Editor’s note: What follows is rising Germantown Friends School sophomore Owen Cheung’s recollections from witnessing three days of protests in Turkey with his own eyes.
June 15: Taksim Square
During the last two weeks of June, I visited Istanbul, Cappadocia and Bodrum. It was an incredible trip because I was in Istanbul during the time of the protests.
On our first full day in Istanbul, we decided to make our way to Taksim Square, where the protests had started two weeks earlier. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was definitely not expecting what I saw.
The first thing I noticed as we entered the square was the government propaganda. There were huge posters/flags on a large building clearly visible from the square and Gezi Park. I am pretty sure that the person on the poster was the president of Turkey. Many tourists and curious Turks were exploring and taking pictures.
There was an intense police presence inside the square. The police were situated on both sides of the square. Some people went up to the police and asked to take pictures with officers, and they accepted.
We didn’t want to hang out too long in the square, so we continued into Gezi Park. Once inside, there was a large amount of destruction everywhere.
I saw piles of broken building materials, cars, planks and overall wreckage. Graffiti covered every possible surface. The protesters had set up a tent city in the park. There was so much to see, and it spanned the entire park. The protesters were peaceful; they hung out in the tents and gave out fliers. They also encouraged the tourists to take pictures and named the park an autonomous area.
The situation in Istanbul began to progress. I could see that even as I left the square.
As we were leaving, new reinforcements of the police were entering the square. They marched along the busy tourist street with their shields. We decided to go home, but that evening we returned to the busy street that led to Taksim Square for dinner.
On our way home from dinner, we were walking back when a huge wave of people started to march through. They were carrying the Turkish flag, which became the symbol of the protesters and a sign of what they wanted Turkey to be.
They were chanting and yelling at everyone to take pictures. We quickly went home, which was good because we saw on CNN that police had cleared the park that night using tear gas and water force.
That first day was incredibly exciting and interesting. I thought it would be the most exciting part of the trip, but I was wrong.
June 16: Things heat up
We spent the next day visiting sights such as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia with our tour guide, who, along with many other Turkish people, thought that the danger was small and that the situation was mostly over.
But things got bad as we were coming back.
As we approached the hill where our apartment and Galata Tower were located, we noticed many street vendors selling gas masks. About halfway up the hill, we realized why. The protesters were marching though the streets.
At first, we didn’t recognize the real danger. We had seen some protesters the day before, and they were harmless, but I was looking around when I realized my throat was hurting.
I initially thought that someone must have been smoking very close to me, but other people were holding their throats as well. Then, my eyes started to burn, and I realized what was going on.
My dad seemed to figure this out at the same time. He told my little brother and sister to stay where they were while he started to make his way up the hill to see if we could make it back to the apartment. At that moment, there was no way for us to get up and the tear gas was only getting stronger, so I tried to bring my siblings back down to my mom.
We tried to get into a store for safety, but the owner wasn’t allowing anyone to take refuge. Then, we decided to push our way through the protesters to get to our apartment.
One of the protesters gave a gas mask to my 7-year-old brother, which I thought was kind. We luckily made it to our apartment and quickly got in. We stayed in the apartment for about an hour, taking pictures of all of the protesters. Then my dad decided to scout out the situation, and he made it all the way back up to the busy street where we had eaten multiple times just the day before.
The protesters had started to tear down the buildings and create some barricades. My dad had been looking for food, but most of the stores were closed. When he got back, I remembered a nearby market that I thought might have some food for us, so the two of us went back out.
There were many protesters walking and sitting around, so we didn’t dawdle. After buying some pasta supplies, I convinced him to let me walk up a little farther to take some pictures. He only let me go up to the next block with him, but it was enough. The protesters had come back marching and chanting.
I took a video as we made our way back down. That probably wasn’t the best idea, but we were able to make it back.
We went out again later but didn’t very get far before the protesters started to run and scream.
This was the start of the most dangerous part of our trip.
We started to run back to the apartment because nobody, protesters included, really knew what was going on. I looked back and I could see the clouds of tear gas. Before we had only been in the remnants of the gas, which, though it hurts, is bearable. But these were actual tear-gas clouds.
The police were throwing the canisters into the crowds of protesters and confused bystanders. We ran back to the apartment and briefly thought we were safe again. But then, a canister was thrown into the small street where we were. As soon as we saw it, we raced to unlock the door. The tear gas was quickly flowing toward us, and we barely made it into the apartment lobby in time.
The rest of the evening, I was glued to our only window that faced the tower.
The protesters cleared for a while but then returned and began to build two barricades by the tower. We started to get worried because it was our last night in Istanbul and a driver was supposed to pick us up the next morning. More protesters came and a second police raid occurred. This time, we actually saw them throw the canisters at the people, and they were yelling at bystanders to run away.
There was graffiti everywhere and many things were destroyed. Thankfully, it rained that night.
Even though we supported the protesters, we didn’t want to get stuck in Istanbul.
June 17: Leaving Istanbul
We were able to get to the airport safely the next morning, and the rest of the vacation was relaxing and tear-gas free.
On our way, I saw lots of signs of the protesters, like hanging flags everywhere.
I think my little brother’s favorite souvenir is his gas mask.