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Remembering the dream of a different Turkey

Julia Hahn
May 28, 2018

In 2013, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Turkey to protest Erdogan’s authoritarian policies. The memory of those days is still present in the current presidential election campaign.

Water cannons being fired at protesters in Gezi Park
Turkish police violently dispersed demonstrators occupying Gezi Park in 2013Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Gaye Boralioglu glances helplessly at Istanbul's Taksim Square. There is pounding construction noise coming from the left. Laborers work unrelentingly on a large new mosque. Opposite, the Atatürk Cultural Center, a former opera house and for many years a symbol Turkey's striving towards Europe, is being demolished.

Boralioglu is a writer. She is wearing a skirt, black T-shirt and lace-up boots. "After the Gezi protests, they destroyed everything here," she says, "The streets, the trees that once stood here, there's only concrete left."

Gaye Boralıoğlu
Writer Gaye Boralioglu experienced the 2013 Gezi Park protestsImage: DW/J. Hahn

In fact, there is little left that could remind anyone of the mass protests here, in the heart of the city, five years ago. This was a time when many Istanbul citizens took to the streets to protest against Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who at that time was serving as prime minister. "The Gezi protests had a very special energy. It was about rebellion, but also humor. It was our hope for a different society," says Boralioglu.

Gezi Park in Istanbul
Where it all began: Gezi Park on Istanbul's central Taksim SquareImage: DW/J. Hahn

Much more than just a park

The protests in the early summer of 2013 united hundreds of thousands of people across the country against the increasingly authoritarian style of Erdogan's government and the Islamic-conservative "Justice and Development Party” (AKP). Left-wing liberals, nationalists, football fans, Kurds, women with headscarves all took to the streets. The protests were triggered by government building plans in Gezi Park, the small green area on the edge of Taksim Square. Erdogan wanted to rebuild an Ottoman barracks that had been demolished in 1940, and which would include a shopping mall.

Read more: What's left of Turkey's Gezi protest movement?

Demonstrators spontaneously occupied the park. They kept watch around the clock from tents. Gaye Boralioglu also came by regularly. "I met so many old friends again," she recalls. "In one corner, people cooked together. In another they danced. Everybody helped each other, without money. We were happy." For weeks, the Gezi activists held out, defying water cannons and tear gas. The images were broadcast around the world, as were the words of Prime Minister Erdogan. He described the demonstrators as "marauders" and "terrorists."

‘Conspiracy against Turkey'

It is difficult to say how much support there was for the Gezi movement. According to a survey by opinion research institute, Konda, 40 percent of those questioned saw the protests as a "democratic struggle for civil rights and freedom," while more than 50 percent saw it as a "conspiracy against Turkey." According to Konda, this view was particularly widespread among AKP voters.

Gaye Boralioglu has written about her personal memories of this time. One of her short stories has been translated into German. "Armed men in uniforms, now in powerful vehicles, are bearing down on the people," she writes, "they set water jets against their weak bodies, they fog the whole world with gas until everyone is finished." Her heroes are fearless citizens, the men and women, the teenagers and pensioners who opposed state power. "People arrange their bodies as shields against the armed men. They are moving forward. They are marching, despite the gas, fog and smoke. They laugh and go on."

'Our pens keep writing'

In the police crackdown to stamp out the protests, at least five people were killed and more than 8,000 injured. Since then, the police in the area have remained vigilant. Anti-government demonstrations on Taksim Square are forbidden. Even smaller peaceful marches are quickly disbanded.

And Erdogan, now Turkey's president, has further expanded his power. Since a failed military coup in 2016, hundreds of thousands of people have been arrested, or lost their jobs. Many artists, academics, intellectuals have left Turkey, and now live in Germany, the Netherlands, France.

Gaye Boralioglu decided to stay. "Yes, some of us are in prison. Many have lost their jobs and others have been exiled. But we're not giving up. We have our thoughts and our pens, we will continue to write," she says, "We don't want our children to learn from censored history books what happened in this country, but from our stories and books".

Man walking in Gezi Park
Gezi Park is peaceful today, but the memories from five years ago are still aliveImage: DW/J. Hahn

Groundbreaking elections

Elections will be held in Turkey in about four weeks. President Erdogan wants to be confirmed as president. If he wins the vote, the far-reaching constitutional amendments that he pushed through in a referendum last year will come into force. Turkey would then become a presidential system, and Erdogan a head of state with almost unlimited powers. It is unclear whether the opposition will be able to stop him.

But Boralioglu has not yet given up hope. "Gezi was a dream, it was about humanity. We lived this dream once, why not again?"

Every evening at 1830 UTC, DW editors send out a selection of the day's hard news and quality feature journalism. You can sign up to receive it directly here.

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