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Turkey's night of fire, and its ongoing fight for democracy

Two fathers recall the pain and regret that followed after their sons died while on the streets opposing the 15 July coup attempt
Turkish civilians stand on a tank used in the coup attempt last July (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – When Tolga Ecebalin started marching towards the municipal headquarters in Istanbul along with his cousin and hundreds of others on that summer night of 15 July last year, he was prepared to die to preserve rights some rogue generals were trying to seize with brutal force.

The world watched in awe and admiration that night, as the people of Turkey fought for their country's democracy in the face of fighter jets, tanks and gunfire. Tolga did not survive the night.

Tolga, 27, was a sales rep who came from a very religious Roma family in the working-class neighbourhood of Fatih. On that night he responded to his father's call, leaving his five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter in the care of their mother.

I would take my entire family and do it again even if it meant we would all die

- Tarkan Ecebalin

"I would take Tolga, my grandchildren, my entire family and do it again without the slightest hesitation even if this time it meant we would all die," Tarkan, Tolga's father, told Middle East Eye.

For nearly 12 hours on that fateful night, civilians battled the odds, and in the end their bravery defeated the putschists who had attempted a coup.

During those hours no one knew who the perpetrators and planners of the coup attempt were, and no one cared. People of all convictions and beliefs were united in their determination to not let democracy fall.

Most of those on the streets – of diverse political beliefs and views - were only there to defend their country and its improving democracy.

In the end, 249 people died. About 3,000 were wounded.

Tarkan, Tolga's father, poses next to framed photo at Tolga cafe (MEE/Suraj Sarma)

For Tolga, the fear that night was that hardcore secularist generals would target members of their faith if they succeeded.

Ercument, Tolga's cousin who was with him on that night, told MEE: "We took to the streets for Allah and Islam. If the coup had succeeded they would have rounded up all bearded men and headscarf-wearing women the next day. It would become hell for Muslims. We went out that night to become martyrs."

Yet for others, it was not religion but the nation that brought them out on the street.

Batuhan Ergin, 20, was shot in the heart on the Bosphorus Bridge, now renamed the 15 July Martyrs' Bridge, as he walked towards the putschists.

"He went to defend his country and his flag," Ahmet, Batuhan's father told MEE.

All I know is that a strong leader, our president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said 'let's die together' and we had to heed that call

- Tarkan, father of coup victim

Batuhan lived with his family in the city's middle-class Ortakoy district from where they could see the bridge. That night he had gone to a cafe with a friend further north along the Bosphorus coast when part of the bridge was occupied and sealed off by soldiers.

"We spoke around 20 minutes before he was shot. I said come home, but he said he would never be able to rest easy if he ignored a situation when his country was in peril," said Ahmet.

'A war of independence'

The immediate aftermath of the coup attempt witnessed a rare moment when the country was fully united, regardless of political views and lifestyle.

That unity lasted little more than a month, before the politicians were at each other's throats again.   

Since the foiled coup attempt, a state of emergency has been in place. Authorities had vowed to use the expanded powers that it brought in to tackle Fethullah Gulen and his followers. Authorities see Gulen, a US-based Muslim preacher, and his followers who have infiltrated the state bureaucracy as the perpetrators of the coup attempt.

The fact that the orchestrators of the coup turned out to be from a religious establishment and not secularist generals means little to families of those who died that night.

"That night was not a coup. It was a war of independence. It was the second conquest of Istanbul," said Tarkan. "All I know is that a strong leader, our president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said 'let's die together' and we had to heed that call."

Pics of Tolga and his Fenerbahce replica kits (MEE/Suraj Sharma)

He bristles with rage when Gulen is called a Muslim.

"What Muslim? Has he been to Mecca? Does he have a beard? He has even kissed the Pope's hand. He is no Muslim," said Tarkan.

A year on, and the democracy they so bravely fought for faces different but equally serious hurdles as the sense that justice is being eroded grows, and the government becomes more authoritarian.

Turkish roar for justice shakes corridors of power
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The powers of the state of emergency were used by the government to go after all its political opponents. This has resulted in 50,000 arrests and more than 150,000 people being sacked or dismissed from their jobs.

Worse, the government has used the crackdown to target all their political foes instead of just focusing on the Gulenists, which has prompted doubts, particularly in the international community.

Very few people from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles – Gulen's closest allies until 2013 – have been implicated of links to the group. But renowned anti-Gulenist journalists now find themselves behind bars on often flimsy charges of links to Gulenists.

Tarkan waved away a question about developments in the last year.

"Politics is a dirty game," he explained. "In the end, even if the coup plotters get away with it in this world, they will not be able to escape Allah's justice."


In the intervening year, Turkey held a referendum in April where it narrowly decided to switch to a presidential system of governance, placing an unprecedented amount of power in one man's hands. The campaigning for the referendum marked a period when it became normal for the government to dismiss those who opposed the change as "terrorists".

The country's perceived slide towards authoritarianism became so drastic that the main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) in June decided parliament had been eviscerated to such an extent that it was no longer capable of carrying out its designated role, and its leader launched a "Justice March" from Ankara to Istanbul. More than a million people gathered at a rally marking the end of the 450-km march to demand justice for all in the country.

Amid all this, it is the politicians who seek to exploit the deaths of their loved ones for political purposes that enrages Ahmet, Batuhan's father.

Ahmet looks at son's pics (MEE/Suraj Sharma)

"What really makes me angry is when people ask if events of that night were staged," he said. "My son is dead. It wasn't a theatre performance where he played a part, then got up and brushed himself off. He is lying in a grave."

"People have come pretending to offer condolences and then start saying things like ‘Was it worth getting killed for the president?'. Why can't they understand it wasn't for one person or for a political party? I support the ruling party, my wife votes for the opposition. Batuhan hadn't even properly decided on his political views yet.

"He went there that night for his country."

Politics and developments during the past year are not among the priorities of those who lost loved ones that night. It is preserving their memories that matter to them.

Ahmet, who has stored all the photos and videos on Batuhan's phone, plays a short video of him chanting on the Bosphorus Bridge shortly before he was shot.

I would stop him but I would go and, unlike Batuhan, I would take a gun with me

- Ahmet, father of coup victim

"Batuhan was always carefree. Look at him here," he said. "The way he is chanting ‘God is great' you would think he is leading a football chant at the stadium and not walking to confront armed soldiers."

The family still struggles to come to terms with his death.

It was only 63 days since Batuhan's return from a 12-month military conscription tour in the restive southeast of the country.

"He had volunteered to serve there but the missus and I prayed every night for his safe return. The missus rarely had a proper night's sleep that year out of worry," said Ahmet. "What happened felt like a double blow, after the relief of seeing him return safe and sound from military service."

Tarkan cannot hold back his tears as he sits in Cafe Tolga, which he opened in the last year in honour of his son.

"It was Tolga's dream to have a cafe by the water. His dream is now fulfilled but he is no longer here," said Tarkan. 

"Actually he is everywhere. Look there he is," he said, pointing into the empty distance towards the water.

Pic of Batuhan and family on holiday in 2015 (MEE/Suraj Sharma)

Tarkan has converted the house where Tolga grew up into a museum-shrine. The entire house now contains displays of Tolga's life. From the items he had on him when he was killed, including his pack of cigarettes and blood-stained sneakers, to the replica jerseys of his beloved team Fenerbahce, to various family photos taken over the years.

"I want to preserve Tolga's memory. First for his small children and then for future generations," said Tarkan.

All the divides in Turkish society have come to the fore again in the last year and the polarising discourse adopted by politicians has only served to make things worse.

For Ahmet, the choice in the event of a repeat is simple.    

"This has nothing to do with politics and what has happened in the past year, but don't expect me to say yes if you ask whether I would let Batuhan go to the bridge if it were to happen again. There is nothing like the pain of losing a child," said Ahmet.

"I would stop him but I would go and, unlike Batuhan, I would take a gun with me."

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