Istanbul Feels Like a Carnival, but the Protests Are Violent in Turkey's Provinces

People in the south and east harbor plenty of anger toward the police and government, one witness says. They just waited for a chance to run riot.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

ANTAKYA , Turkey – Thousands have filled Istanbul's Gezi Park and the surrounding Taksim Square to celebrate what they consider their great victory. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan still treats them with disdain, but the president and a deputy prime minister are sounding much more conciliatory tones and have pledged to meet with the protesters.

In recent days, the police haven't been sent to retake the square, and there have been only a few small confrontations in Istanbul, while other key cities like Izmir and the capital Ankara have been calm.

But far from the media's eyes, in cities in the far south and east, the confrontations have been more much violent. On Tuesday night the main clashes were in Tunceli in the east and in Antakya near Turkey's southern border with Syria.

A 22-year-old demonstrator, Abdullah Comert, was killed in Antakya on Monday. Before his funeral Tuesday, posters of the young man hung in the impoverished Armutlu neighborhood, where Comert was born, raised and killed.

Young people were building barricades made of stones while burning tires and already-burned-out cars to block the streets through the neighborhood. Strangers were asked to leave, sometimes with threats of violence, amid fears they were undercover police officers.

The police didn’t enter the neighborhood during the funeral, but when hundreds of people tried to march downtown, the police fired tear-gas grenades. Hundreds of policemen, gendarmes and soldiers lined up in rows at the neighborhood's main exit. As in Istanbul's Taksim Square, demonstrators shouted "Tayyip resign" and "We are the soldiers of Mustafa Kemal [Ataturk]," the founder of modern Turkey. But the atmosphere was very different.

"In Istanbul the protests are about trees; with us there are much more painful issues," said a demonstrator named Jehan. Most Armutlu residents are members of Turkey's Alevi Muslim minority. Estimates put the Alevis at close to 20 percent of Turks in the distant provinces.

Echoes of Sultan Selim

The Alevis – Comert was one – say they are discriminated against by Turkey's Sunni majority. In recent days, Alevis have had another grievance: The government said it would name a new bridge over the Bosphorus after Sultan Selim I, the 16th-century Ottoman ruler who butchered tens of thousands of Alevis.

In Antakya, a city that before the Syrian civil war was a major depot for goods to and from neighboring Syria, there is also much anger with Erdogan's policies against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The differences between Istanbul and Antakya are clear in that many gendarmes and soldiers facing the protesters hold assault rifles and submachine guns in addition to batons and tear-gas launchers. And many protesters hold improvised clubs. Also, unlike in Istanbul and Ankara where at least half the protesters have been women, here protesting is a man's job. The women watch from the balconies.

As night fell, the sides stood facing each other. Line after line of hundreds of policemen and soldiers faced thousands of neighborhood residents. Plainclothesmen roamed the alleys, arresting the suspicious.

Antakya's mayor arrived in an attempt to placate the protesters, but they paid no heed. Selim Aslan, a baker from the neighborhood who was a friend of Comert, accused the police of shooting Comert at close range with a tear-gas launcher. The police say Comert was fired on from an unidentified source. "We only want to march to the bridge downtown and hold a minute of silence there in [Comert's] memory, but the police won't allow it," said Aslan.

According to Fatih Yurdakul, a teacher who lives in the neighborhood, "Here are Alevis and Sunnis who live together in peace, but Erdogan and the government just want to incite."

When the demonstrators didn't disperse, military jeeps and an armored vehicle equipped with a machine gun arrived, but they didn't make the demonstrators retreat. Upon nightfall, rocks were thrown at the policemen. Neighborhood residents later said these rocks were thrown by "police provocateurs." In response, the police fired heavy barrages of tear gas.

The police pushed the demonstrators back but halted at the stone barricades, which by then had burning garbage cans on top of them. "They fired tear-gas grenades directly at us," said Evren, a truck driver. "This could easily kill somebody, as we've seen."

The confrontation continued until 5. A.M. Five people with more serious wounds than tear-gas inhalation were taken to the hospital. At sunrise, the police and soldiers left the inner streets in control of the residents. Municipality workers cleared the rubble.

"The protests here aren't really linked to what's happening in Istanbul," said a municipal inspector who asked to remain anonymous. "People in the neighborhood harbor a lot of anger toward the police and government, even though Erdogan brought prosperity here as we haven't seen in Turkey. They just waited for a chance to run riot, and the police know how to fight back."

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