking to myself.
“Don’t they move those around on trucks so that they don’t damage the streets?,” I asked.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he added.
Opening the doors to my apartment later, I couldn’t shake the sense of foreboding that followed me. I checked the news. My twitter feed. Nothing. Bizarre.
A phone call interrupted my thoughts. Enes, a neighbour and colleague was passing by, and wondered if I would be interested in pizza with some friends.
Getting out would be good, I told him. I replaced my suit jacket with a leather one, grabbed my keys and headed down.
But the night was only beginning.
We were headed to Park Oran, a residential complex in southern Ankara. One of our friends had the place to himself with his father away travelling, and he saw fit to make good use of it.
By then, we were all on edge. Someone quoted a friend seeing a tank in the city centre. We were still all in the dark.
9:00 PM, July 15
Matters had gone from bad to worse. Twitter was breaking with news of a shooting at the Army General Staff Command in Ankara. Ambulances were rushing there. Soldiers were being deployed.
A low flying jet screamed past us, bearing north. The reverberating roar shook windows. Neighbours looked out the windows anxiously, before ushering their children back indoors.
Another jet roared past. We started to speculate. Were the jets trying to counter the armoured deployments? Who was who? Was it a coup d’etat? No sane general would launch a coup without air support though.
With a sinking feeling, I envisioned dogfights above civilian neighbourhoods, with pilots who couldn’t distinguish between friend or foe.
11:14 PM, July 15
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made a statement saying there was an attempted military coup. By then, this only confirmed what I had seen. The messages started pouring in.
My family was in Algeria on their summer vacation, in the rustic town of Ain Tedeles. Internet coverage was weak there, so they were barely receiving me messages. Hearts in their throats, they gathered on the ceiling and circled around an old radio that was reporting on the events in Turkey.
I called them anyway.
“Inshallah, it will pass in peace,” my mother said. It struck me then, that this wasn’t just about Turkey. Friends in different time zones were wide awake, invested, expressing shock and outrage.
Turkey had come to mean something else to us. To those who lived in it, and to those who appreciated the stands it had taken on the world stage. You wouldn’t know it, but there was nowhere else left.
If you pursued a cause, and supported freedoms and democracy in the region; there was really only one safe haven to go to.
Egypt’s Arab Spring was crushed by a coup d’etat barely before it had left the cradle. Syria was in flames. Libya’s uprising against Gaddafi had quickly devolved into a civil war. Tunisia was more fractured than ever before. Algeria showed no signs of budging. Yemen’s Arab Spring brought internecine conflict, and months before our fateful night, saw an overwhelming Arab coalition invade it.
11:25 PM, July 15
I hear popping noises outside the balcony. Slowly looking outside, I see trucks some 600 meters away parked on the highway with troops unloading. They take a moment, then head off the highway into a dark forest.
Opposite us is the public broadcaster Turkish Radio Television (TRT) headquarters, sitting on an inclined hill. Was that a flash of light I saw between the tree trunks? I opened the channel to TRT. Nothing was being broadcast. The soldiers were spreading out, surrounding TRT and pushing forward.
They weren’t hiding the fact that they were there. Then again, it was a civilian public broadcaster.
High beam flashlights swayed back and forth across the hill as they tightened the noose.
Meanwhile, another statement came out. Police were being ordered not to lay down their weapons to soldiers. That came as a blow. If they were relying on police with their light firearms in this face-off with armed-to-the-teeth soldiers, it was going to be a close call.
More jets flew by. There was still shooting ongoing at Ankara’s General Command HQ. My friends shared their sighting of helicopters taking to the air in Istanbul.
11:42 PM, July 15
News continued to trickle in, maddening in its glacial pace.
Reports were saying that putschists took Chief of Staff as a hostage.
There was a big wedding in Istanbul. Most air force generals were there, making it the ideal chance for a coup.
11:55 PM, July 15
Something was up in TRT. The soldiers had disappeared inside, and all they were showing was a weather broadcast.
12:00 AM, July 16
A major explosion rocked Ankara. Someone with family in the General Staff said to expect power cuts.
Minutes later, TRT fell to rogue soldiers and began broadcasting. Aljazeera reported that flights were cancelled out of Ataturk airport. President Erdogan was said to be on his way to Istanbul.
Someone said the Ministry of Defence was making a statement saying the news of a coup was the result of a hack. It sounded strange in light of all we had seen.
Protests were beginning to form in Istanbul and Ankara.
There was commotion in the living room, and we gathered around the television. A scared broadcaster was shakily speaking into the camera reading the putschists' speech. The president was isolated, and the government’s powers were suspended. By what right, I wondered?
It was 12:13 AM by then. I glanced over at the looping video of the broadcaster, imagining the men with guns behind the camera. She looked terrified, but kudos to her, she managed to contain herself.
A friend called and asked me if I was in Istanbul. He was on his way to a protest in Uskudar, on Istanbul’s Asian coast.
TRT 1’s forced broadcast kept playing. It acknowledged a coup had taken place. "The country is run by fear and autocracy," and they have "seized the power," it read.
I found it sadly ironic.
Saudi Arabia’s channel was taking a shocking stance, attempting to persuade its viewers that the coup was inevitable and possibly deserved.
Putschists' statement said that they imposed a curfew across the country until further notice. We were all prisoners locked into a nightmare from which we couldn’t wake.
The rogue broadcast continued, ordering all news channels to spread their message.
More news filtered through. Some conflicting. President Erdogan was on vacation in Marmaris. He just arrived at Istanbul Ataturk Airport. But how could he, when it was under rogue soldiers’ control?
12:24 AM, July 16
An AK Party spokesperson called on its supporters to go to Ataturk airport and protect the president who just landed there.
Barely a minute later, President Erdogan was giving a speech on CNN Turk, through FaceTime, from a mobile phone. If anything showed the extent to which the situation had devolved, it was that.
A friend translated as he spoke.
“It was an insurrection mounted by a small minority, organised by a parallel state [structure]. I urge the Turkish people to take to the streets of our cities, to gather in our squares and our airports. Let them come with their tanks and cannons. Let them do what they will. I have yet to see any power greater than that of the people.”
We took in his words, as I watched a burning glow over the hill from where we stood. It was only growing, with a faint hint of smoke above it.
A few minutes later, automatic and cannon fire could be heard. It was hard to tell where it was coming from. News reached us that protestors were beginning to go to Ankara’s city centre. Should we violate the curfew to join them? There were soldiers just across the road. They didn’t seem the lenient sort.
A helicopter gunship flew overhead. It was too close.
The methodical sound of the helicopter’s beating rotors was coming closer again.
“Get away from the balcony,” my friends urged. But I had to see. It was headed towards our building. It was difficult to see whether it was slowing or getting closer. The dark and the adrenaline were playing tricks with my sense of perspective.
Someone turned off the lights. The voices behind me fell off into hushed, frenetic whispers.
It was at eye-level now. We were 20 floors up. The helicopter wasn’t more than a 100 meters away from the balcony now.
A shredding, buzzing, ripping noise filled the air, jarring my teeth. I felt it’s vibrations in everything I was holding. It was the nose of a machine gun with a high-rate of fire.
It was aiming for the street in front of TRT, letting loose a torrent of bullets outlined by bright white tracer rounds. Moments later, the return fire began.
It was odd. Not being able to tell which side was which. I pulled my head back further. Was this an attempt to retake TRT, or an attempt to defend it from civilian recapture?
It dipped its nose, and steadily flew off West. Another helicopter from the southeast was coming closer. Was it running away, or were those reinforcements?
CNN was showing civilians in the streets, surrounding tanks.
12:51 AM, July 16
There were lights around TRT again, Some high up on the hill, some in front. The helicopter was back, whether the same one, or another, I couldn’t tell. It was flying in a circular holding position. It seemed like the great push to take TRT back was about to take place.
The helicopter fired onto the highway. Cars were stopping, scrambling to get out of the way. Vehicles were making their way up the hill. Moments later, the entire hill went dark. Someone cut the lights.
12:55 AM, July 16
Emergency power came back in the staircases.
More vehicles were joining the first ones. The helicopter moved to the compound, set down briefly, then left again.
I would find out later that one of the friends I had tea with that very evening, had joined the retaking of TRT’s Headquarters. He surged in there with his belt in hand, whipping rogue soldiers and shouting at them to lay down their arms. I hope he got some sort of commendation for it, but his valour wasn’t unique that night.
It was over quickly. Shadows of relatively relaxed patrolling soldiers walking around TRT slowly suggested to me they’d taken the building.
Someone messaged, warning fighter jets were causing sonic booms in Ankara to push crowds away. It was a night for disbelief. Even my normal scepticism was broken.
1:00 AM, July 16
Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport was full of civilians. They had overrun the rogue soldiers stationed inside, and streamed onto the tarmac. One of my oldest friends and classmates was there, and he described the scene to me over the phone.
The transport lines were shut down, so they walked 10 kilometres in a growing exodus of furious civilians seeking justice.
As he described the growing line marching down Istanbul’s E5 highway, my mind made the link to angry revolutionaries by the thousands marching on Versailles. This time though, they were here to save their leader.
I told my friend to be safe, occupied as he was rushing to be at the head of the crowd.
“Don’t worry,” he laughed. “If it’s our time, it’s our time.”
As if to make me feel better, he related the story of another friend and former classmate with him who upon hearing of the call to go to the airport ran out, saying, “If we die tonight, let’s at least wear our kafan (burial shroud).”
There was a light shining on the Turkish flag fluttering over TRT’s dark, quiet building.
Jets were flying south, and banking into smooth turns high above. Armoured vehicles were moving away from TRT. The same helicopter gunship followed them.
1:17 AM, July 16
The sound of sporadic fire was coming from the direction the convoy had left, up the highway. It sounded like a single rifle, then quickly switched to heavy calibre machine gun fire.
The distance to the sounds wasn’t increasing or decreasing, suggesting a stand-off or a firefight. Someone shared that the firefight was around an officer’s housing compound up the road.
I could hear indistinct chants from the neighbourhoods.
1:22 AM, July 16
Two F-16 jets were circling over the firefight, but not engaging.
In an unexpected turn, the mosques began to sing praises and make the call to prayer.
The gunfire would halt during the calls, then resume as soon as it had stopped.
1:30 AM, July 16
The tell-tale soft blue glow that hinted at their propulsion, and their silence gave them away.
Gunfire slowly ceased, as the Quran began to be recited from mosques around the city.
It was offset by the sound of chanting from at least 10 km away. I never thought I’d hear the two together. A rocking explosion south of us shook the building and the ground.
The uneasy tension between calls to peace and gunfire would continue throughout the night.
When the calls from the minarets sounded, the gunfire would cease. When it stopped, it would pick up again. Before long, the praise, and remembrances being sung from the highest minarets would continue without pause, if only to maintain the peace.
The sporadic suppressive heavy fire continued into the night, followed by isolated rifle fire.
Citizens were streaming onto the streets, shouting ‘God is great!’, to the resounding responses of ‘Ameen’.
At this point, ironically enough, the US government initially asked for both parties to remain calm but when it became clear that the coup attempt failed, the US government sided with the “democratically-elected, civilian government of Turkey."
The night was far from over. We called our families, told them we loved them and headed out into the brisk streets, driving to the city centre where we joined the crowds, protesting well past sunrise.
Sleep was out of the question, and for days the feeling was that we could wake up one morning and find another coup had taken place.
Everyone was on guard, and citizens took to their empowered status as defenders of democracy with relish.
There is no exaggeration in this fact: for a month, the cities of Istanbul and Ankara were filled with citizens. Parliaments. Police stations. Public squares. They were surrounded by throngs of patriots, who were ready to endure bodily harm or death to preserve the dignity of their republic.
We sang, cheered and celebrated life, freedom and democracy.
But not all did.
Over 2,200 had been injured, 251 were killed. Some on the 15 July Martyrs Bridge, where civilians stood defiantly against tanks. In a very real sense, that was Turkey’s Tiananmen square moment. It’s moments like these that stay with you. The sight of an unarmed man with a tank bearing down on him, showing no sign of slowing.
Years later, I still see the bullet holes and broken glass whenever I walk past one of my favourite bakeries in Cengelkoy, Uskudar on Istanbul’s Asian coast where the protests first broke out. Walking a bit further, I come across a glass case, showcasing a car crushed under tank treads.
It’s only been four years since the attempted coup, and in some senses, that’s very little time. But it feels like a lifetime. People were changed by it, whether they were born to the land or came from elsewhere.
One thing remains for certain. The experiences and sacrifices of July 15, 2016, will never be forgotten.
For me, it brought home the value of freedom, dignity and the threats democracy can face if we don’t do everything we can to preserve it.