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The numbing predictability of the Istanbul tragedy

| blog, Islamic State, L&B World, Turkey, unrest | January 18, 2016



Istanbul's Blue Mosque two days after the attacks. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

(AFP/Ozan Kose)



"It’s conventional after attacks to express surprise and shock," writes Stuart Williams, AFP's Istanbul-based deputy bureau chief in Turkey.

"But when a suicide bomber ripped through a group of German tourists on a morning last week in central Istanbul the shock was genuine, but no-one could feign surprise. This was the attack that everyone had feared."



By Stuart Williams



Istanbul's Blue Mosque two days after the attacks. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Istanbul's Blue Mosque two days after the attacks. (AFP/Ozan Kose)



Istanbul, Jan 18, 2016 -- It’s conventional after attacks to express surprise and shock. But when a suicide bomber ripped through a group of German tourists on Tuesday morning last week in central Istanbul the shock was genuine, but no-one could feign surprise. This was the attack that everyone had feared.

Attacks blamed on Islamic State (IS) jihadists had struck Turkey three times in 2015 -- once in Diyarbakir, once in the town of Suruc on the Syrian border, and then in Ankara where 103 people were killed in modern Turkey’s bloodiest ever attack.



Victims of the Ankara bombing on October 10, 2015. (AFP/Fatih Pinar)

Victims of the Ankara bombing on October 10, 2015. (AFP/Fatih Pinar)



An expected strike

It would only be a matter of time, we thought to ourselves, until terror struck in the heart of the milllenia-old, messy, overcrowded, cosmopolitan and enchanting metropolis that is Istanbul, possibly targeting one of the busiest tourist areas.

And this is what happened when Nabil Fadli, a 28-year old Syrian reportedly born in Saudi Arabia, detonated his charge on January 12 at 10:20 in the morning, just a few yards away from the iconic Ottoman-era Blue Mosque in the Sultanahmet Square, the tourist hub of the city.



A Turkish riot police officer stands guard two days after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

A Turkish riot police officer stands guard two days after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)



Sometimes at night I look out over the lights on Istanbul’s fabled skyline and wonder what is lying beneath this glittering beauty. We have long been aware of the existence of jihadist sleeper cells in Turkey comprising extremists who have spent time, gained bomb-making knowledge and been radicalised in Syria.

It was a question of where, when and how they would act. The city has been on edge for months, but particularly after the Ankara attacks. Walking in especially crowded areas, like Taksim Square or the packed Iskitlal Street, you feel constantly on alert. The Turkish authorities unquestionably have stepped up efforts in the last weeks to crack down on these cells, detaining hundreds of suspected jihadists.

The bomber exploded his charge right next to one of the most extraordinary sights in the entire city, the Obelisk of Theodosius. It’s a large column of stone commissioned by the pharaohs in the second millenium BC which was then shipped to the city by Roman Emperor Theodosius in the late fourth century AD. A magnificently sculpted base was added glorifying his own achievements, including the erection of the column.



The Obelisk of Theodosius at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

The Obelisk of Theodosius at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)



Normality returns, fear remains

Many times I had visited the column, to wonder at the hands that touched these stones, which have survived as generation after generation passed away and empires rose and fell. Probably the German tourists were thinking much the same when the horror struck.

The reaction of many in the city after the bombing, so early in the new year, was a numb fear: when will this happen again?

For now, no doubt encouraged by the municipal authorities, a semblance of normality has returned to the area. There are moving messages on the railings of the monument, which has been festooned with red carnations and adorned, most touchingly, by several football scarves of the popular German Bundesliga side. Guides can be heard rattling off the history of the monument, tourists hesitatingly take photographs, wondering if the site of the blast truly makes an appropriate holiday snap.



A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

A makeshift memorial to the victims of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Ozan Kose)



I believe the Turkish authorities were genuinely horrified by the attack and worried for its consequences, notably for the tourism industry. To their credit, the magnitude of the death toll and the nature of the blast was rapidly made clear in official statements. Strangely, it took some time however to make clear that all the dead were Germans, as if the fact that tourists from one single, key partner nation had been targeted (by design or accident) was just too much to take in at once.



Emergency personnel at the scene of the attack. (AFP/stringer)

Emergency personnel at the scene of the attack. (AFP/stringer)



Far less welcome was the news, hours after the bombing, that the authorities had slapped a so-called “broadcast ban” on coverage of the event. For an hour or so, this seemed to halt all live broadcasting from the scene. I saw one channel, its news ticker screaming red with the death toll, but showing pictures of a feature about scuba diving.

But in Turkey, the lines are never crystal clear. By their 1:00 pm news bulletins, all channels, including pro-government ones, appeared to have shaken off the absurdity of the broadcast ban and were broadcasting live from the scene.



Police stand guard at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Police stand guard at the site of the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)



Authorities keep focus on PKK

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted swiftly to the news of the bombing, using a speech to Turkish ambassadors in Ankara to condemn it in unequivocal terms and confirm the bomber was of Syrian origin. But surprisingly, Erdogan did not dwell on the issue, spending much more time in a long and sometimes rambling address talking about Turkey’s fight against Kurdish militants.

Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched in July is hugely controversial, with rights groups saying dozens of civilians have been killed, in particular in a succession of curfew operations since December which have seen three areas placed under a military lockdown to flush out the militants.



A funeral procession on January 12 for those killed during curfews in Turkey's restive southeast. (AFP/stringer)

A funeral procession on January 12 for those killed during curfews in Turkey's restive southeast. (AFP/stringer)



In typically combative form, the president then went on to take aim at over 1,000 Turkish academics and dozens of foreign professors (including the American linguist Noam Chomsky) who had signed a petition condemning a military crackdown in the Kurdish-dominated southeast. Refusing to let go of the issue, Erdogan launched a new attack against the academics on Thursday. By Friday several had been arrested as part of an investigation into alleged propaganda for a terror group.

The police have already made seven arrests over the Sultanahmet attack but the focus on a written petition seems a strange balance at a time when there is a such a concrete threat from extremists. The authorities have always made clear they make no distinction between IS and the PKK, which was blamed for a blood-curdling attack in the southeast overnight Wednesday to Thursday that killed six people, including three children.



Rescuers search through wreckage after a blast killed six in southeastern Turkey on January 14. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)

Rescuers search through wreckage after a blast killed six in southeastern Turkey on January 14. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)



In the meantime, fear and alarm will stalk the streets of Istanbul and many other Turkish cities. It has been noted repeatedly that IS has never claimed an attack in Turkey, in contrast to its usual brazen boasting about strikes elsewhere. We don’t understand how the group operates inside Turkey and what its specific objectives are. But Istanbul’s residents, and its visitors, many of whom fall so in love with the place they come time-and-time again, will be determined to continue as normal in the fact of this uncertainty.


Stuart Williams is AFP’s deputy bureau chief in Turkey, based in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter.



A headline in German reads 'We mourn" in a Turkish newspaper the day after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

A headline in German reads 'We mourn" in a Turkish newspaper the day after the Istanbul attack. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)



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Turkey and Russia: still uneasy after all these years

| blog, L&B World, Russia, Turkey | December 3, 2015



Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (R) in July, 2012. (AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)

(AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)



The current spat between Moscow and Ankara over the shooting down of a Russian plane is just the latest manifestation of the uneasy relationship between two former empires, which have spent much of the last half millenium at war, writes AFP's Istanbul deputy bureau chief Stuart Williams.



By Stuart Williams



Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (R) in July, 2012. (AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russia's Vladimir Putin (R) in July, 2012. (AFP/Pool/Sergei Karpukhin)



Istanbul, December 3, 2015 -- At first glance, the black railings around the Transfiguration Cathedral in a quiet square in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg look like nothing extraordinary. But closer inspection reveals something else. The fence posts are not all standard metal bars but the largest are 19th century cannons, standing vertically and linked by chains.

These cannons were captured by the Russian imperial army from Ottoman Turkish forces in the Russo-Turkish War in 1828-1829 and later put to good use as trophies around the church and a symbol of Russian military might against Turkey. To this day, in the middle of this nordic city which spends half its year covered in a veil of snow, traces of the Ottoman calligraphic script can still be seen on the cannon.


A long and tangled history

It’s a stark reminder that the Ottoman and Russian Empires spent much of the last half millenium at war. The Russo-Turkish wars that started in the late sixteenth century and the Crimean War from 1853-1856 are etched into the modern public consciousness. Not to mention the so-called “Tatar-yoke” of mediaeval times when ancient Rus was ruled by Mongol-backed Turkic Tatars. The current flaring of tensions between Russia and Turkey following the shooting down of a Russian warplane on the Syrian border is, historically, no flash in the the pan but the latest dramatic confrontation between two powers who have constantly clashed for regional hegemony.





But for most of the over five years I spent as a correspondent in Moscow from 2008-2014 and in Istanbul since 2014, cooperation was the watchword in relations between Russia and Turkey. Disputes were set aside as officials rushed in and out to sign deals on trade and energy.


Two strongmen

The warming of ties was based on a strong personal relationship between the countries’ two strongmen, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leaders who have striking similarities. Now both in their early sixties, they are steering post-imperial societies into what supporters claim is a new dawn of stability and critics believe is a step back to the authoritarianism of the past. They have held both the posts of premier and head of state in order to cling on to power and make displays of political virility a key part of their image. Both also faced down unprecedented protests that challenged their rule -- Erdogan in 2013 and Putin in 2011-2012.

In one memorable episode in October 2009, Erdogan took part in a blokely conference call with Putin and his top buddy, ex Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, where the three discussed football and energy pipelines. It seemed Erdogan, then premier, had become part of Putin’s macho boys club.



Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (L), Russia's Vladimir Putin (C) and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) in northern Turkey, November, 2005. (AFP/Kerim Okten)

Italy's Silvio Berlusconi (L), Russia's Vladimir Putin (C) and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) in northern Turkey, November, 2005. (AFP/Kerim Okten)



The relationship reached its peak in December 2014 when Putin was invited to Erdogan’s glitzy new presidential palace as one of the very first visitors. We expected the ensuing press conference to produce the usual boilerplate official message of expanding bilateral ties while the more interesting behind-the-scenes dealing was kept secret. Instead, we scrambled as Putin emerged and stunningly announced that Russia was ditching a project for a major new energy pipeline with several EU companies and instead would work with Turkey on a new pipeline inevitably baptized Turk Stream.

What about the Syrian civil war where Ankara and Moscow have starkly different visions of the future of the country? Or Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, with its Tatar minority looking to Ankara for support in the face of their rough treatment by the new local authorities on the peninsula? The disputes, as analysts said, had been successfully “compartmentalised” as Ankara and Moscow focused on a new era of cooperation.

But when the unravelling came it was sudden and definitive.



A protester sets fire to a Putin poster during a demonstration against Russia in Istanbul, November, 2015. (AFP/Cagdas Erdogan)

A protester sets fire to a Putin poster during a demonstration against Russia in Istanbul, November, 2015. (AFP/Cagdas Erdogan)



Ever since Russia began its air campaign in Syria in September, there had been fears of a mid-skies incident with a NATO member. But not even the greatest Cassandras among analysts and media seriously believed it would happen. At the end of October, there was excitement when Turkey announced it had shot down an aircraft that violated its airspace. But it turned out that the object was simply a drone (albeit Russian-made) that pictures showed was little bigger than a hobby enthusiast’s model aircraft. The story was rapidly forgotten.


The unthinkable happens

On the morning of November 24, it rapidly became clear that the worst had happened as the various elements of the story were confirmed one by one.

Aircraft shot down by Turkish forces. A manned war plane. Moscow confirms one of its planes. Turkey says there were 10 violations within a five minute period. Both pilots ejected, one killed (the circumstances remain unclear) and the other rescued. Russia, so often accused of being the aggressor, could paint itself as the victim and the Kremlin reaction was incandescent.



(AFP Graphics)

(AFP Graphics)



Almost 4.5 million Russians visited Turkey in 2014. For most of them, the Syrian war and niceties of Ankara-Moscow diplomatic relations were remote concerns. Charter flights would bring in thousands of Russians daily to the Turkish Mediterranean resorts, not just from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, but direct from cities in the Urals and Siberia to find some respite from the Russian weather.

They never dreamed of becoming bucket-and-spade weapons in a diplomatic conflict. But this was what they became when Russia’s foreign ministry swiftly warned its citizens not to travel to Turkey, prompting Russian tour agencies to stop selling tours and at a stroke denying the Turkish tourism industry its key market.

To hammer the final nail, Moscow announced it was lifting the visa-free regime for Turks whose announcement in 2010 and taking effect the following year had been seen as a direct product of the strong relationship between Erdogan and Putin.



Russian honour guards carry the coffin with the body of one of the pilots from the shot-down plane. (AFP/Russian defence ministry/Vadim Savitsky)

Russian honour guards carry the coffin with the body of one of the pilots from the shot-down plane. (AFP/Russian defence ministry/Vadim Savitsky)



As the Kremlin machine geared into action, sanctions were agreed against Turkey while the future of key infrastructure projects, naturally including Turk Stream, were put at risk. The single incident above the Syrian border had within days affected swathes of people -- families from Siberia planning an autumn escape to Turkey, Turks in the south whose livelihoods depend on Russian tourism, Turkish business people with significant investments in Russia, Russians living in Turkey who suddenly began to feel deeply insecure. One Turkish man posted a viral picture on the Internet of him flying from Moscow to Antalya as the sole passenger on the plane. The effects of geopolitics on seemingly unconnected aspects of life can be ruthless and instantaneous.



Putin at Erdogan's new presidential palace outside Ankara, December, 2014. (AFP/Adem Altan)

Putin at Erdogan's new presidential palace outside Ankara, December, 2014. (AFP/Adem Altan)



One of my favourite cities in Turkey is the northeastern city of Kars. Made quite famous through a novel by Turkey’s Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, it’s a strangely alluring place. Partly because it reminds me of Russia. The streets are set out in an organised grid pattern. They are lined with beautiful mansions reminiscent of the best architecture of Moscow.



The Turkish city of Kars. April, 2009. (AFP/Mustafa Ozer)

The Turkish city of Kars. April, 2009. (AFP/Mustafa Ozer)



This is because Kars was for four decades part of the Russian Empire, leaving an imprint that remains to this day and a permanent symbol of the struggle between Russia and Turkey for domination of the Black Sea and Caucasus region. The city was seized by Russia in the 1877-78 war but then fully won back by Turkey in the early 1920s in the wake of the Russian Revolution and Russia’s defeat in World War One.

Even in the years following World War II, Stalin’s regime made noises about the need for the return of Kars to the USSR, grumblings that only ended with the security guarantees Turkey received when it was fully aligned with the Western bloc in the Cold War and then became a NATO member in 1952.

For all the historical baggage, it would have seemed inconceivable to me over the last seven years that Turkey and Russia could have ended in such a dire position in 2015. There probably won’t be any (at least direct) war between Moscow and Ankara and no conflict that lasts 400 years. But there will be damage to a key geopolitical relationship which will be as severe as it is sudden.



Stuart Williams is AFP deputy bureau chief in Istanbul. Follow him on Twitter.



Putin and Erdogan in happier times, September, 2013. (AFP/Eric Feferberg)

Putin and Erdogan in happier times, September, 2013. (AFP/Eric Feferberg)



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A vote and a smile

| blog, election, L&B World, Myanmar | November 27, 2015



Suu Kyi smiles as she leaves her house to cast a ballot in the November 8 poll. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)

(AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)



AFP's Myanmar correspondent Hla Hla Htay has covered several elections in her homeland. But never has she seen voters smile in their hundreds as they left the polling stations.





By Hla Hla Htay



Suu Kyi smiles as she leaves her house to cast a ballot in the November 8 poll. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)

Aung San Suu Kyi smiles as she leaves her house to cast a ballot in the November 8 poll. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)



Yangon, Myanmar, November 27, 2015 -- The smiling faces and the surprising willingness to talk -- that’s how I’ll remember the recent election in Myanmar, the historic vote that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party win a landslide, ending more than 50 years of military rule.

I have covered elections in my home country before, and people smiling as they leave polling stations was not a feature in any of them.

But on November 8, the voters grinned in their hundreds after casting their ballots.



A woman smiles as she casts her ballot in the November 8 poll. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)

A woman smiles as she casts her ballot in the November 8 poll. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)



The lines outside the polling stations formed as early as 5:00 am, with women and men of all ages, many of them having come with family members or friends, queuing on the streets. They seemed determined, and almost anxious, as if they were afraid that at the last minute they would be prevented from voting.

And once slipping their ballots in the box, most happily shared with reporters their choice – “Amay Suu” (“Mama Suu”) as Suu Kyi is known affectionately in her homeland.

Even if some were reticent to talk to the media that descended on the country for the poll, I was struck by just how many said openly how they voted. Nearly everyone with whom I spoke cast ballots for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which in the end received two-thirds of seats, winning control of both houses of parliament and the ability to choose the next president.



Graffiti depicts Suu Kyi outside the headquarters of her party in Yangon. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)

Graffiti depicts Suu Kyi outside the headquarters of her party in Yangon. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)



Even during the by-elections of 2012, which saw Suu Kyi enter parliament, no-one dared to reveal his political affiliation outside the voting booth.

And what a difference with the last general election in 2010, when the country was still under full military rule.

Back then, local reporters couldn’t go to polling stations to cover the election and talk with the voters. The authorities organised convoys to take the media around, so I spent the poll working surrounded by government minders.

So much has changed in the five years since.

On November 8, a huge media scrum representing news organisations from around the world crowded around "The Lady” as she cast her ballot in a small school in the centre of Yangon. The world’s cameras recorded every move of the woman who today still incarnates the democratic aspirations of a country that has lived for years under military rule.



Media mob Suu Kyi's car at a polling station during the November 8 poll. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)

Media mob Suu Kyi's car at a polling station during the November 8 poll. (AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)



Suu Kyi elicits immense respect both within and outside her country for her non-violent resistance to the junta and the sacrifices she made for her ideals, leaving her two young sons behind in Britain to return to Myanmar in 1989. Every time I see her free I think about the day she was finally released from house arrest under which she had spent nearly 15 of the 20 years since returning to the country to lead its democracy movement.

In September 2010, as the junta readied to hold elections considered a farce by the international community, I realised that Suu Kyi’s house arrest was due to end shortly after the poll.

I contacted some of my sources, two of whom confirmed that she was going to be released and that I could announce her upcoming release at the end of the month.

On November 13, 2010, at the hour given to me by a source, I put myself in position near her house. I don’t approach too closely at first, as I don't want to be arrested before I can cover her release.



Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters after her release from house arrest in 2010. (AFP/stringer)

Aung San Suu Kyi waves to supporters after her release from house arrest in 2010. (AFP/stringer)



I have two telephones, one in each hand. On one line is my source, who will give me the step by step of what’s happening inside the house; on the other line is my bureau chief, who will send the alerts on the wire. I dare not hang up and in the end spend about two hours on the phone. By 4:00 pm, I’m in front of the barricades leading up to her house.

Shortly after 5:00 pm she is free. All of the sudden, the barricades around the house are lifted and the gathered crowd of her supporters, drunk with happiness, runs toward the house. Caught up in the tide, I run as well -- I have to be in the front to see her and hear what she says.

When she finally appears, it’s dusk but I record a short video nonetheless. The images turn out to be dark and I am shaking, but I still manage to get the first images of her behind the fence surrounding her house.



Suu Kyi walks to address her supporters outside the gates of her house after her release from house arrest in 2010. (AFP/stringer)

Suu Kyi walks to address her supporters outside the gates of her house after her release from house arrest in 2010. (AFP/stringer)



Smiling and laughing, she salutes the crowd and raises herself above the fence. She catches a bouquet of flowers that one of her supporters gives her.

“I’m glad that you are welcoming me and supporting me. I want to say that there will be a time to come out. Do not stay silent when that time comes,” she said. “We must work together in unison.”



Suu Kyi takes flowers from supporters after her release from house arrest in 2010. (AFP/Soe Than Win)

Suu Kyi takes flowers from supporters after her release from house arrest in 2010. (AFP/Soe Than Win)



Five years pass, to the day, between that moment and the announcement of her party’s crushing victory in the November 8th poll. She has travelled a long way in those five years, but despite her victory, still has a long way to go before parliament elects a president -- a post for which she is ineligible under the current constitution, which prohibits someone who married a foreign national or has children with foreign passports from holding the post. Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, as are her two sons.

Suu Kyi has said that she has a “plan” to rule despite these barriers. The whole country will be watching the woman who incarnates such hope inside her homeland.

“We hope for the best but are ready for the worst,” the Burmese often say. The upcoming months look to be as exciting to cover as the election that made the voters smile.



Hla Hla Htay is an AFP correspondent based in Yangon.



A supporter of Suu Kyi's party smiles as she watches the first official results of the November poll announced on a giant screen outside party headquarters the day after the poll. (AFP/Ye Aung Thu)

A supporter of Suu Kyi's party smiles as she watches the first official results of the November election announced on a giant screen outside party headquarters the day after the poll. (AFP/Ye Aung Thu)



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Turkey divided after a summer of blood

| blog, Kurds, L&B World, Turkey, unrest | November 23, 2015



Nighttime Istanbul, October, 2013. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

(AFP/Bulent Kilic)



Months of blasts, explosions and clashes that have shaken Turkey since June have left the country scarred and divided, writes Ankara-based correspondent Fulya Ozerkan. 

"In 2008, Turkey's renowned filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan dedicated his award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival to "my beautiful and lonely country, which I love passionately". But I now fear for the future of my beautiful and lonely country, which remains alarmingly uncertain despite all the government's proclamations."




By Fulya Ozerkan



Nighttime Istanbul, October, 2013. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Nighttime Istanbul, October, 2013. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)



Ankara, November 23, 2015 -- It all started on a balmy early summer’s evening on June 5.

I had been sent to cover the final election rally of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) in the main southeastern city of Diyarbakir ahead of the June 7 poll. Thousands filled the central square in a blaze of colour to listen to the charismatic HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, who had emerged as a key player in the campaign, seeking to broaden the party's appeal to a wider cross-section of Turkish voters as well as Kurds.

Suddenly, an explosion shook the square. I initially didn't think it was a bomb and a party official on stage told the crowd it was a blast from a nearby generator and called for calm. But about 10 minutes later came a second blast, suggesting it was something much more serious.



The scene of the Diyarbakir rally moments after the blast. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)

The scene of the Diyarbakir rally moments after the blast. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)



I was just 50 metres away from the very centre of the explosion, and witnessed all the chaos in the air, the wailing sirens of the ambulances mixed with screams, the blood-covered wounded leaning against trees or being carried away on the shoulders of friends or comrades. People in the crowds were panicking and rushing in all directions. Some shouted in fear "Daesh is here!"

Ambulances rushed to the scene but angry protesters were kicking them and then clashes erupted between stone-throwing Kurds and security forces. I ran fast to dodge the tear gas and report to the bureau in Istanbul.

Four people died and more than 100 people were injured in an attack that in itself was unprecedented in Turkey’s recent political history. And it was only the start.



Relatives mourn a victim of the deadly Diyarbakir blasts in early June. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Relatives mourn a victim of the deadly Diyarbakir blasts in early June. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)



Midday, July 20. It had been an unusually calm morning for news in Turkey but then first reports came in of an explosion at a small rally of pro-Kurdish activists in the town of Suruc on the Syrian border. Many casualties. Then the first fatalities confirmed. Eventually, the toll would rise to 34 and the government would blame the attack on Islamic State jihadists.

After the Suruc bombing, the government launched air strikes on IS targets. And then the firepower also targeted the Kurds in the southeast and in Iraq after the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) shot dead two policemen in their sleep, accusing them of collusion with IS. The government declared a “war on terror” against IS, the PKK and Marxist radicals but primarily targeting the Kurdish rebels who struck back with deadly attacks that according to official media have now killed over 150 police and soldiers.



The southeastern town of Silvan, following clashes between government and Kurdish militants forces on November 10. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)

The southeastern town of Silvan, following clashes between government and Kurdish militants forces on November 10. (AFP/Ilyas Akengin)



Turkey was back in a vicious cycle of violence with scenes reminiscent of the 1990s when fighting between the PKK and security forces reached its peak. As a student then, I remember watching the nightly bulletins with my family -- the broadcasts showing funerals of fallen police and soldiers almost on a daily basis, with the red and white crescent Turkish flags draped over "martyrs" coffins and relatives screaming in grief.

Now, after several years of relative calm, both the PPK and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were tearing up a ceasefire we hoped had ended that bloodshed. In the past, being "martyred" was an honour. Today, relatives at the funerals of the fallen servicemen publicly berate government ministers for the loss of their loved ones.



Protesters rally against the deadly October twin blasts in Ankara. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Protesters rally against the deadly October twin blasts in Ankara. (AFP/Ozan Kose)



But the worst single act of violence was still to come. My city, Ankara, the Turkish capital where I was brought up and studied, had always been a beacon of calm in the country, at least compared to the frequent chaos in Istanbul. While tourists flock to Istanbul, Ankarans love their city for its sense of community, its hot dry summers and relatively few traffic jams. Ankara has been shaken by attacks in the past, but nothing comparable to the events of Saturday, October 10.

Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a crowd of peace activists, many of them Kurdish, preparing for a rally near the city's main train station. Initial reports put the death toll at at least 20, and then it shot up to over 100 -- making it the worst atrocity ever on Turkish soil.



Video grab of the moment an explosion ripped through a crowd of peace activists in Ankara in October. (AFP/Dokuz8 News Agency)

Video grab of the moment an explosion ripped through a crowd of peace activists in Ankara in October. (AFP/Dokuz8 News Agency)



It was carnage, with witnesses giving gruesome accounts of body parts on the ground, the foul smell of burnt human flesh, survivors covering the dead using only the paper banners of the protesters. Some of the wounded were taken to hospital in a traffic police car whose windows were shattered by grief-stricken protesters. Some witnesses even said they saw remnants of human remains at the site days after the bombing. Authorities banned the broadcast of images from the scene.

In the aftermath of attacks in New York, Madrid, London or Paris, societies pulled together in a show of unity. But the Ankara atrocity appears to have torn us even further apart. The HDP -- whose activists were again targeted in Ankara -- accused the government of responsibility for turning a blind eye to IS. The government meanwhile insinuated that Kurdish militants had attacked their own.



Victims of the October twin blasts in Ankara following the explosions. (AFP/Adem Altan)

Victims of the October twin blasts in Ankara following the explosions. (AFP/Adem Altan)



What struck a deep chord with me was to see football fans whistling and jeering and shouting "Allahu Akbar!" (God is greatest!) at a Euro 2016 qualifier in the central city of Konya when the national teams from Turkey and Iceland lined up to observe a minute's silence for the Ankara victims.

The Turkish team eventually won the game. But all the booing -- in the hometown of Rumi, a 13th century philosopher of Islam who preached tolerance -- was a startling example of how Turks have lost their sense of unity and even failed to come together to mourn their dead.

Some nationalist Turks speak of revenge: "What about our police and soldiers who were killed by terrorists?"

The polarisation of my country took another worrying turn ahead of the November 1 election, with an escalation of attacks and police raids against media outlets and journalists who oppose Erdogan and the government. During the campaign, state television gave almost blanket coverage to AKP events but air time was severely limited for opposition figures.



Plain clothes police detain a student at Istanbul University in early November, after the ruling party regained its parliamentary majority. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Plain clothes police detain a student at Istanbul University in early November, after the ruling party regained its parliamentary majority. (AFP/Ozan Kose)



The media clampdown has continued since the AKP's surprise election win in the November poll. The charges against the offending journalists are almost invariably "plotting a coup" "attempting to bring down the government" or some form of "terrorism", even if the prosecution is just over a satirical magazine cover.

Readers are pushed into two extremes. Newspapers either toe government line or bash the government to the point of caricature. For ordinary Turks, it is almost impossible to have access to objective news.

The AKP upset most predictions in November when it won by a landslide and won back the parliamentary majority it had lost in June after a campaign that promised fearful voters it would ensure security and stability.

When I interviewed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu ahead of the June election, he boasted: "I am the only party leader who can tour all 81 cities in Turkey".



Protests erupted in Istanbul following the deadly Ankara blasts. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

Protests in Istanbul in October. (AFP/Ozan Kose)



The coming weeks and months will be a test for Turkey's leaders to embrace each and every citizen, to try to bridge the deep divide in our society. Older generations fear a return to the anarchy of the 1970s when fighting between left-wing and right-wing groups paralysed the country. I hope we are not going back to those dark days.

In 2008, Turkey's renowned filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan dedicated his award for best director at the Cannes Film Festival to "my beautiful and lonely country, which I love passionately". But I now fear for the future of my beautiful and lonely country, which remains alarmingly uncertain despite all the government's proclamations.



Fulya Ozerkan is an AFP reporter based in Ankara. Follow her on Twitter.



Storm clouds gather over Istanbul, August, 2014. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)

Storm clouds gather over Istanbul, August, 2014. (AFP/Bulent Kilic)



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