In Istanbul, tear gas has become a part of life.
Most people who live in the heart of the city have had to wear improvised gas masks in their own apartments at least a few times in recent weeks. For those living near Gezi Park and Taksim Square, it has gotten progressively worse since the protests started a few weeks ago.
People are struggling to decontaminate their homes or forced keep their windows closed in spite of the heat of summer. Others get hit by the spray while shopping or visiting tourist sites. That’s because Turkish police seem to have a knee jerk reaction to any signs of trouble and take out the canisters—just over a month ago, they doused a group of 14-year-old soccer players with the gas who got in an argument with the referee.
Tear gas comes in several varieties and is classified by the U.S. Department of Defense as a non-lethal crowd-control weapon. This does not mean, however, that it is benign or non-toxic.
Blowing bloody mucus out of my nose after a particularly brutal tear gas attack by the police in Taksim square Tuesday evening, I was painfully reminded of that.
The protests that day had, for the most part, been non-violent. Earlier that morning, a group of people who some protesters say were government-sponsored provocateurs had thrown Molotov cocktails at the attacking police, setting a heavy vehicle on fire. But in the evening there was none of that. The most threatening thing I saw was an empty plastic water bottle thrown by a small group of soccer hooligans at the large contingent of police in full riot gear.
The rest of the thousands of people gathered on Taksim square were with their family and friends, and were peaceful. They were counting, in part, on the promise of several officials that there would be no violence. They chanted, "Tayyip, run run run, looters are coming"—a reference to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s branding of the protesters as "looters."
I was trying to make my way through the crowds when all hell broke loose. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t have time to put my gas mask on. A tear gas grenade landed at my feet, and several stun grenades exploded nearby. People ran in panic toward Gezi Park, just a few dozen yards away.
Within seconds, there was a thick cloud of tear gas, plumes of it coming from all directions. I could not see a foot in front of me. The crowd was very thick and people were crashing into each other. Around me, I heard choking sounds, and people began to push even harder. Somebody stepped on my foot and, as I struggled to set myself free, I inhaled a large amount of the fumes. My throat and lungs burned. I fell down, pushed from behind by a man whose grotesquely twisted face betrayed similar agony.
Stampede. This is what hit me and I began to panic. I struggled on, with people stepping on me, and after a minute or two, I was able to get up and run for cover, leaving a shoe and a bag with my camera and cell phone behind. As I made my escape, I saw several people convulsing violently. Others were screaming. An amateur video shot nearby captured the horror.
After I put on my gas mask and helmet—which I had managed to salvage—I hurried away toward Gezi Park, feeling dizzy as my skin tingled with burns. Meanwhile, the police continued to fire tear gas grenades low to the ground from a close distance, and deep into the park.
Medics rushed with stretchers amid clouds of smoke while protesters carried the more lightly wounded in their arms. An eyewitness later said that even the improvised medical clinic in the park had been attacked by gas canisters.
Back home, my roommates told me I looked like a mad man, disheveled and wide-eyed. I continued to choke and my skin burned. Everything reeked of the gas, and no matter how much I tried to wash it off, it lingered.
The smell is almost gone but the images of that night remain. Even though I have spoken to people and heard their stories while reporting on the protests, witnessing them—being in the center of them—has driven one point home: In the heart of Istanbul, the commercial capital of a country which brands itself a paradigm of democracy in the Middle East, this is what crowd control looks like.