I wrote about the Ankara bombing for the Huffington Post

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I wrote about the Ankara bombing for the Huffington Post (I’m a Huffington Post blogger now!) because it really, really, really sucked. You can read it below, or here

I was sleeping when Ankara city centre was hit by twin explosions just after 10am on the morning of October 10th. I woke up to a message from my boyfriend: “Two bombs have gone off near the train station. Looks like a lot of people dead. Might want to let your mum know you’re OK.” His office is metres from where the blasts tore through a crowd of peace protesters, hitting with such force that his whole building shook. My heart stopped as I read it, the air knocked out of me by the realisation that he might not have been OK, and that many people weren’t.

It’s a strange feeling to see the city you live in, a city so few people outside of Turkey seem to know much about – forgotten, as it is, under the shadow of the mighty Istanbul – as a disaster zone on TV news. Most Ankara residents had expected an attack at some point – violence was the flavour of the summer in Turkey after the uncompromising Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to gain a majority in June’s elections. Snubbed by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), who surpassed the 10% threshold in their first parliamentary elections, old tensions between the state and rebel group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) flared up. As if that wasn’t enough acronyms to deal with, ISIS seemed to be advancing on Turkey, too, having already been held responsible for July’s deadly suicide attack in Suruc that killed 33 pro-Kurdish activists.

When an attack hits in such a vile and callous way, anticipated or not, it’s devastating. It’s not just another faceless, violence-afflicted place in the Middle East, you think, watching UK TV reporters explain what happened and imagining how others will see it. This is my home. The people cruelly targeted were not soldiers or rebels, they had gathered to protest the recent violence between the PKK and the state. As Turkish novelist Elif Safak wrote for the Guardian: “Innocent hearts beating for peace [were] brutally stopped”.

Pleas for blood donations flooded expat groups on social media. Once I’d gathered my thoughts and had some assurance it was safe to go out, I headed to Numune hospital, one of three treating the injured. I was unable to give blood – turned away on the grounds that I have not yet been in Turkey for three years – but was moved to tears to see how many people had come out to do what they could.

Soon, however, the mood turned. Frustrations were vented on one of the blood vans, which had stopped taking donations. Men screamed, lashing out at the van as a mob chipped and dented its sides before it could drive away. Anti-government chants aimed at President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spread quickly and the crowd swelled, blocking the road.

It’s easy to see why emotions are running high. The death toll currently stands at 102, with hundreds more injured. Many were young – teen activists, future MPs and a nine-year-old boy all lost their lives. The 20-year-old daughter of teacher Izzettin Cevik – whose image, blood spattered and cradling his injured, crying wife, became one of the defining images of the tragedy – died instantly.

With a second election in November looming, Turkey is on a knife-edge. The government, accused of harbouring an anti-democratic ‘deep state’ faction, is increasingly facing allegations of foul play and protests against them are commonplace. Just a few weeks ago, a former ISIS fighter told Newsweek that commanders had informed troops that the Turkish state was an “ally” and their forces would not bother them.

Yunus Emre Alagöz, the brother of the Suruc bomber, has been identified by Turkish authorities as one of the Ankara bombers and many more men with suspected links to Isis and the PKK have been arrested. Yet at the 10,000-strong protests against the blasts that swamped the streets of Istanbul that night and the mourning ceremony in Ankara the day after, similar anti-government songs could be heard: “Erdogan, murderer”, “police, murderers”. ISIS may be held accountable for the attack, but the people have their culprit. Whether they hold the government directly responsible, or blame them for failing to protect people, it doesn’t look good for Erdogan’s AKP. If they do somehow win their majority on November 1st – in the past, election rigging has often been suspected, with the state once even blaming an unruly cat – Turkey looks set for a rocky future.

I am haunted by the image of the girl I saw leave the hospital, no older than 21, her arms and legs bandaged and dried blood splattered across her clothes and brand-new Air Max. I think of all the people who died protesting for peace, while 5km away I did nothing but drool on my pillow. Yet despite all the heartache and uncertainty, life in Ankara goes on. People still buy food from the supermarkets and walk their dogs. Friends still meet for coffee, perhaps hugging for a few seconds longer as they greet.

The city is bruised, but not defeated.

Ankara fell victim to the very worst of humanity that day. In the people who queued to give blood, however, and those who gave everything to help the injured, I also saw the best. No matter what happens over the coming weeks, the Turkish people refuse to give into fear.

Nor should they.

Is Turkey heading towards civil war?

Is Turkey heading for civil war?

I wrote this piece for News Hub a few weeks ago, but it seems apt now following the awful bombings in Ankara. Can read it on News Hub here.

Things are not looking good for Turkey. The Turkish lira is at a record low against the US dollar and society is polarized over ongoing clashes between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces. Last week, Selahattin Demirtas, leader of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, warned that the country is on the verge of a civil war.

With violence escalating, it seems worryingly viable. Old tensions between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – which they consider to be a terrorist organisation – have been well and truly reignited in a conflict that has seen 40,000 people killed since 1984.

The PKK were first to break a two-year ceasefire in July. They claimed responsibility for the shooting of two Turkish policemen – a reprisal, they claimed. Many Kurds sympathetic to the PKK blamed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for being complicit in, or at least passive towards, an Isis-blamed suicide attack that claimed the lives of 32 activists in Suruc, close to the Syrian border.

Days of fighting followed and when Turkey finally announced airstrikes on Isis militants in Syria, it only took until the next day for the guns to turn instead onto PKK targets in Iraq. Suspicions of the vehemently anti-Assad AKP government’s ties to Isis are never far away. The government denies any link. However, while Kurdish fighters remain the biggest resistance against Isis, these attacks will have done little to hinder the jihadists.

Since then, a series of nationalist protests, car bombings, arson attacks and sieges have brought violence well and truly back to the streets of Turkey. The government have been accused of fanning tensions for their own political means. If Turkey is heading towards a civil war, it’s increasingly believed that it’s by design rather than accident.

In June, just before the peace was broken, the AKP failed to win a political majority in a general election for the first time since 2002. The party’s rule had become increasingly authoritarian, swaying the secular country towards Islamification. They were denied their majority by Demirtas’s left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP who surpassed the steep 10% threshold – with 13% overall – in their first general election.

The streets fizzed with excitement that night, a real sense of euphoria after years of oppressive rule. HDP had the young and the alienated on their side, both Turkish and Kurdish, and channelled the revolutionary spirit of 2013’s anti-government Gezi Park movement.

However, coalition talks, which appeared a non-starter from the off, collapsed and a new election has been scheduled for November 1st. Beyond simply retaining control, the AKP and their controversial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who undertook the largely ceremonial role after hitting a three-term prime ministerial limit last year – seek a majority so that the constitution can be revised, ushering in a new presidential system. A move no doubt learned from Russia’s Vladamir Putin.

The subsequent frosting over of Kurdish-Turkish relations seems too convenient to be coincidence. As Marxist theory goes, the best way to end a revolution is with a counterrevolution. Years of massive economic growth led to increased inequality, with the poor now paying the price for the current crisis. Yet divide people on national lines instead of class ones, and it becomes far easier to sway the vote.

If Turkey did somehow engineer PKK retaliation over their handling of the Suruc bombing – or subsequent skirmishes – would Erdogan really be willing to throw the country back into bloody conflict just to win an election?

He is certainly a figure of scorn to his critics, trailing in his wake a string of corruption scandals, inflammatory comments about women’s role in society and incessant attacks on the press. He has shut down pro-Kurdish TV stations, online content is frequently blocked and many journalists have been arrested and even deported for daring to question his government.

Erdogan’s policies are uncompromising, everyone who disagrees with him is soon publicly branded a terrorist, or said to be aiding terrorists. When tapes were released claiming to contain recordings of him ordering his son to dispose of millions of dollars of incriminating cash amid one corruption scandal, he refused to step down, dismissing it as a plot to bring down the government. He’s no Mother Theresa, but as to whether he would risk thousands of lives for a game of political chess is not for me to say (see journalism prosecutions above). However, growing numbers of Turkish people believe so and it’s a feeling that’s not going to be easy to shake.

Either way, it’s the Kurdish civilians who are left baring the brunt of the country’s power struggles. Street attacks on the Kurdish minority are growing, and their cities are under siege. Few feel protected by official forces. According to even the pro-government press, 1,100 Kurds have died since the recent unrest compared to 150 soldiers. If civil war is brewing in Turkey, it’s because at least one side wants peace. They are, however, willing to fight for it.

I wrote a piece for the Telegraph about whether foreign women are safe in Turkey

Are expats safe in Turkey?

This weekend’s twin blasts in Ankara were devastating to local residents. Before this summer’s elections and the violence that followed the AKP failing to gain their majority, I wrote this for the Telegraph’s Expat Zone. Just goes to show how much the next election in November matters. You can read the edited version here

Between the threat of terrorism and questions about women’s rights, Turkey has been making the headlines a lot lately. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it is the 18th most likely country in the world for Brits to require assistance while abroad, with violence against women on the increase, too. Last month saw protests in cities across the region following the violent murder of 20-year-old female student Ozgecan Aslan, although it was the male demonstrators in skirts who attracted the most attention.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that since I moved to the Turkish capital, Ankara, from London almost six months ago because of my partner’s work, the thing I’ve been asked most by friends and family is: “Are you safe?”. It’s a tricky question to answer.

Let’s start with terrorism. It’s hard not to be a little on edge considering warnings of heightened security risks across the country and the recent suicide bombing of Istanbul’s busy tourist district, Sultanahmet. One American told this paper late last year that she felt an “unnerving sense of doom” and likened the atmosphere in Turkey to pre-war Germany. Others talked of making escape plans and avoiding crowded places such as shopping malls.

I was jumpy during my first few months here too – every low flying plane or loud noise set my heart racing. However, how many major capital cities are there that aren’t at risk from terrorism? The UK’s terror threat level is set to ‘severe’ and I’ve been having mini-heart attacks following loud noises in London since 7/7.

The longer I’m in Ankara, the less I worry. Turkey has the second largest military in NATO and, along with armed police, soldiers are omnipresent. It’s a little authoritarian, yes. Ankara’s government buildings are so dystopian they could have been pulled straight from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Yet when there are frequent warnings of planned attacks on the city – particularly the US embassy, which I live alarmingly close to – a spot of austerity and few weapons can be surprisingly comforting.

Gender inequality, is, for me, a stickier topic. Turkey ranks 125th out of 142 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2014 gender gap index, meaning little has been done to tackle inequality. To put that into context, India was 114th. 300 women have been murdered in the last year alone and UN Women have warned that: “Two out of every five women in Turkey are exposed to sexual and physical violence.”

It can be hairy at times being a woman in Turkey. Two of my friends have been followed in the street and a group of young men once tried to solicit sex from me when I accidentally wandered into the old town after dark. However, if I’m honest, despite my concerns over the treatment of women in Turkey, on a day-to-day basis I don’t feel repressed or unsafe. It saddens me to admit though, that this has a lot to do with where I live – in Kavaklıdere, a posh part of town that could perhaps best be described as the Kensington of Ankara. It’s an area dotted with embassies, trendy bars and restaurants close to the city centre. It’s liberal, young and politically fervent – on Fridays nights women get their glad rags on and drink/dance/chat their working weeks away as they might anywhere in the UK.

That being said, the US government rates Ankara’s crime levels as ‘low’ meaning that, despite Turkey facing its fair share of issues, it wouldn’t be that crazy to class Ankara as a fairly safe city. Unlike London, there is little street crime. If you absent-mindedly leave your phone on the table in a bar, more often then not, it will still be there when you get back. There is, however, one side of Ankara life that does scare the life out of its residents. Oh, how I wish drivers would pay attention to the roads