Turkey Coup: How a Detained Photographer Captured Fear and Chaos in Istanbul

A British-American photojournalist chronicles her night being detained in Istanbul during the bloody attempted coup.
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Turkey Coup: How a Detained Photographer Captured Fear and Chaos in Istanbul Alexandra Howland

My forehead is resting on the lap of a man who just tried to overthrow the Turkish government. I shift slightly and look at him out of the corner of my eye. He can't be more than 17, tears flowing quietly down his face. I am in a police van with 20 detained soldiers—the only foreigner, the only woman, in a sea full of angry, terrified heavily armed men.

It is the early hours of July 16 and I have been arrested in the famous Taksim square in Istanbul, Turkey, following a failed coup attempting to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—the country's sixth coup since it became independent in 1923.

I have maneuvered my body behind the driver seat but still in clear view of the open door. A mob of more than 300 men surrounds us. We can hear the sounds of gunfire and the screams from men outside. The van shakes back and forth, jostled by the crowds.

The policeman in charge starts screaming BOMBA, and we freeze amid the first of what we assume to be air strikes. (We later find out they were just sonic booms from low flying jets.) I see an officer lunge towards me, shoving my head further down as I try to peek out the window.

A minute passes before we are told to retake our seats. I watch the police officers register my presence: a woman—confusion, a journalist—anger, a foreigner—the enemy. One officer sees me and immediately throws himself up the steps of the van and into my face. He puts his steel-toed boot on top of my foot, nailing it into the floor, raises his fist and delivers one blow, sending my head into the window before a crowd of officers pulls him off and sends him outside.

I sit staring out the open door as a soldier is beaten within inches of his life by the crowd. The police officers try their best to get him into the van, into some semblance of safety. The crowd of men beating on the van ebbs and surges; gunfire emanates through the sky and we take cover again.

After the third, fourth, fifth time we take cover, I try each time to bury myself deeper into the floor. Surrounded by the enemy and locked in a stationary target is the last place I could have ever hoped to be. All I can think is "Just drive, Just drive. Just get us out of here or we're all going to be killed." The driver crawls up from under the wheel and lets the van roll backwards. By now, the mob has dispersed, taken off across Taksim in every direction to escape the fate so many others have suffered in the last few months in Turkey.

We speed through the center of the square, down back alleys and pull up to an unmarked building, with police barricades lining the entrance. For the next two hours I sit, waiting, watching as drunk men wander past me as I stare from behind a caged window. I discreetly shove my press pass and my memory card in my underwear—both of which I managed to extract from my bag before everything was taken from me.

The soldiers sitting around me appear to be in shock, staring blankly ahead, seemingly unable to process what had just happened. They have been standing in the center of a crowd threatening to murder them for the last four hours, they have been beaten, they have been chased from one side of the square to the next. I have no doubt they would have heard the rumors of their comrades being thrown from the Bosphorus Bridge. They glance from side to side, methodically ducking for cover when necessary, but not speaking. They may have escaped the mob, but they seem to be realizing what they will likely face in the coming days.

After all the soldiers enter, the one other civilian who was arrested with me, a Turkish man, Ahmet (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), and I are brought into the building. We spend the next 12 hours sitting, answering questions, Ahmet translating for me since the police don't speak any English. We watch as the officers come in and out, replacing cartridges, bringing in more soldiers, collapsing in chairs exhausted. We are all given water and crackers—but no answers to our questions or access to a phone. The constant soundtrack is the sound of bullets unloading onto the ground as officers empty the soldiers' weapons. The television fills the room with news; death counts, arrests, Erdogan's voice.

Two other foreigners join us: a female American journalist who had also been detained while filming in Taksim, and an Italian man who was caught up in the chaos. Together we wait until nearly 3pm the following day, almost 12 hours after being arrested. After signing a piece of paper that says something about "trespassing" and "Taksim", we are finally released. They bring us to a hospital where we have to vouch for the good behavior of the officers—a statement I could thankfully make in good faith, but it would have been difficult to say anything else, seeing as the police officer who determined my fate was standing next to me.

After the hospital, we are driven back to Taksim; I still have the task of retrieving my belongings, which had gone missing. We drive into the police holding center behind Taksim square, where over 100 officers are standing around, receiving orders, drinking tea, or sleeping. I am brought into a small room with 3 officers sprawled on the couches sleeping. Soda cans and cigarette butts litter the floor, almost like an American frat house—but one with guns lining the room and flak jackets in the corner. After about an hour and just 2 accusations that I was part of the CIA, my things were found and returned to me in the same condition. I was finally on my way home.

The situation in Turkey is disturbingly tenuous. Half of the public in Istanbul have embraced this event, taking to the street the following two nights in joyous celebration of Erdogan and what he stands for. The other half are terrified, afraid to leave their homes and contemplating what may be next for the country. My foreign colleagues are taking precautions, aware of the dangerous position we hold here in a country where press freedom has steadily fallen to a "Not Free" ranking on the Freedom House index—a place where being a journalist is synonymous with being against Turkey. My Turkish colleagues face a much steeper battle, acutely aware of the danger and lack of international protection they have were something to go wrong, as was the case for Vice journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool, held in a maximum-security prison for 131 days while his two British colleagues were released a week after the three were arrested in August 2015.

Time and again, Turkey has come under a media ban—whenever an "event" happens, something that could incite passion or anger from a public, our access to knowledge is restricted. Social media slows to a crawl and we are left relying on dodgy VPNs or waiting for the ban to be lifted. By the next day, the coffee shops are filled, the bars are open and the football match is on. And we are left slightly stunned, yet fine. We have been conditioned into this, our minds rarely thinking about the possibility of revolution. We all have come to see that if Turkey is capable of anything, it is of moving on.

The night after the attempted coup, I found myself back in Taksim Square, standing with the same group of photographers I had been with the night before. One of them turned to me. "You know all of these people out here will be at home watching Survivor in a week," he said, referring to the reality television franchise. He then turned and walked into the center of the red mass, a crowd 500-strong, all draped head to toe in the Turkish flag and chanting Allahu Akbar.

Alexandra Howland is a British-American freelance photographer, currently based in Istanbul.

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Turkish people demonstrate in front of the Republic Monument in Taksim Square, Istanbul known for its central role during the revolutionary Gezi Protests in 2013. The public flooded the square after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for his people to take to the streets in support of the government after an attempted coup on July 15. Alexandra Howland