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Mark Lowen: Turkey's tragic pattern of grief

Scene of the funeral of Ayhan Arik in an Istanbul mosque, showing three young males by a coffin, the youngest boy, left, with eyes downcast; in the middle, Ulas, a teenager, head bowed over the coffin; and right, an older boy wearing a beard, one hand on Ulas' shoulder and holding back a tear. Image copyright Göktay Koraltan

Just 12 hours had passed, but for Ulas Arik it was beginning to sink in. His father Ayhan, a driver, had taken foreign tourists to Istanbul’s Reina nightclub to see in the New Year.

As the party continued inside, Ayhan waited at the door, drinking tea with a policeman. When the gunman struck, Ayhan was shot in the head. He died instantly.

In the biting wind of New Year’s Day, we stood in an Istanbul mosque watching Ulas and his family bid farewell to his father. The young boy, perhaps 14 years old, stood beside the coffin, which was draped in a Turkish flag. And he wept. He touched the flag – the red that once symbolised the blood of martyrs fighting for Turkey. Then he slumped onto the coffin, broken-hearted.

Media captionThe BBC’s Mark Lowen was one of the first journalists allowed into the nightclub site

Standing there among the journalists and mourners, I reflected on how often this scene had been repeated in the past year, on how many funerals I’d watched as terror has gripped Turkey, and about how we, as journalists, intrude upon personal grief.

Our route here is now a tragically well-worn path: the morgue, the homes of relatives, the funeral. And yet each time it hits hard.

There was something particularly emotional about watching Ulas at the funeral that day and meeting those who had witnessed the massacre in the Reina nightclub.

Like Tuvana Tugsavul, who worked there and who ran into the bathroom to escape the attack. Her eyes ringed with fatigue, she told me how the power was suddenly cut and she thought the gunman would blow himself up.

“I sent messages to my friends saying ‘this is the end… I love you… goodbye.'”

And then there was the poignancy of the words of Sezen Arseven, whose partner Mustafa was killed: “I lost my other half”, she wrote, “my partner, my love”.

All this grief adds up to a national trauma. Twenty-eight attacks in a year and a half have killed more than 500 people. After each one, the government says “Turkey will defeat terrorism”. Politicians must say such things, but the words lose meaning when the attacks keep happening.

There is a certain defiance here: after the twin bombings at Besiktas football stadium in Istanbul last month, crowds gathered at the site for days, one woman telling me “the terrorists want us to stay inside, not to go out and enjoy ourselves – but then they would win”.

But there is also, of course, deepening fear: that a city to which Arab tourists came to enjoy themselves on New Year’s Eve was consumed by horror; police and soldiers wonder if they’ll be blown up on patrol; that Turkey has gone from being a stable corner of the Middle East to yet another troubled hotspot.

One friend tells me she wouldn’t take the metro in Istanbul anymore, another that he would avoid public gatherings and concerts. Three years ago, Istanbul topped lists of the world’s must-visit cities. Now tourism is plummeting and businesses are closing down.

No matter that this is a huge country and the likelihood of an attack on its golden beaches is minimal – tourism works through image, and Turkey’s has been blackened.

If only this nation could come together in times of tragedy, it might help ease the pain. But Turkey is torn by anger and division.

Image copyright Getty Images

In the run-up to the Reina attack, Islamist newspapers condemned Christmas and New Year celebrations as an affront to Muslim values, some showing a Santa Claus figure being punched.

Daring to criticise the government’s policies is like poking a wasps’ nest, unleashing vitriol on social media the likes of which I’ve never seen. Supporters of President Erdogan insist the west has abandoned Turkey to fight terrorism alone; pro-government newspapers churn out conspiracy theories that the CIA is behind the attacks.

One front page superimposed Barack Obama’s face onto that of the nightclub killer. A famous fashion designer and outspoken critic of the government was deported from northern Cyprus this week for tweets deemed to insult Turkey. As he landed in Turkey, he was set upon by an organised mob on the runway, who had conveniently been informed of his flight details through a state news agency report. He has now been arrested while the thugs roam free.

Gloom has descended onto this beautiful and fascinating country – and nobody knows how or when it will lift.

People do still go about their daily lives. But when my phone beeps with an alert, I always wonder if it’s another attack. There is a lovely Turkish expression that is normally used to mean “get well soon”.

But these days it is on everyone’s lips, urging their country to get through this time: geçmiş olsun – “may it pass”.


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