“This is what terror looked like in Istanbul in 2016.”
By Kaya Genç
Travelers outside Istanbul’s Ataturk airport after the attacks on June 28, 2016. (Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
In Istanbul today, according to my calculations, four weeks is enough time to forget just how dangerous this city has become. January’s suicide bomb in the city’s historical Sultanahmet Square terrified locals and tourists alike, but was out of the news by March 19, when another suicide attack rocked the city’s hipster Istiklal Street. Like Snapchat stories, terror events grab our full attention one day and are erased in the next. Just last Thursday, as I watched the Brexit coverage with British friends, Istanbul actually felt safe.
The rest of this terrible year (I thought naively) would be spent watching stories about Boris Johnson and Donald Trump in my Cihangir flat — and that would be the worst of it.
Istanbul’s locals had spent the past couple of days focused on planning their holiday trips for the bayram, the season of festivities that follows Ramadan’s month of fasting and begins on July 4. Then came the attack, in which three militants, armed with suicide belts and AK-47 rifles, attacked the entrance to Ataturk Airport, killing 42 people and leaving 300 wounded. The choice of this airport, in particular, is pointed: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and new Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım routinely extol Istanbul’s transportation projects, pledging to build more airports, railways, and bridges. When it opens in 2018, Istanbul’s third and newest airport will also be the world’s biggest; by 2023, the length of Istanbul’s railways is planned to exceed 1,000 kilometers, more than double the number of London’s transportation system. Ataturk Airport suggests an outward-looking country that makes economic and cultural parley with the world — and it’s here that the terrorists struck.
The attack’s timing, too, comes just as the country had been mending fences abroad. This was, after all, the week Turkey’s foreign policy radically changed: On Monday, Erdoğan sent a letter of regret to Russia’s Vladimir Putin for the downing of a Russian bomber jet in November 2015, leading to prospects of a new, cooperative era between two countries — one of increased commerce and tourism. The week also saw the official announcement of a rapprochement between Turkey and Israel that put an end to the diplomatic crisis that began with the clash between Israeli commandoes and Turkish activists on the ship MV Mavi Marmara in 2010, which killed 10 and wounded many more. Further foreign policy news this week included new initiatives to improve relationships with Egypt, and even changes in Turkey’s Syria policy. Prime Minister Yıldırım described the timing of the attack as manidar (“telling”), coming after Turkey’s steps to normalize its relations with its neighbors.
Istanbul locals have paranoia inscribed in their genes, for understandable reasons.
Hopes for the coming tourist season were cut brutally short: Shares in airport operator TAV fell more than 3 percent on Wednesday morning, as shares of Pegasus Airlines fell 1.5 percent. These are unwelcome blows against Turkey’s tourism sector, which, in 2016, experienced its harshest decline since 1994; according to the Turkish tourism ministry, the number of foreign tourists visiting the country plunged by 34.5 percent, to 2.5 million visitors in May, while the number of Russian tourists plunged by 92 percent to little more than 40,000 visitors.
Turkey has a long history of living with terror. Middle-aged people (like me) will remember how there were no public trash bins in central Istanbul in the 1990s out of fear that someone would put bombs in them. Security checks in airports and malls were a fact of daily Turkish life before it became a thing in the West after 9/11: When George W. Bush was getting ready to wage war in the Middle East, Orhan Pamuk warned him and other world leaders not to become dangerously fixated on assurances of security, as Turks had been for decades.
Istanbul’s locals have the paranoid mindset inscribed in their genes (suspicion of the other, the fear of the unfamiliar, the constant fixation with keeping one’s environment safe), for understandable reasons, and the Ataturk attack represents a serious setback in our struggle against the impulses of fear and anxiety. A barista in Istanbul who spoke to the Guardian yesterday described hiding with 14 customers in the storeroom of an airport coffeeshop while bombs went off a few meters away. The same barista had been on Istiklal Street during the March attack, and, like a lot of us, is probably wondering how — when — whether — the city and its people will move past these traumas.
Minutes after the bombs went off, at around 10 p.m. Istanbul time on Tuesday, all roads to Ataturk Airport were closed. Metro rides were suspended. A media ban followed. By the time I woke up, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube had all stopped functioning. Turkish officials dread losing control of the conversation; when necessary, they simply shut it down.
We have a big problem at hand. Turkish police were well prepared in Ataturk Airport; they still couldn’t prevent the attack. Militants came with AK-47s, fired at officers, made their way into the terminal, and aimed their rifles at tourists and airport workers before detonating their explosive vests.
Conspiracy theories, naturally, are in the air. “Americans, Russians, and Chinese planned the attack,” a friend whispered this morning; another friend suggested the Assad regime was to blame, while yet another blamed the Syrian rebels. By Wednesday, the prime minister was saying that ISIS might be responsible, though the terrorist organization has yet to claim responsibility. Impossible to pinpoint, terrifying, quickly forgotten: This is what terror looked like in Istanbul, on June 29, 2016, 24 hours after the Ataturk Airport attack.