Survivors of Oct. 10 Ankara bombing still in search of peace 3 years later
On October 10, 2015, the Labour, Peace, and Democracy March was held in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, to protest the increasing violence between the military and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Around 10 a.m., two bombs went off in the crowd near Ankara’s central train station, killing 109 people and injuring 500 more. No one has ever claimed responsibility for the attack.
The bombing took place five months after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its super-majority in parliament in the June 7, 2015 elections, and the Kurdish-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) crossed the 10 per cent election threshold, winning seats in parliament for the first time. Snap elections were held in November of that same year after the AKP failed to form a coalition.
University student Özge Kar told us as much as she could remember about that day.
“I went to the Peace March in Ankara. It was my birthday. There were a lot of cars going from Istanbul to Ankara that day. Everyone was unbelievably excited and happy. At every rest stop, there were people breaking into dance and singing Arabic and Armenian folk songs. On the way to Ankara, my friends gave me cupcakes and wished me a happy birthday. We arrived within a couple of hours without any problems.
“Everything was wonderful, but something was off. Normally as you enter Ankara, there are two police checkpoints where officers search the cars. But those checkpoints weren’t there, and we drove straight into the city without running into any security. Among us were some friends who’d never been to a march before. ‘It’s so easy to get in!’ they said, laughing, but those who’d marched in the past were anxious.
“We waded into the crowd and I passed out cupcakes to my friends. I was holding a flag in one hand.
“First I heard a sound, and then another. I felt heat on my back and stood in the crowd with a birthday cupcake in one hand and the flag in the other. I picked up some flags off the ground that had been dropped by people running away. My friends were telling me to run, but I was picking up flags.
“I turned around and it hit me what was happening. A man was holding his son in his arms and calling out for him. The boy was dead and people around him were saying he was alive to try and comfort the man. When I saw that, I started running to get out of the area. Everywhere it was police, screams, chaos, wounded people, and lifeless bodies.”
After the massacre, Özge returned home safe and sound, but before long, she started hearing about relatives and friends who had been killed. For a long time, she could not get those sights or sounds out of her mind, so she sought psychological help.
“Whenever someone says ‘Ankara,’ the explosion is there, that sound. To commemorate the march a year later, I went to that same station and walked past it—it was really difficult. I don’t actually know how helpful the counselling was because the anger came flooding back when I went to remember that day a year later.”
Özge still does not completely understand why people marching for peace were attacked, but she told us what she thinks:
“They’re afraid. They’d been afraid since the June 7 elections. They fear the people. After all the cheating and stealing, they couldn’t face the election results. That explosion forced everyone to choose sides. After that day, no one was naïve anymore.”
Ramazan Ayrancı had just returned from military service when he headed from Istanbul to Ankara to attend the march. He’d done his service in Şemdinli, a conflicted region in Turkey’s southeast. “I was still hearing the bombs from my time in the military,” he said.
Ramazan also cannot make sense of a peace rally that ended in bloodshed. “I got permission to take that day off work. My supervisor asked me, ‘Are you crazy? Why on earth do you need to go to Ankara?’ I told him, ‘This country needs peace. Why don’t you come too?’ and he said, ‘Someone is going to bomb your meeting. I’m not going.’ I never imagined anyone would bomb a peace rally. They put fear into everyone.”
Ramazan had painstakingly prepared his placards for the march. On one of them he wrote, “You have the power to end war.” That placard was splattered with blood.
“Before, there was a lot of enthusiasm over the June 7 elections, but later, after the November snap elections, we understood that every one of our victories made them want to destroy us even more. The October 10 march gave us a lot of hope. But the opposition, the oppressed, and the workers coming together like that drove them crazy. They saw on June 7 their time could be over.”
After October 10, Ramazan became more sensitive to noises. “To avoid upsetting others, I didn’t talk about it, what I saw and what I experienced. I tried to repress my anger.”
“On the way to Ankara, I messaged a friend saying, ‘There’s no security or cops. You can just come right in,’ but actually, that was the first clue that nothing was safe.”
To Ramazan, the bombing crushed everyone’s spirit. “In the recent elections [referring to the 2017 constitutional referendum to abolish the parliamentary system], people were talking about holding a ‘No’ rally, and I said to myself, ‘Oh, that’s it. We’re done,’ because every time we’re successful, they drop bombs on us. Whatever gives us joy, they’re against it. I won’t quit going to marches, but I’m always anxious—it’s as though there will be an explosion at every demonstration.”
Ramazan was also in Ankara for the one-year anniversary of the massacre. There were rumours that the commemoration would be banned, but he was not afraid. He wanted to remember the friends he had lost.
“What could they do? They had already killed so many people. The worst that can happen is getting killed. They can’t do anything more than that.”
Ramazan’s younger brother Ercan went with him to the march. Ercan is a journalist, but he did not go to the march for work—he went to demand peace. He believes the October 10 massacre is one of the biggest in Turkey’s history. “Nobody could have guessed it would turn out so bad.”
“Think about it. Four big labour unions made the call for the march. People from all walks of life were there. Above all, it was a peace rally. But then the bombs go off and the state is nowhere to be seen. I’m oppressed by the state, but there were no police, no ambulances, no authorities anywhere. There wasn’t even anyone there to calm the crowd, or sirens, or police to open the way for ambulances. Instead, police were gassing the wounded.”
Ercan said life changed after that. For one thing, he takes the responsibility for security at every demonstration he organizes. “It became my problem to protect everyone there.”
For a long time, he could not get on the metro. He could not stand crowds. He could not even bring himself to go to the funerals of his friends who died that day. It took him an entire year to start feeling normal again. “It’s like we’re all somehow incomplete after that day, but we’re all blood brothers now.”
I could not leave without getting Ercan to say something like, “I’m even more fearless and more hopeful now, so I asked, “After that day, after witnessing all those people dying, how do you still have so much hope?”
His eyes filled. “I don’t know.”
Özge shares the same hope. Despite their rage and the loss of loved ones, they survived a moment of peace slipping through their fingers. Yet, they still believe in peace. “Maybe they broke our strength and maybe they broke our spirit, but someday, peace will come to this country.”
Three years after the massacre, the families and friends of the murdered have not seen any justice. Arrests warrants are out for 19 people, but 17 of them are fugitives. The hearing for 36 defendants, held at the prison, was over in three days.
The lawyers wanted the case to be broadened to include “public officials.” They demanded that the bombing be called a crime against humanity and that the defendants’ ties to any organizations be made public. However, the court ignored these requests, and no public officials were ever tried.
Nine defendants were charged with 100 counts each of terrorism and manslaughter, and they received aggravated life sentences for each count. The court also gave them varying sentences for being members of an organization, and they’ve set aside the files of the fugitive suspects. This is not enough for the lawyers and the families of the deceased.
Despite everything, the survivors are still demanding peace and justice three years later.