Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Ankara in Protest- The Battle of Dikmen Street


After earlier being hit by a water cannon in the Kennedy street area of Ankara my cameraman and I were told of clashes in the Turkish capital's district of Dikmen. As our taxi driver dropped us on the junction below Dikmen street we could already see the glow of fires. Along a half kilometre stretch between two petrol stations the street was filled with burning barricades and crowds of angry protesters. They were a much more militant crowd than those we had witnessed around Kugulu park and Kennedy street. There police water cannon and tear gas firing vehicles, backed up by columns of riot police, set about breaking up crowds each night with ease. What would start as peaceful protests quickly degenerated into knots of demonstrators chanting a little then running to try and find safety. Not in Dikmen. 

Barricades burn along Ankara's Dikmen Street as protesters defy the riot police.

None of the shop windows were broken or private property damaged along the street. It seemed the community was very much supporting the protesters. Public dustbins, street signs and communal flower display pots had been torn or smashed up and dragged into small barricades. As we walked along the street people shouted support from windows and threw mattresses down do add to the bonfires started with old wooden doors and the contents of the dustbins. Hundreds of protesters were variously grouped around the barricades, fetching material to add to them or were chanting or dancing in groups.  One woman stopped banging a pot and pan and came up to us. "Erdogan devil! Erdogan devil!" she shouted then told us old people and children were being tear gassed in the streets. It was a joyous, defiant and angry atmosphere that rose up into the Ankara night with the banging of the dustbins and the smoke from the fires. But we had seen a number of 'TOMA' (shown in the video link) water cannon vehicles waiting about a kilometre away down the road. TOMA (Toplumsal Olaylara Müdahale Aracı, English: Riot Control Vehicle) is written on the sides of each one. They have become something of an infamous household name around Turkey these days. With a bulldozer blade on the front, a remote controlled water cannon on top and tear gas spraying from their sides they have become a tool of choice for the police and a hated symbol of a brutal crackdown for demonstrators. A few minutes later they came.

The protesters had used all available public property to try and block the street, including their own street signs.

Blue and red lights showed through the smoke. The crowd surged forward to scream their defiance at two approaching TOMAs and then surged back as they rammed the first barricade and began raking the street with their water cannons. Everyone ran before them and they proceeded to work their way up that half kilometre stretch, blasting anyone who didn't reach cover in time and pushing aside each barricade. My cameraman and I had ran down a side alley as it charged past. Now the protesters emerged from side alleys all along the street and ran up to a TOMA from behind, pelting it with stones. It seemed it was all they could do to hit back, but the crew inside the TOMA couldn't fight them all off, stones clanging off its sides as it's water cannon flailed around trying to hose down one protester after another. They circled around it like ants around an angry elephant amid the fire and debris strewn street, shouting and hurling the nearest piece of masonry they could lay their hands on.

One demonstrator looks up the street to where the police vehicles might approach as a crowd dance in a circle behind her.

Behind the TOMAs drove so called 'scorpions', armoured cars with a turret hatch above from where a police officer fired tear gas from a hand held launcher. With loud sirens they sped around the side streets and up and down Dikmen street. A bang and sparks and a gas canister would fly into some side alley and spew out clouds of the noxious stuff. We had put on our gas masks and kept them on, only taking them off periodically to check how heavy the air was with the stinging CS gas. Fired at groups of protesters the gas canisters can be very dangerous. I met a protester, Ersin Ertas, who had been sheltering behind a wooden board when police fired a canister through it, hitting him in the face. It broke his nose, sent splinters flying into his left eye and left his face horribly swollen for days. 

A TOMA riot control vehicle charges down Dikmen street with its water cannon firing.

My cameraman and I found ourselves split up in the mayhem. I had to hide as a TOMA revved around a corner, only a plastic advertising banner next to a shop to hide behind as the water jets blasted protesters in front of me. I only managed to rejoin my cameraman by clambering through a nearby garden and car park, apologies and thanks to the owners. Later we found ourselves among a group of protesters running from a scorpion as it sped down the street. Firing three of four gas canisters, one ricocheted off a low wall and just missed me. These were just two of most tense moments in a night where we seemed like one of only two television news crews trying to cover violent and defiant clashes. A government spokesman had previously told me things had calmed down in Turkey. They have not.

Once the TOMAs had passed groups of stone throwing protesters circled around them.

So when might this all end? When hooligans and vandals stop their attacks on property, police and public order says Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his governing AK party. There are some protesters who have taken things too far. Dozens of buses have been burned or smashed up, shop windows have been broken in some protests and public property smashed up and made into barricades. But the majority of protesters I have seen have been vastly outgunned by police that seem all too eager to charge in and break up ostensibly peaceful demonstrations. In Dikmen protesters were not peaceful, but there was non of the looting that Erdogan has previously claimed. This was a community ranged against a police forced that seemed to them too brutal in its crackdown. When will this all end? When the authoritarian Erdogan goes, say some protesters. At least until there are changes, police more amenable and, they demand, more accountable for their actions. 

The message I heard most, and one that does not bode well for either side in this increasingly bitter civil divide is this, "We will stay out on the street as long as they, the police, do."

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