Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Ankara in Protest- The Battle of Dikmen Street


After earlier being hit by a water cannon in the Kennedy street area of Ankara my cameraman and I were told of clashes in the Turkish capital's district of Dikmen. As our taxi driver dropped us on the junction below Dikmen street we could already see the glow of fires. Along a half kilometre stretch between two petrol stations the street was filled with burning barricades and crowds of angry protesters. They were a much more militant crowd than those we had witnessed around Kugulu park and Kennedy street. There police water cannon and tear gas firing vehicles, backed up by columns of riot police, set about breaking up crowds each night with ease. What would start as peaceful protests quickly degenerated into knots of demonstrators chanting a little then running to try and find safety. Not in Dikmen. 

Barricades burn along Ankara's Dikmen Street as protesters defy the riot police.

None of the shop windows were broken or private property damaged along the street. It seemed the community was very much supporting the protesters. Public dustbins, street signs and communal flower display pots had been torn or smashed up and dragged into small barricades. As we walked along the street people shouted support from windows and threw mattresses down do add to the bonfires started with old wooden doors and the contents of the dustbins. Hundreds of protesters were variously grouped around the barricades, fetching material to add to them or were chanting or dancing in groups.  One woman stopped banging a pot and pan and came up to us. "Erdogan devil! Erdogan devil!" she shouted then told us old people and children were being tear gassed in the streets. It was a joyous, defiant and angry atmosphere that rose up into the Ankara night with the banging of the dustbins and the smoke from the fires. But we had seen a number of 'TOMA' (shown in the video link) water cannon vehicles waiting about a kilometre away down the road. TOMA (Toplumsal Olaylara M├╝dahale Arac─▒, English: Riot Control Vehicle) is written on the sides of each one. They have become something of an infamous household name around Turkey these days. With a bulldozer blade on the front, a remote controlled water cannon on top and tear gas spraying from their sides they have become a tool of choice for the police and a hated symbol of a brutal crackdown for demonstrators. A few minutes later they came.

The protesters had used all available public property to try and block the street, including their own street signs.

Blue and red lights showed through the smoke. The crowd surged forward to scream their defiance at two approaching TOMAs and then surged back as they rammed the first barricade and began raking the street with their water cannons. Everyone ran before them and they proceeded to work their way up that half kilometre stretch, blasting anyone who didn't reach cover in time and pushing aside each barricade. My cameraman and I had ran down a side alley as it charged past. Now the protesters emerged from side alleys all along the street and ran up to a TOMA from behind, pelting it with stones. It seemed it was all they could do to hit back, but the crew inside the TOMA couldn't fight them all off, stones clanging off its sides as it's water cannon flailed around trying to hose down one protester after another. They circled around it like ants around an angry elephant amid the fire and debris strewn street, shouting and hurling the nearest piece of masonry they could lay their hands on.

One demonstrator looks up the street to where the police vehicles might approach as a crowd dance in a circle behind her.

Behind the TOMAs drove so called 'scorpions', armoured cars with a turret hatch above from where a police officer fired tear gas from a hand held launcher. With loud sirens they sped around the side streets and up and down Dikmen street. A bang and sparks and a gas canister would fly into some side alley and spew out clouds of the noxious stuff. We had put on our gas masks and kept them on, only taking them off periodically to check how heavy the air was with the stinging CS gas. Fired at groups of protesters the gas canisters can be very dangerous. I met a protester, Ersin Ertas, who had been sheltering behind a wooden board when police fired a canister through it, hitting him in the face. It broke his nose, sent splinters flying into his left eye and left his face horribly swollen for days. 

A TOMA riot control vehicle charges down Dikmen street with its water cannon firing.

My cameraman and I found ourselves split up in the mayhem. I had to hide as a TOMA revved around a corner, only a plastic advertising banner next to a shop to hide behind as the water jets blasted protesters in front of me. I only managed to rejoin my cameraman by clambering through a nearby garden and car park, apologies and thanks to the owners. Later we found ourselves among a group of protesters running from a scorpion as it sped down the street. Firing three of four gas canisters, one ricocheted off a low wall and just missed me. These were just two of most tense moments in a night where we seemed like one of only two television news crews trying to cover violent and defiant clashes. A government spokesman had previously told me things had calmed down in Turkey. They have not.

Once the TOMAs had passed groups of stone throwing protesters circled around them.

So when might this all end? When hooligans and vandals stop their attacks on property, police and public order says Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing AK party. There are some protesters who have taken things too far. Dozens of buses have been burned or smashed up, shop windows have been broken in some protests and public property smashed up and made into barricades. But the majority of protesters I have seen have been vastly outgunned by police that seem all too eager to charge in and break up ostensibly peaceful demonstrations. In Dikmen protesters were not peaceful, but there was non of the looting that Erdogan has previously claimed. This was a community ranged against a police forced that seemed to them too brutal in its crackdown. When will this all end? When the authoritarian Erdogan goes, say some protesters. At least until there are changes, police more amenable and, they demand, more accountable for their actions. 

The message I heard most, and one that does not bode well for either side in this increasingly bitter civil divide is this, "We will stay out on the street as long as they, the police, do."

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Ankara in Protest- Water, Gas and elemental threats

Protesters gather on Ankara's Kennedy street just before being charged by two police water cannon trucks.

Whereas Tuesday's protest in Ankara ground on until the small hours, the police response shocked everyone in the days after. Up to a thousand protesters were gathered on Ankara's downtown Kennedy street where I headed after an evening witnessing the sit-ins and standing man protests at the city's Kugulu park. The park gatherings, with groups having lectures or discussions, are themselves a nod towards Istanbul's Gezi park protest camp. On Kennedy street which nightly sees standoffs between police and protesters the atmosphere is more noisy. Horns and banners, chants and small knots of usually young men daring each other to go forward close to police lines. 

Protestesters try to gather further up the road but are chased down side  streets.

Suddenly around midnight a police water cannon truck charged the crowd, firing its jet at the few who didn't scatter like startled pigeons. Into the clumps of stripped tree bark, smashed branches, debris and water sped two vehicles with tear gas firing turrets atop them. The water cannon truck itself sprayed tear gas from its sides if any demonstrators approached too close. Those that had been gathered in demonstration now scattered down side streets, chased by the vehicles. A few dozen riot police held back, letting the vehicles do the work. The gas firing riot cars made numerous rounds of these streets. The water cannon operators inside seemed frustrated, even blasting my cameraman and me as we were reporting. I do not believe they didn't see that we were media. There are also accusations by protesters that police are mixing something, tear gas or some other irritant, into the water cannon water. Whatever it is the water they were firing was coloured red.

A used gas canister lays next to a gutter. By the night's end the streets were running red, not with blood, but with the irritant protesters claim is added to the water cannons' streams.

This all seemed rather at odds with what what I was told by one of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling AK party spokespeople earlier. The world from up there in Turkey's parliament on its hill can look rather different. Flocks of politicians and their aides whisk about the large, cool corridors. Turkish parliamentary journalists chat with them on garden sofas under the shade of trees while sipping tea and nibbling on cherries and apricots. It is a permissive, thoughtful atmosphere mixed with the rapid deal making of politics. That is expected, perhaps even reassuring. But is doesn't stop it seeming strange compared to what you see at the sharp end of civil politics on the street. This government spokesman maintained that there were a hardcore of real troublemakers within the protesters' ranks and that apart from a few isolated incidents the police were a model of restraint. Such is the gulf of opinion dividing the two sides in this civil unrest. If there was a reason why the police vehicles charged protesters then I could not see if from where I was. There was certainly no obvious hardcore of hooligans among this particular crowd. Politicians I spoke to from the two main opposition parties criticised the government's way of ruling and police overreaction but weren't as overt in their support of protesters as one might think. They're politicians. They deal in dialogue and that's what they were calling for more of.
Ersin Ertas, after being hit in the face by a gas canister  fired by police in Ankara's Kizilay square.

I also met Ersin Ertas in Ankara's Kizilay square, another focal point for protests, and violent ones in the early days of the unrest. Ersin was demonstrating here among many thousands of the protesters when the police started firing the volleys of tear gas they have been so heavily criticised for. 'A rain of them' Ersin described it as. As the crowd fell back he found himself trapped and scrambled behind a wooden board, his only protection in the exposed street. According to Ersin the police then turned their launchers on the his small group. One slammed into the wood hitting him the face. His nose was broken and splinters lodged in his left eye. He had to run through the hail of gas missiles, nose streaming blood, in order to reach medical help. He was luckier than some. One man, Ethem Sarisuluk, was killed in the same square by a metal fragment, probably a bullet according to initial autopsy.

A protester shouts at a water cannon truck.

All of this gives a sense of public alienation. Many of the demonstrators camped out in parks or gathering on the streets do not lend passionate support to any of the main parties. There is little doubt that the real target of their anger is up on parliament's hill. There has been no attempt as yet to demonstrate closer to the Turkish parliament. Goodness knows what the government's response would be if they did. When I put it to my government spokesman that Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc's threat to use the army to quash protests smacks of scare tactics he seemed to want to claim that that was a misinterpretation whilst also reinforcing Arinc's message. He said that the statement was merely 'reminding the people of our legal right to use all measures deemed necessary.' This sounds like the thinly veiled strong man message that Erdogan's government has become so disliked for by many. It must also be said that Erdogan is supported by a significant proportion of Turks. But the more people hear that uncompromising message in his politicians' words, or feel it in the tear gas or water cannon, the more sour the atmosphere around Erdogan and his AK Party is likely to become. 

Friday, 21 June 2013

Ankara in protest- Meet TOMA the tear gas and water cannon truck

TOMA is the name given to the tear gas and water cannon trucks that have been part of the the heavy criticised police crackdown on protests in Turkey. Two of these trucks were used to disperse protesters on Ankara's Kennedy street on the nights of both Wedndesday 19th and Thursday 20th of June 2013.

They charged protesting crowds with no obvious signs of the 'hooligans' or 'terrosists' Prime Minister Erdogan has been referring to in recent speeches. They spray tear gas from their sides if protesters approach to close to the vehicle. There are also accusations by demonstrators that an extra additive in the water cannon water, which colours it red (see in the water jets), is tear gas or some other irritant.

For more more than three weeks protesters have clashed with police in Turkey, demonstrarting against what they say is authoritarian rule by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Ankara in Protest

Prosters sit and stand silently in Ankara in solidarity with Istanbul's 'standing man' protest.

Ankara was in protest for another night on Tuesday, though a more muted one after violence at the weekend. Protesters copied the approach of Istanbul's 'standing man' in Ankara's central Kizilay area. There a vigil continued for Ethem Sarisuluk, one of five killed in two weeks of protest across Turkey, chiefly against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

Protesters on Ankara's Kennedy street face off with police.

Elsewhere in the capital an intersection of Kennedy street has become a nightly standoff point between police and demonstrators. Tuesday was mostly peaceful if not quiet. Around a thousand protesters crowded the street, chanting, blowing plastic trumpets and being supported by vehicles sounding their horns or revving their engines. One protester, Burak, who didn't want to reveal his surname for fear of arrest told me, "we must stay here until (Prime Minister) Erdogan stops behaving like he does. He's not a dictator but if he carries on like this he will become one." Another, Buse Nicole Adali told me she was, "not afraid of the tear gas. As long as they (the police) keep coming so must we."

By the time police moved in to clear the street in the small hours of the morning only a few dozen protesters remained. A water cannon was used once and there were a few scuffles with individuals who strode up to police lines. A few beer bottles were smashed. Police in Ankara have carried out dozens of arrests after violent clashes there and in the capital over the weekend as authorities moved in to clear protest spots. Protesters accuse Prime Minister Erdogan of authoritarian leadership and the police of brutality against demonstrators. Erdogan for his part has called some of the protesters 'terrorists' and has shown his still substantial levels of support, addressing large rallies. 

A prevailing view at the moment is that although these protests are unlikely to unseat Erdogan by themselves they may make it more difficult for his AK Party to do as well as it has previously in upcoming local elections. They have also soured the mood in a Turkey which has seen huge growth in its economic and international political power in the last decade under Erdogan's leadership.