Turkish and Kurdish peace activists gathered in the capital city Ankara on a Saturday morning for a peaceful rally. They were there to demand an end to the violence that has been escalating in the country in the run up to elections in November.
The idea was to draw attention to the hostile policies of the government and the war rhetoric that is regularly used by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
These people gathered for a simple reason: they did not want their country to descend into civil war – a direction it appears to be taking. Their banners read “we want peace” and “we want to wake up to a day where no blood is spilled”.
Just as the rally was getting underway, two bombs were detonated, killing more than 90 people and injuring many more.
The people at the march came from a pro-Kurdish ideological background or belonged to the Turkish left. Various left-wing groups were present. Politicians and supporters of the pro-Kurdish leftist HDP party also took part in the rally.
These groups have been the target of state violence for many decades. They might have been expecting a potential clash with the police (despite the fact that it was a non-violent protest) since police violence has become routine in anti-government protests. But the events that ultimately unfolded, and the level of horror involved, shocked everyone.
Like the July attack in Suruc, which killed more than 30 people, these bombs were detonated by suicide attackers.
Eyewitness accounts suggest that the main targets were supporters of the left-wing HDP party, since the suicide bombers strategically placed themselves in the midst of the HDP cortege. Among the dead is an HDP representative who was standing for parliament in the impending election.
Some of those there claimed no security checks has been made in that particular area and that no police were present. Normally heavy police controls greet even small protests anywhere in Turkey.
There were questions about why riot police arrived within just 15 minutes of the explosion and started to use tear gas on the frightened, shocked people in the area, many of whom were trying to help the injured. Police were also accused of preventing ambulances from reaching people at the scene who needed care.
The government responded with a news blackout, banning the media from broadcasting coverage of the blast. Some also reported being unable to access some social media after the attack, but people nevertheless sought alternative ways to share information.
At a press conference, interior minister Selami Altinok, was asked whether he would take responsibility for the attack and resign. He said there was no security gap to speak of. Meanwhile, his colleague Kenan Ipek, Turkey’s justice minister, simply smiled next to him.
The country is polarised. On one side brutality and oppression. In the wake of this attack, HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas said the Turkish state is behaving like the mafia, or a serial killer.
At the very least, the governing party appears guilty of deliberate negligence towards the people who don’t vote for it – Kurds and those on the left. This can be traced back decades but has recently been made painfully apparent in the bombing in Suruc and now this.
Solidarity at home and abroad
Amnesty International said the Ankara attack “targeted ordinary people exercising their right to demonstrate peacefully”. Attacks targeting civilians, it continued, “show contempt for the right to life and breach the most basic principles of international law”.
Amnesty also called for the Turkish government to investigate the matter impartially. Immediately after the attacks, people started gathering in other cities such as Istanbul and Izmir to condemn what has happened. It is no surprise that they are chanting Erdogan’s name, blaming him for the situation.
Anti-Government groups protest in Istanbul. EPA
An election looms
Because the June 2015 elections failed to yield government, a second election is scheduled to take place in Turkey on November 1. The HDP has emerged as a real threat to Erdogan’s absolute power and the AKP is well aware that it is again unlikely to raise the votes it needs for a governing majority in parliament.
In the run up to this second vote, the AKP has sought to stir up the age-old Turkish-Kurdish tension as a strategy to attract nationalist votes. The HDP has counteracted the rhetoric by promising peace at all costs. And with the PKK declaring itself ready for a conditional ceasefire after the Ankara attack, it looks like the latter approach has paid off.
As the elections loom, one wonders what lies ahead for Turkey. As things stand, the country seems to be moving backwards towards becoming a dictatorship.
One hopes that those standing in the way of dictatorship remain undeterred by these attacks, and that rather than seeking revenge, they stick to the principle of peace at all costs.
Originally written for ‘The Conversation’.