Nergiz Ada Yilmaz, SEAS ’16, was in Gezi Park in Istanbul on May 31 when a thick fog started spreading through the crowd. The smoke, she quickly realized, was tear gas sprayed from a police helicopter.
Yilmaz is one of several Columbia undergraduates who have participated in the protests that have wracked Istanbul over the past few weeks—protests that have received worldwide media attention as the Turkish government has tried to shut them down.
The protest movement, which was triggered by government plans to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim Square and replace it with a mall, has spread to other cities in Turkey. It has tapped into an undercurrent of anger against the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Police have cracked down on demonstrators in recent days, with one raid on Taksim Square resulting in a riot. Police also tear-gassed Divan Hotel, a luxury hotel in Istanbul, forcing protesters to scatter in panic.
Yilmaz, who went to Gezi Park with two of her friends on the first day of protests, said she left when she started experiencing an irregular heartbeat. While several of her friends were arrested, she is safe.
“While we were walking back home and away from Taksim, we saw a helicopter circle around Gezi Park and then teargas Taksim,” Yilmaz said in an email. “After that we walked back, avoiding the certain areas that the police was present.”
Erman Sener, SEAS ’16, who is also participating in the protests, sent an email to University President Lee Bollinger two weeks ago urging him to support the protesters with a public statement.
“In a matter of despair as this, where the international community should be made aware, I would like to ask you to represent your support for the Turkish community you bear with a public notice … because humanity is humanity everywhere,” Sener wrote.
While Bollinger has not released any statement, a Columbia spokesperson said that staff from the Center for Student Advising are reaching out to students in Turkey to see if they are safe.
Columbia had planned to host a summer advising session for students in Istanbul at its global center there last weekend, but the event was moved to a private residence farther from the city center and the demonstrations.
The Turkish government has drawn criticism for its response to the protests, with news outlets reporting on tear gas and police brutality. Yilmaz hasn't seen any brutality herself, but she said that she has heard about it from friends. She said that police have been throwing rocks, beating and tear-gassing protesters, firing plastic bullets, and shooting water cannons straight into the crowds.
“One of my closest friend’s brother got beaten by three men who were then identified to him as civilian police,” she said. “He was then arrested for taking pictures, which has become a very common reason for getting arrested.”
Sener, who like Yilmaz is from Turkey, said there have been hundreds of people sleeping in tents in Gezi Park, protesting Erdogan’s regime. He said that the numbers have been growing, and that it doesn’t seem like the demonstrations will end soon.
“The most valuable thing I observed when I go to the Taksim Square and Gezi Park is the solidarity of people from diverse backgrounds and political camps,” he said in an email.