My night of terrifying chaos in Istanbul

By Erin Cunningham

People wave Turkish flags as they gather at a pro-government rally in central Istanbul's Taksim Square. Photo / AP
People wave Turkish flags as they gather at a pro-government rally in central Istanbul's Taksim Square. Photo / AP

I didn't take the reports seriously at first.

Security forces had blocked traffic on a main bridge in Istanbul, and helicopters were circulating overhead.

There was also combat aircraft movement more than 480km away in the Turkish capital, Ankara, reports said.

But Turkey had been hit by recent terrorist attacks, including a devastating assault by suicide bombers at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport. Perhaps it was just increased security, I thought. The Government here often deploys scores of riot police for even the smallest of demonstrations.

My initial instinct that these were heightened but probably inconsequential security maneouvers, of course, turned out to be dead wrong.

The first confirmation that something monumental was taking place came from the Turkish Prime Minister himself, when he announced on live television that an attempted military coup was underway.

Ankara, where hijacked warplanes and gunships pummelled government buildings, appeared to be bearing the brunt of the violence. But in an instant, all hell broke loose in Istanbul, too.

Embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly appeared on television to urge his supporters to take to the streets. They did - in the thousands - and police forces loyal to him confronted the rebel soldiers in squares and on bridges.

From my apartment, which is less than a block from Istanbul's famed Taksim Square, I soon heard the pop of gunfire. They were warning shots fired by soldiers against the crowd, reports said.

Then, a few minutes later, a low rumble and a boom shook the building. Well, that escalated quickly, I thought, in an attempt to casually deflect my growing concern. Still, I needed at least an hour or two of sleep before waking again to continue reporting.

But as I climbed into bed, a fighter jet suddenly screeched overhead, swooping low enough that it pierced my ears.

After years of living in Egypt and the Gaza Strip, I was used to low-flying aircraft. But the jet's next flyover, so low that my chest constricted from the change in air pressure, precipitated a whoosh and a blast powerful enough to blow open my windows - and, in the case of the small window in my bathroom - shatter part of the glass.

That had to have been a missile fired, I thought, again recalling the times I covered Israeli Air Force strikes in Gaza. But there, we knew who was launching the strikes. Here, who was flying the jets? The renegade officers seeking to topple the Government? The part of the military still reportedly loyal to the state? Was there an important government building or security installation in my neighbourhood that I had been unaware of? Is that what the jets were targeting?

I scrambled out of bed and into my kitchen, far from any windows, when another blast shook the building. I messaged my colleague, Zeynep, who was also reporting on the chaos and lives in a neighbourhood nearby.

"Those jets are terrifying," she said. "I'm shaking."

"Me too," I said. "I'm hiding in my kitchen."

Thankfully, in this instance, the blasts were quickly identified as sonic booms - the sound of shock waves when an object, like an F-16 fighter jet, breaks the sound barrier. But they were unlike any sonic blasts I had heard - or felt - before, and that offered little comfort.

The booms were still shattering glass - and were terrifying. I hunkered down in my kitchen with some couch cushions and my laptop, monitoring the news and listening to the jets rumble overhead. I could hear residents on my street sweeping shards of glass.

There were more explosions - some distant, unaccompanied by the sound of a warplane - and others dull thuds, like when a helicopter gunship strikes. The sun began to rise and, to my surprise, I drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up an hour later, I could still hear the hum of helicopters overhead, but the booms had subsided. Live on television was footage of pro-coup soldiers surrendering on one of the city's bridges, bathed in the golden morning light.

The coup had been defeated, officials said, and democracy restored. But while our corner of Istanbul was spared, the rest of the country reeled from the scale of the bloodshed: 265 people killed, including more than 160 police and civilians.

- Washington Post

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