The renewal and repression of Turkey’s civil society grassroots

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It wasn’t long after the blasts tore through the crowd that the urgent cries began going out on Twitter and Facebook: “O-, O+ and A- blood needed at Numune, Hacettepe and İbni Sina hospitals!”

Next came the photographs of papers tacked to walls: lists of the names of the injured, shared online to get the word out to their family and friends.

As night fell after Turkey’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack, a dual suicide bombing targeting a peace rally organised by trade unions in the capital city of Ankara, the calls for help continued.

People tweeted the addresses of hospitals and morgues, urging that food deliveries be sent to relatives waiting outside in the autumn chill. Volunteers made the rounds of the same places, distributing blankets and offering distraught family members places to stay in their own homes.

These weren’t the stories that dominated the news following the 10 October 2015 attack, which killed 103 people and injured more than 400 less than a month before a controversial snap election.

Video footage of police tear-gassing the rally area while bloodied bodies still lay on the ground, politicians and TV presenters expressing doubts about the “innocence” of the mostly leftist and Kurdish victims, and football fans booing during a moment of silence sharpened the divide in an already deeply polarised country as accusations flew about who was responsible for the deaths.

But the citizen-organised assistance efforts, which continue today, are equally revealing of the current situation in Turkey, where activist efforts have been both repressed and revitalised.

“The government did not get involved [in helping the victims or their families] at any level. Labour unions organised accommodation, transportation, and some medical expenses, and several charities have arranged monetary support,” said Özgür Fırat Yumuşak and Feray Artar in response to e-mailed interview questions. Both are members of 10 October Solidarity (10 Ekim Dayanışması), a civil initiative formed in the wake of the attack.

Working in coordination with the Confederation of Public Employees’ Trade Unions (KESK), the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK) and other labour unions, the group set up a “crisis desk” outside one of the Ankara hospitals.

This crisis desk managed a newly-formed network of volunteers; it also received donations of food, clothing, medical supplies and other items immediately needed by the wounded and by the families of the victims, who had come from all over Turkey to attend the peace march in the capital.

Mental health providers also rallied to the cause, volunteering their time to counsel the traumatised.

“Our members have been providing home visits, group therapy, and one-on-one counselling to the survivors, families and friends of the victims, bystanders, and secondary witnesses such as first-aid teams and reporters,” says Serap Altekin, the Istanbul chapter vice president of the Turkish Psychologists Association.

Volunteers with that group previously provided similar assistance after natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, as well as after a coal mine blast that killed hundreds, Altekin says.

She adds that the association “aims to contribute to the recovery efforts by providing not only acute but also long-term psychological support services, for at least six months to one year” after the Ankara bombings.

Official information about the extent of the attack’s damage — including the number of people still undergoing medical treatment, suffering permanent disability, or reporting psychological trauma — remains unavailable, despite repeated petitions to the Health Ministry and other government agencies by 10 October Solidarity. At the group’s request, an opposition-party deputy brought the matter to parliament in December.

Also this month, an investigation was launched by a public prosecutor in Kırklareli, in western Turkey, against 56 people who had gathered on the night of the massacre to await news from Ankara; they may face charges of illegal assembly.

Amongst them was İsmail Karakaya, local branch secretary of education workers union Eğitim-Sen, who told the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet that the case amounted to “psychological intimidation.”

Similar but separate investigations have reportedly been opened in Istanbul against people who participated in a banned demonstration and boycotted university classes after the attack in response to unions’ call for a work stoppage.


The new grassroots

Amid this repressive climate, the volunteer efforts that have sprung up following the Ankara attacks are part of the flowering of new grassroots initiatives in Turkey, according to Duygu Güner, a project specialist at the Koç University Social Impact Forum in Istanbul, who is also engaged in postgraduate research on civil society and volunteerism.

“The Gezi protests [of 2013] restructured the civil initiative concept in Turkey as individuals discovered their need to express themselves in public space against the increasing governmental pressure,” she says. “People also became sceptical about the judicial system and unsatisfied with opposition parties’ performances and took the initiative to form different social movements themselves.”

These included various “park forums” that sprang up after the mass protests of summer 2013 were quashed, originally as public assemblies and later serving as hubs for organising around different political and social causes.

Similarly, inadequately addressed claims of fraud in Turkey’s March 2014 local elections led to the formation of Öy ve Ötesi (“Vote and Beyond”), which mobilised 60,000 volunteers this autumn to monitor polling stations during the 1 November 2015 parliamentary election.

That vote saw the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) return to power after a short break in its 13-year rule, a period critics charge has been characterised by the suppression of opposition and restrictions on rights and freedoms.

Since the election, the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgent groups in south-eastern Turkey has only intensified, with the area’s mainly Kurdish civilian population caught in the crossfire. This has created more of the violence and sufferingthat the Ankara peace marchers had hoped to help bring to an end.

In response, KESK, DISK and Turkey’s other major trade unions called for a one-day strike on 29 December to protest the government-led military operations in the south-east.

The strike call hearkened back to the Ankara attacks, where, unions described “the people’s desire for peace” as “bloodied” but urged supporters to remain stalwart. “We will persist against those who are trying to destroy the hope of both peoples [Turks and Kurds] to live together and will continue to engage with each other in order to build our common future,” union representatives said in a joint press statement on Tuesday.

“This is a very difficult moment [in Turkey] for civil initiatives since people can be presented as marginal [elements] or terrorists by government-controlled media,” academic Güner says. But while the suppression of groups like unions and opposition political parties has hindered some forms of activism, it has helped drive others, like the solidarity efforts following the Ankara bomb blasts.

“I think people are more inclined to engage in grassroots volunteerism than they were in the past,” Güner adds. “Civil society organisations are becoming more preferred by ordinary people who are normally not engaged in politics but are not happy with the government either.”