Reporter's Notebook: Tear-gas grenades in Istanbul

Clashes, protests continue overnight throughout Turkish cities; trade unions call for general strike.

By IGAL ACIMAN
June 17, 2013 06:50
4 minute read.
Police walk amidst tear gas during protests at Kizilay square in central Ankara, June 16, 2013.

Turkey police walk through tear gas 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

ISTANBUL – Anti-government protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park came to an abrupt end on Saturday night, as police riot-control vehicles moved into the park.

During the first of the two “Respect to National Will” rallies planned for the weekend in Ankara and Istanbul, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an ultimatum to protesters to clear Gezi Park, where protests raged for the 19th day.

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The Taksim Solidarity movement, organizer of the initial protests against the demolition of the park to enable the construction of a replica Ottoman-era barracks, defied the ultimatum and repeated its call for a counter-meeting in Taksim, where they expected to gather “one million supporters.”

Within three hours of Erdogan’s televised warning, Istanbul police raided the park, clearing it of all protesters in under an hour, using tear gas and water cannons.

Claudia Roth, co-head of the German Green Party and a member of parliament, was among those in the park. She described the scene to Reuters as “war-like,” adding that “we tried to escape and the police followed us.”

During the clashes, Roth and hundreds of protesters took refuge in the nearby five-star hotel Divan, which houses a makeshift first-aid infirmary that was set up during the initial clashes.

After a tense stand-off between the police and the protesters in the hotel, the riot police sprayed tear gas through the gates in the lobby in order to force the protesters to come out.

Several medical personnel in the infirmary were arrested overnight for not having obtained proper licenses to treat patients, according to the Turkish Medical Association.

It issued an “urgent call” to the World Health Organization and World Medical Association to condemn the arrest of “volunteer physicians.”

In its statement, TMA said that “the police forces are using chemical gases savagely on the unprotected civil masses... Over 11,000 people declared that they have been affected by the gas.”

Appealing to the government to stop the use of excessive force and initiate a prompt investigation into allegations of abuse, TMA claimed that “data shows that the gas bombs were targeting the people.

Many of them [have] injuries of [the] head, face, eyes, thorax and abdomen which could be fatal.”

One of many Istanbul residents affected by heavy tear gas is the author of this report.

I reside in an area close to Taksim Square, the ground zero of the widespread demonstrations in the country.

Saturday night in the area was marked by sounds of explosion from stun grenades and tear-gas canisters, loud chants and slogans, as well as the occasional screaming of the protesters trying to avoid being trampled when pushed back by police action.

At 4:15 a.m. on Sunday morning, while I was sleeping, the windows of my apartment were shattered by two tear-gas grenades launched by the police squad stationed against a row of buildings in the direction of my second-story flat.

Soon after being startled by the loud noise, I noticed the thick, toxic white gas quickly permeating the apartment. As a feeling of intense nausea and asphyxiation hit, I abandoned the apartment within seconds, coming out into a street that resembled an urban battle zone, with police in armored vehicles chasing the demonstrators away from the Taksim area.

I received minor skin burns during my escape. Nausea lingers on, more than 12 hours after the incident, but all other symptoms of gas intoxication dissipated within three hours of exposure.

In that time frame, most attempts at calling the police or the fire department were unanswered.

Each time I could speak, I was told somebody would come soon, but after more than two hours of waiting in a state of pain while inhaling more tear gas, no one showed up.

Finally, I was able to attract the attention of the riot police, who were busy firing more tear-gas shells at the demonstrators, but they refused to help with medical issues. Eventually, I used my own means to get my medical needs attended to, after reaching safety outside the clash zone.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Erdogan held his second rally with hundreds of thousands of AKP supporters in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kazlicesme. Erdogan defended the use of force against Gezi protesters and accused the Western media, specifically naming CNN and BBC, of conducting one-sided reporting and ignoring his rallies, “where the real image of Turkey is to be seen.”

Turkey’s Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bagıs also issued a warning to protesters, saying, “After this hour, anyone at the Gezi Park will be considered a member of a terrorist organization by the state.”

However, as of Sunday evening, clashes continued in many neighborhoods of Istanbul, including all those bordering Taksim, with the gendarmerie, part of the armed forces, joining the riot police.

Protests also continued in other cities.

The Confederation of Trade Unions of Public Service and the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions of Turkey – which, together, have over half a million members across Turkey – called for a general strike on Monday.

Uncertainty looms. Many ordinary Turkish citizens are worried that the decades-old divisions over the country’s identity are manifesting themselves increasingly through hostile rhetoric in the public realm and mass demonstrations frequently met with excessive use of force.

Igal Aciman is a business development executive and a free-lance journalist. His blog can viewed at www.igalaciman.com


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