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A first-person account of the Ankara attack

There was a time when one wondered, “Are the police going to fire tear gas?” before heading to a rally.

Evidently, that’s so 2013: In the much-heralded “New Turkey” it’s better to ask: “Are they going to bomb it?”

While I would not ascribe too much to destiny in the matter, I realize that it was the stickers that saved my life – or at least a visit to the hospital to have an overworked medical professional in a deluged ICU attempt to claw ball bearings out of my stomach. Arriving at Ankara’s Train Station around 8 a.m., we were consumed by urgent matters – finding breakfast and a washroom amid the ever-growing number of participants appearing for the Labor, Peace and Democracy Rally. Base necessities satiated, we embarked on the task at hand ahead of the 10 a.m. march to Sıhhiye Square – putting up stickers on lampposts to decry the current state of media censorship in the country.

While jumping over banners, running into people or just saying “hi,” I made my way toward the station square, affixing stickers to lampposts and road signs. A friend relieved some of my burden, so by the time I got to the area in front of Ankara’s train station about 10 minutes before the start of the march, I had – fatefully – run out of stickers.

I returned to my journalists’ group, took out my camera phone and waited for something interesting to take a photo of. Our group produced a new set of signs from a black plastic bag and hoisted them up, preparing to march. I deemed it worthy of a photo for posterity and lined up the shot – only to hear a “pat, pat” and glimpse a plume of smoke and paper rising over the square I had only recently vacated.

By now, the world has viewed the video of the bombs detonating as people danced the halay. I have not. I didn’t deem it necessary to view, much as how I haven’t deemed it necessary to listen to the crocodile tears of the suited men (for they are almost always men) in power express their sorrow, or indeed the copy-paste notes of “great concern” from diplomats all and sundry. Still, credit where credit is due: It was auspicious that the century of dead were accorded three days of national mourning, placing them on the same level as the geriatric former king of Saudi Arabia.

Instead, I froze as I saw the plume of smoke and the hush of the crowd. Perhaps it was a large balloon that had burst, or just a sound bomb from the police to spice up proceedings, some in the crowd said. I froze not out of fear, but confusion as to what to do next. My friends headed straight for the scene; I walked slowly away – beginning to ascertain the reality of the situation and beginning to brace for another explosion in our very midst.

Keeping up appearances, Turkey’s “heroic” thin blue line arrived on the scene of the carnage within three minutes – in the form of a full riot squad and a TOMA water cannon, beating the first ambulance by about seven minutes. For good measure as well, those fleeing and those dying were treated to the force’s finest, tear gas.

I was spared my own personal look at the brains, the blood and the other detritus of human beings that were sent flying by the twin bombs. The stories of those that went were enough.

“A phone covered in blood started to ring,” said Caner – a man who lives a relatively charmed existence having previously survived a beating by Eskişehir’s finest constabulary force on the same night that some of them “lightly tapped” (in their own words) 19-year-old Gezi Park protester Ali İsmail Korkmaz to death in 2013. “What was I supposed to do? Answer it? What would you say?”

Caner didn’t answer the phone, and I don’t blame him.

As news filtered that something terrible had happened, and that “a few people injured,” had become “a few dead,” and then “10 dead,” “20 dead” and beyond, we trooped back to the bus, bereft of any clue about what to do. Some cried alone; some cried into the shoulder of a friend. Others milled about aimlessly, sporting faces of glum shock and a growing sense of survivor’s guilt.

Checking for news, we saw that the country’s interim interior minister, Selami Altınok – who, despite his gray demeanor and bureaucratic heritage, had proven himself an able operator in terms of crushing the heads of the opposition during his previous incarnation as the police chief of İstanbul – had calmly pronounced that there had been no security shortcomings in the blast. Indeed, the good minister was to be commended for his correct evaluation: There were no security shortcomings; instead it had been a successful operation, for all knew that regardless of whatever subcontracted Islamist group detonated the bombs, the real culprit was “The Palace” – President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Not for nothing did those streaming away from the site of the blast, despite their tears and fear, find the voice to shout “Murderer Erdoğan” and “Murderer State.”

But with the state of shock prevailing, the opportunity to remain angry for long was non-existent. Even when people reacted with incredulity at the bile spilled by nationalists on social media (“the Peoples’ Democratic Party bombed themselves to increase their votes” – as if HDP headquarters conducted a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that it would be the height of logic to sacrifice 100 supporters so that it could pick up an extra parliamentary seat somewhere warm like Muğla), the sense was more of pity for their lack of reasoning skills (expecting empathy from the other in the polarized “New Turkey” has long been abandoned) than of fury.

A righteous fury will eventually take over, but it is still time to grieve.

Stefan Martens, a journalist based in Istanbul and an activist of DISK/Basın-İş (Progressive Union of Media Workers & Journalists)