In Ankara, on 10 October, a few minutes after 10am, two of us (Alp and Max) were on our way to the “Labor, Peace and Democracy” rally. We were a little late and just entering the crowd, rushing towards the train station to meet with others, when the first bomb struck two hundred meters ahead. It all happened at the same time—the explosion, the shockwave, a thirty-foot column of fire and smoke.
Everything stopped, then the second bomb exploded. What happened was clear to us, but not the precise dimensions. We pulled back, as did most around us, the crowd remaining astonishingly calm. Within a minute or so, the first cabs with wounded people passed.
After a few minutes, police flocked to the site—water cannons, armored vehicles, and then the riot squads. At the other side of the rally, things were more serious. We could see the clouds of tear gas. Many of Ankara’s hospitals are on the same street as the train station. When the street is empty, an ambulance can probably make its way from the hospitals to the station in one minute. We later learned that the riot police were preventing emergency vehicles from passing.
This bears repeating: the Turkish police blocked ambulances and shot tear gas into a crowd in which bombs had just exploded.
First we tried to make sense of the situation and reach our comrades by phone. We sent out messages on social media. Ambulances arrived sporadically, and there were too few until the end. After some time we decided to go back to the scene of the attack to see if we could help. We saw body parts and blood strewn everywhere. Professionals and volunteers were only slowly gaining control of the situation.
We looked for things we could do to assist. Inside the cordoned-off area, there were dozens of bodies, barely covered with various party flags. There wasn’t much that could be done. Most of the injured had been finally brought to the hospitals by then.
And then another warning—a suspicious package had been found at the entry of the adjacent park. Those not immediately involved with rescue work were to leave the site. We went to the hospitals to see if we could donate blood. At that point, some people were still recovering the bodies of the dead. Most went to the hospitals to see if they could help. Some organized groups made their way to the city center to protest the massacre.
A day later, we still don’t know who was directly responsible for the attack. Congratulatory messages from an ISIS account were sent—but that is no confession. In fact, it is rather the opposite. For their part, leading figures reserved their outrage for the very people who were attacked. Veysel Eroğlu, a minister of the transitional government, suggested that forces close to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the leftist pro-Kurd party, had carried out the bombing in an effort to paint themselves as victims and win more votes in the upcoming elections.
After remaining silent for over thirteen hours, Ankara’s mayor Melih Gökçek claimed it was “100 percent” the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who was behind the attack. The interior minister, meanwhile, informed us that there were no security gaps.
As of this writing, the death toll stands at 128 and the wounded exceeds 500, many of whom are in critical condition. Such an attack in the heart of the country—the capital—shows how acute the conflict has become. The message is clear: it is not only in Kurdistan or in the country’s remote areas that your life is in danger if you protest the government. Opposing the AKP government and the state now means putting your life at risk no matter where you are.
Saturday’s attack must be understood in the context of mounting violence that preceded the 7 June election but escalated after its results. In June, Erdoğan’s aspiration to establish a presidential system was thwarted and AKP hegemony took its first serious electoral hit. The HDP and the Kurdish Liberation Movement were perceived as the cause of the Erdoğan’s ill fortunes. Using the massacre in Suruç as a pretext, the AKP declared a war on the PKK that hasn’t abated since, despite the group’s repeated declarations that it is ready for renewed talks.
The two-pronged strategy of the AKP has been to lead the country to snap elections, while weakening the HDP through out-and-out repression and by stirring nationalist sentiments. Still, a variety of polls, as well as the general atmosphere in Turkey and especially North Kurdistan (Southeast Turkey), indicate that the AKP will not be able to achieve the absolute majority it desires in the 1 November election.
Saturday’s bombing thus represented not the beginning of violence but its intensification. According to the Human Rights Association, the state was responsible for the overwhelming majority of the 113 civilians killed between 24 July and 8 October. For months, Turkish security forces have besieged tens of Kurdish provinces, imposing curfews and violating basic rights including the right to life, food, medical care, and freedom of assembly and speech.
Military operations against the PKK have steadily intensified. The result has been not just military conflicts, but civilian massacres and the indiscriminate bombing of villages. The PKK has restricted its activities chiefly to self-defense.
Additionally, the state has been rounding up hundreds of political representatives affiliated with the HDP in an effort to silence any serious voice of opposition to AKP policy, hoping to weaken the HDP’s electoral power. It is clear from the AKP government’s actions, including attempts to move polling stations in Kurdish provinces to distant locales to minimize HDP voter turnout, that no means—no matter how nakedly anti-democratic—are beyond the pale.
In spite of the AKP’s provocations, slander, assaults, bans, and massacres, the democratic and socialist opposition in all its forms, from pro-peace civil society organizations to the HDP and its various affiliates, have insisted on peace and democracy in all their declarations and actions. The HDP has been carrying out the slogan of its electoral campaign: “Peace, despite everything!”
As for the PKK, Bese Hozat, cochair of the executive council of the PKK-affiliated Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), said last week that the group would declare a ceasefire to allow snap elections to take place in a stable environment. On Saturday, the PKK followed through, ceasing attacks, including retaliatory ones, and limiting its activities only to legitimate self-defense.
They intended to deal a fatal blow to the warmongering politics of the AKP, revealing to all which forces represent the peoples’ hope for peace and justice.
All of the AKP’s provocations occur in a context where the state’s militarist strategy in Kurdistan is beginning to lose legitimacy even in the country’s west, where it used to help establish consent and stability by drawing divides between “terrorist Kurds” and “patriotic” Turks. One key element of the relative success of the AKP in making its own project hegemonic was to continue nationalist policies to bind these Turks against the “separatist terrorists,” while seeking to integrate the more conservative and religious Kurds into their project under the banner of Islam.
Now, however, that the AKP’s insistence on war has not only pushed conservative and non-radical Kurds towards the HDP, but has also started to disenchant people who aren’t Kurds in western Turkey. This was most palpable at dozens of funerals of Turkish soldiers, where family members, including some who themselves were members of the military, screamed that the current war was a war for AKP power and not for the defense of Turkey or its citizens.
Although authorities have been attacking press freedom in all its forms, from blocking websites of alternative news sources to legal and physical assaults against mainstream news sources—such as Hürriyet and Ahmet Hakan from CNNTürk—news of the barbaric repression experienced by the Kurdish people has still filtered through, bringing into question the legitimacy of Turkish state policy even in the country’s west.
One particularly extreme case was that of Hacı Lokman Birlik, who was captured after being wounded in an attack in Şırnak and then shot with twenty-eight bullets. The police special forces then tied a rope around his neck and dragged his body through the streets. The perpetrators publicly released photos and video.
However, Turkish authorities were unable to isolate the HDP from Turkish politics through these brutal methods. Their desperation was revealed in the statement of AKP Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan, who responded to the PKK’s latest ceasefire and call for negotiation by saying that the AKP was “fed up” (with peace!).
Reacting to the most recent massacre, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu organized a press conference to demonize the HDP, the actual victims of the violence, and the PKK, whose declarations have made clear their desire for negotiation and the peaceful resolution of their political demands. Those demands are for the state to end PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s isolation on İmralı island, cease its military assaults, and release political prisoners. Davutoğlu even went so far as to claim that the PKK may have been behind Saturday’s attack.
This is not a new tactic. After the Suruç massacre, the state blamed various “terrorist organizations” of conflicting ideologies. Under this pretext, the state systematically hunted down left-wing and Kurdish groups. It will come as no surprise if the Turkish state blames ISIS for the bombing and then suppresses the progressive forces which stand against ISIS. All of this while the available evidence suggests that the Turkish state, a client of the United States, has been working hand in glove with ISIS.
Selahattin Demirtaş, cochair of the HDP, stated that they hold no illusions about who is behind this latest massacre, which is a continuation of the killings at Diyarbakır just before the election in June, and in Suruç in July. For this reason, there can be no expectation of any serious investigation. The co-chair of the KCK, Cemil Bayık, was right to say that this is the work of Erdoğan’s deep state forces and must be confronted by a united struggle of democratic forces.
The AKP government hopes to drown the democratic aspirations of the peoples of Turkey, the working class and the oppressed, and above all the Kurds, in a sea of blood. The overwhelming rage felt in response to these unbearable conditions has already resulted in concrete responses. Progressive labor unions and trade organizations have called for a strike, trying to establish a connection between the workers movement and the day-to-day struggles enveloping the country.
The mission of the revolutionary forces is to unite the various struggles within Turkey and broaden their fight against oppression. As vital as it is, the electoral struggle is but one of the many fronts. Of principal importance is the cultivation of sustained resistance in the west of the country, built on a grassroots level, to complement and rise together with the Kurdish Liberation Movement.
In short: to lead all progressive forces forward in unified struggle toward a democratic revolution. Saturday’s martyrs deserve nothing less.
[This article was originally published on Jacobin.]