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A Death Provokes Anti-Government Protests in Turkey

The Arab Alawite community of Antakya holds the government responsible for the unprecedented tensions in their once peaceful town after Ahmet Atakan’s death on Sept. 9.
Riot police fire tear gas during a protest in central Istanbul September 10, 2013. Turkish police used teargas to disperse crowds in Istanbul and Ankara who were rallying against the death of a protester earlier in the day, witnesses said. REUTERS/Osman Orsal (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX13GD6

ANTAKYA, Turkey — The sentiment in Antakya’s Arab Alawite community is that anyone joining the protests risks their lives. The mood in this city is tense, and the tension does not promise to dissipate anytime soon.

On Monday, Sept. 9, the Alawite youth in the Armutlu neighborhood gathered in support of the protest in Antakya, where Middle East Technical University (METU) students boycotted a government road project that aims to cut down around 3,000 trees to construct a highway in their campus' vicinity, as well as to reinforce their demand that the state find those responsible for the deaths of Abdullah Comert, 22, and Ali Ihsan Korkmaz, 19. Both were members of the Arab Alawite community in Hatay, and they died in June while protesting to save the trees at Gezi Park in  Istanbul. 

An innocent protest such as this week’s, too, however, turned deadly. Ahmet Atakan, 22, died Monday night, aggravating an already fragile community. In the heat of the moment, people accused the police of being directly responsible for his death. Speculation mounted that he was struck by a police tear gas canister. Ahmet’s father, Ali Atakan, told reporters yesterday [Sept. 10], on the day of the funeral, “The police who are praised as heroes have killed our son.” His mother, Emsal Atakan, cried out, “Recep, what’ve you done?” — a reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But local television cameraman Zahi Unsaldi’s coincidental footage of the moment of Atakan’s death provided undisputable evidence that Atakan died not by police force but by falling from a three- or four-story building. While this still requires a thorough police investigation, his uncle Nevzat Atakan appeared on that local Akdeniz TV’s broadcast last night, and said, “We are now convinced that he died of falling from that building.” This was also an act of responsible behavior by the family in an attempt to de-escalate the tension in this community here.

Working hard in trying to build a bridge between the mourning family, the Alawite community at large and the authorities, Selim Matkap, head of the Hatay Medical Association, told Al-Monitor in an interview that he also had no doubt the police are not responsible of Atakan’s death. “The injury on his head is on the left side. The police riot intervention vans (called as Akrep in Turkish) are coming from the right on the video footage,” he said. “I thought hard about the possibilities of a tear gas canister hitting his head when the Akrep is situated at that angle, but it really looks like remote possibility that a tear gas canister hit his head in this incident.”

The autopsy report specified that he suffered from “a spinal cord cut, brain hemorrhage and inner bleeding, along with blunt body trauma and broken skull bones.”

This, however, is still not enough for this community to stop asking the following question: What is there to justify a death during a protest?

Mostly women approached to me on the street and during the funeral willing to talk and begging that we — as journalists — write about their concerns. It seems people here also believe that the Turkish media is failing to report developments accurately, and siding with the government line.

“The Turkish media don’t give the whole picture here. Why did we have this incident in the first place?” Gulseren told Al-Monitor. “Since the Gezi Park protests started, and since we — as an Alawite community — showed our courage by coming on the streets shouting aloud, “Enough!” to Recep, for denying our existence in this country. Not taking into account our opinions and feelings, the authorities from on high ordered the police to punish us. They don’t wait elsewhere with their cars, and with their anti-riot vans, but at the corners of all Alawite neighborhoods. It’s the police provoking us, making us feel under pressure.”

Another woman drew my attention to provocateurs on the streets. “There were three boys with heavy beards who blocked Armutlu’s entrance to traffic on that night. They were not from our neighborhood. They were not our kids,” Hulya told Al-Monitor. “The police punished all of us because of them, and they disappeared in an instant when the clashes started. This is not happening for the first time. Somebody is trying to create a clash between the Sunnis and Alawites of Hatay. Until the Syrian [refugees] came here, we did not have any such problem.”

Interestingly, Selim Matkap also recalls a previous incident during the Gezi Park protests in Antakya. “I remember well that the kids realized one night during the protests that there was someone who was pretending to throw stones at the police, but not really doing it. They then picked him up, and personally delivered him to the head of Hatay security. We then learned that he was a member of the Free Syrian Army.”

Matkap added: “Everyone talks about these provocateurs. While I would not want to make any conclusive judgment as to what really leads to these unfortunate incidents on our streets, I would have hoped that the police had smarter ways of solving such situations. If there are really, however, provocateurs among us, why not find them and punish them? If the police are not doing that, one may also consider that the state knowingly allows these disturbances to happen.”

There was no police presence yesterday during the funeral, but people kept whispering that it would be a difficult night. “I can no longer keep my sons at home,” Nilay told Al-Monitor. “We live in fear that they will be next.” Just as speculated, clashes erupted late last night between police and the Alawite youth in Armutlu. There have been again [people] injured, and the city sank into yet another round of worrying about how far this situation could escalate.

Hatay is a unique province of roughly 1.5 million people exemplifying the country’s multicultural way of living, with one-third of its population being Arab Alawite, and almost all the rest Sunni — where among them Christians, Jews, Armenians, and Assyrians are also included. It is also a close-knit place where people know their neighbors. It still has the custom of respecting the elderly as representative of their respective communities. One therefore tends to wonder why there has been no intermediary between the security forces and the people to calm down this atmosphere.

“When Abdullah Comert was killed, the atmosphere here was really very tense,” Matkap told Al-Monitor. Comert was killed on the night of June 3 by a police officer’s bullet. “I acted as an intermediary. People here prefer the soldiers to policemen. I managed to reach agreement with the governor that it would be soldiers providing security on the street on the day of the funeral. We usually expect things to happen after the funeral.” He added: “Despite that agreement, though, policemen took to the streets, and it became a really tense night. It was not really that bad last night [after Ahmet Atakan’s funeral], but people lost their confidence in such communication between the authorities and us. It means nothing anymore.”

As if the picture were not gruesome enough, there are other grievances: This is also a place where the ruling Islamist-based Justice and Development Party is strong. However, the local Alawite community believes that the government is staying strong at the ballot box by playing games. “They remapped Antakya, and separated us from the big-city municipality here. The Alawite neighborhoods now are no longer part of the main municipality. They claimed that it’s becoming a heavy toll for the big-city municipality to serve more than a half-million people. We are just not convinced that it’s a sincere explanation. We believe they aim to isolate us,” an elderly Alawite man told Al-Monitor. After the remapping, those Alawite neighborhoods were made into a district named Defne. Strangely enough, the authorities decided that Senkoy village — only 3 kilometers (2 miles) away — would be provided services not by Defne, but by another municipality 35 kilometers (22 miles) away. People said that probably happened because Senkoy is a Sunni village and the municipality 35 kilometers away has a Sunni majority.

“Look, we don’t understand how people deny acknowledging what we feel here. We’re already a minority, and never felt like first-class citizens in this country. There is not one Alawite serving as a top official in state institutions. This can’t be coincidental, right?” Emel told Al-Monitor in an interview. “They are now aiming to make us even more of a minority. We’re part of this land, but we feel threatened. There are even people who claim that Alawites are coming on the streets to create trouble. There are only a minuscule number of Sunnis joining the protests, and we feel left alone.” She added: “We are hearing now they are bringing in police officers from other provinces. Police are already stationed at the corners of our neighborhoods to watch us, as if it is not our constitutional right to protest, as if we are potential criminals. If they continue doing so, there will be more clashes here. For sure!”

Ahmet Atakan was counted as the sixth to die in anti-government protests since June, and the third from Hatay. After his death, Turks in other cities like Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir hit the streets in protest.

In the end, the local Alawite community here perceives itself to be the victim of the Syrian refugee influx — almost entirely Sunni — and the government’s open-border policy, which shattered their sense of feeling safe and belonging. The sense here is that no one looks at the deaths of Abdullah Comert, Ali Ihsan Korkmaz or Ahmet Atakan as being coincidental tragedies, but consider them to be a calculated act of government, in an attempt to suppress and silence them even further as a minority. This place, where locals claim that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ancestors hail from, is increasingly becoming a hot spot where sectarianism dominates conversations, and people seem to be divided even on a mourning day for Ahmet Atakan.

Therefore, it would be a wise approach for the Turkish state authorities to directly address the Alawite community’s concerns and worries, rather than running a marathon on righteousness, before it becomes too late and this tension tears apart the peace between people here. Yet, the local community would swear to you here that it is the government that is actually running a policy based on sectarianism — favoring Sunnis. 

Tulin Daloglu is a contributor to Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has also written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York TimesInternational Herald TribuneThe Middle East TimesForeign PolicyThe Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report.

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