On the night of July 15, 2016 parts of the Turkish Armed Forces attempted to overthrow Turkey’s AKP government. While the coup d’état failed and many questions about it linger to this day, its consequences were enormous and continue to shape Turkish politics.
This is an account of that fateful Friday night by someone who happened to fly to Istanbul during the coup d’état. The person who recounted his experiences wishes to remain anonymous.
“I had decided to fly from Switzerland to Istanbul on the 15th of July 2016 to oversee the construction of our house there”
Before I left Switzerland, I hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary, with one exception: a banker, friend of mine had heard that I was leaving for Turkey on that day. He wrote me that he had an “intuition” and that I should leave the Istanbul Atatürk Airport immediately on arrival and stay clear of any crowds I might encounter.
The first sign that something unusual was going on happened shortly before touchdown in Istanbul. I’ve flown certainly more than 100 times to Turkey. But this was the first time that our airplane suddenly accelerated and started climbing again when we were only minutes away from landing. When the aircraft aborted the landing, we were so close to the ground that we could clearly see the houses, cars and people of Büyükçekmece. Büyükçekmece is already part of Istanbul, the last district that an aircraft coming from Switzerland overflies before landing at Atatürk International Airport.
After gaining altitude again, the aircraft veered off towards the Sea of Marmara, over which we were flying a holding pattern for about 15 minutes. This was very strange. Even if it’s peak season, the planes are never put on a holding pattern after having begun the final approach. Normally, that happens much earlier. We finally landed at around 7PM local time.
After the landing, another strange thing happened. After disembarking the aircraft, we had to get on the airport bus. But I had never been on an airport bus that drove around for such a long time on the airport grounds only to get to the arrival terminal. The route the bus took was completely different from the usual one.
At that moment, I thought that these strange occurrences could be explained with the charter flight, which I had booked for the first time to fly to Istanbul. Maybe they were doing things differently. But then we also had to wait unusually long to claim our baggage. I finally left the terminal and took the shuttle bus that connects the airport to Taksim Square, one of the hubs on the European side of Istanbul. Shortly before eight o’clock, the bus departed from the airport.
When I got to Taksim Square, I saw people who were singing and playing music. It was almost a festival. There were a lot of people standing by and watching. It was a typical display of the Gezi Park spirit on a Friday evening. The musicians were still the same Gezi Park activists from 2013. There were several groups who were playing music in different languages. There was one group with maybe 50 or 60 spectators and several meters further there was already another music group. It was half past nine at this point.
Then I took the Metro from Taksim Square to Sarıyer, a district on the European coast of the Bosporus. A lot of incidents related to the coup d’état were already taking place at that moment, but because I was in the Metro I didn’t see much of that. In the hotel in which I stayed everything was as usual, there was no palpable difference from the previous times I had checked in there. I laid down for a while in my hotel room because I had a slight headache from the flight. After resting, I wanted to leave the hotel to eat something but I fell asleep.
At half past eleven I woke up from a phone call. A relative asked me where I were, if everything were alright, if I were well. She told me that a “darbe” (coup d’état) probably had taken place. I was still so drowsy at first that I thought she was talking about a “deprem” (earthquake) instead of “darbe”.
Then I saw that my wife, who had not come with me to Turkey, had tried to call me several times while I was asleep, so I called back. She told me that live broadcasts on TV were showing that a putsch was underway in Turkey and that she was worried about me.
She also told me that when she had first heard of the putsch, she was on a visit of relatives. The brother of one of those relatives was living close to the MIT headquarters (the Turkish intelligence organization) in Ankara. He had sent them videos he had recorded, which my wife forwarded to me via WhatsApp. The videos showed helicopters shooting into buildings, apparently belonging to the MIT. I deleted that footage later, in case that I would end up in a security check somewhere. I didn’t want the security forces to think that I was trying to smuggle something out of the country.
After the phone calls, I decided to leave the hotel and go outside because I wanted to see what was going on. It was shortly after midnight.
While I was leaving the hotel, nobody at the reception said anything. The reception was occupied but the man there didn’t speak with me. It was very calm in the hotel, there was no one to be seen.
The hotel I was staying in was in Büyükdere, a neighbourhood close to Sarıyer. I walked down to the main street. That’s where all the restaurants and cafés are. On a typical Friday night, these places are bustling with activity. Now however, I barely saw a car or a person. Everything seemed deserted.
But then I came across an ATM and spotted a crowd. There were about thirty people who were withdrawing money. It seemed that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to access their savings anymore because of the coup d’état.
Then I saw three or four of these little grocery shops, which are very typical for Turkey. The gates of these grocery shops were rolled down halfway. They were raised just high enough so people could enter the shops when they crouched. They probably wanted to stock up on necessities. From hearsay, I knew that it is a warning sign in Turkey, when people are starting to withdraw money and buy supplies. They knew that a crisis was imminent. When I saw these people doing that, I knew that things were serious. There were two important streets in the area. One was the main street with the cafés, shops and the banks. And the other was the coastal road that runs parallel to the Bosporus. I walked down to that road at the waterfront. That’s usually a very busy road, even at midnight. Now however, there wasn’t a single vehicle to be seen.
I wanted to take this road and walk to our house, which we were building. I guess the distance I had to walk was about three or four kilometres.
While I was walking towards our house, a fighter jet flew over the area at a very low altitude. It was very confusing, because you couldn’t locate the fighter jet. There was just a very loud noise coming simultaneously from all directions. It suddenly changed when the jet stopped flying over the waters of the Bosporus and started to fly over land. Now, the noise was reverberated by all the buildings.
I soon reached the base of the coast guard in the next neighbourhood. The Regional Command of the Turkish Coast Guard for the Bosporus is stationed in Çayirbasi. They usually control the ships which are traversing the Bosporus. Now the base seemed deserted. In fact, I had not seen a single representative of the state so far. No coast guard, no military, no police.
At this point, I decided to return to the hotel, since there was nobody on the streets and nobody knew where I was. What’s more, I didn’t know to whom the fighter jet belonged to that had overflown the area. Was it an aircraft belonging to the group that supported the coup d’état? Was it flying here to show the military’s strength and presence? To demonstrate that the military had taken control of the government?
On the way back, I wanted to check out three or four cafés in Büyükdere, which were normally frequented by social democrats. I wanted to drop by to see if anybody was there, what they were doing and if everything was ok. Usually, you would have a hard time finding a place to sit in these cafés. Women and men visit these cafés, play carts and stuff like that. It’s a place where people with a certain way of life meet. When I reached the cafés, they were almost empty. I saw maybe five or ten people, who weren’t staying outside but were playing cards inside. There was a TV running, which they were watching while they were playing. I have a friend who is living there and I thought that he might be in the café, but when I couldn’t spot him amongst the guests, I continued my way back to the hotel. It’s also not the best moment to approach these people who have never met you before. They can’t really be sure who you are or what you might be up to. I returned to the hotel because I wanted to follow the events on TV and talk to people in Switzerland. That way I could get much more information.
When I was back at the hotel, it was after one o’clock. I was watching TV and trying to figure out what was happening. On the TV, I saw that at half past eight, pro-coup soldiers had stormed the Atatürk International Airport with tanks. That had taken place about half an hour after I had left the airport. And then I also saw that at half past nine one of the bridges over the Bosporus had been occupied by the military. That footage was shown time and time again.
At that time, several politicians appeared on TV. Ahmet Davutoğlu (then Prime Minister of Turkey) and Abdulla Gül (former President of Turkey) were talking. Abdullah Gül was speaking very aggressively and pugnaciously, which was not his style at all. But what struck me the most was that even though each of them called from a different place, their message was still the same, almost as if it had been agreed upon in advance: That the people should protect and support the government. They were saying that the people should stand up for the government and take to the streets. The government’s demand to take to the streets seemed very strange to me. On the TV you could see that the pro-coup faction had deployed heavy weaponry. And the government was sending unarmed civilians to counter them? That didn’t make sense to me.
Beginning at about two o’clock, the muezzin of every mosque started to recite the call to prayer. And then they started to spread the same message as on the TV: That the people should protect their government and that anyone who was trying to harm the government would be severely punished. I thought that this was very unusual. You weren’t hearing appeals against violence from the minarets, instead they were asking the people to fight.
I stayed awake until six o’clock in the morning and was writing and talking with people in Switzerland. Then I tried to get some sleep.
When I woke up at nine o’clock, the news was reporting how many people working in the state institutions had been arrested. The number they were giving was 3000 people. And apparently those 3000 people weren’t directly involved in the coup d’état but rather alleged supporters. I was wondering how they could identify this quickly who belonged to which side in that chaotic night, let alone apprehend them.
After eating breakfast, I wanted to know what had happened to our house under construction. Outside, everything was still very calm. There wasn’t a single taxi, urban bus or minibus operating. The streets of Istanbul are usually full of these.
Since there was no public transportation available, I had to walk to our house again. On the way, I passed once again the base of the coast guard and then the local police station. There was still nobody around. Only the long urban buses were standing in front of the entrance of the police station. At first, I thought that they were there to bring soldiers quickly from one place to another. Later we learned that they were placed there for the protection of the police buildings. That way, the tanks of the pro-coup faction wouldn’t be able to attack the police as easily. The police were protecting themselves but I didn’t see any protection for the civilians.
But when you did come across some security forces, you didn’t even know on which side they were on. During the whole night, we had heard of the police, army and intelligence service units that were fighting for pro-coup faction. But nobody knew how strong they really were and if some remnants were still operating.
When I reached the construction site of our house, everything was silent. Only one carpenter was working, who was living nearby. The others couldn’t come to work because there were still road blocks in the city. At that time, we could also still hear the mosques every twenty minutes with the same message as during the night.
At noon, the news was becoming increasingly absurd. Using your common sense, you couldn’t possibly reach the same conclusions as the ones the news were broadcasting at that moment. Suddenly the once venerated Fethullah Gülen had become the terrorist Fetö. And even though the coup d’état had completely failed, the news was trying to make it look like as if the entire military, economic and judicial power of Turkey had been controlled by Fethullah Gülen before the putsch.
Then motorcades started to appear in the streets. At first, there were only a few cars who were part of it, maybe five or six. But over the course of the next two days, these motorcades became longer and longer. And vehicles that were belonging to the state became part of these motorcades as well: The garbage trucks and trucks of the municipalities and so on. A lot of people with Turkish flags were on top of these vehicles.
Before the coup, one didn’t have the impression that the supporters of the AKP liked the Turkish flag too much. But suddenly, all these people were flaunting the Turkish flag on their motorcade. And they were playing military marches from the Ottoman Empire. They were screaming “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest) as well.
On Saturday evening, there was an incident in Büyükdere, at the cafés that were frequented by the social democrats. The people on the motorcades and the visitors of the cafés got into an argument. The social democrats told the supporters of the government that they should refrain from deliberately driving in “their area”. They wouldn’t accept their show of force.
And then you could also see how the nationalist party (MHP) became part of these motorcades. Their nationalistic symbols became more and more visible. On the first day after the coup d’état, the leader of the nationalistic party had assured the government their support. And one could see how the both parties were trying to form an alliance. But there were also people who were demonstrating exclusively for democracy and liberty.
That was the state of affairs, when I returned to Switzerland, after having made sure that the construction of our house was going well.”