Emotions run high as Yaşar Parlak reads the names of those who died or were wounded while liberating the building of public broadcaster TRT from putschists four years ago. Leaning on crutches, Parlak remembers the night of July 15, 2016, when he joined hundreds of others in Istanbul to stop putschists linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). Bullets struck his two feet and slowed him down, but in the end, civilians like him played a key role in forcing putschist soldiers to surrender.
On the fourth anniversary of the attempt, survivors, affectionately known as “gazis,” or veterans, spoke about their memories of the night during which civilians, for the first time ever in coup-prone Turkey, managed to stave off a coup attempt. Those injured remember the images of people who died left and right as they stood against coup plotters, but that fact did not bruise their patriotism, and survivors pledge to take to the streets again in case of a new coup attempt.
Parlak found out about the coup attempt when then-Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım announced there was “an attempt” against the government on TV. “As a matter of fact, I didn’t know what he meant, but I sensed a coup was underway,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA). Parlak was an 11-year-old boy when Turkey was rocked by prior coup on Sept. 12, 1980. “I knew what the coup was, but it usually happens late at night and I thought there wouldn’t be a new coup. Then, I saw our president speaking about a coup attempt on TV and heard a sala being recited from the mosque behind my house,” he said. On the night of the coup attempt, muezzins all across the country took to the mosques to recite this call to prayer which is originally used to announce the death of a Muslim. Accompanied with a message to stand against putschists, salas echoed on July 15, 2016, across Turkey. “I felt a fever and was excited. I told my wife I was going out and grabbed a Turkish flag. I did not know where to go, but I had to do something,” Parlak says. When he heard a noise from a nearby police station, he ran in that direction and saw a crowd surrounding it, to protect the police inside from putschists. “Everyone was parking their cars as a barricade around the police station,” Parlak recounted. Then, some people started to disperse, either heading to the airport to welcome President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who arrived from southern Turkey or to a bridge occupied by putschists. Parlak joined those heading to the bridge, but on the road, someone in the crowd said there was “trouble” near the TRT building in the Harbiye district. The crowd headed there but was stopped by an armored police truck. “A policeman told us something bad would happen to us if we advanced, but we insisted and told him to clear the road. He let us go,” said Parlak, who was among the crowd of 50 people. He was in the front row of the crowd when putschists occupying the TRT building started firing upon them. “I was hit by five bullets, and the impact hurled me some four meters away. I was trying to stand up when shrapnel hit me again,” he recalled. He was half-conscious, lying on the ground for about 45 minutes. “Ambulances were coming to get us, but putschists fired on them too. A policeman dragged me to an alley to protect me from gunfire. Some people tried to put me in a van which would leave for a hospital. But it was full of injured, and there was no room. The same policeman stopped a car passing by and took me to the hospital. It did not end there. I had to wait for 18 hours for surgery because the hospital was flooded with the injured and the dead,” he said.
His treatment still continues though he can now walk on crutches. “Not much changed for me. I had two legs, and now I have four,” he jokes. But he can’t walk long due to pain and says he now has “a short-distance life.” A driver at the local health directorate before the coup attempt, Parlak was left without a job but was later employed by the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services to work a desk job. “I worked in jobs requiring physical skills until 50, and at this age, it is difficult for me to work a desk job. But you learn something new when you grow older,” he says. Parlak downplays what he did during the coup attempt. “We are not that important. What was important was to stop those people who tried to destroy our state. They forgot our motto: Every Turk is a born soldier. It doesn’t matter whether you wear a uniform or not. We are always ready to give our lives for our homeland, for our nation. Whenever they want to try their hand in another coup, we will be ready to confront them. I don’t mind if I die,” he says.
Yılmaz Lale, a retired noncommissioned officer, is still proud of the “public defense” against the putschists. The 52-year-old was injured when putschists opened fire on a crowd of civilians confronting them near the Office of the Chief of General Staff, the Turkish army’s headquarters in the capital Ankara, on July 15, 2016. Lale worked hard to dissuade the putschists and their subordinates, some of whom were forced to join the coup by their superiors that night. He first went to Kızılay Square of the capital upon learning that the coup was unfolding and saw an armored personnel carrier there. “I climbed up the vehicle and told soldiers to surrender. They answered that their superiors would be angry. I told them they would be held accountable for what they did, but they started firing. I remember carrying at least 10 injured people to the ambulances,” Lale told AA. He and others laid down on the street as tanks were rolling to stop them, but soldiers in tanks fired on them. “The noise was immense when the bullets hit the asphalt. I felt my body shaking as bullets hit near us. They were firing not to kill but to warn us, to disperse us. When they stopped firing, I saw a female soldier lying down and tried to drag her to safety. Then, a friend accompanying me told me I was bleeding. I hadn’t noticed until then and saw blood all over my trousers when I touched my leg,” he recounted. After surgery, Lale was back to his past life. Today, he says he feels honored to be a “gazi” or veteran. “God gave me this honor, and I am proud. It has been four years, but I still relive that day. It was something we did to defend our homeland. Without your homeland, you have no family, no future. Every soldier dreams of taking a bullet for his homeland, and I accomplished it,” he proudly says.
Mustafa Zorova was a 70-year-old father of nine when he took to the street against putschists. It took 45 surgeries in four years for him to walk again after he was heavily injured by the putschists’ gunfire in the capital Ankara. Zorova, a resident of Kazan district in the capital since renamed Kahramankazan (or “hero” Kazan), was among the crowd that rushed to the Akıncı military base in the district. Akıncı was at the heart of the coup attempt with fighter jets and gunships taking off from the base and carrying out airstrikes in the capital. The coup attempt’s commanders were also holed up there, holding then-Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar hostage.
“When I opened my eyes after they took me to the hospital and attended to my wounds, I remember asking people in the room if the Republic of Turkey is still standing. I was so happy when they told me Turkey has not fallen,” Zorova recounts. Speaking to the Sabah newspaper on the anniversary of the coup bid, he recalled his time in front of the Akıncı base. “It was around 3:30 (a.m.) when we went to the base. Putschists pointed their gun at the crowd. I asked them if they would shoot someone as old as their grandfather. They did not answer and started firing. Indeed, I was the first one to get shot. It was a riot then. I was hearing people screaming, and then, I heard more gunshots. It was only after the third gunshot, I noticed I was shot. I fell on bodies then. People thought I died too because there were bodies all around,” he says.
Zorova’s left leg was severely injured, and doctors patched it with skin and tissue from his right leg and arms. “I am ready to give my all, not only a leg for my country. I still feel immense pain, and sometimes, I feel desperate. But I know my leg will be fine again one day. May Allah not let us see another coup and let our state and nation live long,” Zorova says.
Safiye Bayat will always be known as “that woman with a backpack standing up to putschists on the bridge.” The iconic video of the 38-year-old mother of three on the Bosporus Bridge – since renamed July 15 Martyrs’ Bridge – in Istanbul was one of the symbols of resistance against putschists. Bayat was injured while pro-coup soldiers killed 34 people defying them on the bridge that night. Four years later, Bayat returned to the spot where she was shot and recounted her memories of that night. “I remember people joining arms and walking while shouting Allahu Akbar (God is great). I don’t remember if I cried more any other time in my life,” she says.
“When I saw tanks taking over the bridge on TV, I decided to go. I took ablution and prepared my backpack, placing medicine and a first aid kit inside,” Bayat told Ihlas News Agency (IHA). Bayat walked to the bridge alone and approached a military officer commanding putschists. “I asked them what they were doing, but they told me to leave and insulted me. Then, the officer started pushing me by hitting me with the butt of his gun. Finally, he fired his gun near my cheek to intimidate me. ‘I am not afraid of you,’ I told him. I could hear soldiers behind him talking. Someone asked the officer if he wanted him to kill me, and someone was saying that they should arrest me. I shouted at them and said I was not an enemy and they cannot kill me. I showed them my cellphone and my backpack and told them I had no gun on me. They kept saying that I should leave. ‘Get out, this is our bridge now. We control everywhere’ they said,” Bayat recounted. She was turning back to the crowd gathered behind her to confront the putschists when the officer ordered fire. It was a harassment fire and did not hit her. Bayat says she never flinched and joined the crowd. When the gunfire stopped, the crowd began marching, and the gunfire resumed. “I knew these were not our soldiers. Our soldiers would not fire on their own nation,” she said. As more people converged on the bridge, Bayat tried to walk to the front row, but men in the group shielded her and did not allow her. “They were trying to protect me. I was so emotional, I started crying,” she says. Bayat then decided to help people injured by gunfire. She was trying to shield someone injured when a bullet struck her right leg. “I was trying to reach an injured woman lying there when the bullet hit. Then, I saw a young man covering me amid a hail of bullets. ‘Sister, do not get hurt’ he shouted,” Bayat recalled. “I was so proud of my people that night. You see, people who do not know each other defy death to protect others. It was so emotional,” she said.
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